In politics, people don’t gravitate to the truth

February 15th, 2010 by Jonathan Haidt

In the NY Times, Feb 13 2010, p. A19, Charles Blow reports:

On Feb. 9, 2009, at the first prime-time press conference of his presidency, Obama said: “I am the eternal optimist. I think that over time people respond to–to civility and rational argument.” Since then, the right has tried to block him at nearly every turn, and the far right has formed a movement fueled by irrational anger.

[. . .] Yet, there he was again this week, a year to the day after the prime-time press conference, saying almost exactly the same thing: “I am just an eternal optimist. … And all I can do is just to keep on making the argument about what’s right for the country and assume that over time, people, regardless of party, regardless of their particular political positions, are going to gravitate towards the truth.” So stubbornly sweet. So simply naive.

If Obama is still clinging to this quaint concept after the year he’s had, it’s easy to understand why he’s in trouble.

From our perspective at YourMorals, Obama’s words sound so naive that we find it hard to believe he believes them. According to work by social psychologist Tom Gilovich (and backed up by a great deal of research on motivated reasoning), when people want to believe something, they ask themselves “can i believe it,” and the answer is nearly always yes. You can always find SOME evidence to support any conclusion, even if the preponderance of evidence points the other way. But when they don’t want to believe, they ask “MUST I believe it,” and the answer is nearly always no. Party and partisanship have enormous effects on what people believe. The truth has much less force. If Obama sincerely believes that the truth will defeat partisanship, then he is poorly equipped for life in politics.

But does he sincerely believe that, or was he just saying it because it suited his purpose at that moment during a conversation? Moral statements tend to be post-hoc rationalizations of what one has just said/did/judged, they are not honest reports of the real reasons why one said/did/judged, for such reports are not available for introspection or reporting. (See Tim Wilson, Strangers to ourselves)

–Jon Haidt

Posted in civil politics, news commentary1 Comment »

One Response to “In politics, people don’t gravitate to the truth”

  1. [...] Therefore, they refuse to engage in any discourse on the subject. For example, Obama frequently says “I am the eternal optimist. I think that over time people respond to–to civility and rational [...]

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