Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cognitive Psychology and Democracy.

I've spent the last week surveying the field  of cognitive psychology.  And whilst I had very little faith in Democracy prior, my reading has pretty much destroyed what little faith left I had in it.

The underlying, almost unspoken assumption in democratic theory (and economics as well) is that the average voter is both rational and objective, able to weigh and prudently consider the appropriate issues when it comes time to vote.  Unfortunately, cognitive science seems to have accumulated a rather large body of empirical evidence which shows that most peoples' thinking processes aren't rational but intuitive.  And as the cognitive scientists show, intuitive thinking is not rational thinking.

Keith Stanovich's book, What intelligence Tests Miss, provides an incomplete yet reasonable survey of field, and the emerging evidence strongly suggests that the average man is instinctively a cognitive miser (intuitive thinker).  Now, intuitive thinking is not irrational thinking, rather it needs to be thought of as "roughly rational". It's "judgements", being determined by our affect and not by the laws of logic or data: The answer feels right. 

For example, when asked which is heavier? A ton of bricks or a ton of feathers, a lot of people will instinctively state the feathers, and afterwards correct themselves. It appears that our mind forms associations, and uses these associations in a as the basis of an intuitive logic. Bricks are heavier than  feathers and therefore the conclusion of the intuitive logic . It's only after consciously analysing the question that we realise that the two are the same. I'm not a Darwinian HBD type of guy, but you could see how this type of logic could come very handy in survival situations.  In threatening situations, time is often of the essence, and sitting around trying to work out what is going on may have been counterproductive from the survival point of view. Sometimes its smarter to run first and think later.

Now, most cognitive psychologists seem to view cognitive miserliness in a negative light, seeing it at a sub-rational and "defective" form of thought, however,  I view the matter differently. Given the almost universal prevalence of this type of thinking, it needs to be thought of as the default cognitive process of mankind.  It's an efficient and computationally light type of thinking that is sufficient for the day to day tasks of life. We do things more by "feel" than by "logic". In fact, what probably happens is that logical actions which were cognitively appropriate for certain circumstance, become habituated, and applied to other similar circumstances. Most times this is inconsequential. Most times.

None of this is really new stuff. Advertisers have known for years that the way to convince people to buy their product was not to argue about it rationally but to present it in such a way that people would associate it with positive things.  Apple Guy is cool. Windows Guy is a nerd. Getting into the complex details of the operating systems is only going to alienate a lot of the customers. Go with what the cool guy is buying because I'm not a nerd: Advertising is the manipulation of intuitive logic.

What cognitive psychology does show is that rationality takes some effort, and for most people it is an uncomfortable exercise. Hence, rationality tends to be deliberately avoided and as a result, is poorly exercised: The average man is deliberatively sloppy. From a systems point of view, this does not really matter s much when a man is the only person who suffers from the consequences of his actions, the real danger arises when this type of man is able to infect the governing process of the system as in a democracy. A irrational system is a system that will fail.

To the rational man, there is always a tradeoff between government spending and taxation, but to an intuitive man there is no such logic. To the intuitive man, when it comes time to vote, promises of lower taxes and higher social security payments  are "no brainer", because both concepts are associated with pleasant thoughts, and hence there is no intuitive cognitive dissonance. Taxes, especially those paid by ourselves are always intuitively bad, no matter how justified, and are often resisted. Politicians who point out "inconvenient truths" are voted out in favour of the "feel good" politician. Sugar coated poison is preferred to bitter medicine. Democracy fails because the hard, yet necessary, decisions are intuitively wrong.

But the failure is not only political, it's cultural as well. The law is an both a reflection of culture and an agent of its change. When moral questions are put to the public vote, the intuitive mind wins over sober reflection.  For example, the abortion argument was initially argued on "tough case" grounds, such as the rape victim impregnated, or the horribly deformed fetus. Even strong anti-abortionists can sympathise with the women in these circumstances, but rational (religious) thought would forbid the abortion whilst intuitive thought would permit it. In the end, a democracy votes for a utilitarian morality which ultimately corrupts the society.

Democracy fails because the underlying foundation of democracy, that man is a rational animal,  is wrong. Very few men are consciously rational. It's not my opinion, it's an empirical fact.


Anonymous said...

Yeah,as Churchill said, democracy is the worst of all systems...

Anonymous said...

Spot on again. The decadent western democracies will fall to the more disciplined peoples of the East, the Russians & Chinese. If the monarchies of Europe hadn't been destroyed as a result of the defeat of the Central Powers in WWI, things would likely have turned out differently. The west wouldn't have become so utterly corrupt & decadent & might have at least had a chance of winning the Great Game as it used to be called. Have your studies by any chance convinced you to become a monarchist? Your conclusions are the very reason that the Church has always considered monarchy to the best form of government.

Anonymous said...

Actually the necessary ingredient for democracy to function is an informed and capable public.

Due to the general decrease in average IQ/rationality for most Americans along with total degeneration of the public education and politics has transformed the public into malleable sheep that is swayed easily by corporate media and mass propaganda.

Its tragic when a NAM can have three bastards, brainwash them and use the props to outvote me in everything because one candidate is "sexier" than the other according to Oprah.

The only way to promote "change" is raising money and "donating" aka renting politicians.

US should start implementing mandatory IQ testing written only in English for voting, since voting should be a privilege.

Dan said...

I am so glad to find this. It really speaks to me and my interests and you echo some of my own thoughts, but articulate them better than I do to myself.
But, could you please remove the "In Mala Fide" link? Horrific!
I will read more over the weekend and thanks for your hard work.

s said...

"The underlying, almost unspoken assumption in democratic theory (and economics as well) is that the average voter is both rational and objective, able to weigh and prudently consider the appropriate issues when it comes time to vote."

I think that it's true to say that people are capable of being rational and, to a limited extent, objective when it comes to voting. However, few people actually exercise that ability, which is why democracy fails. It's not the potential, it's the execution.

Anonymous said...

The teachings of Srila Prabhupada on women and anti-feminism

The purpose of this essay is to address the issue of feminism and misandry (hatred of men, the opposite of misogyny) and how it has destroyed modern society. We will be analyzing many of the statements made by Srila Prabhupada about women, their role in society, and the anti-feminism stance of his teachings.

Lexus Liberal said...

Why is rationality so short in supply among the public?

Society will need to address the cause prior to curing its affliction.

The Social Pathologist said...

Sorry guys, but I've been preoccupied for the past few days.

Anon@ 15:48

Have your studies by any chance convinced you to become a monarchist?

It's strange, but I'm rather neutral on the matter. I can see the advantages for both systems, and I don't think that they're necessarily incompatible. Take Britain for example. William Slim, a commoner with exceptional military skill, was enobled by the Queen. The problem with Monarchies is that there it's very difficult to prune away the dissolute nobles.

US should start implementing mandatory IQ testing written only in English for voting, since voting should be a privilege.

I.Q testing doesn't work since lots of high I.Q people have wholeheartedly embraced and promoted cultural decline, what's needed is a test of prudence and rationality. I personal think and age qualification+ good public record+ asset test is probably the best way to preserve a democracy.

I like Ferdinand, if not all of his ideas. I think he is one of the mendicant friars of Conservatism. What the Conservative movement needs is a salon and not an echo chamber. True, the forum has it's fair share of conspiracy theorists, paranoid "Aryan" types and the lewd, but he gets more hits than Jim Kalb and is getting some form of debate going.

It's not the potential, it's the execution.

The failure of most politics and economics is due to the fact that the respective systems are premised on the assumption of man as he could be instead of man as he is. A good and stable system does not operate on the limits of efficiency, rather it incorporates a lot of redundancy. If we start the political discourse on the assumption that the average man is well meaning but a moron, then all will be fine.

I'll have a look at it.

Lex Lex Liberal.
Why is rationality so short in supply among the public?

That's a big topic but I think conservatives have been battling the wrong enemy for a long time. The current thrust of attack is always directed towards the enlightenment, which I think is wrong. The real enemy is the Romantic movement which legitimised the primacy of feelings over the intellect. The abortion debate is not argued on logical grounds, it's an emotive case.

Dan said...

Thanks for the reply and I love your blog.
I only get a picture of a man with his rear wide open when I click on the link - one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen.
There are no posts etc. on this link just the picture.
Well, I won't click on that again.
If it were a woman turned the other way I wouldn't mind it.

Brandon said...


The Romantic movement?

But isn't conservatism, at least in some ways, inherently romantic itself?

Simon Grey said...

"If we start the political discourse on the assumption that the average man is well meaning but a moron, then all will be fine."

This is more of splitting hairs than anything else, but my assumption is that the average man is well-meaning but lazy. There is no practical difference, that I can tell, between my assumption and yours, for in neither case is man acting with any degree of foresight.

The Social Pathologist said...


What the science seems to show, is that there are large numbers of individuals who are temperamental conservatives: people who are intuitively conservative. These individuals feel the rightness of conservative precepts. These people resist innovation of any kind even though it may be good. They are what the Leftists call reactionary. With some justification, I might add.

The happy feelings these conservative people get are incidental to the rightness of the particular topic in question. Scruton is a premier example of this type of man. He waxes nostalgic with regard to "merry old England" out of an intuitive, not empirical sense. Whereas I tend to justify traditional society on empirical and rational grounds. Romantic feelings and goodness are incidental. That's why Christianity is sometimes such a difficult religion. It calls its followers to do the right thing, not what feels like the right thing.

Simon Grey wrote a very good post on this a while ago, stressing the importance of rationalism over intuition.

One of my favourite quotes from Chesterton is: " the arrow is furthest from the mark when it is closest to the target". Chesterton here was trying to emphasise the need for precision, as in some of these debates, even the slightest deviation or assumption can lead to crucial misunderstandings in the long run.

I don't think laziness is the problem as much as is a natural inhibition towards thinking. Paradoxically this may be a good thing for most people, as their reasoning skills are so poor that they are liable to get things wrong when they think about them. You've got to remember that Keynesianism is a thought out position: a product of rationality. Thinking is a dangerous activity for many people and I think that's why God has put a discinclination towards it in most people. Much prole goodness comes from being "intuitively" good. Much rationalist wickedness is a product of vigourous and active rationality.

Brandon said...


Ok, that makes sense. But what would you make of a perspective such as this one:

About the 'romance of Christianity'?

palindragonforce4 said...

Man's "irrationality", his compulsion towards intuition, which ruins large scale democracy actually helps small scale democracy.

The two biggest factors I see in the failure of large democracy, the first being the impossibility of even knowing what is going on in said structure, and the second being distance from representatives, are less present in small democracy. What allows us to judge someone's character when we meet them is based firmly in our intuition, our ability to tease out cheaters and liars and scam artists.

These abilities, while imperfect, are workable heuristics for survival in the day to day social world. They work. Echoing Charlton, smart people use these heuristics less, and apply inappropriate reasoning to an appropriate problem.

The information needed to run a small, local government, while still substantial, involves more intuitive interaction and necessitates less nose to the paper analysis of spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are still used, but competent people together in a room can tease out their meaning, and one or two people could have been responsible for creating the graph.

None of this works large scale. The media gives us a marketed product, and the reasoning behind any of the candidates positions is alien to most. There is no local priest to tell you what ethics is all about when you get large scale.

Large scale democracy is messy. Small scale democracy almost always employs other "systems" to balance itself out. A set of families may have disproportionate influence for example. In fact, I think that on the micro scale political labels cease to really apply to human behavior.