Politics, Science

Tribal cognition: a few additional notes

Free Photo: Tobacco Flower

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.!)

Still, the back-and-forth over the previous post has led to a few additional thoughts…


First, Lewandowsky mentions several tools for facilitating reason-based deliberation on politically charged topics, rather than focusing only on cultural or tribal cognition. I’d like to summarize Lewandowsky’s methods, as a way of putting the previous post in a broader context: (1) prime the deliberative pump by affirming the validity of the interlocutor’s worldview and identity, so that she feels secure rather than under attack; (2) present information, to the extent possible, in a way that does not conflict with or threaten the interlocutor’s worldview or identity (this is the factor that “cultural cognition” primarily focuses on); (3) actually present good information, that is, good reasons for believing what one wants the interlocutor to believe (this is the factor that the information-deficit model used to focus on — good old reason-based deliberation!); (4) rather than focusing on criticism of the interlocutor’s existing beliefs, focus on providing more persuasive alternative explanations and beliefs; and (5) if possible, have the message come from a messenger that the interlocutor perceives as belonging to her own political group — “You get a liberal to talk to liberals and a conservative to talk to conservatives.” This final point was my focus in the “tribal cognition” post.

The potential effectiveness of these combined techniques is handily illustrated by Nancy Jackson’s Climate and Energy Project in Kansas — a project that, to my surprise, does not appear to have received much (any?) attention in the science communication scholarship. Jackson persuaded a number of towns in the heartland of climate science skepticism to adopt innovative measures for reducing their fossil fuel emissions. She did so by: (1) beginning with focus groups that affirmed the worldviews of the residents; (2) presenting the measures not as an environmentalist response to climate science, but as expressions of “thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity”; (3) providing solid scientific expertise where useful; (4) not attempting to dissuade anyone of their climate change skepticism, but instead focusing on alternative reasons for reducing the use of fossil fuels; and (5) recruiting local civic leaders and ministers as messengers (rather than Al Gore: “‘… don’t mention Al Gore. People out here just hate him.'”).

Just like the story of the Regional Climate Change Compact in Southeast Florida, the story of the Climate and Energy Project in Kansas seems ripe for use as an illustrative anecdote in discussions of political communication about climate change.


Second, another reader notes that there’s an interesting overlap between the idea of tribal cognition and debates over what it means to have a political voice and to be represented in an institution.

Many of us have an inherited the modern, Enlightenment ideal that the identity of a speaker should not matter in deliberation. We even have a pejorative label for the attempt to evaluate an argument based on the qualities of its speaker: the ad hominem fallacy. And obviously it is true that the truth of an argument does not generally depend on who is making it, and it would be a mistake to assume the contrary.

But there are situations in which we carve out exceptions to the ideal that reasoning and deliberation should be conducted as though behind a veil of ignorance about speaker identity, based purely on universal, disembodied rational standards. For example, when part of an argument depends on personal experience, or relates to the speaker’s authority based on her experiences, we may defer to the speaker’s authority based on who the speaker is and who we are, just as many people agree that there are certain things members of a group can say to one another (even certain words) that outsiders definitely should not say. Partly for this reason, we also recognize the importance of diversity in our institutions. It is no doubt valuable for those in positions of power to attempt to give voice to excluded groups through exercises in empathy. But inclusion of members of a group in positions of power is of course the most reliable way to bring in their voices.

Interestingly, Foucault argued toward the end of his life that the Ancient Greeks may not have shared our assumption of a strict division between the truth of an argument and the character of a person — as illustrated in the Greek notion of parrhesia:

I should note that I never found any texts in ancient Greek culture where the parrhesiastes seems to have any doubts about his own possession of the truth. And indeed, that is the difference between the Cartesian problem and the Parrhesiastic attitude. For before Descartes obtains indubitable clear and distinct evidence, he is not certain that what he believes is, in fact, true. In the Greek conception of parrhesia, however, there does not seem to be a problem about the acquisition of the truth since such truth-having is guaranteed by the possession of certain moral qualities: when someone has certain moral qualities, then that is the proof that he has access to truth—and vice-versa. The “parrhesiastic game” presupposes that the parrhesiastes is someone who has the moral qualities which are required, first, to know the truth, and secondly, to convey such truth to others.

I’m not sure where to go with this line of thought. Generally speaking, since the Enlightenment, our political deliberative ideals have involved universal standards of reason — a rejection of the significance of tribe. The notion of tribal cognition goes against the grain of this Enlightenment ideal, just as, more generally, the panoply of biases identified by psychologists in recent years threaten our self-conception as rational decisionmakers. By taking seriously the importance of tribal identity to reasoning, the idea of tribal cognition would join the continually growing tide of scholarship by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and others, emphasizing the (often lamentable) centrality of tribal identifications to human culture.

I suppose we could keep striving for the Enlightenment ideals, and assuming that reason itself is universal, disembodied, and ahistorical, while recognizing that our deep-rooted tendency to make sense of the world on a tribal basis presents a great obstacle to these goals. That would be one option. Might there be other options, other conceptions of politics and reason — including ones that do not involve embracing the illiberalism of Carl Schmitt?


Third and finally, some more general thoughts about tribes and social science. These are very scattered, preliminary thoughts, even by the standards of this blog, but I hope they might provoke responses and lead to clearer, more developed thoughts later on.

After learning more about the theory of cultural cognition, I was surprised that it relies on Mary Douglas’ categorization of worldviews along two axes: from individualistic to communitarian, and from hierarchist to egalitarian. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “spatial models” generally, and in particular the idea that ideological positions are usefully described as existing on a spectrum from left to right. I wonder whether such models sometimes obscure historical contingency, and thus obscure possibilities for historical change. This isn’t to say the models can’t be useful for helping to predict and control human behavior — the proper goal of any human science. When the human behavior under investigation has a limited enough geographic and temporal scope, a spatial model with one or two dimensions may be all you need.

But I find it interesting to consider historically how a certain policy position ended up where it did in a spatial model. Or, to phrase the question in tribal terms, how a certain policy position ended up the preference of a certain tribe.

Why did Jackson’s supporters in 1828 oppose a national bank and paper currency? Why did so many Republican voters after the financial crisis support fiscal austerity and even a tight monetary policy? Why do certain tribes throughout American history support the gold standard? And why isn’t there a party today that vocally supports a weak dollar?

If the theory of tribal cognition is correct, then once an overwhelming majority of the members of a tribe express a policy preference, the association of the tribe with the preference will have a tendency to become self-perpetuating. Any newcomers to the issue who identify themselves as members of the tribe will tend to adopt the tribe’s preference on the issue, based on what other members of the tribe are already saying; and these newcomers will then go on to reinforce the association between the tribe and the preference by expressing the preference as their own. To an observer arriving on the scene after a position has become associated with a tribe, it may appear as though the two go together naturally.

But how do various policy positions get associated with various tribes in the first place?

It might be assumed that various policies naturally locate themselves somewhere on a left-right spectrum, perhaps based on who benefits (“left” for policies primarily benefiting those with little, no, or negative wealth, “right” for policies primarily benefiting those with greater wealth). But I wonder whether this is an illusion. For one thing, there is often legitimate disagreement among experts about who will benefit from a policy, especially a macroeconomic policy. For another, even where there is little or no legitimate disagreement, voters may still not agree about what is in their economic best interests. Who has time to study economic policy? Certainly, most Republican voters do not seem to view themselves as supporting policies that favor the wealthiest of the wealthy at the expense of struggling workers. They view themselves as supporting policies that create jobs. This is something that has always troubled me about Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? — the idea that the conservative movement soared to power over the last three decades through a bait-and-switch, offering what their voters wanted during campaigns (cultural bait like abortion restrictions, gun rights, and gay marriage bans) and then, once in office, focusing on conservative economic policies that their voters didn’t really want (like the privatization of Social Security). This could probably be criticized as a caricature of Frank’s argument, but I think it’s what many readers took away from the Harper’s article and the subsequent book. I think it overlooks that many Republican voters may passionately believe in the job-creating benefits of conservative economic policies, even if liberals believe they shouldn’t. What if many Republican voters want these policies as much as they want to outlaw abortion?

I suppose my general interest, in line with various other threads on this blog, is to question whether spatial models in social science have given adequate attention to issues of meaning and interpretation in their analyses. (Yes, meaning and interpretation — the province of the humanities!) How does a given policy end up getting interpreted by the public as having a conservative or liberal meaning? Could it be that explaining how various policies ended up associated with various political groupings is best done by analyzing the histories of the tribes making up the groupings, rather than simply locating the policies and the groupings in an ahistorical ideological model?

For example: is the opposition to welfare policies on the American “right” an artifact of American racial politics? Why can’t a welfare state be a conservative policy? A welfare state is pro-family, pro-work. It’s even paternalistic, and conservatism is supposed to be paternalistic, right? (Everyone knows that Hitler’s National Socialists supported generous welfare policies, and they were certainly right-wing, weren’t they?) As I noted in the last post, some far-right parties in Europe are embracing welfare benefits (for the natives) once again. So: if the welfare state can be a policy of the right, then what kind of explanatory power does the left-right continuum really have, outside of narrowly defined historical contexts where the (conceptually arbitrary, historically contingent) associations of tribes and policies happen to be stable?

Moreover, at least when trying to make sense of political behavior across nations and generations, might a model of politics based on historically developing tribes have more explanatory power than a model based on individuals voting their coordinates in an ahistorical ideological or worldview-temperamental space? Could there be, for example, a way to trace the geneology of the political tribe that opposed Obama in 2008 back to the political tribe that supported Jackson in 1828, and to account for certain apparently self-damaging preferences of the tribe today by looking to its history (assuming it makes sense to speak of a single tribe in each case)? As is often suggested, might Southern white opposition to welfare policies that would benefit Southern whites be explained based on Southern white opposition to non-whites receiving these benefits? Looking outside the United States, can some of the historic successes of Scandinavian countries in comparison to their European neighbors, Chile in comparison to its South American neighbors, and Costa Rica in comparison to its Central American neighbors, be explained based on lessened “tribal” tensions resulting from these countries’ greater ethnic homogeneity in comparison to their neighbors?

Finally — fleeing as I am always tempted to do to the most abstract plane of discussion: to the extent that the contemporary social sciences, following the lead of economics, tend to view human beings as self-interested actors driven by relatively stable preferences, might there be room for a general critique of the assumption that preferences are, as it were, self-interpreting, rather than being given their concrete, measurable meanings through historical processes — processes in which “tribal” cultures play a central role?


4 thoughts on “Tribal cognition: a few additional notes

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