The dangerous pleasure of being right

The distinctly different “truths” of our right-wing and liberal news outlets can take some blame for giving us daily shots of pleasure in having our views confirmed. As Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out in her piece in The New Yorker last year, “Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds” (Feb. 27, 2017), this pleasure we get from being right is physical, caused by a rush of dopamine. (Which made me recall how happy I was to hear my suspicions confirmed that owning a gun makes one less safe, rather than more so.) Moreover, there is also an enjoyable rush from “sticking to our guns,” even when we know we’re actually wrong.

Reporting on several books by cognitive psychologists, Kolbert explains that our hunting and gathering ancestors developed reasoning, not to think logically, but “to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups,” a function that continues to this day.  Ignoring evidence and underestimating threats was, and still is, dangerous. But the demands of human sociability made “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to want our opinions confirmed by others, and to grow more certain when they are, more adaptive than clear-headed thinking.  Whether or not we can argue why we think as we do about an issue, we are all more adept at spotting the weaknesses in someone else’s arguments than in our own.    

The problem with modern society, wrote Kolbert, is that many areas of technology and policy are far too complex for most of us to master on our own.  Kolbert gives the example of explaining how our toilets flush — a mechanism we use multiple times a day. On the policy side, how many of us have read enough research to form our own judgment about whether merit pay for teachers increases learning for children? Instead, we give up trying to understand the gadgets and regulations that shape our lives and rely instead on the expertise and opinions of others.

Ironically, our confidence in being right appears to be inversely related to our understanding of complicated issues. In a study cited by Kolbert, for instance, the farther off base people were about the geography of Ukraine, the more likely they were to favor U.S. military intervention. In almost every arena, the more we know, the more likely we are to see nuances, pros and cons, as well as reasons for doubt. 

I grew up in the Midwest, where being polite meant steering the conversation clear of controversial subjects like religion, sex and politics — as well as avoiding negative comments about almost everything. (“The less said the better,” my mother-in-law, a native of Ohio, used to say when tempted to be critical.) The idea was that social life is both precious and fragile, and it is easy to give offense. Thus, a responsible adult made sure that conversations reinforced group cohesion by staying within areas of agreement. 

Today’s tendency toward righteous anger at political views we don’t share has made the civility I was raised on seem quaint. Yet our loss of manners has not freed us either to think more clearly or to speak our mind in a tone of gentle firmness, especially when surrounded by people who are likely to disagree. Instead, we take comfort in the affirmation of our opinions by newspapers, television and friends whose views rarely conflict with our own, while being disdainful of those whose opinions we haven’t tried to understand. 

Whether or not we can blame the hunters and gatherers for our stubborn pleasure in being right, it’s clear that our polarized society gives us little opportunity to experience the humility of discovering that we’re wrong. I don’t usually issue my boldest pronouncements unless I expect in advance that they will be well-received. But I know there are areas in which I don’t hold the common view, even within my small circle.  How eager am I to raise these issues?

Though it’s a little late for new year’s resolutions, I’m thinking that I ought to use 2018 to practice doubt, and to more frequently use phrases such as “I don’t understand,” and “I don’t know.” As important, I need to practice listening to other points of view, not with forbearance, but with respect and curiosity.   

Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, Conn., has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction.