The big news was that Roy Moore lost the Senate race in Alabama, but the amazing story that goes along with it was that two-thirds of white women in that state voted for him. Even though it seems pretty obvious to an objective viewer that his accusers were telling the truth and Moore was lying about his escapades of the past, these ladies, who you would think would be up in arms against him, still gave him their vote. Why would they do that?
Well, one reason could be the way they prioritize their values : the danger to society from abortion, same-sex marriage, and all the rest of that kind of baggage outweighs their distaste for a man who was preying on teenage girls years ago. Another reason could be that they simply think the accusers were lying. But a third important explanation was floated this week by the The Cut (one of New York Magazine’s online sites). In an interview with neuroscientist Jonas Kaplan they raise the possibility that “motivated reasoning” is at work here. This is the phenomenon where once we buy into something psychologically, it’s not so easy to shake it off. We’re “motivated” to stay with our initial choices. This can be seen in many different types of thinking, but political thought is certainly an excellent example.
The fact is that we need to belong to something. Whether it’s a family, a community, a church, a party, a country, it’s in our DNA to establish ties to others, and once we’ve created those bonds, we will defend them. We don’t want to hear any criticisms, in fact the criticisms just trigger a defensiveness to the point of unreason: you must be wrong, because I know I’m right. This is what got Trump elected and kept those Alabama women on board with Moore.
It’s all part of the Sacrament of the Group. Bonding with others can be exhilarating. In a stadium when your team wins in the final seconds or at a political rally when victory is declared, emotions rise to the level of euphoria. We’re part of something– What a great feeling! It’s a way to transcend the mundane and get closer to something truly glorious. The groups we choose mean so much to us.
But the danger of course is that it blinds us to considerations that are important. As Hamlet reminded himself, the Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape. How do we keep from backing the wrong horse or the wrong idea? Given that this impulse to defend is programed into us, rooted in our DNA, the only answer is an education that includes a check on this aspect of our behavior, a moral education, like the lessons we learn that curb other evolutionary impulses, like stealing what we want, or assaulting women at will. These impulses were valuable to our primate ancestors, but vices for men and women.
Every school curriculum should include an acknowledgement of motivated reasoning, and practice in how to step away from it. Beginning with young children, we should emphasize that whenever you enter into a discussion with anyone, you should say to yourself , “I know what I think, but maybe I’ll learn something from this other person and change my thinking.” Really listening, weighing evidence…it’s called keeping an open mind. It’s not something many of us currently practice.
A frontal attack on people’s beliefs and values makes them circle the wagons and fight back, tooth and nail. A softer approach has a better chance of getting somewhere, and those chances would increase if our educators would instill a respect for the viewpoints of others. It’s in the state’s interest to foster this kind of thinking, to combat tribalism. This is one reason why public schools are so important.