Thursday, August 26, 2010

Metacognitive deficits in public political discourse

Some interesting chunks from a recent David Brooks column in the NYTimes, on what he takes to be the underlying problem facing this country. He starts by describing the decay in the 19th and early 20th century emphasis on moral character,
...when people were more conscious of the fallen nature of men and women. People were held to be inherently sinful, and to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness...This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There’s less talk of sin and frailty these days...In the media competition for eyeballs, everyone is rewarded for producing enjoyable and affirming content. Output is measured by ratings and page views, so much of the media, and even the academy, is more geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character-building regime.

...we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions...We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group...The ensuing mental flabbiness is most evident in politics. Many conservatives declare that Barack Obama is a Muslim because it feels so good to say so...a seller’s market in people a chance to feel victimized. There’s a rigidity to political debate. Issues like tax cuts and the size of government, which should be shaped by circumstances (often it’s good to cut taxes; sometimes it’s necessary to raise them), are now treated as inflexible tests of tribal purity.

To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate.

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