The cognitive difficulties to competing with phrasemongers

I’ve heard about these studies before–the ones that demonstrate how woefully inept we humans are at integrating information that contradicts our existing opinions or beliefs. I’ve heard about it before, even studied this confirmation bias, as psychologists refer to it, in school, but still, this op-ed in the NY Times seems designed to make me conclude that my whole blog is a waste of time. I’m actually asking people to coldly and rationally consider the evidence when forming opinions on controversial issues? Is this some sort of martyr complex?

I actually do believe that we have the capability to debias ourselves, dial down the rhetoric and dial up the fact-checking. It takes effort, but I think it is well worth it. What about you? Do you think this is a worthwhile approach? Or would I be, strategically, more effective just making up facts to convince people to agree with what I think?



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10 responses to “The cognitive difficulties to competing with phrasemongers

  1. It’s true, we do seek out information that confirms what we already think. It’s good to seek out new information, but there are almost always subjective considerations that enter into the decision-making process that (may) justify a path other than the one dictated by the facts. I wish it weren’t true…but it’s probably more interesting this way.

    • Thanks for replying, Marc! Just for the record, I don’t think subjective and rational are opposed to each other. Any sort of planning for the future automatically requires subjective judgments, for example. But I do think we should try to debias our judgments to the extent possible.

  2. I do know that I hold some radically different ideas in certain areas than when I was a teenager. That might have more to do with developmental stages than holding on to a left or right bias, but it certainly has a thing or two to do with learning about those areas, or understanding those who are affected in those areas.

    The one thing I do really appreciate from my fellow Dutchmen, even though I feel it might have deteriorated over the past decade or two, is the so-called Polder Model ( In certain areas, the Dutch can be very pragmatic. For example, we know prostitution is going to happen, why not make it legal and regulate for safety? The tolerance toward marijuana is another example; the WHO found that the use among Dutch teens is less than half what it is among US teens.

    Now if they would only be a little more pragmatic toward (Muslim) immigrants, instead of listening to the phrasemongering of Geert Wilders.

    • Marc, this is really interesting. We are frequently so roped into the boxing ring of our own US context that an outside perspective is useful to make us stop and re-examine.

      As for personal biases, I also experienced a shift in my thinking as I became more connected with other people and their very different life experiences, and the impact that my privileges may have had on them.

      So is pragmatism the best option? Or should we get zealous about realigning our privileges with our sense of justice? Can we get zealous and still maintain enough thoughtful detachment and some level of objectivity for discussions like this?

  3. Jen W

    I think it’s true that we enjoy seeking out information on blogs and news sources that confirms our pre-exiting beliefs. I often joke that when someone calls someone else “Brilliant” what they are really saying is “this person is really talented at expressing and supporting my own beliefs.”
    That said, there is plenty of room for stretching into new territory. We are influenced by far more than what we seek out to read or watch on television/YouTube. We are influenced by personal experience and social interactions and conversations with others who challenge our views by using our own processing language – words that carry values that already resonate with us. Maybe not always in the moment, but over time, those people who desire to learn more about life will learn and evolve their points of view. Otherwise, we would never have evolved as a species, nor would we continue to evolve.
    The key is in learning how true education happens, which is actually my current focus of study: the study of subjectivity: how people process information for personal and social development – information that influences behavior.

  4. Thanks for all the great comments! If the persons who gave this entry low ratings would like to comment, I’d be happy to listen to your reasons.

  5. Brent

    Hey Aaron, I was just reading this blog by Donald Miller and thought it would help in your quest.

    I reposted this here after first putting it on facebook, because Aaron is an attention seeker, and demands extra work to show I like him. 🙂

    But, Aaron also commented about thinking in grey rather than black and white being a liberal trait, and maybe being an unfair thought. For my two cents on that thought, it seems to be more accurate as a stereotype than inaccurate. When the word “nuance” is used conservatives will demolish the user (i.e. John Kerry) as just trying to explain flip-flopping on issues. BUT, to be fair, I’m more acquainted with the conservative thoughts than liberal. If you listen to Rush Limbaugh and Alan Colmes radio shows, it’s amazing how they could be the same show, just with opposing views. They are the arbiters of who is a “real” Democrat or Republican and any dissenters should be banned from the party. It can be the same thing, with just different words or names dropped into the blanks.

    • Brent, you make it sound so tawdry!

      • Brent

        Aaron, let’s face it, maybe it is a LITTLE tawdry. But also, it is completely terrifying for most people to lift up the foundation of their world view and be willing to decide if it makes sense. It’s easier to ignore new information or label it according to the speaker. Most of the time in conversations or shouting matches is devoted to becoming the one to most effectively label the other person and get the best one-line insult or zinger to disarm and invalidate their opponent rather than engage with ideas. Fear is a tremendous motivator, and fundraiser. How can it be that both sides in this civic structure are completely sold on the belief they are losing, and who benefits by keeping that belief in place?

        • First of all, Alan Colmes doesn’t get to decide anything about who a “real” Democrat is. Most liberals don’t count him, since he was the designated strawman for Hannity.

          In 2004, we responded to resurgent conservatism by retrenching on the left. In 2006 and after, Democrats decided to try to fill the space in the middle that the Republicans seemed to have vacated, ergo the current crop of Blue Dogs, etc… There have been moments in the healthcare debate where we risked retrenchment again, but the party leaders were able to hold the “big tent” poles in place, at least for a little longer. No matter what Olbermann says, the President is always the dominant voice of his (someday her) political party, and the current President avoids personal insults, and avoids demonizing opponents.

          But yeah, you are right that both sides like to feel they are the underdog. Everybody wants to be David, not Goliath. For example, Christianity is, by far, the dominant religion in America, but it is still common for American Christians to assemble a persecution narrative. Likewise, liberals often point to the Reagan and Bush years and argue that deregulation and free market policies sold out the nation to the robber barons and the military-industrial complex. Logic can be found in either argument.

          I can say one thing pretty confidently. When you look at the spectrum of Christian thought in America, conservative Christians argue for absolutes and unchanging truth, while liberals argue for ambiguity and the possibility that God’s revelation isn’t fixed, and that there were cultural boundaries and human flaws expressed in the bible.

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