Consensus in the policy world and the limits to motivated cognition

Among the many things that no one would have predicted 18 months ago is that there would be anything that nearly every policy expert agrees on. But there is: they do not support Donald Trump. This says something interesting and, possibly, hopeful about policy debate in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal reports that

no former members of the White House Council of Economic Advisers—spanning eight presidents—openly support Mr. Trump.

121 Republican foreign policy experts have signed a letter opposing Trump. I am unable to find a conservative health wonk who supports Trump, but I know many who hold him in contempt. Among people who have a reasonable claim to expertise in policy-relevant disciplines, few think that Trump is fit to be president.

I would not have predicted this, given my views about how people form their beliefs. I worry a lot about motivated cognition in policy debate. In motivated cognition, people select facts to support pre-existing beliefs, rather than changing their beliefs to cohere with facts. In particular, people distort their reasoning to preserve the beliefs that sustain their core social identities, including their political affiliations.

But we may be seeing a counter-example to motivated reasoning in 2016. The institution of the Republican Party and most of its voters have committed themselves to Trump. The policy experts in that world could have followed the Party, making up stories to rationalize their support for Trump. To their great credit, they haven’t.

I’m confident that there won’t be consensus about health policy if Clinton wins. But I am revising my beliefs about how we form beliefs: there are at least some limits to politically-motivated reasoning.


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