Democracy v Psychology: Why People Keep Electing Idiots

The 2015 election campaigns are under way, and it’s clear that doing or saying unintelligent things is no barrier to political success. Unfortunately, there are several psychological mechanisms that lead to apparent idiots being elected into powerful positions.

image

Clegg being interviewed by Joey Essex has been seen as blatant “dumbing down” of politics, but it’s been going on for quite some time now. Photograph: @nick_clegg/PA

Courtesy of Dean Burnett @ The Guardian:

Politicians. Their reputation is very poor. In fairness, this is largely their own fault, but it would be foolish to assume every politician is like this. If they were, the whole infrastructure would collapse before you could say “can I claim this on expenses?” Still, everyone assumes they’re despicable, so always assume the worst.

Politician enacts a bad policy? They’re a terrible person. They change their mind and reverse it? They’re weak and not fit to lead. Politicians promise improvements (cut taxes, increase spending)? They’re obviously lying. Politicians promise to do something unpopular (raise taxes, cut spending)? A cast-iron guarantee it will happen. It’s a lose-lose situation, so why do they bother? Many politicians are clearly in it for themselves, but there surely are plenty who really do want the best and just put up with the negative opinions they get.

So, for the record, not all politicians are idiots (although your definition of idiot may vary). But plenty are. The US seem particularly afflicted with them; Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, these people were/are contenders for the presidency. And the archetype George W Bush WAS the president. For 8 YEARS. The man whose idiotic musings managed to sustain businesses had a nuclear arsenal at his command.

Not that the UK can feel smug, with the amount of demonstrable idiocy in our own system. Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Grant Shapps, Jeremy Hunt, David Tredinnick, a ridiculous Labour party (complete with mugs), the rise of UKIP, and the beloved bumbling mayor Boris Johnson. Continue reading

Why Do We Cling to Beliefs When They’re Threatened by Facts?

Courtesy of Cathleen O’Grady @ Arstechnica:

People hold beliefs for a complex variety of reasons. Some of these beliefs may be based on facts, but others may be based on ideas that can never be proved or disproven. For example, people who are against the death penalty might base their belief partly on evidence that the death penalty does not reduce violent crime (which could later be shown to be false), and partly on the notion that the death penalty violates a fundamental human right to life. The latter is an unfalsifiable belief, because it can’t be changed purely by facts.

According to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, unfalsifiability is an important component of both religious and political beliefs. It allows people to hold their beliefs with more conviction, but it also alows them to become more polarized in those beliefs.

Currently, very little is known about why certain worldviews gain more mindshare in some populations, while others remain on the fringes. We also currently know only a little about how and why people continue to hold a belief in the face of contradictory evidence. Sometimes people argue on the basis of fact, questioning the quality of the evidence against their position, for example.

But it seems that people can also resort to emphasizing unfalsifiable reasons for holding a belief. This “defensive” function of unfalsifiability plays a role in both religion and politics; people can also use the unfalsifiability of their beliefs to defend them when they are threatened. The researchers also look at what they call the “offensive” function of unfalsifiability, which increases the strength of people’s religious and political beliefs. Continue reading

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

If human beings are presented with truth and knowledge, they can then act in the best interest of themselves, their families, their friends and the common man. Without truth or knowledge, the opposite is true. Courtesy of Avital Andrews @ Pacific Standard Mag:

If you know that someone knows something that you also know, does that make you more likely to cooperate with them? A new study out of Harvard suggests the answer is yes.

Social psychology has plenty of studies that examine altruism, but there hasn’t been much research that looks into its obscure cousin, “mutualistic cooperation”—that is, when people cooperate to benefit each other and themselves.

“Human cognition may have been shaped by natural selection to solve coordination problems.”

To start rectifying that, a group of researchers, including the popular author Steven Pinker, designed and ran four game theory-type experiments on 1,033 people that involved giving subjects varying levels of information, from private to common—the common knowledge was literally broadcast over a loudspeaker. Each person was then given a set of decisions with varying costs and payoffs, and allowed to choose whether to work by themselves or with others. In many cases, participants needed common knowledge and others’ help to get the games’ maximum benefit. The researchers also manipulated what their subjects knew about their partners’ knowledge.

The resulting study, published last week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that when people have common knowledge, they’re much likelier to act in each others’ best interest.

“Because it may be costly to engage in a coordinated activity when no one else does so, attempts to coordinate can be risky when it is unclear what other people will do,” the paper explains. “If one protester shows up he gets shot, but if a million show up they may send the dictator packing.” Continue reading