Your Inner “Press Secretary” is Delusional?
Posted on September 9, 2012
We listen to the President’s Press Secretary with skepticism. We’re skeptical because we know the Press Secretary’s job is to justify the President’s policies and decisions. The Press Secretary, no matter how suspect the President’s decision, will always defend it. Not just defend it, but find ways to praise the decision. The Press Secretary is trying a lot harder to “look” right than “be” right.
Is the Press Secretary aware of this? Does he see himself as a cynical manipulator, a media savvy wordsmith who cares more about appearing right than actually being right? Not if he’s like you and me. Like us, his moral intuitions come first, and his strategic reasoning comes second. Our reasoning mind is more like a politician who wants votes than a scientist who wants truth.
But we don’t so easily see this about ourselves. Instead, we believe we’re rational, objective, and fair-minded in our beliefs. We use reason and evidence, we tell ourselves, to reach conclusions about our most important beliefs, such as politics, religion, and morals. Those with different beliefs, on the other hand, fail to reason as well as us. They’re emotionally driven to their conclusions. They ignore the facts. They just don’t get it.
This is our own personal, in-house Press Secretary at work. Our inner politician. And he’s almost always at work when we think and act in the world, especially when we make judgments about right and wrong. In fact, recent research in cognitive science reveals the following five features of our minds:
1. Our conscious reasoning works like an inner “press secretary” who reflexively justifies all that we say and do.
2. Our inner “press secretary” covers up our white lies and routine mistakes so effectively that we convince even ourselves that we’re honest and error-free.
3. Reasoning can take us to any conclusion we want to reach. When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves “Can I believe it?” But when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves “Must I believe it?” We answer yes to the first and no to the second.
4. We’re all obsessed with what others think of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
5. We’re “groupish” in moral and political matters, which means that we use our reasoning to support our group. Our reasoning is motivated. It is confirmatory, not disinterested.
These findings force the uncomfortable conclusion that reason is not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, our faith in the power of reason may be something of a delusion. As neuroscientist Jonathan Haidt says, “It is an example of faith in something that does not exist.” Haidt and other moral intuitionists caution us to be wary of the idea that reason is an entirely noble, god-like attribute of humans, an attribute that leads us to moral truth. If this were true, then moral philosophers should be more virtuous than the rest of us. They’re not, as studies have shown over and over again.
So, says Haidt and others, anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. The distinctively human ability to reason developed not to find truth, but instead to help us argue, persuade, and manipulate in social settings. Under this evolutionary view, reason is an adaptation that promotes our survival, not truth.
Putting aside for the moment whether this evolutionary account of reason is itself true, let’s consider the implications of Haidt’s conclusion. Does it mean we throw out reason and simply “go with our gut?” Well, in certain situations, such as interpersonal judgments and consumer choices, the answer may be “yes,” according to researchers. But the larger point is simply that we must be very careful about any one individual’s ability to reason.
We must be careful about individual reasoning because each of us, left to our own unchecked rationality, will just find evidence to support the position we already hold. The confirmation and self-serving biases we’ve explored before in this blog are powerful, almost insurmountable. As individuals we’re simply not that good at being open-minded, truth-seeking reasoners. We intuitively care too much about our own self-interest and reputation.
But in diverse groups, where we challenge and test one another’s evidence, we can produce better reasoning that comes closer to the truth. To counter the overwhelming influence of our inner Press Secretary, we should invite a small crowd of cognitively diverse, good-natured skeptics to the table where we might find, as the saying goes, two (or more) heads really are better than one. Such cognitive diversity embraces multiple perspectives, opens debate on alternative solutions, and promotes counterarguments to the all-powerful inner Press Secretary. Why? Because diverse groups usually outperform their homogenous counterparts, whether on the scale of the small business or the city or the entire ecosystem. History persistently teaches us that cognitive uniformity leads to stagnation or, worse, death.
At the same time, even within cognitively diverse groups we must always guard against conformity and common incentives to avoid the well-known “group think” phenomenon. We must not surround ourselves only with like-minded people. We must seek out different views; we must embrace dissent. In doing so, as Haidt reminds us, “the truth will emerge as a large number of flawed and limited minds battle it out.”