Feeling, Fast and Slow

Before the Yiannopoulos thing hit, I wanted to write about how the fright factor of a risk often counts more than its rationally assessed likelihood or impact. A few weeks ago I attended a mediation (for work — my personal life is not that dramatic). Before negotiations started, the mediator, a retired judge I respect a lot, brought together the teams from both sides and asked each of us to review the last movie we saw. (Mine was Arrival — big thumbs up!) She wanted us to see each other as human beings, not as combatants, explaining that “We are emotional creatures who think, not thinking creatures who feel.”

There’s plenty of research to back her up. Just a sample: University of Oregon psychology professor (and former president of the Society of Risk Analysis) Paul Slovic and three colleagues noted in 2002 that “Although analysis is certainly important in some decision-making circumstances, reliance on affect and emotion is a quicker, easier, and more efficient way to navigate in a complex, uncertain, and sometimes dangerous world.”

Quicker, easier, and more efficient, yes. But more accurate?

During a lull in the mediation, the judge and I chatted about her handling of the joint session, which less-skilled mediators use in ways that exacerbate tensions. She admitted she’s been influenced by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman and his associate Amos Tversky, subjects of a new book by Michael Lewis (The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds), worked the same ground as my hero Carlo Cipolla: proving the bedrock premise of economic theory — that humans make economic decisions according to their rational self-interest — is false. Kahneman’s landmark work isn’t so much about feeling versus reasoning as about leaping to conclusions versus working something through. He argues that in the information age gut reaction is useful, but should prompt, not pre-empt, deeper analysis.

Both phenomena— our inclination to react emotionally rather than intellectually, and then to take the easy way out intellectually — make it harder to comprehend our predicaments and resolve them. Throw on top of that the impenetrable fog of ignorance and delusion we all wade through and we shouldn’t be surprised when rational arguments like the simple risk assessment of radical Islamic terrorism I did a few weeks ago have no impact, yet incoherent but emotionally loaded arguments do.

If anything deserves rigorous analytical thinking, it’s politics. But the influence of emotional argument on American political discourse has rarely been more evident than in the last election, when populist resentment added kick to Trump’s authoritarian appeal. When referring contemptuously to the elite, Trump’s followers didn’t mean the genuinely powerful, the aptly named one percent. If they had, they wouldn’t have looked to the billionaire Trump for salvation. They meant the considerably more numerous portion of society — which probably includes everyone reading this sympathetically — that has adapted to the information economy and provides the technical, creative, and problem-solving expertise that sustains it.

You know, the smart people.

Intelligent people screw up all the time. They are never beyond criticism. But generally they are seeking what I referred to in my initial post as smart solutions to the human condition: those that reduce the vulnerability of the individual and others.

Smart solutions can be difficult to explain in simple, emotional terms. But criticism of smart solutions? Easy — just pour on the fear. Despite problems, the practical effect of the Affordable Care Act has been to extend previously unobtainable health insurance to millions of people, thereby reducing their suffering, while slowing the inflation rate of health care costs for most people who already have coverage. But the febrile opposition to so-called Obamacare used misinformation about frightening possibilities (need I remind anyone of Sarah Palin’s death panels?) to make repeal of the act an imperative once Republicans gained control of the federal government.

Is it any wonder that seven years after the Affordable Care Act’s passage, the Republicans have no smart alternative to it?

Fear is having a moment — one likely to last a long time and perhaps do catastrophic damage. But politically, I think most Americans are not fear-driven. Evidence of that coming soon.

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