In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy scored an approval rating of 24 percent in June, one of the lowest ever. Less than two months later, Malloy was speaking at the Democratic National Convention and touting his successful tutelage of initiatives like paid sick-leave and a higher minimum-wage.
This, despite the fact that “just days before taking the stage in Philadelphia, U.S. prosecutors convened a grand jury to look into the Democrats’ fundraising efforts to get Malloy re-elected in 2014.”
More recently, Hillary Clinton, attempted to calm the controversy surrounding her classified emails on a private server, saying FBI Director James Comey found her explanation to be “truthful.”
In reality, while “Clinton repeatedly said she did not have any classified information whatsoever in her email,” Comey said after his investigation that she “unequivocally did.”
And then there’s Donald Trump. Where to begin? Suffice to say, among 158 of Trump’s infinite claims, 78 percent were found to be false.
Fact, fiction, or fantasy, indeed. What else should we expect from our politicians?
But it’s not just politicians. In this age of social media where everybody has a voice and is not afraid to use it — including yours truly — everyday citizens routinely trumpet their own views, regardless of how ridiculous or unfounded.
This newfound capacity to communicate has emboldened people’s self-confidence at the expense of humility. You remember “humility” — “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people; the quality or state of being humble.”
Author/philosopher/motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford invokes 20th century philosopher Iris Murdoch to explain that “in order to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly,” which requires the process of “unselfing.”
Writes Murdoch: “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity, and realism is to be connected with virtue.”
In other words, it is humility — not chest-thumping on Facebook — that promotes greater understanding of a confusing world. Recent studies support this point.
An article in “Cognitive Science,” for example, explains how most people are inclined to believe their own reasoning over that of others. Not surprising. But the unwavering confidence people have in their own reasoning is anything but reasonable.
“Under the right conditions, many people fail to recognize that a choice they made previously has been swapped with an alternative,” writes psychology professor Tania Lombrozo.
The phenomenon is called “choice blindness,” a close relative of confirmation bias. Researchers including Emmanuel Trouche designed a study that demonstrated just how powerful choice blindness can be.
“Across two studies, more than 400 participants recruited online were presented with word problems that required them to draw inferences from limited information.” Then, “in a subsequent phase of the experiment, participants were presented with the same problems, along with choices and arguments purportedly provided by other participants.” Thing is, researchers gave participants their own original arguments but told participants that the arguments came from other people. The result?
“People rejected their own arguments over 50 percent of the time, failing to find them sufficiently compelling to change what they thought was their initial response. In other words, people were less critical of the very same arguments when they produced them themselves than when they were later presented as coming from another person.”
A simple case of self-deluding self-confidence. What’s needed, according to another study, is simple curiosity.
Dan Kahan of Yale discovered that even while people tend to lean on their own political orientation to derive meaning, a little curiosity can go a long way.
In one experiment, “Democrats and Republicans — who were either high or low on science curiosity — were randomly assigned to choose a story to read about climate change, and had to do so based only on its title.” Kahan found that “the science-curious in both parties were more inclined to read ‘surprising’ information over humdrum information, and that was so even when it went against their own views. The less scientifically curious were more inclined to simply read information that agreed with what they already think.”
The lesson? A humble attitude fosters open-mindedness and a greater understanding of the world.
While I don’t expect many politicians to demonstrate such cognitive composure, I wonder about the average citizen. Have the scales already tipped irreversibly in the direction of blind self-assurance? For the sake of everybody’s future, let’s hope not.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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