Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cultural Beliefs


Wuxtry, wuxtry! New research suggests that people aren't reliably committed to "truth," except insofar as holding a "true" belief provides them with some sort of social or psychological advantage. Our rational self-interest, it seems, is rational to the extent that it helps us to get what we want. Opinion is sacred private property, and fact-checkers are bureaucratic thugs who are trying to seize it through eminent domain so that NAMBLA can bulldoze it and build a five-story bathhouse. Read it and weep!

One study looked at opinions on nanotechnology, which tend to break down along ideological lines (depending, I'm sure, on how the questions are phrased, but never mind about that).

Participants in these experiments are asked to describe their cultural beliefs. Some embrace new technology, authority and free enterprise. They are labeled the "individualistic" group. Others are suspicious of authority or of commerce and industry. Braman calls them "communitarians"....

The individualists tended to like nanotechnology. The communitarians generally viewed it as dangerous. Both groups made their decisions based on the same information.

"It doesn't matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information," Braman says.
Such is life. What's more interesting to me is why someone who embraces authority should be labeled "individualistic," given that this term tends to imply skepticism toward authority. (It's also funny that our nation's "individualists" tend to act collectively for their own common good, while our "communitarians" tend to be isolate and disorganized and unable to agree on the simplest propositions. What a world!)

Does this ideological divide explain the debate on global warming, where the individualistic group's views on "authority" and "new technology" tend to become a lot more negative, and the communitarian group's tend to become a lot more positive? Not really. But focusing on the tangential issue of nuclear power helps to obscure that little detail.
In another experiment, people read a United Nations study about the dangers of global warming. Then the researchers told the participants that the solution to global warming is to regulate industrial pollution. Many in the individualistic group then rejected the climate science. But when more nuclear power was offered as the solution, says Braman, "they said, you know, it turns out global warming is a serious problem."

And for the communitarians, climate danger seemed less serious if the only solution was more nuclear power.
I dunno. In my experience, "individualists" are more likely to say that if the goddamn hippies were really worried about AGW, they'd be willing to site reactors in national parks, bwahaha. And "communitarians" are more likely to reject the premise that nuclear is "the only solution" to AGW than the premise that AGW is dangerous. I don't doubt that these are the responses the researchers actually got (unless the journalist is describing their work inaccurately), but I do find it strange that the "typical" communitarian response is one I've never once encountered, despite decades of hobnobbing with communitarians (because the sex is so hot, if you must know). Surely you're not going to tell me at my time of life that the world is changing?

The larger problem here is that if you want to take a cold hard look at how ideology affects belief, you probably shouldn't start by uncritically accepting the idea that one group of Americans favors individualism and the other doesn't.

I hold this cultural belief to be self-evident: Individualism isn't a trait that's unique to one group of people, but a concept that's exalted when it's useful and condemned when it isn't, across the ideological spectrum, just like the concept of "community" is. Generally speaking, conservatives aren't anti-community per se, nor are they pro- or anti-authority per se. They're opportunists. As are people on the left, generally speaking, except that I prefer to think of them as "flexible."

Like all perceptive and good-hearted people, you knew this already. But here's something that may surprise you:
In relation to the climate change debate, this [research] suggests that some people may not listen to those whom they view as hard-core environmentalists.
We can only hope that these suggestive findings will encourage further research into the theory that America hates hippies. (But not, I hasten to add, into why; there are some things we were never meant to know.)

Meanwhile, what's to be done about the fact that we can all be cloth-eared fanatics when it suits our purposes?
"The goal can't be to create a kind of psychological house of mirrors so that people end up seeing exactly what you want," he argues. "The goal has to be to create an environment that allows them to be open-minded."
In other words, we must smash capitalism now, just like I keep saying! It's nice to see that scientists are finally catching on to what the rest of us have always known.

7 comments:

Southern Beale said...

Well that was certainly an interesting post. I think I need to read it again when I've had less wine to drink.

:-)

One thing I noticed is that there's no "mushy middle" here. You know, that group of coveted "independents" who always seem to dominate every election cycle. These researchers divided everyone into two neat groups. No "none of the above" among their subjects, I guess. How'd they do that?

Phila said...

These researchers divided everyone into two neat groups. No "none of the above" among their subjects, I guess. How'd they do that?

I suspect that's an artifact of sloppy journalism. When this kind of research is described in the press, there's an odd tendency to act as though the "typical" result is unanimous or otherwise definitive. It could be a matter of simply rewriting a press release, or misunderstanding the work, or both.

I doubt the actual study presents the data that way, though I haven't seen it myself.

Jazzbumpa said...

Well that was certainly an interesting post. I think I need to read it again when I've had wine to drink. Or possibly some Scotch. or maybe just be even more tired than I already am.

Anyway, my observation has been that people relate to scientific issues on the basis of political ideology.

Get someone's view on AGW, or stem cell research, or evolution, and you automatically get to know their view on torture, military tribunals to try terrorists, the public option for health care, and even who they voted for in the last presidential election.

This is anecdotal. I have not conducted a survey.

Phila said...


Get someone's view on AGW, or stem cell research, or evolution, and you automatically get to know their view on torture, military tribunals to try terrorists, the public option for health care, and even who they voted for in the last presidential election.


It's true, often. I remember that during one of our just wars -- IW I, maybe? -- I mentioned my opposition to bombing foreign capitals to someone, and she accused me of being a hypocrite because I didn't care about the babies who were being murdered in the Abortion Holocaust.

Believe it or not, I hadn't said a word about them.

Rmj said...

I suspect that's an artifact of sloppy journalism.

So much to say, so little space. Let me start with journamalism, i.e., stuff like this:

In another experiment, people read a United Nations study about the dangers of global warming. Then the researchers told the participants that the solution to global warming is to regulate industrial pollution. Many in the individualistic group then rejected the climate science.

"Many"? As in, the majority? 50% +1, or 90%, or 65%, or...what? I'm automatically suspicious of such statements. Call me a lawyer. Or a skeptic. Or a taxi, I must be going. Hello!

Then there is the problem of the labels. Or just the idea of such studies being "truth" because they are so science-y! Viz:

"It doesn't matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information," Braman says.

No shite, Sherlock! What was your first clue?! I've never encountered such a thing! What a fascinating insight!

No, it's not the critique such a study deserves (you started that better than I've done here), but I also respond to studies about "truth" with Pilate's question.

I know, I know, pre-Enlightenment thinking is suspect on historical grounds and not to be considered by all right thinking people, but: Mr. Braman, you mean to say people still disagree as to what "truth" is? Really? Why...how is that possible? When the whole of human history clearly shows otherwise?

Doesn't it?

Phila said...

I know, I know, pre-Enlightenment thinking is suspect on historical grounds and not to be considered by all right thinking people, but: Mr. Braman, you mean to say people still disagree as to what "truth" is? Really? Why...how is that possible? When the whole of human history clearly shows otherwise?

What we need to do is explain the value of being open-minded, again, louder and more slowly. Then, people will have to listen to us. It's just common sense!

Some people are just impossible, though. I hear the Mohammedans have 400 words for "infidel," and no word for "love."

Anonymous said...

At the risk of seeming like a frivolous and superficial person...

I was greatly gratified to see the face-off between Ceiling Cat and Basement Cat depicted here.

Cheers - Lars