Rational group-think

In unsurprising news, party ideology is associated with views on Obamacare. Are these evidence-based views? Most likely not.

Thus, at one level—a very individualistic one—it will make perfect sense in this situation for individuals to attend to information, including evidence of what is known to science, that promote the formation of identity-congruent beliefs. Again, even citizens of modest science literacy and critical reasoning skills will likely be able to form such beliefs without difficulty—because figuring out what view prevails among those with whom one shares one’s most important connections depends on a basic kind of cultural competence, not on an understanding of or a facility with empirical evidence. But those citizens who enjoy above-average science comprehension will not face any less incentive to form such beliefs; indeed, they will face pressure to use their intelligence and reasoning skills to find evidentiary support for identity-congruent beliefs the comprehension of which would likely exceed the capacity of most of their peers (Kahan, Peters, Wittlin, Slovic, Ouellette, Braman & Mandel 2012).

At a collective level, of course, this style of engaging decision-relevant science can be disastrous. If all individuals follow it at the same time, it will impede a democratic society from converging, or at least converging as quick as it otherwise would, on understandings of fact consistent with the best available evidence on matters that affect their common welfare. This outcome, however, will not change the incentive of any individual—who despite the harm he or she suffers as a result of unaddressed risks or ill-considered policies cannot change the course of public policymaking by changing his or her personal stances, which, if contrary to the ones that prevail in that person’s group, will continue to expose him or her to considerable social disadvantage. […]

We submit that a form of information processing cannot reliably be identified as “irrational,” “subrational,” “boundedly rational” or the like independent of what an individuals’ aims are in making use of information. It is perfectly rational, from an individual-welfare perspective, for individuals to engage decision-relevant science in a manner that promotes culturally or politically congenial beliefs. Making a mistake about the best-available evidence on an issue like climate change, nuclear waste disposal, or gun control will not increase the risk an ordinary member of the public faces, while forming a belief at odds with the one that predominates on it within important affinity groups of which they are members could expose him or her to an array of highly unpleasant consequences (Kahan 2012).

That’s from a very interesting paper by Dan Kahan on “motivated numeracy“. It is, believe it or not, about an interesting randomized experiment. I’d tell you about it, but you could just as well read the paper. It’s ungated. Recognizing that it’s long and you’re busy, I recommend you at least read Chris Mooney’s summary. If even that’s too long for you, try Kevin Drum. The real reason I’m not writing a longer post is that Kevin and Chris have already done better jobs than I could do.


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