I’m OK, But I’ve Got My Doubts About You

“Sapient” means “wise or knowing”. That’s why Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, called our species “Homo sapiens“. In fact, we’re all members of the sub-species “Homo sapiens sapiens“. We must be really smart (given the competition).

On a less optimistic note, however, studies show that our species suffers from various cognitive impairments. For example, there isΒ “motivated reasoning”: our emotions often affect the conclusions we reach.Β The existence of theΒ “backfire effect” isΒ especially counter-intuitive: when our deepest beliefs are confronted by contrary evidence, our deepest beliefs can become even stronger. It’s a cognitive defense mechanism frequently on display at family gatherings and in the House of Representatives.

Once we accept the widespread irrationality of Homo sapiens sapiens, it’s muchΒ easier to understand why certain politicians say such crazy things. They aren’t necessarily lying. Too often, they actually believe what they’re saying.

Yesterday, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas criticized the agreement to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling: “Unfortunately, once again, it appears the Washington establishment is refusing to listen to the American people”. The Senator may really believe that most of America was enjoying the shutdown and looking forward to the government running out of money. Public opinion polls indicating that most of us weren’t happy about it at all must be non-existent or seriously flawed.

Somehow it’s comforting to know that our political opponents aren’t lying bastards. They’re merely irrational, like so many of our species.

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that all of us are equally irrational. Some people are more in need of cognitive defense mechanisms because they feel more threatened by what’s going on in the world. If you strongly prefer how things were back in the 19th century, when we didn’t have things like an income tax or child labor laws, you’ll have a lot of mental defending to do. Having that black guy in the White House clearly bothers a lot of people, who conclude that he must be the Antichrist or at least working for Al Qaeda. The Affordable Care Act scares the hell out of some people who think the government is becoming too powerful, so they hold on to the idea that death panels will soon be deciding who should live or die.

Of course, you might point out that many of us feel threatened by the radical Republicans among us. So maybe we are being irrational about them?

That’s possible, but it’s not what the evidence shows. Those people really are crazy! It’s just that their behavior is more common than some of us (the optimists among us?) would like to think.

For more on the backfire effect and whether journalists can do anything about it, here’s an article in the Columbia Journalism Review: