Having a concrete worldview will cost you
I was a die-hard ideologue when I was young. My flavor of choice happened to be liberalism, but it could have just as easily been conservatism, communism, or any other -ism, if I had been raised in a different time or place.
I spent my time in online (and real life) echo chambers. My fellow travelers and I spent our time reaffirming our beliefs and mocking the outsiders. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was making myself dumber.
Ideology is appealing. It offers a simple explanation of how things are, a simple description of how they ought to be, and a simple map from here to there. It explains things as effortlessly as any conspiracy theory, while still being intellectually respectable.
My ideology told me how I could fix the world, and that whenever things went wrong it wasn’t because of us, but because of them. Problems weren’t caused by inevitable trade-offs, unanticipated consequences or unrealistic goals. They were caused by rivals and traitors.
I didn’t know that there were scientifically proven costs to being an ideologue. Of course, even if I had known, I might have stuck to my guns. There are good sides to being dogmatic, after all.
I hope that I would have opened my mind a little, though. If you’re the same as I was, then I want to tempt you to look through the kaleidoscope of multiple perspectives instead of wearing the blinders of ideology. You don’t have to endure the same intellectual handicaps that I did.
Confidence at the cost of competence
The political scientist Philip Tetlock made his name studying political forecasting. For his book Expert Political Judgment, he surveyed nearly 300 experts over decades, asking them to make predictions about how the world would change — for example, whether the US economy would grow or shrink over the next year. His results showed an eye-opening fact about what makes someone good at predicting geopolitical change.
It didn’t matter whether an expert was left wing or right wing. It didn’t much matter if they were pessimistic or optimistic about the future, or if they called themselves a foreign policy realist or idealist. Self-identified “moderates” did a bit better, but there was a more important division. Tetlock split the experts into two groups based on how they think: foxes and hedgehogs.
Foxes get the details right and see things from multiple perspectives with multiple explanations. Hedgehogs have complete faith in their single big-picture belief — liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, whatever — and apply it to every situation. They dismiss any contradictory evidence. In other words, they’re ideologues.
Foxes blew hedgehogs out of the water. The hedgehogs’ fixed ideology kept them from understanding the world enough to predict how it would change. They were also much more confident in their pronouncements, even as they were much less accurate!
Passion at the cost of perspective
The human mind is a quirky thing. One of those quirks is called “motivated reasoning”: the process where we start with an outcome we want and then come up with reasons to justify it. We want to believe a rival is a bad person, so we start looking for examples of them doing bad things.
This usually isn’t an intentional, cynical process. It’s something that happens subconsciously whether we want it to or not.
A facet of motivated reasoning is “confirmation bias,” also called “myside bias.” When people are presented with a list of arguments about subject they don’t care about, they’re able to see the pros and cons. Generally, people with a higher IQ do better at remembering arguments from both sides.
However, when people are presented with arguments on a controversial issue, they lose the ability to remember arguments they oppose- and intelligence makes it worse. Being smarter makes you worse at understanding the other side. That’s myside bias.
Once you’re fully committed to a side, you lose out on perspective, no matter how smart you are. That’s made worse by the human tendency to avoid arguments you disagree with. People will even sacrifice money to avoid hearing the other side of an issue. Even if there were no myside bias, and we were able to appreciate arguments we disagree with, we’d work to avoid hearing those arguments in the first place.
This might not bother you if you have the one true answer on every issue and don’t need to understand opposing arguments. If you think about it, though, isn’t that confidence a little improbable? Surely some issues have grey areas, pros and cons, and arguments for both sides.
That’s the value in hanging back instead of committing your mind fully to one orthodoxy.
Is the cost too high?
Does that mean ideology is just wrong and bad? No, not exactly. It has costs but it also has benefits. It may make you unreasonable, but, as George Bernard Shaw said, “all progress depends on the unreasonable [person].” Great things have been done by people who gave up their perspective and the fox-like ability to understand the world, and chose instead the life of a crusader.
Terrible things have been done as well, however. The sacrifices ideologues make mean they’re the worst judge of whether they’re improving the world or making things worse. That’s why they need foxes, though they’d be loath to admit it.
Especially lately, US politics has a dearth of foxes and an excess of hedgehogs. The right thing to do today may be to keep an open mind and stay aloof.