Let’s all become better listeners (Part 2): The first step in partisan detoxification

By Kent R. Kroeger (April 11, 2018)

{Send comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com}

We are not born good decision-makers.

Our ability to analyze our environment, distilling its numerous variables down to those most critical to a valid causal model, and then employing that model to make good decisions is often poor.

More problematically, when our judgments are wrong, we tend to rationalize those mistakes as being the result of others’ errors or the result of being “mostly” correct but wrong in our timing.

As political psychologist Paul Tetlock observed, “Everything is obvious once you know the answer.”

Tetlock has spent over 20 years doing research on the fallibility of subject-matter experts. In one study, which took almost 20 years to complete, he determined the accuracy of 28,000 political and economic forecasts made by 284 experts and found that how an expert thinks matters more than what an expert thinks.

Conservatives are no better or worse than liberals at making forecasts. Optimists do not out perform pessimists. Years of experience in a subject-matter do not strongly correlate with accuracy. What does matter is judgment style, according to Tetlock, who uses Greek poet Archilochus’ concept of the fox (that “knows many things”) and the hedgehog (who knows “one great thing”) to make his point.

In Tetlock’s version, the hedgehog views outcomes as part of one grand theory (Capitalism, Marxism, Clash of Civilizations, etc.) and prefer parsimony in their decision models, while a fox tends to be skeptical of grand theories and more flexible in changing their decision models when actual events suggest to do so.

Tetlock found that hedgehogs tend to clash only with their political opposition while foxes annoy everyone across the political spectrum as they are more likely to incorporate knowledge from across the political spectrum when they make decisions.

Extrapolating from Tetlock’s conclusions on judgment style, it should not surprise us that in times of sharp partisan divisions (like today) we tend towards being hedgehogs rather than foxes.

That is bad thing as it suggests our partisan divisions are closing our minds to information from other political perspectives that would otherwise help us in making better decisions.

There is another way of describing today’s strong partisans. They are people that have stopped thinking.

In his 2006 book “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?Tetlock warned, “ The dominant danger remains hubris, the mostly hedgehog vice of closed-mindedness, of dismissing dissonant possibilities too quickly.”

His other warning is that experts are not only often wrong, but are rarely held accountable for their mistakes, thereby, allowing those same experts to avoid reconciling the inherent flaws in their decision models with reality.

This phenomenon is called Outcome-Irrelevant Learning Structure. Without accurate and consistent feedback, we fail to make the necessary corrections to our decision models.

But Tetlock doesn’t just detail the problems in how experts make judgments, he offers solutions, one of which is to systematically track the predictions of experts:

“ There is value in using publicly verifiable correspondence and coherence benchmarks to gauge the quality of public debates. The more people know about pundits’ track records, the stronger the pundits’ incentives to compete by improving the epistemic (truth) value of their products, not just by pandering to communities of co-believers.”

In other words, being a shameless political or corporate hack for a cable news network will become less profitable.

Along with accountability, Tetlock enjoins decision-makers to become better at listening to divergent opinions and to more openly consider contradictory information when making decisions.

Enjoy your mistakes and learn from them.

Don’t be seduced by charismatic hedgehogs and their grand theories and epic poems of glory and conquest, as they are laden with many layers of bullsh*t. Instead, seek out the foxes who tend towards less sexy conclusions and often qualify their findings with probabilistic modifiers like “may” or “possibly” or “probably.”

If you think you are good at this already, you are probably wrong.

Writer Geoff Colvin will suck the optimism out of anyone who thinks they have achieved expert status in their chosen discipline. In his view, we are deceiving ourselves if we think our hard work and experience has gained us expert status.

In his book “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” he writes:

Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.
In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills — stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants — people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.
Instead of experience and hard work, according to Colvin, the key to developing into a true expert is what he calls “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice? Sounds like just another term for hard work, yes?

No, not exactly.

According to Colvin, becoming an expert comes down to four learned habits:

(1) Learning by teaching — if you really want to learn anything, teach it to someone else.
(2) Practice frequently and receive lots of feedback.
(3) Incorporate feedback from many perspectives.
(4) Push for minor improvements with every practice attempt.

Colvin’s prescriptions for becoming an expert (and therefore making better decisions) dovetails nicely with Tetlock’s emphasis on listening, open-mindedness, accountability and improvement.

How does the work of Tetlock and Colvin relate to political partisanship?

Tetlock shows empirically how decisions made with ‘closed cognitive systems’ tend to fail, particularly as conditions change over time. Strong partisanship requires the uniform acceptance of facts, concepts and ideas in contradistinction to other opposing facts, concepts and ideas. Partisanship isn’t about learning, its about drawing clear lines of distinction.

Colvin’s work, on the other hand, highlights how our human flaws, such as resistance to feedback and change, work against our attempts to become better decision makers.

We hate to listen and we hate change, which is one reason the Trump presidency has been so hard for some to swallow.

It is much easier to call working-class white men ‘deplorable’ than it is to listen to their issues and concerns and potentially change one’s own views.

In considering the hyper-partisanship we see today in our media and political realms, Tetlock’s and Colvin’s research should make us ask, why are we so confident in our partisan views on politics and public policy?

We shouldn’t be.

Instead, we need to start taking some small steps in bringing civility and mutual understanding back to our political world. We can start by becoming more humble and recognizing the frailty of our own expertise. From there we can start learning a skill that has become a lost art in the country: listening.

Becoming good listeners should be our first collective step in the partisan detoxification of today’s political culture.

K.R.K.