Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 11/04/2014

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Shouting at elephants

Politics, apparently, makes us stupid.

So says Yale academic Dan Kahan and his colleagues in a study that suggested that the smarter we are, the more likely we are to be blinded by our politics.

How did they reach this conclusion? Over a thousand people took part in the study, where they had to answer a maths question that seemed simple at first glance but actually required some thinking to nail it. Two versions of the question were asked; both involved interpreting the results of made-up scientific experiments. The first asked harmlessly about whether a skin-cream was effective at treating rashes, and the second, more morally-loaded question, asked whether a gun ban was effective at reducing crime rates.  

Surprisingly, while the essence of the maths problem remained the same, people’s ability to answer correctly varied depending on whether they thought the experiment was about skin cream or gun control. What’s more, the maths wizards who predictably performed better on the morally-neutral skin cream variant were more likely to let their beliefs about gun control overwhelm their usually-meticulous calculations.

These findings echo what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in his 2011 book, “Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow.” “Thinking fast” is intuitive, automatic and emotional, and “thinking slow” is more reflective, controlled and logical—a divide more commonly referred to as the heart and the mind. 

Another professor, Jonathan Haidt likens the relationship between heart and mind as one between an elephant and its rider. Our heart is the elephant, powerful and strong; our mind the rider, desperately clinging on while trying to direct this most unwieldy of beasts. Kahan’s study suggests that the rider matters, but only when the elephant already agrees.

Politics here in New Zealand could be seen as an epic battle of invisible elephants. The majority of debates presume that the “other guys” (those who stubbornly disagree with us) are misguided at best, malicious at worst, and that with enough information and evidence they will finally see the light.

But while we shout at the riders without any regard for their elephants—people’s deeply-held values and beliefs—we will continue to talk past one another, and continue to remain just where we are. Technology amplifies this polarising process too, as we choose to consume media slanted towards what we already believe—the left more likely to raise The Standard, the right more likely to dive into Whale Oil

While the battle will continue as long as people hold different beliefs, all is not lost. We need to do two things to sharpen and deepen our political debates: firstly, acknowledge the other elephants in the room, and secondly, train our own. 

Let’s assume that the other guys have good intentions at least and possibly something worth listening to. Their values may differ, but instead of ignoring them, we need to engage at that level to move forward. This requires us to examine our own values as well. Like learning a musical instrument, learning to live well with others in our homes and in our nation takes time and practice. It’s worth it though—well-trained elephants can really get stuff done.

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Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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