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The Great Distraction

May 18, 2011

Looking back on my most recent posts, it seems as though political distractions have grown in aggressiveness, deliberateness and sophistication. Of course, distraction is a latent theme running through every single political debate or dialogue. It is endemic to democratic politics to believe that pursuing anyone else’s pet priority is an opportunity cost with insufficient returns to justify spending political energy or effort. It may be that I’m just rehashing old arguments in making this observation, as it’s the kind of thing that would be muttered by an archetypical grumpy old man while worrying about the fate of the world in the hands of the latest generation. However, I think we’re seeing something new here.

At the very least, what we’re seeing is unprecedented in terms of both scale and scope. Conspiracy theorists may have existed for centuries, but history has never provided them with the power of the Internet: infinite soapboxes and an unparalleled ability to coordinate and corroborate their ramblings. Thus, we get truthers and birthers and baggers who can all coordinate and orchestrate a controversy worthy of news coverage. What is more dastardly and diabolical is that there are people who are funding these animals, specifically so that they can galvanize and distract an electorate and provide political cover for the politicians who are being paid to advance policies advancing those oligarchs’ private interests.

David Koch hosts Birther-in-Chief Donald Trump

Whether it’s our willful ignorance of corporate robber barons, our inactivity in the face of corporate regulatory capture, or Goldman Sachs’ exploitation of our distraction, we seem to willfully ignore things that should be subject to some careful and thoughtful scrutiny. For intuitive reasons, average individuals just can’t get it up for every single issue that marginally affects them in our highly interconnected world. But because a broad consensus is most often needed to counterbalance the persistent concentrated efforts of individuals and industries who stand to benefit, America’s political acquiescence adds up to death by a thousand cuts.

I don’t think the belief that distraction is by design qualifies me as a “conspiracy theorist,” given that I don’t believe there are any rooms filled with men smoking cigars and plotting this whole thing from underneath the Empire State Building. No, if anything, I think the forces of the universe and human nature are the conspiring forces here. Forces such as capitalism, religion, politics, and even love animate the actions of individual humans, and express themselves in ways that encourage the embodied human to seek out their own selfish interest rather than some overall better end. Thus, our immediate human needs allow us to rationally ignore larger (more politically-oriented) problems we get collective action problems, dispersed costs and concentrated benefits, monopolistic modes of production, and every negative externality in between.

Indeed, in an age where attention is power, distraction seems to be a matter of design. Jeff Hammerbacher, of the Silicon intelligentsia said in an interview (h/t Craig):

The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.

The human faculty that may be at issue is the human (in-)capacity to reason. That is to say, we may have evolved the power to reason because it enabled us to argue, and the contours and limitations of human reasoning are thereby shaped by that goal. Though an appeal to truth is the desirable method of argument, sometimes easier, lazier, less rigorous methods may be used, depending on the judge.

Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, ‘The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions.’ It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

Such an explanation–that the cunning of reason only wants humans to win arguments, not find the Truth per se–makes intuitive sense, given the modern evidence of our political attention span. Savvy partisans can foist tribalistic considerations onto a debate to make people swerve away from a pursuit of the truth and on the path of a pursuit of the team victory. (I wrote about the phenomenon five years ago, but didn’t have this lovely evolutionary psychology angle that would have added nicely to an already overflowing thesis) The idea isn’t exactly new; philosophers have known for a long time through introspection alone that reasoning is easily infected by other considerations, and that cold rationality wasn’t always the most appealing argument. But now there’s neuroscience to the same effect, and a new generation of data points.

Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

This post may be hypocritical, question-begging, or self-fulfilling as it comes from someone who’s been distracted by life lately. And though I advocate the use of Twitter, the very etymological roots of which implies fleeting attention, it may be that part of what enables our tunnel vision is that we willingly constrain our communications to 140 character-long blocks and enable total pull of content to the detriment of what would otherwise be pushed at us. So, logically enough, it’s probably my own human preferences that motivate my own set of “rational” beliefs. But sometimes its worthwhile to force some arguments to trigger others’ desire to win them.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Aho permalink
    May 19, 2011 11:11 am

    Great post. It is absolutely right to suggest that corporate power will use the tools at it’s disposal to achieve it’s goals (in this case distraction and faux conspiracy). I would suggest that the terrible economy also plays a role in promoting conspiracy and demagoguery (see Father Coughlin).

    Unfortunately the institutions that might balance out the power of corporations and Wall Street, labor unions and government regulation, have weakened to the point that our political system is entirely out of balance.

    Of course, all of the above is probably just my own human preferences determining my “rational” beliefs. Political psychology is really fascinating, and I don’t think it gets enough attention.

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