Dear Obama: For SCOTUS decision, listen to your heart . . .

April 11, 2010

It’s official: Justice John Paul Stevens has announced that he will retire at the end of the term.  But Justice Stevens’ announcement signaled much more than the end of his honorable service; the announcement was, in effect, a signal that the Capitol should prepare for battle.  Warring factions – political parties, advocacy groups, lobbyists – have already sprung into action, releasing news releases, action messages, and flash reports excoriating one potential nominee or another.  (Political) war is coming.  And through all the chaos and cacophony of a Supreme Court nomination, one man must sift through a massive amount of chatter and make a decision.  President Obama must make a choice – a complex and sensitive choice, after healthcare reform and before the midterm election, with an inspired left and an apoplectic right.

Given the complexity and sensitivity of his task, perhaps Obama should gather all the information possible, view the situation from every angle, chew the decision over and over in his mind, ruminate and reflect – all part of a process of reaching the optimal political and moral decision.

Or, maybe he should just go with his gut.  After the jump, I introduce some classic research in cognitive science to explain why an emotional decision could be better than a holistic decision – even when a judicial nomination is at stake.

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Knowles’ and Ditto’s “Warm” View of Human Reasoning:

February 28, 2010

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right)

Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto endorse what they call a “warm” view of human reasoning. This is a “hybrid view” that recognizes that human reasoning is “necessarily both” “’hot’ (rooted in motivations and emotions) [and] ‘cold’ (rooted in cognitive operations).” (15). In their estimation, this dichotomy between hot and cold reasoning — what they also refer to as the “preference-principle dichotomy” — “oversimplifies human psychology.” (4). In “Preference, Principle, and Political Casuistry,” Knowles and Ditto present empirical evidence for their favored warm, hybrid view and attempt to explain away this preference-principle dichotomy. 

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The Tea Party and Blasi & Jost’s System Justification Motive

February 25, 2010

What’s been fascinating commentators about the Tea Party is the disconnect between its rhetoric and its second coming, the disconnect which seems starkly clear to the commentators, but to which the Tea Partiers themselves seem quite oblivious. Tea Partiers’ most important banner slogan is “Big Government, stay out of our lives” or any variation thereon.  The question is where were our protectors during the Bush administration, which, as a CNN reporter points out, turned a Clinton surplus into a deficit with a nearly $2 trillion swing, sending the cost of government into the $1.2 trillion figure where it stands today? After all, Obama’s contribution to the massive deficit was a drop in the bucket which was already generously filled during the Bush years.

Gary Blasi and John Jost‘s  work on System Justification Theory (aka SJT) might help explain what’s going on here. Blasi & Jost explore the non-rational decision-making that we all (including, admittedly, Blasi and Jost themselves) engage in. Specifically, they provide ample evidence that the typical self-interest and group identification biases do not fully explain our actions. Why, for example, do members of the disadvantaged groups in our society approve of the social order that continues to disadvantage them and their groups? This is the opposite of the result we would expect if we relied on self-interest and group-identification explanations alone (i.e. if self-interests and group-identification were sole drivers of decision-making we would see near-universal disparagement of the current social order among the members of the disadvantaged groups). Blasi & Jost’s argument (backed up by empirical data, of course) is that we are naturally (and unconsciously) very good at accepting the status quo as the “right” status.  Once any particular order is solidified (i.e. there is very little chance of going back to the previous status quo), we accept it as “correct” and see it “desirable.’  A perfect (and very troubling to a Dem) example was a study by Dan Gilbert where a sample of Texan Dems significantly improved their evaluation of George W. Bush only one month following his victory in the gubernatorial race against Democrat Ann Richards.

So what does all this have to do with the Tea Partiers? Let’s see after the jump.

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Political Ideology in the Popular Press

February 15, 2010

This past weekend, in Our Politics May Be All in Our Head, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times presented research on the psychological (and even physiological) differences between liberals and conservatives — a topic which directly relates to our discussion three weeks ago about Professor Jost’s theory of political ideology.

We all know that liberals and conservatives are far apart on health care. But in the way their brains work? Even in automatic reflexes, like blinking? Or the way their glands secrete moisture?

Although Kristof initially finds the research “utterly dispiriting” — given the difficulty of moving ideological opponents who “may not even share our hard-wiring” — he notes that the research could illuminate how to frame political arguments persuasively.

The Collective Action of Healthcare Reform

February 14, 2010
From WTRF News

From WTRF News

How should an institution inspire collective action?  What’s the best strategy?  The conventional wisdom is that to solve a collective problem, the institution should reward contributors and punish free-riders.  To prevent people from littering, fine them; to induce people to donate to charity, reward them; to move people to invent, lure them with intellectual property—as we discussed last week.  The implicit reasoning is that the typical human agent is a rational wealth-optimizer who won’t contribute to a public good unless he or she is incentivized to do.  Yet, as we also discussed last week, the rational actor model isn’t an accurate depiction of human nature.  Just as the average person doesn’t make the “rational choice” in an ultimatum bargain, the average person doesn’t jump to contribute to a public good on account of a mere carrot or stick.  The conventional wisdom—that the optimal solution for the collective action dilemma is incentive-based—is a gross oversimplification; the almighty incentive is only one aspect of a rich, complex puzzle.  Nonetheless, the conventional solution is unquestioned in our popular discourse regarding collective action.

Enter Professor Dan M. Kahan of Yale Law SchoolAs he’s done for quite a while, Professor Kahan challenges the conventional wisdom.  In the “The Logic of Reciprocity: Trust, Collective Action, and Law,” Professor Kahan argues that the traditional solution for a collective problem is often counter-productive, and offers an alternative theory that is grounded in an ecologically valid appraisal of the human animal.

Before exploring Professor Kahan’s theory, though, consider a recent example of the conventional wisdom’s influence on public discourse from an article in Slate entitled, “The Senator’s Dilemma,” published last week.  There, Christopher Beam argues that the Democratic Party’s strategic stance with respect to health care reform can be viewed as a classic collective action problem.  Although Beam’s characterization of the problem is surely correct, his policy prescription is conventional.

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Aaron Kay, “The Psychological Power of the Status Quo”

February 9, 2010

Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Professor Kay’s research has focused on the integration of implicit social-cognitive processes with the study of broad social issues. In his primary line of work, he investigates the myriad ways by which people cope with, adapt to, and rationalize social inequalities. At the moment, this research program addresses questions such as: (1) How do people rationalize and justify their good fortune and bad fortune, others’ good fortune and bad fortune, and the social systems that dictate these outcomes? (2) What are the psychological tools employed in aiding people to cope with the internal conflict produced from participating in social systems that are, in many objective ways, unfair and capricious?

At the second annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place im March of 2008, Professor Kay’s remarkable presentation was titled “The Psychological Power of the Status Quo.” Here’s the abstract:

Although people tend to view their beliefs, values, and ideology as entirely the product of thoughtful deliberation, it is becoming increasingly clear that such a view is largely mistaken. In this talk, I will describe how the motivation to perceive the current status quo as just, legitimate, and desirable — an implicit motive known as “system justification” — exerts powerful and consequential effects on social perception and judgment. My remarks will focus particularly on the role of system justification in maintaining social inequalities.

His talk was videotaped (though with poor lighting), and you can watch it on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below the jump.

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Crowding Out Innovation

February 8, 2010

Isn’t the iPad just an oversized iPod Touch?  (Isn’t the iPod Touch just an iPad Nano?)  Has the personal computer changed much over the last forty years?  (Check out an embryonic personal computer from Xerox PARC, known as the Alto, from 1973—see the resemblance?)  More to the point, weren’t we supposed to be traveling in flying cars by now?  How innovative are we?

Perhaps we are somewhat innovative, but it is safe to say that we are not as innovative as we could be—and it’s the patent system’s fault.  The problem isn’t that the patent system is doing too little, though; the problem is that the patent system is doing too muchFor as long as the U.S. patent regime treats “carrot” as king, the engine of innovation will run on the fuel of self-interest, and technological progress will lag as a result.

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