The depressing psychological theory that explains Washington

January 10

Dylan Matthews's "Five conservative reforms millennials should be fighting for" isn't just an admirably intricate piece of trolling. It's a perfect illustration of why you can't take Washington's policy debates at face value. You can't understand what's happened to Congress in recent years if you don't understand what Matthews did in that piece.


Objects in politics may be more distorted than they appear. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

A bit of background. On Jan. 3, Jesse Myerson published an article in Rolling Stone with the innocuous title "Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For." Myerson frames his agenda as an effort to do away with unemployment, jobs, landlords, private capital ownership and Wall Street. Those last four, as you might expect, made conservatives' heads explode.

"If you’re a Millennial who loves bread lines, prison camps, forced famines, and abject human misery, then you’ll love the latest offering from Rolling Stone," wrote the Federalist's Sean Davis.

But the policies Myerson advocates are rather less radical. His agenda, at its core, calls for a work guarantee, a basic minimum income, a land-value tax, a sovereign wealth fund and a public banking option. As Dylan Matthews noticed, all these policies that Republicans were labeling as socialism have been endorsed by major conservatives. So he rewrote Myerson's piece from the conservative point of view, advocating all the same policies but changing  those cited as authorities and those blamed for the state of the economy.

All of a sudden, conservatives liked the article, and liberals -- well, liberals didn't really like Dylan anymore. And they told him so in pretty offensive terms.

dylan tweet

Two articles both advocating the exact same policies. But one of them thrilled liberals and infuriated conservatives. The other infuriated liberals and thrilled conservatives.

Oftentimes when we think we're engaged in reasoned policy discussion we're actually engaged in complex efforts to rationalize the direction in which our tribal affiliations are pushing us. Psychologists call this motivated reasoning. And they've shown its power in laboratory settings again and again and again.

Geoffrey Cohen, a professor of psychology at Stanford, has shown how motivated reasoning can drive even the opinions of engaged partisans. In 2003, when he was an assistant professor at Yale, Cohen asked a group of undergraduates, who had previously described their political views as either very liberal or very conservative, to participate in a test to study, they were told, their “memory of everyday current events.”

The students were shown two articles: one was a generic news story; the other described a proposed welfare policy. The first article was a decoy; it was the students’ reactions to the second that interested Cohen. He was actually testing whether party identifications influence voters when they evaluate new policies. To find out, he produced multiple versions of the welfare article. Some students read about a program that was extremely generous—more generous, in fact, than any welfare policy that has ever existed in the United States—while others were presented with a very stingy proposal. But there was a twist: some versions of the article about the generous proposal portrayed it as being endorsed by Republican Party leaders; and some versions of the article about the meagre program described it as having Democratic support. The results showed that, “for both liberal and conservative participants, the effect of reference group information overrode that of policy content. If their party endorsed it, liberals supported even a harsh welfare program, and conservatives supported even a lavish one.”

In a subsequent study involving just self-described liberal students, Cohen gave half the group news stories that had accompanying Democratic endorsements and the other half news stories that did not. The students who didn’t get the endorsements preferred a more generous program. When they did get the endorsements, they went with their party, even if this meant embracing a meaner option.

Anyone who's been around Washington for long will recognize this pattern. In the 1990s, the individual mandate was a conservative idea that emphasized individual responsibility. But once Democrats adopted it, it became, to conservatives, an unconstitutional exercise in government coercion. During the Bush years, Republicans voted for deficit-financed stimulus bills. After Barack Obama became president, they decided the evidence against deficit-financed stimulus bills was overwhelmingly persuasive. During the Bush years, Democrats were deeply concerned about government surveillance, while Republicans were more comfortable with a powerful executive. In the Obama years, polls show Democrats far more comfortable with the National Security Agency's spying than Republicans.

Pew polls.
Pew polls.

In theory, the two parties represent distinct political philosophies, and those distinct political philosophies help shape their differing policy agendas. In recent years, there's been a lot of interesting work from psychologists arguing that the differences go even deeper than that: Democrats and Republicans intuitively respond to different underlying moral systems, and so their philosophies actually rest on something more fundamental than mere partisan affiliation.

The problem is that human beings are incredibly good at rationalizing their way to whatever conclusion their group wants them to reach. And most policies can be supported -- or opposed -- on many grounds. It's all about which parts people choose to emphasize. A conservative who emphasizes individual responsibility and loathes government coercion can find good reasons both to support and oppose the individual mandate. A liberal who believes both in security and civil liberties can decide to believe the FISA courts are an effective check on the NSA or totally insufficient. There are more than enough validators out there who're willing to arm a partisan with information for whatever conclusion they prefer. “Once group loyalties are engaged, you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments," political psychologist Jonathan Haidt once told me. "Thinking is mostly just rationalization, mostly just a search for supporting evidence.”

The beliefs that result aren't held cynically. They're held sincerely. And that's much more powerful. Even when people flip positions entirely, they believe they've done so because they've absorbed new evidence and changed their mind. What could be more honest than that? The fact that the transition aligned exactly with the changing interests of their party is just an interesting coincidence.

Worse, the world is complex, and very few of us can take the time to develop sound opinions on the vast range of issues that arise in Washington. Even if you're a health-care expert, the likelihood that you're also an expert on Chinese currency manipulation, and ethnic tensions in Syria, and prison policy, is pretty slim. So people end up relying on the authorities we trust, be they media figures, issue advocacy groups or politicians. But those validators aren't simply concerned with the truth. They're looking to get ratings, to fundraise, to maximize their influence, to get reelected, to retain standing among their peers. Their reasoning is motivated, too. But that's not how their followers see them.

The result is that much of politics takes the form of tribal fights that feel to the participants like high-minded policy debates. In that way, the only thing unusual about Dylan's piece was that the author knew what he was doing.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Sarah Kliff · January 10