Monday, January 21, 2013

Persuasion According to Haidt, and Seeking Truth vs. Partisanship

Haidt thinks that our friends, or people we admire or feel an affinity toward, can succeed in getting us to challenge our cherished beliefs, but that we rarely succeed in challenging or refining those beliefs on our own or on the basis of pure rational argument, evidence, and logic. (See his book, The Righteous Mind.)

He tells an evolutionary story to explain this conclusion. Our brains generate moral judgements instantly, using a part of our brains we share with other mammals, evolved long before the origin of humans. Animals use this mechanism to search for food, to find a mate, to avoid danger, and it remains the foundation of human motivation. The neocortex, the part of the brain humans use to think rationally, evolved more recently and serves to assist and refine our impulses. In this view, argument serves to justify our actions to our companions, to assure that we both get to do what we want and that our peers do not punish or reject us as a result. We decide, then we rationalize. When we do manage to change our minds, we must convince the intuitive parts of our brains.

Persuasion is not easy. While people do change their minds, new evidence does not always convince people. That leaves a lot of wiggle room for an explanation.

Haidt interprets this as meaning that successful persuasion tends to take a low pressure, friendly approach. So why do we see so much moralizing, shaming, and confrontation in arguments, especially on the Internet? If I imagine such arguments happening among a tribe of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, perhaps the objective of debate was to convince the audience rather than to persuade the opponent, with status within the tribe at stake.

Now that our Internet tribe encompasses nearly every person and every attitude, such debates just serve to stir up hostility on both sides, rarely getting anyone to seriously challenge their own ideas, much less change them. According to this notion, such Internet debates just separate people according to their existing preconceived notions, and some unknown process in your past determined whether you picked one side or the other the first time you really considered a particular argument.

So persuasion works well for refining a position or fine-tuning it, but not so much for scrapping it. Friendly discussion, one on one and probably face to face, has more chance of achieving serious results, but even then it will require time and effort.

And if we step back and try to look at this as truth seekers rather than partisans, what does it tell us? How do we try to find the capital T truth, challenging our most cherished beliefs, especially political beliefs that we cannot easily test?

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