Wednesday, August 10, 2011

When Beliefs Become More Like Possessions

Coincidentally, two things happened during my just concluded cross-country trip that helped me better understand Tea Party followers.

Even though Tea Partiers are rare, just 9% of the general public and 11% of registered voters, I was able to meet and/or listen to several either during refueling stops or during dinner conversations because, traveling alone, I choose to eat at the bar in the places where I stop.  This often leads to some interesting encounters.

At the same time I was interacting with some of these folks on the trip out west and back, along the northern route this time, I read What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought by Dr. Keith E. Stanovich, a professor and researcher on human reasoning at the University of Toronto.  I was able to apply some of the information I gleaned from this research during my encounters.

Each of the Tea Party adherents I met appeared to have well above average intelligence but only a shallow grasp of facts and information.  It appeared to me that they based their opinions almost entirely on testimonials heard on talk shows or at rallies.

In his book Stanovich notes that while intelligence is innate, rationality is learned and that research reveals that “open-minded thinking is associated with reliance on statistical evidence” while what he terms “myside bias” has an over-reliance on testimonials.

This explains why, to a person, the activists I met seemed unperturbed to learn that the vast majority of the current debt problem occurred under a conservative president who had inherited a budget surplus.  When probed for the basis of their beliefs they almost always cited talk show hosts or speakers at rallies.

Similarly, they didn’t appear to be racists but tended to generalize about immigration and racial issues based on group stereotypes gleaned from testimonials that may have been racist rather than on facts or any personal experience with or knowledge of individuals.

The nation is currently held hostage not by the 11% of registered voters who are Tea Party adherents but by the less than 6% who insisted, in the very recent USA Today/Gallup poll, that the Congressional Committee now charged with trimming the debt should “stand pat on principle no matter what.”

Based on what I learned from the research reviewed in this well-written book, the inflexibility of this very small group is grid locking the nation and the economy because they “treat their beliefs” in Stanovich’s research, “as possessions” making it almost impossible to inform them with additional information or to find compromise.

To me, this is what makes them so dangerous and why even conservative columnist David Brooks raises questions about their moral decency.  Maybe even more dangerous are those officials elected to represent far more than this tiny 6% but to whom they pledge allegiance, “no matter what.”

1 comment:

Jim Ullman said...

What a great opportunity and a great trip! So many things to comment on and so little time.

- 9 to 11% seems to be a pretty standard slice of political typology these days (at least according to Pew which is where you may have gotten your figures) regardless of whether it's Tea Partiers or New Coalition Democrats or whatever.

- Too many people base their opinions on testimonials and talk shows and too many people use the data and information that most suits their arguments and world view (not accusing you of this - just making an observation). I just ran across this article - - and the author has a couple of books out that I'm pretty interested in (although I don't know when I'll get around to reading them). It sounds like it might be something you'd appreciate as well.

- My sense of the Tea Partiers is that they're not any happier with the debt Bush ran up than the debt Obama ran up. However, you may have greater first-hand insight into that with the folks you talked to. My brother has come "this close" to coming out to me as a Tea Partier and he had no use for Bush, so the fact that a Republican President was fiscally irresponsible wouldn’t necessarily preclude a Tea Partier from believing that fiscal responsible should be the goal.

- Given that you took the Northern route, it seems likely that you passed through states that ran 80%-90% white. Testimonials and 2nd hand experiences may be the only information they have because there's a dearth of first-hand experience. If I had to guess, I'd say that you're unique in that you've actually gone out of your way to get to know Tea Partiers. How many Tea Party critics have done the same? And if they haven't, they're stereotyping is no more valid (as if stereotyping ever is). I've felt for a long time that there are folks living on the East and West coast of the US who'd much rather serve in the Peace Corps in a developing nation than spend a year in North Dakota or West Virginia or wherever.

- The only people held hostage are those that lack the moral fiber to stand by their principles in serving the best interests of the United States - and that runs across the political spectrum.

- Another way to look at the Tea Partiers stance could be through the lens of Resistance theory. Basically, I ascribe to the belief that people resist for one of three reasons - they don't get it, they don't like it, or they don't like you. The challenge is figuring out which kind of resistance you're seeing. Right now there's plenty of resistance based on the "I don't like you" model (something I'd really like to tackle in the coming weeks and months). But people often mistake the "I don't like it" for "I don't get it" and think that further data and rational arguments are going to make a difference. If I REALLY believe I don't like it, but you keep treating me like I don't get it then I start to feel like you think I'm stupid which ain't a basis for shifting my attitude and perspective.

Anyhow, Reyn. Thanks for providing such a thought-provoking post. These are issues I think about at length and it was nice to have the opportunity to engage.