Cognitive Bias and the Pundit Class
Those of us who think we're overreacting to terrorism should remember that we're in a tiny minority.
Bruce Schneier, perhaps the most prominent opponent of post-9/11 “security theater,” says that we should shut down the Washington Monument to “serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do.” Like me, Kevin Drum is largely sympathetic to this attitude (if not the proposal, which is presumably tongue-in-cheek).
There’s a certain class of people to whom his prescription sounds great. Refuse to be terrorized! Stop being such babies! I’m a member of that class. I would happily accept a slightly increased risk of terrorist attack in return for a less intrusive security regime. I think we’re way too willing to let fear rule our culture. On a purely personal level, this stuff infuriates me.
But those of us who feel that way really have an obligation to understand just how out of the mainstream we are. I’m willing to bet that most of us are a bit nerdy, sort of hyperanalytical, maybe even slightly Aspergers-ish. We’re comfortable — too comfortable, probably — viewing the ebb and flow of human lives as an accounting exercise. We’re also very sure of ourselves, generally pretty verbal, and we have soapboxes to shout from.
And, at a guess, we represent maybe 10% of the population. At most.
There are a number of issues, with this being perhaps the best recent example, where my views are firmly grounded in reason, passionately held, and yet in the decided minority. Like Kevin, I’m both eager to advocate my views and attempt to persuade those who disagree of the irrationality of their position and try to be cognizant that I’m an anomaly.
Most of us in the punditry game are INTJ types whose analytical mindsets have been reinforced by academic training and career choices. We tend to be driven by data and accepting of the random chaos of the universe in a way that normal people aren’t. And, as I constantly point out, we’re also freakishly interested in politics and policy, whereas the vast majority of our fellow citizens have enough sense to ignore these things until a couple weeks before the election.
Some of us are at least self aware enough to realize how unusual we are. In my own case, it’s likely a result of having spent several years teaching undergraduates.
The harder thing, especially for those who are “slightly Aspergers-ish,” is to avoid concluding that everyone who disagrees with you is therefore an over-emotional moron. Kevin again:
I’m only saying that we hypereducated types need to at least try to understand how most people react to the prospect of directed violence. If, for example, I hear one more person compare the number of deaths from terrorism to the number of deaths from car accidents, I think I’m going to scream. Human beings react differently to accidental death than they do to deliberate attacks from other human beings. This is human nature 101. If you honestly think that the car-terrorism comparison is persuasive to anyone, you are so wildly out of touch with your fellow humans that there’s probably no hope for you.
Liberals lost massive amounts of trust among ordinary voters in the 60s and 70s by not taking crime seriously. The result was catastrophic: a massive overreaction led by conservatives that was made possible because liberals didn’t have the credibility to offer any pushback at all. In fact, it was worse than that: for a good many years, liberal opposition to crime measures probably made them more popular. That’s what happens when you fall too far out of touch with the lived experiences of everyday people.
Mass visceral reaction, like deep religious faith, is virtually impossible to comprehend from a purely analytical perspective. But you can’t understand politics without accounting for them.