A wealth of social psychology studies over the past two decades have allowed us a better glimpse into the way we think.
Through the studies of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, renowned social psychologists, the world has a better understanding of heuristics and bias. Their work,along with the likes of Stanley Milgram, Phillip Zambardo and many others, has been cited as a foundation of our new understanding of social psychology. This understanding challenged older viewpoints that claimed humans are rational thinkers only deviating from rationality when overcome with emotion. Much of the fundamentals taught in Economics courses in universities across the country still depends on this Rational Man theory. Over the last several decades with new research into how we make decisions, this has been changing.
Kahneman describes two different systems (he gives them metaphorical names of System 1 and System 2) that serve as a construct in understanding how we think. System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little to no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” This is encapsulates much of what some describe as our intuition. This mode of thinking is quick and easy, often with an evolutionary background that allowed these quick perceptions to flourish.
System 1 (or Intuition)
System 1 allows us to:
Answer simple intuitive math problems, like 2+2=4
Recognize family members faces in a crowd
Detect the relative distance of one object with another
Understand where a sudden sound comes from
Complete associative phrases like “peanut butter and ….” or “rock and …” or “Simon and…”
With System 1, we don’t need to spend mental energy or time thinking about a judgment. We quickly, automatically know it. This is amazing, you may say. Well, I agree. Our brains come wired to easily understand many of these issues. Babies (and adults) don’t have to think about breathing to stay alive. We just do it. Studies have shown that newborn babies recognize the faces of their mother or father mere days or even hours after birth. Newborn babies also recognize their mother’s voice, recognize their native language and are responsive to our facial expressions. This may suggest that human beings are born with abilities and tendencies to quickly adapt and survive. If we can, as babies, recognize faces and voices automatically, then we are prone early on to detect certain social cues and make automatic inferences based on these cues. We don’t have to think about whether the rustling in the woods behind us is dangerous – we automatically react to it. That trait comes in handy when we want to avoid being eaten by a tiger.
System 2 (or Deliberate Thinking)
Kahneman describes System 2 as more deliberate, as it “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” Activities that you would use System 2 for would include:
Compute more advanced math problems, like 247 x 34 =
Write a book report (On, let’s say, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman)
Compare the overall value of your current vehicle with the value of another car
Check the validity of a complex logical argument
System 1 thinking is automatic, but is prone to errors. Whereas System 2 thinking corrects many of those errors, but is extremely lazy. System 2 kicks in when you notice that System 1 won’t provide you with the answer you want.
So, why should I care?
Finally, we get to how this relates to our political lives. This site will detail how System 1 works and what biases and shortcuts occur when using this mode of thinking. From confirmation bias to narrative bias to the illusion of confidence, I will show how each of these mental shortcuts we use manifest in our political lives. We often don’t engage the lazy System 2 to think about our political world. We prefer to quickly perceive the political world around us fitting new bits of information into our already understood worldview. Social psychologist refer to the tendency to interpret information in a way that supports a desired conclusion as biased assimilation. It is closely related to confirmation bias.
If our System 2 way of thinking is lazy, we often interpret news and the world around us through our System 1 mode – automatic, quick, using mental shortcuts to categorize stories and people, using representations of words as the basis of our understanding for information, digesting any political story thru the lens of our own belief system. Using many of these mental shortcuts, or heuristics, with our System 1 way of thinking allow us to interpret political stories quickly, easily into our previous belief system without any effort from System 2. If our quick, misguided, error-prone System 1 mode of thinking gets us to an answer we agree with, why would we bother to move on to the more complex System 2?
Us vs Them
This gets to the heart of the problem in American politics today. Liberals tend to believe they are objective – they know the truth, they know what are the best policies. Liberals tend to believe that conservatives are being duped – that they vote against their own interest, that they are being brainwashed to care more about the nonsense Culture Wars than what actually matters, that objectively conservative policies have failed. Conservatives tend to believe the exact opposite. They know the truth – it’s the liberals who are being duped by the mainstream media, its the liberals who don’t understand real American values, its liberal policies that have destroyed this country.
If we all interpret the world around us – every news story, everything we hear on the radio, every perceived slight on social media or from family and friends – by quickly fitting it in to our previous belief system, then “we” are always right and “they” are always wrong. Compromise is unthinkable in this scenario. Why compromise when you know you are right?
It’s this “us” vs. “them” mentality that we can all easily relate to that greases the wheels down the political road to disaster. Studies have shown that humans will naturally categorize each other into groups. We like to define who “we” are – as opposed to “them.” It helps give us identity. It gives us a sense of community. It gives us a place to belong. When System 1 mode of thinking quickly categorizes ‘us’ and ‘them’, it does so not by thorough research and study. It does so by quick judgments, mental shortcuts that we use. If a politician has an (R) next to their name at the ballot box, you have a quick understanding of who they are. That’s not System 2 effort. That’s quick System 1.
Dog whistling us and them
When you say someone is a conservative or liberal or African-American or feminist or a Tea Partier or working class or a socialist, then you are putting them into a category, judging that category and defining that group in opposition to another group. If you are a liberal, then you are not a conservative. If you are pro-choice, does that mean you are anti-life? Does it mean you can’t be religious? If you are a feminist, do you have to be pro-choice? It’s this grouping of people with categories that gets messy if you are using System 2 thinking – not everyone neatly fits into any category. But if its System 1 thinking you are using, everyone can easily fit into a group. It’s these groups that make up political coalitions.
I’ve been involved in political campaigns for over a decade now. Campaigns are won and lost by defining “us” and “them”. Obama’s “Yes We Can” defined their own winning coalition. Trump and the GOP have been defining “them” for decades. “They” are always wrong and “they” are the scapegoats for your political ascendancy: immigrants, welfare queens, liberal elites, Hollywood liberals, mainstream media, LGBT community, environmentalists, Democrats, activist judges, etc. Trump didn’t have to say outright who was going to Make America Great Again. His crowd knew who was “us” and who was “them” :