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Arguing About the Argument: The Two Cognitve “Apps” Behind the Partisan Divide

I’m immensely frustrated by the fact that liberals and conservatives are either unwilling or unable to talk about the real root causes of their differences and instead prefer to clash over the secondary effects or symptoms of them.  The two sides prefer to argue about the argument rather than have the actual argument.  A great example of this is the recent Room for Debate feature in the New York Times, asking Is Criticism of Identity Politics Racist or Long Overdue?  There is a way around this, but it’s going to take a long time.

Anyone who’s been in a long term relationship is probably familiar with this (emphasis added):

Do you notice that you and your partner always end up having “the same old argument”? It’s as if it doesn’t matter at all where the conversation or conflict started … it just always ends in the familiar sinkhole.

After a while you may understand that the issue isn’t really about the housework, the weekend plans or money. It’s something else something you can’t put your finger on.

Most repeated fights are not really about what they seem to be about. In fact, they tend to happen because something in our past is being triggered by a present experience, even if it’s minor. Our partner might do something that evokes memories of feeling bullied, betrayed or falsely accused in the past and we are actually reacting to our history rather than to what is actually happening now.

The vulnerabilities and reactivity we bring to repeated fights may include core values and questions like “Who’s in charge of my life? “ “Am I valued and accepted for who I am” and “how much can I trust you to have my back”?

Repetitive fights breed further iterations of the same argument, period. One person’s idiosyncrasies create vulnerable patterns in another person’s behavior, which may, in turn, aggravate first person further. And so on … this is the definition of a vicious cycle. . – From Why You Have the Same Old Fight: A Couples Therapist Explains, by

This can happen an any long term relationship; not just between spouses, but also between, for example, siblings, or roommates.

It’s been happening between liberals and conservatives for nearly three centuries.

Psychologists suggest that the way to break out of this endless loop is to look not at our side of the story, or their side of the story, but at the third story an impartial third party might observe:

In their book Difficult Conversations, professional mediators Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen suggest that most of us make a mistake in attempting to resolve conflict with another person by how we start a conversation:

Often, we start from inside our own story. We describe the problem from our own perspective and, in doing so, trigger just the reactions we hope to avoid. We begin from precisely the place the other person thinks is causing the problem. If they agreed with our story, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.

These experts observe that when two people disagree, there are three stories, not two. Every conflict includes each participant’s story and an invisible third story. They say the third story is “one a keen observer would tell, someone with no stake in your particular problem.” The key to starting a difficult conversation is to begin with your version of the third story. This means describing the problem between you and your spouse in a way that rings true for both of you. – From Tired of Fighting About the Same Things, by Tim Muehlhoff 

I suggest that the third story of the centuries-long argument between left and right is provided by psychological social science.

The third story is the clash between two different cognitive wiring schemes; two different ways of perceiving and understanding the social world.

Just as there are different physical body types – dubbed somatypes by psychologist William H. Sheldon, i.e., ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph – so too, it seems, are there different cognitive types; different operating systems – different Apps, if you will – of social cognition that can, and often do, process the same basic inputs only to arrive at starkly different outputs.

These two Apps seem to be different implementations of two basic evolved psychological traits; 1) cognitive style, and 2) moral matrix.

Cognitive style seems to come in two flavors; 1) Platonic idealism and 2) Aristotelian empiricism.  These are described and then traced through human history in the book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman, in which Plato and Aristotle sever as metaphors for two ways of thinking and seeing the world.  In short, Plato believed that everything in the real world, including individuals and societies, are but a pale shadow of their potential ideal selves, and it is the role of the enlightened among us to help us see the ideal and move toward it.  Aristotle agreed that humans should always strive to improve, but human nature has real limits that place actual constraints on what’s possible. and we risk doing more harm than good if we try to shape it into something it cannot be. Rather, we must work within those constraints, and maybe even leverage them to our advantage, as we work to do better.

Moral matrices also seem to come in two basic types. A moral matrix is a particular combination, or set, of moral foundations.  Moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception and awareness.  They operate like little subconscious radars, constantly scanning the social environment for patterns of thought and behavior that represented opportunities/threats to our genetic ancestors.  They are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and purity/degradation  The first main matrix is made mostly of the first three foundations, and of those mostly care/harm, to the point that this matrix is sometimes referred to as the one-foundation moral matrix.  The second main matrix is made of all the foundations in relatively equal balance. These two moral matrices are the subject of the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, and of this lecture, transcript here.

The two main Apps of human social cognition, then, are two different combinations of these two psychological traits:

  • App One: Platonic idealism combined with the one-foundation moral matrix
  • App Two: Aristotelian empiricism combined with the all-foundation moral matrix.

People whose brains are wired with App One tend to be the ones who think criticism of identity politics is racist. That’s story one.

People whose brains are wired with App Two tend to be the ones who think criticism of identity politics is long overdue. That’s story two

The third story, the real underlying question for which stories one and two are but proxies, or effects, or symptoms, is this:

Which App is better connected to the realities of fundamental human nature?

Story three has been unfolding for more than two centuries.  That story, that question – for which racism/overdue is merely secondary effect or a symptom – phrased differently, is:

Who was more in sync with human nature, Rousseauian French Philosophes or Burkeian American Founders?

I believe that the intellectually, empirically, and historically honest and accurate answer to this question reveals that both Apps get some things right and some things wrong, BUT, and here’s the important part, one App is far more right than wrong, and the other App is far more wrong than right.

I further believe that the best, and possibly the only, way to break the logjam of partisan rancor is to follow the Telos of Truth and settle the REAL argument; that is, to tell story three completely and accurately. Then, and only then, I believe, will we ever be able to move past arguing about the argument and have actual, productive, conversations.

But that’s unlikely to happen because it would mean that one side would win and the other side would lose.

And NIETHER side wants to risk that, so they’re content to keep on ignoring the real argument and instead arguing about the argument.  In fact they’d rather do that.  It’s easier.  There’s less risk.

Another reason it’s not likely to happen is that anyone who points out which of the two emperors – Apps – has fewer clothes tends to be treated as a pariah, and labeled an angry partisan polemicist.

But there is good news.

The Telos of Truth tends, in the final analysis, to win out.  It can take decades, or even centuries for it to do so, as it did for ideas like group selection and heliocentrism, but eventually the mass of evidence and reason, almost always, proves to to be too much for the entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies of conventional wisdom to bear, and they collapse under the weight.

That’s what will happen with the Two Main Apps of human cognition.  They will be recognized as such, they will be measured against the Telos of Truth, and one will be found to me more wrong than right and the other will be found to be more right than wrong. 

It may not happen during our lifetimes.  Orthodoxies can push back mightily against truth, and can hold it off for a long time.  But if truth really does win out in the end, and I think it does, it’s inevitable.



  1. Pingback: Treating the Symptoms is Nice but Let’s ALSO Treat the Disease | The Independent Whig - November 25, 2016

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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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