Factions Speak Louder Than Herds

There is a growing body of research suggesting that when beliefs become tied to one’s sense of identity, they are not easily revised. Instead, when these axioms are threatened, people look for ways to outright dismiss inconvenient data. If this cannot be achieved by highlighting logical, methodological or factual errors, the typical response is to leave the empirical sphere altogether and elevate the discussion into the moral and ideological domain, whose tenets are much more difficult to outright falsify (generally evoking whatever moral framework best suits one’s rhetorical needs).

While often described in pejorative terms, these phenomena may be more akin to “features,” than “bugs,” of our psychology.

For instance, the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis holds that the primary function of rationality is social, rather than epistemic. Specifically, our rational faculties were designed to mitigate social conflicts (or conflicting interests). But on this account, rationality is not a neutral mediator. Instead, it is deployed in the service of one’s own interests and desires—which are themselves heavily informed by our sense of identity.

This is because our identities are, among other things, prisms through which we interpret the world. These trends hold just as true for secular agents as religious ones, for liberal ideologues as conservatives (as for so-called “independents,” they are generally partisans in disguise)—the phenomenon is known in academic circles as “cultural cognition.”

Importantly, this identity-based reasoning does not reflect a lack of cognitive sophistication. Quite the reverse: the better an agent is at justifying their beliefs and dismantling undesirable arguments or evidence from others—these tend to be more prone to, and less aware of, their biases; their beliefs are much more difficult to successfully challenge or revise.

As a result of these trends, identity-based disagreements often seem intractable: rather than leading to consensus, these clashes typically generate fundamentalism and polarization—often causing significant social dysfunction and instability, and not just in the ideological or political spheres. Identity-based armed conflicts, for instance, tend to be much more violent, and much more difficult to resolve, than other forms of war. And what’s worse, mediators, especially when they present themselves as objective or neutral, tend to exacerbate and prolong these struggles.

There is an analog in the socio-political sphere, namely the tendency to try and neutralize conflicts by framing issues in secular terms, appealing to “universal” truths or values. But of course, these interpretations tend to be highly-controversial–relying on a host of implicit, and often problematic, assumptions about everything from how others think to what serves their interests. And the stakes are high:

How a culture defines knowledge and credibility profoundly affects social conceptions and practices—from ethics to religion, philosophy, science and even politics. The same holds true for conceptions about “rationality:”

The overwhelming majority of economic policy (and the ideology of liberalism, more broadly) is predicated on a number of assumptions about what people want, and how they make decisions. Axioms about psychology play a pivotal role in intelligence-gathering, law-enforcement, and the justice system. Geopolitical decisions are designed and executed based on forecasts about how other actors will react to various moves—including decisions about waging wars.

These policies are typically not informed by contemporary empirical research in cognitive science, psychology or sociology. Instead practitioners are steeped in the dogmas of their respective disciplines, derived from their own socio-cultural frameworks, and often in the service of their own perceived interests. In short, rather than being authentically neutral, secularization usually entails social elites asserting their own identity as universal while denying this very reality.

But unless the dominant party (or the systems and institutions it has established) is beyond meaningful challenge, the typical effect of this approach is increased polarization; and the higher the perceived stakes, the stronger the “us v. them” effect will be (even to the point of hatred and radicalization). This is because fostering parochial altruism is essential for intergroup competition. And so when there is an opportunity for a meaningful shift in power (such as in the lead-up to an election or in the aftermath of a crisis), this cultural partisanship will be especially pronounced.

Accordingly, the best way to reduce polarization is not by obscuring critical differences under the pretense of universalism. Instead, societies should aspire to lower the perceived stakes of these identity conflicts.

For example, rigidity, polarization and groupthink are much less common, and more easily addressed, in deliberations within an identity group; closed-mindedness is largely a response to a threat from outside. Perceived hostility or condescension is what generally transforms what would otherwise be an epistemological disagreement into an identity conflict. However, many of the benefits of enclave deliberation can be achieved in heterogeneous contexts by engaging interlocutors in terms of their own framing and narratives–mindful of, and responsive to, their expressed concerns and grievances.

That is, identity differences should not be suppressed, avoided or merely tolerated, but instead emphasized, encouraged and substantively respected—emphasizing pluralism over sectarianism. This can create a foundation where good-faith exchange and intergroup cooperation are feasible. Or put another way, the problem isn’t cultural cognition, it’s the lack of cross-cultural competence.

Published 3/11/2015 by Real Clear Science

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