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Paleolithic Politics

by Michael Shermer, Dec 06 2011

Has there ever been a time when the political process has been so bipartisan and divisive? Yes, actually, one has only to recall the rancorousness of the Bush-Gore or Bush-Kerry campaigns, harken back to the acrimonious campaigns of Nixon or Johnson, read historical accounts of the political carnage of both pre- and post-Civil War elections, or watch HBO’s John Adams series to relive in full period costuming the bipartite bitterness between the parties of Adams and Jefferson to realize just how myopic is our perspective.

We can go back even further into our ancestral past to understand why the political process is so tribal. But for the business attire donned in the marbled halls of congress we are a scant few steps removed from the bands and tribes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and a few more leaps afield from the hominid ancestors roaming together in small bands on the African savannah. There, in those long-gone millennia, were formed the family ties and social bonds that enabled our survival among predators who were faster, stronger, and deadlier than us. Unwavering loyalty to your fellow tribesmen was a signal that they could count on you when needed. Undying friendship with those in your group meant that they would reciprocate when the chips were down. Within-group amity was insurance against the between-group enmity that characterized our ancestral past. As Ben Franklin admonished his fellow revolutionaries, we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.

In this historical trajectory our group psychology evolved and along with it a propensity for xenophobia—in-group good, out-group bad. Thus it is that members of the other political party are not just wrong—they are evil and dangerous. Stray too far from the dogma of your own party and you risk being perceived as an outsider, an Other we may not be able to trust. Consistency in your beliefs is a signal to your fellow group members that you are not a wishy-washy, Namby Pamby, flip-flopper, and that I can count on you when needed.

This is why, for example, the political beliefs of members of each party are so easy to predict. Without even knowing you, I predict that if you are a liberal you read the New York Times, listen to NPR radio, watch CNN, hate George W. Bush and loathe Sarah Palin, are pro-choice, anti-gun, adhere to the separation of church and state, are in favor of universal healthcare, vote for measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich in order to level the playing field, and believe that global warming is real, human caused, and potentially disastrous for civilization if the government doesn’t do something dramatic and soon. By contrast, I predict that if you are a conservative you read the Wall Street Journal, listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News, love George W. Bush and venerate Sarah Palin, are pro-life, anti-gun control, believe that America is a Christian nation that should meld church and state, are against universal healthcare, vote against measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich, and are skeptical of global warming and/or government schemes to dramatically alter our economy in order to save civilization.

Research in cognitive psychology shows, for example, that once we commit to a belief we employ the confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirming evidence in support of it and ignore or rationalize away any disconfirming evidence. In one experiment subjects were presented with evidence that contradicted a belief they held deeply, and with evidence that supported those same beliefs. The results showed that the subjects recognized the validity of the confirming evidence but were skeptical of the value of the disconfirming evidence. The confirmation bias was poignantly on display during the run-up to the 2004 Bush-Kerry Presidential election when subjects had their brains scanned while assessing statements by both Bush and Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Half of the subjects were self-identified as “strong” Republicans and half “strong” Democrats. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own preferred candidate off the evaluative hook. The brain scans showed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—was quiet. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex that is involved in the processing of emotions, the anterior cingulate that is associated with conflict resolution, and the ventral striatum that is related to rewards.

In other words, reasoning with facts about the issues is quite secondary to the emotional power of first siding with your party and then employing your reason, intelligence, and education in the service of your political commitment.

Our political parties today evolved out of the Paleolithic parties of the past.

71 Responses to “Paleolithic Politics”

  1. MikeB says:

    I remember how stunned I was to learn about The Robbers Cave Experiment, as described by Steven Pinker in “The Blank Slate.”

    In the 1950s, boys of similar backgrounds were assigned randomly to separate groups. These groups were isolated while the in-group hierarchies formed. Then the groups were allow to “discover” each other–and they began spontaneously to “war.” The experimenters had to cut short the study.

    We really are in the grip of Paleolithic psychological mechanisms. Recognizing it, though, should give us a little hope.

    (I’m registered Independent.)

    • Ahh, sounds like Pinker (probably in the service of Pop Evolutionary Psychology, it’s been a long time since I read Blank Slate, and yes, it’s Pop Ev Psych indeed) tells an incomplete, partial version of Robbers’ Cave. The full reality is there were THREE different experiments, and experimenters themselves formed a third group in two of them.

      Actually, it’s not “paleolithic” at all, but, per Aristotle’s dictum about man being “a political animal,” or better translation, man being an “urbane” animal, or a creature of civilization, it’s about power politics and in-groups and out-groups.

  2. Kevin Alexander says:

    Was the Robbers Cave experiment done before or after Golding wrote The Lord of the Flies?

  3. Max says:

    “In one experiment subjects were presented with evidence that contradicted a belief they held deeply, and with evidence that supported those same beliefs. The results showed that the subjects recognized the validity of the confirming evidence but were skeptical of the value of the disconfirming evidence.”

    Uh huh, like being skeptical of evidence that homeopathy works, or recognizing the validity of brain scans confirming your beliefs about confirmation bias.
    Was any of this research done by Diederik Stapel, the psychology professor who admitted that he made stuff up?

  4. Mark O'Leary says:

    I think you meant to say “partisan,” not “bipartisan.”

  5. mcb says:

    What of those of us who review news and opinion offered by a wide variety of outlets, who deliberately listen to those promoting perspectives with which we disagree, who are pro-choice and pro-gun, who don’t mind spending tax dollars for the benefit of all but realize that America is essentially bankrupt, who regard Bush as one of the worst presidents in the history of the republic and thinks that Obama is severely overrated, who are atheists but not angry about it? It’s easy to imagine there was no such thing as independent politics or free thinking in paleolithic societies, but I wonder where it comes from now?

    • tmac57 says:

      Have you been contacted by Professor Xavier yet?

    • Nyar says:

      You might be a good candidate to become a Dividist. We can pit ambition against ambition in order to limit the power of the two major tribes.

    • Gwenny says:

      Ah, good to see I’m not the only one! I subscribe to news from 12 different countries, 2 from each taking the most conservative and the most liberal. And add, which might not be true for you, I don’t believe the current dialogues about global warming. I think it’s more complex than they are trying to get us to believe, with natural cycles thrown in, and I think we should be adapting not trying to stop it.

      Really glad to see someone else who doesn’t fit the liberal/conservative split.

      • tmac57 says:

        What science source are you getting your information from concerning global warming? Note that I specified ‘science source’,as there are many editorial pieces done on the subject,that are not written by actual scientists.

  6. Trimegistus says:

    Excellent post! It’s been depressingly obvious for years now that political beliefs are more about group identity (and status-seeking within the group) than about what’s true, right, or best for the country.

    If my comments on this blog sometimes appear testy or shrill, it’s because I find it especially disheartening to see self-described skeptics falling into this way of thinking, fully convinced that they’re rational and disinterested.

    • Somite says:

      You only think that when the facts disagree with your personal ideology.

    • tmac57 says:

      From the context of your comment,one would get the impression that you consider yourself free of these kind of influences.

    • Somite says:

      Why does this pseudo-criticism keep propping up? The simple difference is in trying to use sources of facts like peer reviewed research or appropriate experts as opposed to ideological blogs or your favorite think tank.

    • itzac says:

      I learned when I was young that everybody poops.

    • mcb says:

      If you’re proposing that most self-declared skeptics disdain right-wing “woo,” conservatism, and left-wing “woo,” but not liberalism, I’m not sure I’d disagree. If true, then an interesting question is whether skeptics have a confirmation bias around both liberalism or only the value or depth of their skepticism? And how shall we recognize our own cognitive bias, especially if it congruent with the truth?

      • Somite says:

        Exactly a cognitive bias towards the truth and science is not a cognitive bias.

        Also consider that this libertarian and conservative BS in skepticism is unprecedented. The founding members of skepticism like Isaac Asimov, Sagan, Randi and Clarke were all atheist liberal humanists and would be saddened by the trend of using skepticism to promote (irrational) libertarian and conservative ideologies and their accompanying science denial.

    • The snarkily referenced “self-described skeptics” being those who disagree with you politically?

      What comes around goes around, dude.

  7. Somite says: leave out the small detail that liberalism is also associated with a willingness to accept facts based on reality. Yes. “Reality has a well-known liberal bias”.

    If you compare liberal and conservative ideologies, liberals are closer to reality and progress by a wide margin. In my opinion your ideology should be beside the point as long as you accept fact. A simple feats conservatives seem unable to do.

    • Trimegistus says:

      I can’t think of a better example of what Dr. Shermer is talking about.

    • Somite says:

      But this is why this talk of psychological inclinations is not very useful. It appears to be an attempt to whitewash the irrationality and extremism of the right.

      I prefer studies that objectively measure what ideology is more beneficial and closer to reality.

      • Trimegistus says:

        Let’s see . . . “closer to reality?”

        Would that be the liberals who ignore the law of supply and demand? Or the liberals who opposed vaccination? How about the liberals who oppose nuclear power? Or the liberals who ignore basic arithmetic in their budget proposals?

        They’re much closer to reality than those crackpot Republicans!

      • Somite says:

        We’ve been through this before. You can find examples of a self-identified liberal that will believe those things you mention (although some are debatable). However, only in the GOP will you find presidential candidates promoting anti-vaccination and creationism.

      • Max says:

        I think during the foreign policy debate, the candidates were asked when they would go against the advice of the Generals. Rick Santorum answered that he wouldn’t have to because he’d have clear policies and would surround himself with people who agree with him. What a recipe for groupthink.

        Rick Perry’s administration censored a report on the Gulf Coast environment because it contained “information… that we disagree with,” and was “inconsistent with current Agency policy.” They replaced the words sea level rise with sea level change, WTF?

        And Herman Cain must’ve been inspired by the Simpsons Movie when he said, “We need a leader, not a reader.”

      • Speaking of ignoring the law of supply and demand.

        I am always amused & irked when a merchant inflicts some inconvenience upon me (like GLUING stickers to organic fruit) and tries to justify it by claiming that it reduces his cost and through that it lowers the price I pay.

        According to modern economics his cost doesn’t affect the price of his goods. Price is set by supply and demand – cost affects his profit.

        I guess it is harder for him to get customers to happily accept inconveniences for his profit’s sake – even if it means ignoring the law of supply and demand!

  8. Wesley Goodford says:

    >I predict that if you are a liberal …
    Unfortunately for your piece of demagoguery many of the things you list aren’t universally held onto by liberals, while some of the others have perfectly valid reasons outside of political ideology. To say that liberals adhere to (many of) these things because they are so tribal is very dishonest.
    >you read the New York Times, listen to NPR radio
    (Won’t comment, I’m not sufficiently knowledgable about radio and the papers.)
    >watch CNN
    The main alternatives for that kind of coverage are Fox and the Beeb. The former is obviously too biased and the latter often skips local American (as opposed to international) news.
    >hate George W. Bush and loathe Sarah Palin
    Do we even need to go here? Especially in the case of Sarah Palin who is a creationist *and* an anti-vaxxer?
    >are pro-choice
    Because the science tells us that early embryos aren’t people (yet).
    There’s a difference between being an anti-gun extremist and favouring gun control. You don’t want one-man armies walking about, especially not if they get unhinged.
    >adhere to the separation of church and state
    This used to be a bipartisan credo, you know.
    >are in favor of universal healthcare
    Because the science tells us that need for healthcare is highly stochastical and ‘lumpy’ (not hitting everyone equally).
    >vote for measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich in order to level the playing field
    Not in order to level the playing field per se in an economic sense, but to make a start at trying do counter the undemocratic power that money inevitably brings.
    >and believe that global warming is real, human caused, and potentially disastrous for civilization if the government doesn’t do something dramatic and soon.
    Because that is what the science tells us.

    >we employ the confirmation bias
    Wrong. Almost no one *employs* confirmation bias; as a rule people are victims of it.
    I have come across the brain scan study before; it doesn’t show what you think it shows, and although it does point towards unhealthy partisanship (for which the candidates were selected) it tells us nothing about confirmation bias. And the main reason that the reasoning bits of the brain didn’t light up in the scans was that the subjects were given almost nothing to reason about; the statements to be judged were emotional in nature.

    >Our political parties today evolved out of the Paleolithic parties of the past.
    If you had studied the recent history of American politics, you had known that given the huge and relatively recent political upheaval, the current political parties can hardly be said to have evolved into what they are now. Rather, there has been a sudden shift in the whole political landscape and to say that this all is just a continuation of the first ape throwing his stool at the next is ludicrous.

  9. Janet Camp says:

    Thank you Mr. Goodford. This is the worst thing Shermer has ever written. His argument is as nothing more than a false dichotomy and his grasp of Anthropology is shaky at best. I have to credit him with waking up the skeptic in me, but this is disappointing in the extreme and is best used as an example of exactly what he writes about.

    I will continue to base my political stances on the facts, as supported by science and I don’t see that convinceing me to pull the “R” lever any time soon. Nor will it get me to vote for democrats such as Tom Harkin who avidly promote quackery unless my only other choice is the likes of Sarah Palin.

  10. Max says:

    When Obama was on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and the audience was full of his fans, there were no Obama jokes. Leno only joked about Republican candidates and said, “Always know your audience.”

  11. Beelzebud says:

    Politics isn’t science. Once you figure that out, maybe you can go on to being a skeptic again.

    • Max says:

      Social psychology is supposed to be a science, but read about Diederik Stapel.

      “The scandal, involving about a decade of work, is the latest in a string of embarrassments in a field that critics and statisticians say badly needs to overhaul how it treats research results. In recent years, psychologists have reported a raft of findings on race biases, brain imaging and even extrasensory perception that have not stood up to scrutiny. Outright fraud may be rare, these experts say, but they contend that Dr. Stapel took advantage of a system that allows researchers to operate in near secrecy and massage data to find what they want to find, without much fear of being challenged.”

  12. MadScientist says:

    *yawn* I’ve seen better Tarot readings of “liberals”.

  13. BillG says:

    Shermer, why drag science through the pig shit of politics? Regardless, the “tribal” biases should be the US Constitution and country en-masse.

  14. d brown says:

    “The True Believer”: by Eric Hoffer explaines most of what’s going on. And it’s nothing new.
    As in “…The primitive simplicity of their minds renders them more easy victims of a big lie than a small one…
    …Such a form of lying would never enter their heads. They would never credit others with the possibility of such great impudence as the complete reversal of facts. Even explanations would long leave them in doubt and hesitation, and any trifling reason would dispose them to accept a thing as true.
    Something therefore always remains and sticks from the most imprudent of lies, a fact which all bodies and individuals concerned in the art of lying in this world know only too well, and therefore they stop at nothing to achieve this end.”
    ~ Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

  15. John Draeger says:

    The predictions about liberal vs. conservative do not apply in WI regarding gun control because our culture favors deer hunting as a social event, to control agricultural damage, to prevent vehicle collisions, to protect ecosystems, and to increase the health of the deer herd. The progressives I know are gun owners and are in support of legislation for the protection of their right to do so. Most of them do not, however, favor the extreme position of the NRA.

    The use of labels such as liberal, conservative, libertarian are problematic because freethinkers do not fit the stereotype of those categories. I hope Mr. Shermer will stop using such labels in blog posts here in the future; they only serve to divide skeptics.

    • Dredge says:

      But sceptics will always be divided, that’s our nature, we are only united in our doubt, which we wear like “shield of steel” (apoligies to Batfink).

  16. Daniel Roberts says:

    Of course confirmation bias exists. It is a useful argumentative tool without which we could engage no action when action is required in the absence of full information – which is the case in most of life’s endeavors. Particularly in politics, we must act on preponderance of evidence, for there is no way to obtain scientific validation for most of the issues and their solutions. Still, a course of action is needed and a conclusion must, therefore, be drawn albeit with incomplete data.

    In a democracy, if Group A and Group B have diverging opinions, then they must use confirmation bias to argue their points of view, just as opposing attorneys do in a court of law, with the voters, of course, acting as jury. This leaves usually around 5 to 10 per cent of the motivated active electorate to vote independently thus becoming the true deciders. Very few indeed. And all aided by preponderance of evidence espoused by arguments based on confirmation bias.

    Skeptics must be on guard against the very same things they profess to combat. I believe that one of the pitfalls of crass skepticism is paralysis brought about by the inability to act without full information. Another, less obvious, is the “scientific bias” which tends to accept all too easily notions that come from the scientific community just because they are the scientific community. In my book, “The Evolution Solution” I warn against the pitfalls of notions that have found their way into our collective mind and have remained unquestioned for generations. A false idea remains false without regard to how long it has been held – even while being upheld by the scientists of the day.

  17. Vince says:

    To: another point of view: until the second trimester, the fetuses does not have the brain waves typical of adult thought. It cannot thInk. Coincidentally it is unviable outside the womb. Until then it is more like some living organs without ‘human’ thought. After the second trimester it’s brain has developed and it shouldnt be aborted. No god breathes life into it as you rhetorically state….

  18. Vince says:

    To: another point of view: health care will be needed by everyone eventually ,on some level, at some time in their life, not by some ‘ random person’. The fact ( accounting, real data) of the matter is a public system gives the best value. The private system of the USA costs the most(makes insurance companies and private clinics rich) and only helps a select few. In Canada I pay $60 per month. That’s it, no deductible . Doesnt the USA system cost the most on our planet yet rated near the bottom (38th) for effectiveness?

    • If we consider the threat to national security of plagues and pandemics, a strong case can be made for instituting a national healthcare system. ‘Free’ for all just as are the freeways (which are part of national defense btw).

      Q: Why should *I* pay for some illegal alien’s healthcare?
      A: Because s/he may be handling your food.

      I am afraid that modern nations must succumb to socialism or perish: humanity is too intertwined for us to be Libertarian. OTOH: a plague that wipes out 99.999% of humans might make Libertarianism viable – for the survivors.

      • Nyar says:

        Well, I am certainly convinced. You have made an exceptionally rational argument for socialism. Succumb or Perish! LOL Alrighty then.

  19. Tony Castleberry says:

    I have problems with this article. For starters, saying you can “predict” that Liberals will(mostly?) subscribe to Liberal ideas(re: Pro-choice, equal rights etc.) and that Conservatives will(mostly?) subscribe to Conservative ideas is a bit…well, stupid to be honest. Irrelevant conclusions at best.

    Also this article reeks of a very common and seriously flawed idea that both the “Liberal” and “Conservative” positions are on equal footing in terms of who is right or wrong about any given issue and therefore anyone declaring themselves to be “Liberal” or “Conservative” is equally in danger of confirmation bias.

    Like it or not, reality does not work the way people wish to believe it works. Climate change is real. Evolution is fact. Our progressive tax system, in which the wealthy are taxed more in accordance with the amount of wealth they take in, is necessary for the wealthy to achieve and maintain their wealth. These are truths that Liberals subscribe to BECAUSE they are true…not because they are Liberal.
    Likewise there are some problems with our legal system(s) that lead to great injustice because we have nonsensical clauses like the “double jeopardy” clause which allow people who are unquestionably guilty of heinous crimes to walk free because certain defense attorneys believe they are supporting some greater goal. And people like myself do not agree with the above because we are “Conservative”(I am NOT Conservative by any stretch) but instead because it is true(or at least seems so from as unbiased a stance as I can maintain).
    Most of the time truth tends to fall on the Liberal side in these debates, not because of “confirmation bias” or partisanship but simply because that is where the evidence places it. Because Liberalism by it’s nature requires deeper thinking than the simpler ideas that even people with a 5th grade education can immediately grasp(i.e. ideas that racial minorities are ‘lazier’ or more likely to commit rape and theft and such or that violent entertainment leads to violent crime etc.). This is not to say that there are not insane and completely wrong(on some or many issues) Liberals. There ARE! The conspiracy theorists(including the “Free Mumia Abu Jamal!” crowd as well as the JFK CT-ists and 9-11 “truth” guys) are an obvious example and the “alternative health” advocates are another.

    I will stop there…

    • Somite says:

      “Also this article reeks of a very common and seriously flawed idea that both the “Liberal” and “Conservative” positions are on equal footing in terms of who is right or wrong about any given issue and therefore anyone declaring themselves to be “Liberal” or “Conservative” is equally in danger of confirmation bias.”

      I am keeping this sentence for future use if you don’t mind!

  20. Steve C. says:

    Mr. Shermer not so subtly promotes a false equivalency between the right and the left. This is a typical approach of the right when they have no rational argument to contest many of the positions of the left. Most of these positions are simply those principles enacted into law under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson. They worked well and helped produce a vibrant middle class for this nation. Since the Reagan presidency, the right has moved to quash these advances and return us to the laws that governed our land during the age of the robber barrens. It was a bad system for the vast majority of Americans back then. It would be horrible for most of us today.

  21. Canman says:

    I think that a lot of skeptics have an antimarket bias because they spend a lot of their time studying rubes getting fleeced by sleezy con men. This certainly is a problem, but it is only a small part of markets. A sociopth can certianly do damage as a salesman, but he can also do damage as a bureaucrat or elected official. Regulations can fight fraud, but so too can markets with things such as skeptic magazines.

    • Max says:

      Rubes don’t read skeptic magazines. What made Power Balance go bankrupt, the market or regulators?

    • Canman says:

      The Wikipedia article on Power Balance says that “chiropractic” researchers did double blind trials finding them no more effective then placebos.

      It looks like a pretty transparent fraud. Should it be banne? What’s next? Chiropracters? Organic gardining? Whitley Strieber? I would prefer to see it laughed out of the market.

  22. Tommy Sewall says:

    Having been born in the “Sputnik” era of politically-driven science, I felt we (the US, in particular) were advancing at an exciting pace in the 60’s and 70’s. During my primary and secondary education our presidents spanned from Kennedy (Kindergarten) through Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. During my college years science, math, and engineering still were exciting and accentuated by the rapid development of molecular biology and phenomenal advances in technology. We were, however we were seeing double-digit inflation during the Carter administration. During the Reagan and GHW Bush eras I was able to compete a MS and PhD without going into debt and authored a dozen or so peer-reviewed papers in the field of cell biology. During the Clinton administration, I lost three months of salary because of federal audits putting basic research programs on hold. I’ve been teaching high school physics and chemistry since then (17 years). Guess what? A really large number of science teachers coming from our current education programs can’t pass the physics and chemistry sections of our state teacher certification program (Texas). I’m still excited about science but it appears to me that academic interests are being sucked down a giant toilet bowl which swirls both right and left. President Obama is at least studying the effects of “no child pushed ahead…excuse me, no child left behind” before its re-approval. Sorry! I am biased on this area.

    On the history of politics in Texas; G. Bush was elected governor, in my opinion (and a lot of others), for the specific reason that Governor Richards caved and failed to approve a bipartisan concealed handgun carry license law in Texas. Bush signed it and proceeded to do nothing else right except leave the state. Our neighbors in Arkansas said the same about Clinton. Perry became governor when Bush ran for president and, up until a few months ago seemed to only want to become president of Texas A&M University (reference the removal of Dr. Murano and others). Does this follow chaos theory closely enough?

    Its not your tribe that gets you elected; its your fellow patients at the asylum. I’m skeptical of ALL politicians.

  23. WTF? Shermer disappointed me.

    I thought this was going to be a Ron Paul campaign commercial or something, talking about the libertarian rising above the Paleolithic.

    Really, Shermer, you’re slipping.

    • Beelzebud says:

      At least he hasn’t done a post declaring that “Taxation is Violence” yet. That seems to be the “flavor of the year” talking point for libertarians these days.

      • tmac57 says:

        He’s come mighty close:

        “It is none of the government’s business who I choose to help and give aid and charity to, and I find it deeply morally repugnant that bureaucratic agencies have the legal right to confiscate my wealth through force or the threat of force (taxes), launder my money and waste most of it to run the government organizations that process my money (with dollops allocated for paying for bridges to nowhere and prostitutes for politicians), and redistribute it to people who I do not know. ”

        (From his ‘The Other ‘L’ Word: Why I am a Libertarian ‘

      • Beelzebud says:

        Yeah that’s the same language, he just used “force” instead of “violence”. Disregard my post, he’s already gone there…

      • tmac57 says:

        You might also note the strawman argument that he used in the above quote.

      • Somite says:

        It appears Shermer believes he conjured his wealth out of the vacuum. Why is it so hard to understand that any wealth created by individuals happened in the environment created and society by governments and nations.

  24. Insightful Ape says:

    Liberals watch CNN? That’s news to me (no pun intended).

  25. Chris Howard says:

    I use a little CBT when watching political debates. I try to assess my physiological, and emotional reaction to a message, and then attempt to compensate accordingly.
    I’m liberal, so I tend to notice that my “skepticism” automatically kicks in when conservatives start speaking. I tend not to listen to try to understand, but rather to find weaknesses in the claims. This would be all well and good, except that I, as Dr. Shermer pointed out, tend not to do this with liberal arguments.
    Liberal arguments lead to feelings of contentment, having someone else “validate” my preconceived notions. Happiness fills me as I am reassured that I am not alone. Maybe the early Greek philosophers were correct? Perhaps we should simply live in communities of like-minded individuals, don’t bother with politics. We, kind of, do this already.
    What helps me with my emotional responses to political information, and the tendency to demonize “The Other” is a collage above my desk.
    The collage has faces of family, and friends, and a small strip of paper that states religious belief, political orientation, sexual orientation etc. So when I’m on the cusp of being a complete block head, and writing something like “All republicans are a bunch of ‘x’ ” I look at the board, find a loved one who is a republican, sigh, and think of Daniel Loxtons smiling face reminding me to not be a dick.
    Then I grumble something under my breath, like “Yargle, blargle, robbel, robbel!” look out the window, and yell at the neighbor kid to “Get the Hell of my lawn!” He doesn’t belong to my tribe.

    • tmac57 says:

      Although I am more liberal by nature,I can easily listen to conservatives talk without getting upset,as long as they are using facts,logic,and a polite demeanor.What gets my hackles up is the use of ad hominems,demagoguery,lies (obviously),and rude and agressive rhetoric.It’s the difference that you get from listening to an interview with a conservative on the Diane Rehm show,on NPR,vs the talking heads on Fox opinion shows.I will hasten to add that I don’t appreciate that negative kind of behavior,regardless of the political ideology.I want to be informed,not fed propaganda.

  26. Dan says:

    Not to disagree with the article, but too much focus on historical causes can blind us to the existence of archetypal philosophical differences which likely will manifest again and again wherever there is individual consciousness and separate wills. Issues of weaponry, choice, rights of the individual vs. the collective, etc. are bound to stir up divisiveness inherently, and it seems logical to expect that divisiveness eternally and universally, regardless of the contingencies of how the debaters came to be. Again, I’m not disputing anything the blog said pertaining to confirmation bias, in-vs-out-group dynamics and other conditioning aspects, but I think too much focus on these aspects might lead us to believe we can solve difficult disagreements if we can just unravel and re-design our inherited flaws. The difficulty lies not just in the flaws of the subjects approaching the debates, but also in the complex, often paradoxical nature of the objects being debated.

  27. d brown says:

    I am not a Liberal. But there is no doubt that the conservative/libertarian/ R/W is sabotaging the country so voters will turn to them. All you have to do is look. But money mixes up the voters on who made this mess and who is trying to fix it. Liberals once backed unions and the working man. When they stopped they lost their guts.

  28. Phea says:

    I’m an Independent, and fall into both right and left camps with my political views. Many get actively involved in politics like they would any other “cause”. There’s a very disturbing, ugly thread that runs through virtually every cause I’ve run across, and politics is far from being an exception. That thread is hate. One of the nasty side benefits of taking up a cause is it seems to legitimize the spewing of hate, that under other circumstances wouldn’t be tolerated. No matter which side of the political spectrum you might fall on, be a good skeptic and always remember: The ambition that drives a person to seek political office should often disqualify them from holding it.

    • Beelzebud says:

      I think that would be more a statement of a cynic than a skeptic. A skeptic doesn’t mean you’re a pessimist who doubts everything and everyone…

      • Phea says:

        My opinions are based on my personal experiences and observations. If yours have been different, I’m very happy for you. I’m not going to try and convince you that politicians often do not have your, best interests in mind anymore than I’d try to convince you god doesn’t.

  29. ManOutOfTime says:

    It is decidedly convenient then that my prejuduced affiliation is with the side that is always right.

  30. Miles says:

    Another great post Michael. And I am once again late to the party (but I always get here eventually). I’d be interested to see some experiments that try to evaluate how much deeper confirmation bias goes, once we start believing in the scientific validity of an idea. Do you know of anything like this ever attempted? It seems to me that confirmation bias goes through the roof once science is invoked to support one side or another.