Every person has their balance point politically.
So does every culture and country, Tension Force is that system in groups.
Tension Force is my coined phrase for the relationship between what we often call conservative and progressive forces, culturally and politically. Individuals are born with a predisposition toward the right or left: With personal traits that predictably sort themselves into one camp or the other. Every population naturally seeks a homeostatic point of balance between them. Even though it feels like conflict or even hostility, Tension Force is essential to community health. The death of tension force comes when the opposition is 100% demonized, all talk is done.
I’m trying something new, Podcasting! It’s not especially high quality yet, but I’ll get there! I think my work has value. But I also think expecting people to wade through some of it is like asking them to lake dive for quarters on the bottom.
Conservative vs Progressive: Cultural Homeostasis
Tension Force: Cohesion from Opposition
It Isn’t About Logic
Why facts don’t change minds
(Mostly not my writing, two interviews full of interesting evidence about our structural intransigence)
Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber are the authors of “The Enigma of Reason,” a new book from Harvard University Press. Their arguments about human reasoning have potentially profound implications for how we understand the ways human beings think and argue, and for the social sciences.
“Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from…
If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner. To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats—the human equivalent of the cat around the corner—it’s a trait that should have been selected against. The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hyper-sociability.”
Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own…”
“…Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.
“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.
In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.”
Elizabeth Kolbert – Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds – The New Yorker February 27, 2017, issue.
Henry Farrell: So, many people think of reasoning as a faculty for achieving better knowledge and making better decisions. You disagree. Why is the standard account of reasoning implausible?
HM: By and large, reasoning doesn’t fulfill this function very well. In many experiments — and countless real-life examples — reasoning does not drive people towards better knowledge or decisions. If people start out with the wrong intuitive idea, and then start reasoning, it rarely does them any good. They’re stuck on their initial wrong idea.
What makes reasoning fail is even more damning. Reasoning fails because it has a so-called ‘myside bias.’ This is what psychologists often call confirmation bias — that people mostly reason to find arguments that whatever they were already thinking is a good idea. Given this bias, it’s not surprising that people typically get stuck on their initial idea.
More or less everybody takes the existence of the myside bias for granted. Few readers will be surprised that it exists. And yet it should be deeply puzzling. Objectively, a reasoning mechanism that aims at sounder knowledge and better decisions should focus on reasons why we might be wrong and reasons why other options than our initial hunch might be correct. Such a mechanism should also critically evaluate whether the reasons supporting our initial hunch are strong. But reasoning does the opposite. It mostly looks for reasons that support our initial hunches and deems even weak, superficial reasons to be sufficient.
HF: So why did the capacity to reason evolve among human beings?
HM: We suggest that the capacity to reason evolved because it serves two main functions:
The first is to help people solve disagreements. Compared to other primates, humans cooperate a lot, and they evolved abilities to communicate in order to make cooperation more efficient. However, communication is a risky business: There’s always a risk that one might be lied to, manipulated or cheated. Hence, we carefully evaluate what people tell us. Indeed, we even tend to be overly cautious, rejecting messages that don’t fit well with our preconceptions.
Reasoning would have evolved in part to help us overcome these limitations and to make communication more powerful. Thanks to reasoning, we can try to convince others of things they would never have accepted purely on trust. And those who receive the arguments benefit by being given a much better way of deciding whether they should change their mind or not.
The second function is related but still distinct: It is to exchange justifications. Another consequence of human cooperativeness is that we care a lot about whether other people are competent and moral: We constantly evaluate others to see who would make the best cooperators. Unfortunately, evaluating others is tricky, since it can be very difficult to understand why people do the things they do. If you see your colleague George being rude with a waiter, do you infer that he’s generally rude, or that the waiter somehow deserved his treatment? In this situation, you have an interest in assessing George accurately and George has an interest in being seen positively. If George can’t explain his behavior, it will be very difficult for you to know how to interpret it, and you might be inclined to be uncharitable. But if George can give you a good reason to explain his rudeness, then you’re both better off: You judge him more accurately, and he maintains his reputation.
If we couldn’t attempt to justify our behavior to others and convince them when they disagree with us, our social lives would be immensely poorer and more complicated.
HF: So, if reasoning is mostly about finding arguments for whatever we were thinking in the first place, how can it be useful?
HM: Because this is only one aspect of reasoning: the production of reasons and arguments. Reasoning has another aspect, which comes into play when we evaluate other people’s arguments. When we do this, we are, on the whole, both objective and demanding. We are demanding in that we require the arguments to be strong before changing our minds — this makes obvious sense. But we are also objective: If we encounter a good argument that challenges our beliefs, we will take it into account. In most cases, we will change our mind — even if only by a little.
This might come as a surprise to those who have heard of phenomena like the “backfire effect,” under which people react to contrary arguments by becoming even more entrenched in their views. In fact, backfire effects seem to be extremely rare. In most cases, people change their minds — sometimes a little bit, sometimes completely — when exposed to challenging but strong arguments.
When we consider these two aspects of reasoning together, it is obvious why it is useful. Reasoning allows people who disagree to exchange arguments with each other, so they are in a better position to figure out who’s right. Thanks to reasoning, both those who offer arguments (and, hence, are more likely to get their message across) — and those who receive arguments (and, hence, are more likely to change their mind for the better) — stand to win. Without reasoning, disagreements would be immensely harder to resolve.
HF: Despite reason’s flaws, your book argues that it “in the right interactive context, works.” How can group interaction harness reason for beneficial ends?
HM: Reasoning should work best when a small number of people (fewer than six, say) who disagree about a particular point but share some overarching goal engage in discussion.
Group size matters for two reasons. Larger groups are less conducive to efficient argumentation because the normal back and forth of discussion breaks down when you have more than about five people talking together. You’ll see that at dinner parties: Four or five people can have a conversation, but larger groups either split into smaller ones, or end up in a succession of short “speeches.” On the other hand, smaller groups will necessarily encompass fewer ideas and points of view, lowering both the odds of disagreement and the richness of the discussion.
Disagreement is crucial because if people all agree and yet exchange arguments on a given topic, arguments supporting the consensus will pile up, and the group members are likely to become even more entrenched in their acceptation of the consensual view.
Finally, there has to be some commonality of interest among the group members. You’re not going to convince your fellow poker player to fold when she has a straight flush. However, it’s often relatively easy to find such a commonality of interest. For example, we all stand to gain from having more accurate beliefs.
This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the Network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts in the series can be found here.
Henry Farrell, washingtonpost.com © 1996-2020 The Washington Post
In a sense, your political identity is up to you. You are the political person you are through ethical choices and principles. But since those choices are in response to events that are thrust upon us by the moment, we are also largely defined by the character and the challenges of our times.
It’s almost impossible to view your own flavor of politics as extreme because our POV includes filters to reassure us we are sane and make our truth appear self-evident. Concerning our political opinions, we all feel like we “did the math” and embraced the reality of the result (regardless of how little critical thinking took place). There is an inevitable feeling to our stance that makes contrasting beliefs appear willfully stupid. This “it’s obvious” quality reminds me of our sexuality in the way it sees beauty and feels desire in an unassailably confident and individual way. It’s also of a piece with the seamless agreement between a person and their God when it’s obvious that God’s views never come as a surprise or require any extra effort on the part of the believer. Progressive and conservative are no different in this.
Political involvement in times of extreme partisanship feels more essential and impactful than in more moderate political climates. Every moment feels like the last play of the game where all must give their all. Displaying purity and loyalty become an expectation in a way never seen in less partisan times. Language and moral judgments grow harsher. All of this to better bring the battle to the enemy. This is a tragic misconception. This is the state of things that causes loss of control over our own politics. The entire system begins hydroplaning, and the steering and brakes are useless. Continue reading
Tension Force is the name I give to the innate push and pull between progressives and conservatives. Physical tension force is a physics concept and can be pictured as the area of rope between teams playing tug of war. In a well-matched tug-of-war, that area doesn’t shift very much but that stability is reached by both teams trying their hardest to win.
Tension force is homeostasis achieved through intense opposing forces. If one of our teams wins the political tug of war it’s guaranteed to be a bad or even disastrous moment for society. One party systems have ugly results.
There are psychological patterns that are consistently reliable predictors of a progressive or conservative view on politics and culture. The personality test used to measure and correlate this connection is the famous Big 5 Test. Here is a quick visual to explain what is measured and the characteristics that typify scoring high or low.
These are the outcomes that populate our country with Progressives and Conservatives:
- High scores in conscientiousness trended conservative on both economic policy, (favoring hard work and organization) as well as social policy (strict adherence to traditional social norms).
- High scores in openness trended progressive on economic policy (favoring new programs and interventions) as well as social policy (favoring complexity and novelty).
- High in agreeableness leaned progressive on economic policy (wanting to help the disadvantaged) and but conservative on social policy (the desire to maintain harmony and traditional relationships).
- High scores in neuroticism leaned progressive on both (oh, shut up).
- High levels of the extraversion trait had no significant effect on predicting a person’s policy position but correlated strongly to being fun at parties.
Although nurture and socialization are certainly a part of shaping these political tendencies, the people nurturing you are your closest relatives and the culture you are being socialized to is the one they have chosen to live in. The matrix seals neatly around you. There’s bound to be a genetic relationship to these scores, and tests significantly confirm that. So every population produces a balance of people apparently fated to be in one camp or the other. Either group can be principled and logical, but those principles and logic are canalized by personality presets. Whatever play is in the system waxes and wanes with important societal upheavals and movements.
The consistent percentages of people born with these traits and concomitant beliefs is the underlying, invisible homeostasis that creates the Tension Force around us. As we plead with the other side to see reason or curse each other for hopeless blind idiocy we can take some comfort in the idea that humanity absolutely requires this struggle. Tension force is how we weigh the balance between the past and future, between tradition and reform.
However, technological change has dropped us into a new and unfamiliar medium for connection and communication. The new medium so completely separates us from engagement with the other side, that each side has become LIKE a one-party country unto themselves. The area of Tension Force has become the weak spot, attacked by opportunistic infections.
The situation makes us “fish in a barrel” for those aiming to divide and conquer us, then gather riches from the ruins left behind.
(I’m talking about Putin you idiots!)
Some German (obviously) psychological researchers did a really nice job on the country vs city meme “Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft” That is community vs society, adding the interesting insights about present vs future orientation and the amazing detail that the Big 5 personality test works in the city WAY better than the country. It all has the ring of common sense, society needs a wide range of specialized types of people while the country needs people who can pitch in to any task as needed.
There are a number of places in this blog where I take the political left to task for their dark side, their shadow. I am closer to left than right but I know what’s wrong with them and I’ve described it at length elsewhere.
When “moderate” people express a dislike for politics, they show appreciation for people who have no strong opinions. The idea is, if none of us had any strong opinions to push, the world would be a better place. The problem is, you have to have a opinions to have priorities. There was a young man who had brain surgery a few years back and lost his emotions. He didn’t become a cool and competent Mr. Spock, he became a mess who found every single decision difficult, because none of them had any force behind them. Our emotions play a big role in every preference we have for anything in this world.
Here is Merriam Webster’s simple definition of the phrase “Politically Correct”: agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.
Both right and left wing have a version of “politically correct”. The left’s version is more famous and it’s where the phrase originated. I imagine it being coined in the soviet system by political officers. But the definition for the phrase includes the right wing to the extent that they practice “How dare you” tactics such as righteous indignation, and holier than thou judgements. If a football player remains seated during the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance for political reasons there is a segment of the right wing that will compete for “Loudest wail of outrage”. This is being politically correct. “Freedom fries” is PC. Anyplace where the right asserts a word that is compulsory and one that is forbidden, they are being the kind of thin skinned whiny babies they think only other people can be. Let me hear you say “Happy Holidays!”
When the right complains about people on the left not being patriotic they are being PC extremists. In fact the whole idea of patriotism needs some serious freshening up. It’s kind of dumb if you think about it that the right thinks they are the ones who get to decide what patriotic IS. How the hell do you dare to impugn the patriotism of people who question and challenge the government? America is practically based on the validity of different points of view.
The right wing have their own issues and the state of the world is showing those issues like anaphylaxis shows an allergy. The world leans at any moment more right than left because the Human Operating System first requires STABILITY. It doesn’t want collapse. If you are building something very tall you will think a lot of bottom heavy thoughts and not quite so many top heavy ones. If you don’t think enough about the foundation you won’t build tall because it will fall down, if you think too much about the foundation you won’t build tall because your sole value becomes retaining and preserving, not reaching higher.
Here are some of the troublesome issues of the right:
- Symbol simpletons. Flags are symbols. Symbols mean something…but symbols aren’t the things they mean. An American flag is not America any more than a Colombian flag is Columbia, or a Dunkin Donuts logo is a donut. Love your treasured symbols but be sophisticated enough to see the this crucial difference. There are birds that will murderously attack a FEATHER of the wrong color. You are sometimes that kind of dumb.
- Unconditionally positive love of country. Imagine if both parents both acted like their child could do no wrong: Healthy?
- You guys are besotted with making rich people happy. I know I’m not going to get anywhere with this. Conservatives include two key groups everywhere and always, the poor and the bastards who keep them poor. The conservative poor sell out their own children generation after generation to show solidarity with power. We get it, you support structure and stability but is it wrong for me to wish you’d notice how pathetic it is? Being a serf is not patriotic.
- Conservatives elect moderates in a healthy and balanced system (with different ideas) but when you get riled up you elect authoritarian fuckos like Trump and Putin and honest to God...even Hitler. He is an example of that phenomena. You have a weakness for tough simple talk that hands everything over to bad guys if there aren’t enough commie-pinkos pulling on the other end of the rope.
- Same point continued: You are too easy to manipulate. Demagogues know exactly what to say to you. 1. Country – 2. Church – 3. Foreign enemies… and you are in bed on the first date.
Our country wouldn’t be healthy with only conservatives OR progressives. There’s a reason a tree farm isn’t as healthy as a forest. A mono-culture creates its own failure. When either side seeks purity they lead all of us straight towards Hell.
Tension force, people. It’s healthy.
It’s hilarious how much cultural “values”, the dos and don’ts, are exactly like the preferences and peccadilloes of a particular person. These Japanese “no-no”s sound like a description of things that one random person might have very strong feelings about… but in fact, a whole country is ready to be very disappointed in you.
You have your likes and dislikes; your quirks and peccadillos. Put enough of them together in a somebody and you have a personality. You and your love have a relationship, with predominating moods and flavors, things you both love and hate, as recognizable to both of you as each others faces. That is the personality of your relationship and you could almost call it a culture of two. You and your family have a kind of extended self, absolutely made of individuals, but having a corporate nature. Again, moods, styles, activities, and traditions: The personality of your family: The culture of us, ourselves.
Your town and state have cliches and classic types, local foods, music, religions, sports, and jokes. Your area may even have unique social faux pas. You have your classic regional moods, so well defined that Hollywood can set a story in your area as shorthand for the tone of the movie. Your country likewise has these same locally famous traits but pulled from many distant points and due to this diversity, the warmth of these traits is much more diffuse. Americans from Maine might enjoy funny Florida cliches but they don’t evoke the tenderness of good old home-cooked cliches. These taste of home because they are the personality of your region: The self that you are actually a piece of even when parted. If you have been away a long time from the place that is unquestionably your home, odds are that the sight of some hideous local billboard or despised local celebrity might well thrill you and soften your heart. This is you, a tiny particle of that place sensing the correct SELF of belonging and yearning toward it.
Culture is personality flowing bottom-up from a community. It’s the basket holding that composite soul together and in place. It is also the background that makes outsiders visible against it. It’s the recognizable border between us and them. Humans produce culture as naturally as spiders weave webs. The tension force within the culture creates the tone of inclusion tempering exclusion and vice versa. Tension force determines the “temperature” of how cold or warm the welcome is to outsiders.
I don’t associate warm with progressives and cold with conservatives as a political bias, but in this context, conservatism means suspicion, standoffishness or even hostility. Conservatives play the role in the cultural ecosystem of tightening the borders while progressives loosen them. And it isn’t always about a literal border, the border can be about how purely insiders display their cultural loyalty. It can be about disapproving of behaviors becoming less hidebound to cultural authority (often acted out by grumpy old people). Either wing, without the other, is dangerously out of balance. Either wing, deprived of this balancing opposing force, becomes a runaway monster seeking enemies within when it can’t find them without. That’s how desperately important opposition really is. When deprived of it the isolated wing has a panic attack and seeks everywhere for enemies to counter itself. The steady opposition between a healthy left and right results in a cooperative outcome: A tension force that protects the community from the weaknesses of each. This is the community organism as a healthy individual with a well-balanced nature.
We have always had the small town and big city split. It’s all about life strategies that use bigger networks vs those that use smaller networks.
Big cities have to figure out how to look after large numbers of people who:
- A: Don’t know each other
- B: Might not be similar culturally
So cities are naturally liberal, figuring out plans that make things work for a LARGE number of people. And they are naturally less judgmental because of anonymity and a necessary cultural relativism.
Small towns are the opposite. You are mostly somewhere between acquainted and related with the folks nearby and it sounds CRAZY to look after a bunch of people that none of you even know. Also, there’s no anonymity – people’s actions are known and judged: Thus they are more careful and constrained. In a smaller community the actions of one person have a proportionally larger impact.
I think the context we live in technologically and culturally causes a kind of speciation. We’re all human but we become VIRTUALLY different species (that is, using different strategies to survive). The world we each live in sets up some strategic ground rules.
A big city run on small town rules is a failed state – a small town run on big city rules feels like totalitarianism. It’s a pity that this simple understanding doesn’t inform discussions and party platforms. Both big parties tend to be advocating for the ruin or unhappiness of the other’s constituency as a matter of course.
In a big city a cultural “Us vs Them” seems very different than it does in a small town because you naturally adapt to the complex and relativistic reality around you. “Healthy normal” has a broader bandwidth in the city. Politics emerges from experience and every technological reality creates a different experience and therefore a different political reality.
City/Country politics have always been a hot and ugly divide in America*. But back in the age of the public speeches we would all stand around together and listen. The full range of opinion generally was there on hand to witness and consider and discuss. Not surprisingly, the dialogue was at least MORE civil because because of being in each other’s company and following social cues. Then from the radio to the TV and to the internet our views retreated back farther and farther into isolated comfort zones; to a zone of homogeneous agreement. Since everyone around you echos the same views, really different views are treated as insanity or evil intent.
* Obviously city and country each contain a range of progressive and conservative types, but each will be somewhat acclimated to and moderated by the dominant reality where they are.
There are some funny little devices I’ve seen out on the internet which when you switch them on, a little hand comes out and turns itself right off again. When democracy fails it’s a bit like this. Any political system is a sort of machine, and when a democracy elects a tyrant or a theocracy it’s the hands of the people coming out and flipping off the machine, possibly forever.
In my theory about population dynamics there will always be a homeostatic balance between conservative and progressive. Not a PERFECT balance, simply the local balance tuned in to the local cultural wavelength. (I give a specific breakdown of what these labels really mean elsewhere.) On both sides there is wide gradient of belief but conservatives are essentially the loyal foot draggers. They ALWAYS feel that things are going out of control and that invaders are coming and that whatever the old school authority is, it doesn’t get enough respect, dammit.
There are absolutely loads of moderate and reasonable people within the conservative group. But rather like deep water, the pressure builds as we dive down into this way of believing. The extreme range of these people are angry and excitable, ferociously loyal to authority and something I might call “clean original beliefs“. Those beliefs could be about the founding fathers or Islam or Serbian nationalism, it isn’t important. Conservative people are the bedrock defense force of whatever culture they inhabit. They suffer with revulsion at everything that isn’t on message. An intriguing fact is that in psychological tests conservatives really do suffer more revulsion at disgusting pictures than the rest of the population. This is true to the point that it is diagnostically accurate. Scientists think the emotion of disgust evolved to make us keep away from things that could poison us or spread disease. Conservatives, in this light are acting as an automatic force of rejection toward all that feels foreign or “Just not right, somehow.” * Continue reading
- The line down the middle only exists in reference to the positions of the parties. It is always defined by their argument. There is no state of perfect conservatism or progressivism. There is no platonic ideal for these. It is always defined by the current cultural and political context. You can’t state a political platform for either lacking that context. But they do have basic predictable roles.
- The Venn overlap is what we pretty much all agree on (except for loonies)
- The white horizontal line is “The middle of the road” the somewhat disputed territory we can talk about with bargains and compromises.
- Between the thick dotted lines and the black lines are areas of pretty fundamental disagreement. Moving outward toward either edge comes a less acceptable AND less accepting range.
- The extreme edges (with the solid black lines) are important because they represent the borders of the field where anything further is “out of bounds”