Politics, Science

Tribal cognition: a few additional notes

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In response to my recent post on tribal cognition as a barrier to reason-based political deliberation, a reader draws my attention to a 2012 New York Times Op-Ed. in which Cass Sunstein proposes a theory very close to what I called “tribal cognition”:

In the face of entrenched social divisions, there’s a risk that presentations that carefully explore both sides will be counterproductive. And when a group, responding to false information, becomes more strident, efforts to correct the record may make things worse.

Can anything be done? There is no simple term for the answer, so let’s make one up: surprising validators.

People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss. People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, “how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,” but instead, “if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.”

It follows that turncoats, real or apparent, can be immensely persuasive. If civil rights leaders oppose affirmative action, or if well-known climate change skeptics say that they were wrong, people are more likely to change their views.

In fact, a recent interview at Vox with Stephan Lewandowsky, author of The Debunking Handbook, suggests that many psychologists have already embraced Sunstein’s proposal. That is, they recognize that the perceived political identity of both messenger and message can influence whether someone is receptive to an evidence-based argument. In other words, it appears that psychologists studying political communication already view “cultural cognition” and (what I called) “tribal cognition” as distinct, and recognize that both can play important roles in thwarting reason-based deliberation. (In fact, the idea that people will be more open to persuasion by experts they perceive as sharing their values already appears in the Kahan et al. “HPV Vaccine” article from 2008 — before the Sunstein Op-Ed.!)

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Politics, Science

Sources of political disagreement: “tribal cognition” versus “cultural cognition”

Free Photo: Balloon Test

Why does the presentation of persuasive evidence — even evidence of a scientific consensus — so often fail to resolve political debates? How is it, for example, that so much of the American public on the right refuses to accept the scientific consensus regarding the causes and risks of climate change?

For a while now, I’ve thought that Dan Kahan’s theory of “cultural cognition” offered the most persuasive answer to these questions. Kahan rejects the idea that the problem lies in Republicans’ lack of information about climate science. Offering more evidence isn’t going to resolve the issue at this point. It might even aggravate the problem.

Rather, Kahan offers empirical evidence that the Republican resistance to climate science is an example of a more general phenomenon: the human tendency to arrive at conclusions that are congenial to our cultural values, and to resist, dismiss, or attack conclusions that threaten our values and identities.

But the more I’ve learned about the specifics of the cultural cognition theory, the more I’ve felt like it leaves something out.

In this post, I’d like to propose a hypothesis that complements cultural cognition’s explanation for the frequent failures of evidence-based discussion to lead to increased agreement on politically charged issues. When I first heard about Kahan’s work, I thought that the theory I’m about to present was what he meant by “cultural cognition.” But as I’ve read more about his work, it’s become clear to me that the idea I have in mind is a distinct one.

I’ll call the hypothesis “tribal cognition.”

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If, Literature

Emily Short, interactive fiction, and If (a novel)

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When I finished writing If, a novel of ideas with a choice at the end of each chapter, I knew almost nothing about interactive fiction, other than that it existed and made a nice acronym. For anyone who shares my ignorance, “interactive fiction” does not refer to Choose Your Own Adventure-style novels with a choice at the end of every chapter. It refers to a thriving genre of often online text-based games where the player makes frequent choices by clicking on hyperlinks in the text. The hyperlinked choices may arrive every few sentences, or even every few words. After clicking on a link, new text appears based on the reader’s choices, leading to new choices, etc.

If you felt like it, you could go and write your own work of interactive fiction using Twine right now.

By contrast, novels with choices at the end of each section — like If, Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series — apparently aren’t usually called “interactive fiction” at all. As discussed in my interview with Joe Rositano, there’s no commonly accepted general term for this kind of work. Most people say “Choose Your Own Adventure novels,” even though that’s a trademarked term for a specific series of books. Rositano favors “choicefic.” Wikipedia uses the term “gamebook.”

So: I’ve never written a work of interactive fiction — and, to be honest, I still haven’t had a chance to finish reading one, either. But working on the publicity for If has made me increasingly aware of interactive fiction, which appears to be going through a kind of golden age right now. One of the leading writers (and organizers) responsible for that golden age is Emily Short, so I was delighted that she recently took the time to write a lengthy blog post on If.

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Philosophy

Academic philosophy: not a reason-based discipline?

Free Photo: Constructing a Tower

As a follow-up to this blog’s earlier posts critiquing the lack of methodological self-awareness in mainstream academic philosophy (that is, analytic philosophy and its descendants), I wanted to quote another skeptical remark from Marcus Arvan at The Philosophers’ Cocoon. The remark appears in Arvan’s post on The Sociology of Philosophy:

Could it be, then, that this is how philosophy sometimes/often progresses: by largely arbitrary snowball-effects in which (A) a few thought-experiments/intuitions by a few famous people, (B) attract a few followers, which then (C) attract more followers, which then (D) marginalize people who do not share the dominant intuitions, thereby (E) leading the dominant class to conceive themselves as making progress on the basis of good arguments when, in reality, (F) the correct explanation of that “progress” is the aforementioned snowball effect (i.e. a self-reinforcing system of people with the “right intuitions” dominating/marginalizing those with “the wrong intuitions”)?

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If, Literature

An interview about If at SeattleWrote

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The intrepid Norelle Done at SeattleWrote recently posted our interview about If. I feel like I’m finally getting a little better at describing what kind of book If tries to be — in a way that neither sets readers up for disappointment by making it sound more lighthearted-and-easy than it turns out to be, nor alienates readers by making it sound more experimental and challenging than it actually is. For example:

Q: In any case: why write a literary choose-your-own-path (or “choicefic,” or “gamebook”) novel?

A: Partly because it had never been done before. People have come close, but I wanted to write a piece of literature that’s as serious and literary as my favorite novels, while still using this format associated with children’s books. I’ve always been attracted to works of art that bring together the difficult and experimental with the simple and playful. Like the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth, Andy Warhol, Laura Riding Jackson, Borges. There are all sorts of strange ways that punk and surrealism and the avant-garde intersect with children’s literature and music. If tries to belong to that tradition. Continue reading

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