Philosophy Weekend: Cognitive Bias Gone Wild

Existential News Poker Politics

Okay, enough about what the US Supreme Court's historic ruling to uphold Obamacare means for the country. Let's talk about what our reaction told us about us. It sure was a strange reaction.

The decision was scheduled to be announced on Thursday morning, June 28, starting at 10:am. The first few sentences of the announcement appeared a few minutes later on the SCOTUSblog live stream, and as soon as the first sentences appeared, public hysteria ensued.

At least a full half hour of absolute hysteria followed, mostly caused by the fact that two cable news networks, CNN and Fox News, reported incorrectly that Obamacare had been overturned. The confusion was cleared up quickly, but now everybody was confused, and somehow the hysterical pitch of the first few minutes became the de facto tone of the news coverage for the entire day.

Even today, two days later, there is still an undertone of shock to all coverage and discussion of the Supreme Court verdict -- appreciative and relieved shock on the pro-Obamacare side, and indignant, infuriated shock on the anti- side.

I wasn't shocked. I've been following the healthcare debate closely for years, and I know the bill had been carefully designed to make it through the Supreme Court (the Obama administration is not stupid, after all). I was amazed that so many allegedly knowledgeable people were predicting that the Supreme Court would find ACA unconstitutional, because anybody who knows the history of the US Supreme Court knows how unusual a decision to overturn a law on such optional grounds would have been. The Supreme Court (as Chief Justice John Roberts would finally explain in his preamble) doesn't have a history of challenging legislation at this level, and makes an effort to steer clear of partisan politics. The honor and reputation of the court would clearly be at stake if it made a dramatic decision to overturn such a major piece of legislation, and it was Chief Justice John Roberts's responsibility above all to defend the integrity of the Supreme Court by moving cautiously.

Which he eventually did, thus proving that, however often we may disagree with his decisions (and I disagree with several of Chief Justice Roberts's decisions), he has maintained the honor of the Supreme Court with this decision, and thus proved, seven years after accepting the title of Chief Justice, that he deserves it.

In the days before June 28, I felt a rising panic that ACA would be overturned (despite my conviction that it couldn't be), because I was reading so many other predictions that this would happen. During these days, I became angry at some of my liberal friends who seemed willing to take such a controversial Supreme Court decision lying down. If this happened, I said, it would be an outrage, and ought to promote the angriest protest since at least the Iraq War. Didn't anyone see this? Finally, the night before the ruling, I read a short article by Tom Goldstein, publisher of the SCOTUSblog, that also predicted (against popular opinion) the same thing, and this filled me with enough confidence in my reasoning that I announced my prediction (and my agreement with Tom Goldstein) on Twitter:

Now of course I get to brag that I was right, even though I was blind-sided by Anthony Kennedy joining Scalia, Alito and Thomas on the dissenting opinion. But do I really have a right to brag? I have been wrong about things as often as I have been right. For instance, I was sure that Al Gore would become President in 2000, and I was then floored when we re-elected George W. Bush in 2004. I lost dinner bets on both. I have also been stunned many times to see the New York Mets lose postseason games, even after going through the trouble of logically proving to my friends why the Mets were certain to win. It's happened to me a lot.

I like to think I'm a genius whenever I guess something correctly, but a book I've been enjoying, Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, reminds us of the powerful role confirmation bias plays in all our political opinions and beliefs. We don't develop our opinions and beliefs through cold logical analysis, Haidt points out; we develop them as constructions of our desired realities.

I like Haidt's book because it's sharply written, though I think these are the same points William James made more than a century ago, and I prefer the term "cognitive bias" to "confirmation bias", maybe just because I like the synergy with another favorite phrase of mine, "cognitive dissonance".

There's nothing new about the concept of confirmation bias or cognitive bias, but it is still surprising to see the extent of delusion this bias can cause. The fury and outrage we heard from surprised anti-Obamacare conservatives on Thursday, June 28 was the exploding of a public delusion. All over the country, we heard the expressions of surprise about what should have been obvious on simple historical grounds. Our smartest politicians, activists, journalists, bloggers, tweeters, workplace-talkers and private citizens had really convinced themselves that the Supreme Court would overturn Obamacare, just because they wanted it so badly.

I shouldn't gloat, because I have been the victim of my own cognitive bias, and I have suffered from my own delusions. As I wrote above, I had convinced myself on election day in 2004 that George W. Bush's poor leadership of the Iraq War would result in the election of John Kerry. It sounds silly now, but several of my friends also truly believed it, and we all were as shocked as if the election had been stolen when the news informed us that we were wrong. This was my own cognitive bias, blazing away at full speed.

I'm a poker player, and I know I've seen a lot of cognitive bias at the poker table. Cognitive bias is the expert poker player's best weapon, and he watches for every sign of it around the table. "My pocket queens looks so good. Of course it's going to hold up, even though there's an ace on the flop and this guy is reaching for his chips" ....

Is this fool even thinking about the odds? Somebody will be holding an ace, of course -- the only way your queens will hold up is if you get a third one, dummy! Cognitive bias is what makes the game of poker work.

Cognitive bias plays such a gigantic role in our everyday lives that we can't even say it's a bad thing. It's what keeps us moving. It's helps us love each other. We probably wouldn't be able to live without it.

But it's amazing what happens when an entire portion of the population suffers cognitive bias at once. It's a powerful influence on a single mind, but it can be cyclonic when it possesses our group mind. I think that's happened more than once during this long tendentious national debate over health insurance reform in the United States, and I do hope the nation can start to calm down, give the cognitive bias a rest, give the new law a chance to prove itself, and see if it doesn't all end up working out well. Call me an optimist; I think it will.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Key. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Siri Hustvedt on Desire.
18 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Cognitive Bias Gone Wild"

by Subject Sigma on

"The Supreme Court (as Chief Justice John Roberts would finally explain in his preamble) doesn't have a history of challenging legislation at this level, and makes an effort to steer clear of partisan politics. The honor and reputation of the court would clearly be at stake if it made a dramatic decision to overturn such a major piece of legislation, and it was Chief Justice John Roberts's responsibility above all to defend the integrity of the Supreme Court by moving cautiously."

America, great nation! From the other side of the ocean, I am so envious.

by mtmynd on

Our country's politics move very slowly, some say cautiously, and others say with fear. Once this Law goes into full effect in 18 months, barring any stupidity on the Republican side, I believe by then the public at large will agree the Law benefits the majority of our citizens. It is incumbent upon the Prez and his admin to not flood the airways with the benefits but rather deliver the facts slowly so as to not overwhelm, assuring the public the Law is not 'funny business' but a serious and well-thought out Law that will do America right.

by Subject Sigma on

Aside from political thoughts...

"We don't develop our opinions and beliefs through cold logical analysis, Haidt points out; we develop them as constructions of our desired realities."

Is there no possibility of both mechanisms being true, in a two-time process? Opinion created from a logical analysis, and then modified by our desired reality; or also opinion created by our desires, then reinforced by some partial analysis of reality?

"Cognitive bias plays such a gigantic role in our everyday lives that we can't even say it's a bad thing. It's what keeps us moving. It's helps us love each other. We probably wouldn't be able to live without it."

In my opinion, it is very possible: that makes it much easier to "put together" everything, if our knowledge of "true reality" is converging to our desired reality. Maybe cognitive bias keeps moving peoples that do not want to achieve an higher level of consciousness over the mechanics of their knowledge.

by Levi Asher on

Sigma, definitely, it must be true that both mechanisms work together to create our belief systems. A belief system that is based only on wish fulfillment, without a strong grounding in reality, would obviously not serve the basic function of a belief system, which is to guide us and lead us through over lives.

I emphasized the role of desire/bias over the role of reason/evidence/logic in what I wrote above because this is the part of cognition that is controversial. We all agree that we live in reality -- the question is, to what degree do we allow our willfulness and our emotions to shape our understanding of reality? According to Jonathan Haidt, and William James (and, of course, many others) this plays a more prominent role than we often realize.

The outcome of SCOTUS aside, I can never forget the fallacy Nancy Pelosi put forth before the bill came up for a vote. "We have to pass this bill to find out what's in it."

Whichever side of the aisle you're on and whether you're for or against the health care act stop and consider how ludicrous that statement is.

by Levi Asher on

Howard -- well, there were a lot of ludicrous statements on both sides of this long, intense legislative battle.

Here's one for my side: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, just this weekend, being told that if he and his fellow Republicans repeal Obamacare, that will leave 30 million Americans without health insurance. He said "that's not the issue". What could possibly be a more important issue than 30 million Americans without health insurance?

Levi, McConnell was correct when he said "that's not the issue." The issue was whether or not the bill is constitutional. I'm happy with the decision, don't get me wrong, but I'm just saying, we don't want something that's unconstitutional, no matter how good it seems.

by Levi Asher on

Well, Bill, what I am saying is if Mitch McConnell is claiming to be any kind of effective politician, and he represents the Republican party for the whole Senate, and he is proposing a repeal that would leave 30 million Americans without health insurance ... he sure as hell better understand that it's a big issue.

And, yes, a bill passed by Congress and signed by the President ought to be constitutional. Which the Supreme Court has just declared this was, and which was never really in doubt (though the conservative mass media played it up like it was).

It boils down to this. Republicans feel that heath care is a privilege that you earn from working. If you don't work, you don't deserve health care. Tell that to the millions of unemployed. Or, how about the people that work and still don't have health care.

It's another one of the us against them social agendas that they try hide in economic terms. Shame on you Mitch McConnell. Shame on you Boehner.

by Levi Asher on

Michael, I'd also add that many people who can't afford health insurance are working in jobs that don't offer health insurance, or are trying to work and can't find jobs that offer insurance. They can't get insurance as private individuals or families because the price is too high, or because of pre-existing conditions. It becomes tragic when entire families go uninsured because of this.

I have always said that the problem with healthcare is the same as the problem with high finance/Wall Street before the 2007/2008 crash. Insurance companies have taken advantage of the deregulation trend that began in the 1980s (this deregulation has been the ultimate source of many of our financial problems) and became corrupted by the same hyperprofit-crazed wealth-generating mania that brought down Wall Street. Like banking, the insurance system could not manage to remain honest in a deregulated environment, and began to rot.

Obamacare really amounts to nothing more than a reform of the health insurance industry -- a reform that's been badly needed for decades. I hope that people of all political persuasions in the USA will try to calm down and take a clear look at the good things the bill will do, and I think everybody will eventually realize that this is a necessary and helpful change.

by TKG on

"It boils down to this. Republicans feel that health care is a privilege that you earn from working."

Hi Michael,

I assume you are a Republican?

by TKG on

"if he and his fellow Republicans repeal Obamacare, that will leave 30 million Americans without health insurance"

I don't believe this. I think it is empty rhetoric.

Explain this.

TKG - I am not a Republican by the farthest stretch of the imagination. For me, health care is a human right.

by Levi Asher on

CNN Money.

TKG, according to this, 49 million Americans currently don't have health insurance. What part of the statement don't you believe, and why?

I know people without health insurance. I know people with cancer without health insurance. This is why people like me support Obamacare -- it's not about politics. It's about health insurance.

by TKG on

Hi Levi,

The question is how does Obamacare provide people with health insurance.

You wrote if Obamacare is repealed it will "leave 30 million Americans without health insurance."

How has/does Obamacare provide people with health insurance?

by TKG on

Hi Michael,

I figured you must be Republican as you were speaking for them. It would be interesting to know the basis for your attributions of their thought.

On a separate note, what do you consider not to be a human right?

by Levi Asher on

TKG: Obamacare is expected to solve the insurance problems of 60% of the 50 million uninsured, through a combination of individual mandate for those who can afford it, and extended Medicaid or other aid services for those that can't afford it. It also strikes down exploitative insurance company pricing practices that made it too expensive for certain categories of patients -- like people with diseases, who need healthcare the most.

Why don't you like the bill?

TKG - I have a friend who is a Republican, and he was unemployed. He told me "I don't deserve health insurance because I don't have a job". I asked him why. He said "our (speaking for his Republican party) belief is that health insurance is a privilige not a right."

He could be lying or representing his own views as that of the Republicans, but I took it at face value, and that's what I base my statement on.

It is not a human right to kill, steal, or violate any of the other ten commandments.

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