There’s strong scientific evidence suggesting that so-called “low information voters” have a superior innate grasp of human nature in comparison to that of highly intelligent, highly educated, high information voters. If true then this might explain intelligentsia’s failure to foresee the results of recent elections in America (Trump) and England (Brexit), and its apparent inability to come to grips with the results after the fact. It further suggests that the monikers “low information” and “high information” were assigned in reverse of how they should have been assigned, hinting that the assignment says more about the moral myopia of the matrix from whence it came than it says about the people to whom it was affixed.
We now know that we apprehend the world in two radically opposed ways, employing two fundamentally different modes of thought: “System 1” and “System 2”. System 1 is fast; it’s intuitive, associative, metaphorical, automatic, impressionistic, and it can’t be switched off. Its operations involve no sense of intentional control, but it’s the “secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make” and it’s the hero of Daniel Kahneman‘s alarming, intellectually aerobic book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
System 2 is slow, deliberate, effortful. Its operations require attention. (To set it going now, ask yourself the question “What is 13 x 27?” And to see how it hogs attention, go to theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html and follow the instructions faithfully.) System 2 takes over, rather unwillingly, when things get difficult. It’s “the conscious being you call ‘I'”, and one of Kahneman’s main points is that this is a mistake. You’re wrong to identify with System 2, for you are also and equally and profoundly System 1. Kahneman compares System 2 to a supporting character who believes herself to be the lead actor and often has little idea of what’s going on.
System 2 is slothful, and tires easily (a process called “ego depletion”) – so it usually accepts what System 1 tells it. It’s often right to do so, because System 1 is for the most part pretty good at what it does; it’s highly sensitive to subtle environmental cues, signs of danger, and so on. It kept our remote ancestors alive. Système 1 a ses raisons que Système 2 ne connaît point, as Pascal might have said. – Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnmen – review, Galen Strawson, The Guardian.
System 1, for the most part, controls our thoughts and actions.
The idea is that System 1 is really the one that is the more influential; it is guiding System 2, it is steering System 2 to a very large extent. – Layers of Choice, Colleen Walsh, Harvard Gazette
David Hume made the same observation almost three centuries ago in Book II of his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40):
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office but to serve and obey them. (T II.3.3 415).
Jonathan Haidt calls System 1 and System 2 the elephant and the rider, respectively.
the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning— the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes— the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior. 8
– The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Here’s a thought experiment that explains how all of this works (from one of my earlier posts, here):
Imagine that you are walking through a museum with a friend. You turn a corner, see a painting for the first time, and your immediate reaction is to say, “Oh I like that.” Your friend asks, “Really? Why? What is it about the painting that makes you like it?” Only then do you consciously come up with an explanation as to why you like the painting. Our judgments and opinions about political and moral issues work much the same way. We know what we like and what we don’t like before we know why, and we develop rationales for our preferences only after the fact. Our intuition and gut feel come first, followed by our thought-out rational explanations for them.
The metaphor of the human mind as a rider on the back of an elephant, introduced here only briefly, was originated and described in full by Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in Chapter 1 of his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.* The chapter is entitled The Divided Self. It is available to read online here. In that chapter Haidt says,
“If you listen closely to moral arguments, you can sometimes hear something surprising: that it is really the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider. It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly and automatically (as Malcolm Gladwell described in Blink), but only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the rider goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.” (pp. 21-22)
In other words, the main evolved purpose or role of reason, the rider, System 2, is, and can only ever be, to come up with post hoc rationalizations designed to justify, defend, and persuade others of the feelings already felt and decisions already made by intuition, the elephant, System 1.
Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things. – The Argumentative Theory, John Brockman, The Edge
In real-world operation reason acts as a press secretary on behalf of intuition.
If you want to see post hoc reasoning in action, just watch the press secretary of a president or prime minister take questions from reporters. No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find some way to praise or defend it. Reporters then challenge assertions and bring up contradictory quotes from the politician, or even quotes straight from the press secretary on previous days. Sometimes you’ll hear an awkward pause as the secretary searches for the right words, but what you’ll never hear is: “Hey, that’s a great point! Maybe we should rethink this policy.
Press secretaries can’t say that because they have no power to make or revise policy. They’re told what the policy is, and their job is to find evidence and arguments that will justify the policy to the public. And that’s one of the rider’s main jobs: to be the full-time in-house press secretary for the elephant. – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Book smarts does not equal street smarts. Technical knowledge does not equal practical knowledge. Intelligence has little if any bearing on innate intuitive grasp of human nature.
Consider the findings of another eminent reasoning researcher, David Perkins. 21 Perkins brought people of various ages and education levels into the lab and asked them to think about social issues, such as whether giving schools more money would improve the quality of teaching and learning. He first asked subjects to write down their initial judgment. Then he asked them to think about the issue and write down all the reasons they could think of—on either side—that were relevant to reaching a final answer. After they were done, Perkins scored each reason subjects wrote as either a “my-side” argument or an “other-side” argument.
Not surprisingly, people came up with many more “my-side” arguments than “other-side” arguments. Also not surprisingly, the more education subjects had, the more reasons they came up with. But when Perkins compared fourth-year students in high school, college, or graduate school to first-year students in those same schools, he found barely any improvement within each school. Rather, the high school students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to college, and the college students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to graduate school. Schools don’t teach people to reason thoroughly; they select the applicants with higher IQs, and people with higher IQs are able to generate more reasons.
The findings get more disturbing. Perkins found that IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued, but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments . Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries, but they are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side. Perkins concluded that “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.” 22
Research on everyday reasoning offers little hope for moral rationalists. In the studies I’ve described, there is no self-interest at stake. When you ask people about strings of digits, cakes and illnesses, and school funding, people have rapid, automatic intuitive reactions. One side looks a bit more attractive than the other. The elephant leans, ever so slightly, and the rider gets right to work looking for supporting evidence—and invariably succeeds.
This is how the press secretary works on trivial issues where there is no motivation to support one side or the other. If thinking is confirmatory rather than exploratory in these dry and easy cases, then what chance is there that people will think in an open-minded, exploratory way when self-interest, social identity, and strong emotions make them want or even need to reach a preordained conclusion? – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Where does street smarts come from? Why do some people have a superior innate grasp of human nature than others?
Moral foundations. Moral foundations are the main cognitive modules, or algorithms, or apps implanted in our brains by natural selection that create Hume’s passions, are embodied by Haidt’s elephant, and reside in Kahneman’s System 1. A world-wide study of moralities on every continent reveals there are at least six. A brief video overview of them is here.
Moral foundations are the sensors through which we receive, and with which we process and understand, social information.
They operate like little subconscious radars, constantly scanning the social environment around us for patters of thoughts and behaviors – information – that represented opportunities/threats to our genetic ancestors and sending intuitions, gut reactions, feelings, of like or dislike, approach or avoid, and fight or flee forward into consciousness when such patterns are detected. They are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and purity/degradation. A seventh foundation, property, or ownership/stealing, may be forthcoming from the research.
Moral foundations have many functions and serve many roles. First, they are the psychological building blocks from which the different moralities around the world are constructed. Belief systems differ in the degree to which they employ each of the foundations. Second, they are essential “tools in the toolbox” of human psychology that make cooperative society possible. Third, they are the color receptors of the moral eye. The more of them we employ the more of the social world we naturally perceive. Fourth, they are cognitive processing modules through which we make sense of the information we receive from senses and understand our fellow man. The more of them we employ the more of the social world we see and understand.
Social cognition and innate intuitive understanding of human nature in general and of other humans as individuals varies in the degree to which it employs the moral foundations. This graph, from here, depicts the data behind those findings:
Conservative brains employ all of the moral foundations in relatively equal balance. Liberal brains employ about half of them, and of host mostly just care.
This explains why conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.
When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations – Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity – I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.
In a study I did with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Qyestionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right)’ Who was best able to pretend to be the other?
The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or ”Justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think? Reagan seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people. He’s more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.
If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:
Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they causeany more harm)3
One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic-who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living-to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own. Morality binds and blinds. From page 334 of The Righteous Mind
It also explains why conservatives understand human nature better than do liberals. This is an excerpt from the interview of Jonathan Haidt by Bill Moyers.
JONATHAN HAIDT: When I began this work, I was very much a liberal. And over time, in doing the research for my book and in reading a lot of conservative writing, I’ve come to believe that conservative intellectuals actually are more in touch with human nature. They have a more accurate view of human nature.
We need structure. We need families. We need groups. It’s okay to have memberships and rivalries. All that stuff is okay, unless it crosses the threshold into Manichaeism. So I think that it would be very difficult to run a good society without resting much on loyalty, authority and sanctity. I think you need to use those.
The scientific reality is that conservatives are are high information voters, “constrained’ by a superior innate understanding of fundamental human nature, and liberals are low information voters, “unconstrained” by reality, and free to “Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace.” This disconnection from reality leads logically to RFK’s freedom to “Dream things that never were and ask why not?”
“What’s the problem” you ask? Only this:
The unconstrained vision, I believe, has the worst track record in the history of ideas. This is a terrible and really dangerous idea, quite frankly. Um, in the French Revolution I’ve been stunned to read this, for the book that I’m writing, to read on the French Revolution. My beef with them is that they’re rationalists, they think that reason is a reliable way to find truth, it’s great in the natural sciences, but once you care about something, if you have passions, if it’s a moral issue, reasoning is the slave of the, uh, is the servant of the, wait what is it, David Hume said that “Reasoning is the slave of the passions and can pretend to no other office but to serve and obey them.”I think Hume was right. So I’m really concerned about rationalists, but what I discovered is that in one of the few places on earth where the rationalists got control of an entire country and were able to do with it what they wanted, they created a cult of reason, they banned the clergy, they killed the nobles, ah, and what we had wasn’t oh, let’s get rid of ah, let’s get rid of nations and religion and then people will be one, no what they had was most people didn’t, or a lot of people didn’t want to go along with the revolution, and of course they’re wrong because we know we’re right we have reason on our side, they called themselves the party of reason, also the party of humanity, the French Revolutionaries ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of people. The committed a genocide in the Vendee region lining people against the walls and shooting them, putting them out into boats and sinking the boats. The French Revolutionaries committed genocide. They committed, they would round people, anybody who was accused of anything, rounded up, pronounced guilty, guillotined. We don’t usually say, “Well yeah they committed genocide but other than that oh the French Revolution was great.”So the French Revolution was based on the ex, the most extreme unconstrained view, the philosophes, Condorcet, Sam Harris (gesture, admitting the joke), people like that.
Um, other research, on 19th century communes. Richard Sosis, anthropologist compared, he found the records of communes in the 19th century. Many were organized, were socialist communes based on equality and openness, many were religious communes. And he looked to see how long did they last. Answer, the religious ones tended to last two to three times longer than the liberal, than the secular ones. Because, if you bind people in, you, it turns out the active ingredient was demanding sacrifice. Making them change their names, wear funny clothes, cut all contact with the outside, give up certain foods. If you ask for sacrifice, if you constrain people, they form a community of trust, and they don’t cheat each other.
And if you say, “Welcome everyone. Constraints are bad.“ It quickly decays into a moral, into moral chaos. Again, the unconstrained vision, when it gets a chance to run things, screws it up.
Twentieth century communism, fascism, any any movement that tried to create a new man ends up committing atrocities, ends up committing mass murder. Um, if any, if there are any historians here, but as far as I understand it most left wing revolutions have ended with mass murder, because, you have this utopia, people don’t go along, because you got human nature incorrectly, they don’t go along, but you know you’re right because you have reason on your side, so you use force, and you use more force, and you use more force, and you end up like Cuba, or North Korea, or the other communist revolutions. It doesn’t work.
The unconstrained vision in the sciences and social sciences has denied that there’s human nature. They’re just wrong about that, it’s a really terrible idea scientifically. They’ve denied evolutionary psych.
Not only are liberals the real low information voters, low information policies, because they deny and defy the realities of fundamental human nature, have been the proximate cause of the most oppressive regimes and the greatest crimes against humanity the world has ever known.