Ronald Bailey discusses a study which confirms what every con man already knew: smart people are easier to fool.
People reason chiefly to persuade others that they are right, not to find out what is true.
So claim Hugo Mercier, a postdoctoral fellow in economics and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dan Sperber, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the Central European University, in their provocative 2010 article, “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory,” in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Now a new study by the Yale Cultural Cognition Project finds that people also use reason to convince themselves, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that they and those on their side are right.
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In addition, both liberals and conservatives displayed ideological bias when assessing the validity of the cognitive reflection test. When climate change skeptics were characterized as open-minded, Republicans thought the test was nifty. When skeptics were branded as close-minded, more Democrats found the test results convincing. Thus, the study finds that the experimental “results were more consistent with a finding of symmetry than one of asymmetry with respect to ideologically motivated reasoning.” Ideology distorts both left-wing and right-wing thinking.
Do higher scores on the reflective cognition test temper political polarization? To get at this question, the study compared both liberals and conservatives who scored low on the reflective cognition test (the 62 percent of subjects who got no answers right) with liberals and conservatives scored higher (those who got an average of 1.6 answers right putting them in between the 80th and 90th percentile of the sample). In short, the researchers found that the higher either conservatives or liberals scored on the cognitive reflection test the more likely they were to judge the test as valid when its results supposedly confirmed their ideological views about climate change skeptics and vice versa. People skilled at systematic reasoning use that capacity to justify their beliefs rather seek out truth.
Kahan notes in passing that social psychological research has found that political independents and libertarians score better on the cognitive reflection than do liberals or conservatives (check your answers below). But before we libertarians and independents start patting ourselves on our collective backs for being the better systematic reasoners, could this simply mean that we are especially good at justifying our beliefs to ourselves?
I got the answers to all three test questions right, which means I’m even more likely to “fool myself” than the average person (according to this study, anyway).