Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Psychotic States of America

Legendary Canadian historian and astonishingly prolific author, Pierre Berton, was discussing his 1982 book, "Why We Act Like Canadians," when he was asked what he found to be the biggest single difference between Canadians and Americans. He didn't hesitate before saying it was that many Americans had a pathological need to believe while Canadians were skeptical, especially of authority.

Flash forward to the Age of Trump.

Donald Trump, of course, loves to stage rallies. It's hard to watch them. Hard to watch the fans in attendance as he fills their minds with obvious lies upon obvious lies and they simply lap it all up. These are people who exhibit what Berton described as that pathological need to believe.

Trump's loyal base can appear to be psychotic.
The word psychosis is used to describe conditions that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality. When someone becomes ill in this way it is called a psychotic episode. During a period of psychosis, a person’s thoughts and perceptions are disturbed and the individual may have difficulty understanding what is real and what is not. Symptoms of psychosis include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not see or hear). Other symptoms include incoherent or nonsense speech, and behavior that is inappropriate for the situation. A person in a psychotic episode may also experience depression, anxiety, sleep problems, social withdrawal, lack of motivation, and difficulty functioning overall.
This delusional manifestation is explored by two American political scientists, Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, in their book released at the beginning of the year, "Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics."

Digby calls it a "must read if you want to understand why our politics have gone batshit crazy."

Jesse Singal reviews the book in New York Magazine.

The foundation of Oliver and Wood’s argument is the well-established fact that our brains have evolved a number of heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to help us quickly sift and act upon the world’s endless firehose of information. These heuristics can cause us to make less-than-ideal decisions.

...No one is totally free of these heuristics; they’re really built into who we are. But there are individual differences in the extent to which humans are driven by heuristics, and by other gut-level impulses. Enchanted America is most concerned with those at one end of the spectrum — people who engage in a lot of what the pair dub “magical thinking”:

When we refer to magical thinking, we are referring to a process that makes causal attributions to unobservable forces. For a belief to be magical, it must point to some invisible power, be it luck, God, or the Illuminati, that is making things happen. Of course, simply believing in an unobservable force or forces doesn’t make that belief magical — plenty of scientific theories refer to things we can’t directly observe (for example, dark matter). Rather, for a belief to be magical, it must also contradict an alternative explanation that is based on observable phenomena. Magical thinkers assume not only that hidden powers are behind much of what happens in the world, but that this explanation is more correct than an empirical one. [Emphasis theirs.]

Magical thinkers are the anti-vaxxers, the 9/11-truthers, and so on — people who are much less likely to be swayed by what others would describe as solid evidence about the genuine truth of these matters. Oliver and Wood have long been curious about what gives rise to this tendency, and to learn more they eventually developed a scale that can place individuals on a spectrum, with Rationalists — those who make decisions more on the basis of reason and evidence — on one end and Intuitionists — those who rely more on gut-level stuff like heuristics — on the other.

...Intuitionists ...are likely to be apprehensive and pessimistic, both in their daily behavior and in their thoughts about the future, and to be superstitious in the sense of being willing to choose potentially harmful or physically unpleasant activities (riding in a speeding car without a seat belt) over ones that feel wrong but won’t actually have any real-world effect (yelling that you hope you die). “[W]e don’t mean to imply that symbolic actions are costless for us — stabbing a family photograph may make someone feel awful,” Oliver and Wood write. “But magical thinking arises precisely from our willingness to imbue a symbol with this emotional significance — to give ordinary objects sacred power is to make them emotionally potent.”

...As you might suspect ...conservatives skew Intuitionist. And Trump fans skew even more Intuitionist than that.

...But it’s the Trumpenvolk who are, relative to followers of other politicians, the most fearful and superstitious. It should come as no surprise that they were drawn to a man constantly raising fears of immigrant invasions, foreign terrorists, and globe-spanning conspiracies with anti-Semitic undertones.

Oliver and Wood make it clear that when it comes to the question of Rationalism versus Intuitionism, they are partisans. “The Intuitionist/Rationalist split is not like other political divisions in the United States,” they write. “Intuitionism poses an existential threat to democracy. It is neither benign nor temperate. It bristles against open inquiry, is intolerant of opposition, and chafes at the pluralism and compromise modern democracy requires. It is prone to conspiracy theory, drawn to simple generalizations, and quick to vilify the other.”

Maybe the first step is for writers, pollsters, and all the other elites who remain confused about Trump’s appeal to better educate themselves about the Intuitionism scale, as well as other related constructs like conspiracism (what it sounds like) and need for cognitive closure (a preference for simple, straightforward thoughts without much ambiguity). Absent these insights from political psychology, it’s easy to get caught in an endless cycle of befuddlement: How could evangelical “values voters” be so unconcerned that Trump is a philanderer and former supporter of reproductive rights? How could down-on-their luck working-class whites have such enthusiasm for a brash mogul, born into a rich family, who has endlessly ripped off people like them, and who has openly stated he will cut the welfare benefits keeping many of them alive and housed? How could white, educated suburban women vote for a man who has been credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults?

Intuitionism can’t completely answer these questions, but it’s a start. It offers a concrete, promising foundation for better understanding Trump fans and others who don’t seem to have the same approach to facts and evidence that Rationalists have. And a better understanding of the genuine psychological underpinnings of these beliefs might, in the long run, bring with it better tactics for convincing the conspiracy-addled to rejoin the reality-based community.


h/t Jay Farquharson


Purple library guy said...

Not all intuitionism is the same, though. Wiccans are intuitionist but as far as I can tell they are tolerant, pluralist, and generally harmless--and indeed, their intuitionism is not fear-driven. I still think they're foolish, but it seems quite different from the dominant American fear-and-loathing intutionism.

Jay Farquharson said...

"And a better understanding of the genuine psychological underpinnings of these beliefs might, in the long run, bring with it better tactics for convincing the conspiracy-addled to rejoin the reality-based community."

The problem is, the Deplorables, the God Botherer's, the Gullibillies, the Nazi's, have bag fulls of cray cray, of different kinds, layered upon layer.

There have been dozens of studies on "the conservative mind", each one has peeled back one more onion layer of the cray cray.

As an example, they are narrative driven, so unproven allegorical stories about lobster buying food stamps users resonate more than thousands of stats on how the Rich are ripping them off.

As another example, they are experiental, not empathetic. So, only when they, personally experience bigotry, racism, etc, does it connect that it's bad, but only for them.

The only generalization that can be made is that they are hardwired into surviving in a pre-Enlightenment world.

Anonymous said...

I read this article or similar the other day as well.

Americans seem drawn to tribes and magic, like Jim Jones and his Kool-Aid, or Elon Musk and his Tesla cars - here, take my $1,000 deposit on a Model 3 said 400,000 of the faithful worshippers, and pray give me a $35,000 electric car better 'n anything in the whole wide world. Two or more years later, not a single one of the cheap models has been delivered, but luxed versions can be bought for $65K or more. Yet the unserved herd remains unperturbed, allowing any weedy justification to be accepted for their core belief -- St Elon is the Savior (US spelling) of the people, and he will provide in the goodness of time. Amazing. Brainwashed, just like the gullibillies. And you cannot shake them with logic.

Take my Medicare away scream the southern poor - we do not accept charity. Let the rich get richer for the Bible tells me so. Reduce my social security to balance the budget - a man must stand on his own two feet, solitary, rugged, a true American - and get those homeless off Portland OR's city streets, dirty beggars, get a job you maggots.

I also think many Americans think that their constitution was handed down by God to the framers like the Ten Commandments to Moses, they're that nutty. The super-wealthy have beaten the patriot drum for a century or more, and thus only America is truly free where a poor kid can become Prez and opportunities are unlimited, but only in 'Murica, mind, that unique creation of the Lord. It's taken for granted, like a truism. God knws where all those Chinese billionaires could have come from - it is a mystery - the socialist Commies ruin individual enterprise, dontcha know? We must rise up and smite them, those godless people! Besides they're getting uppity.

Think I've also just described in major part Alberta, where Emperor Jason the First is poised to take power following the NDP interregnum between Conservative dolts, wherein Notley became an oil industry spokesman herself and a vituperative she-wolf against BC, such is Albertan navel-gazing and sense of entitlement. Additionally, Ontario voters, bewildered by policy, elected a dolt who similarly cannot understand it and rolled back social gains and sex-ed, while kicking old enemies in Toronto in the groin. Stupidity and non-thinking reigns here in Canada as well, dear ghost of Pierre Berton. When you cannot understand something, it's either magic or the debbil's work. So much for public education's success in beating back the monsters living under people's beds.


the salamander said...

.. ergh, ackh, ugh, Mound..

you've poked the hornets nest, disturbed the local cosmos, pried up the floorboards. Purple library is right.. this is a BROAD & differentiated zone.. for the afflicted off in the cognitive wastelands and the therapist daring to perform a possible rescue. The spectrum's breadth and deep depths are astonishing. I tend to revert ASAP to the HSM lV & more recent HSM V to gain a toehold re a layman like moi considering a differential diagnosis. Perhaps here I am in conflict with the estimable authors and clinicians of your essay.. but I see 'Mood Disorder' writ large.. or just plain ignorance (the simple lack of knowlege - ignorance) .. or a comorbid blend of all at the same time..

Rarely - OK.. Never before have we seen such public display of distorted 'thinking' - talking - actions - behavior. We have the internut and social media, TV jumping into every room in the house, bus, car, sidewalk, healthclub, coffee shop.. via interactive hypermedia

If you work on a farm, or in a law office, or as an arborist, or drive a bus.. you may not be confronted with it.. But, the conflicts among common sense reality, water cooler talk, those texting talking & walking or driving.. or addicted to Alex Jones or the Reverend Whomever The Hell, or the horseshit emanations of Donald Trump are a bombardment. Pure & Simple - Pure noise & drivel..

When one attends the majority of Trump 'rallies' you have become a groupie.. Its the highlight of your social sphere.. just as a 12 year old girl who is sucked into the Morman dogma and awaits the rapture or whatever of being the bearer of the child who will.. I dunno.. save the world ? Pierce the Darkness ? Ease the journey of the exalted leader of the pack ?

There's a 'fervour' & those who have the malady or disorder (or disease) seem to relish or enclave with others afflicted.. 'strength in numbers' ? Herd mentality ? Its hard to know.. I just stay away from them, like I tend to do in short order when confronted with those I call 'destablizing people'. If I had a neighbor afflicted, they'd get a neutral, polite, non-engaging nod.. always. On a subway, I avoid eye contact & will even get off, take the next subway.. I don't need the grief. I figure some of those folks are a few short steps from really disturbed behaviour.

The big problem is when politicians or public servants or media, start winding these folks up. Like Trump does loudly and fanatically or Stephen Harper did insidiously.. and then more grifters and frauds drift in to work the fertile fields of opportunity. And so we see evangelistic wanks like Conservative lawyer Arthur Hamilton or entertainer Kanye West the Tom Flanagans & Ezra Levants.. ie folks who see a herd to work that can help their agenda move to the foreground.. and profit

Weird stuff.. just working through this 'comment' put my teeth on edge.. I had to step away.. several times.. almost deleted it 3 times while hacking my way through it.. swamp hiking..

Owen Gray said...

An excellent piece, Mound. It's hard to make a dent in intuitionst thinking. Perhaps catastrophe is the only cure.

Purple library guy said...

Education would be the cure. Problem is the US powers that be prefer bad education (ideally private, for profit, bad education). If you educate people well, they question and evaluate, and then they start to smell the shit they're being buried under.

Troy said...

I've been in US history studies this semester, and have been finding, the more things change, the more they stay the same....

The US has always had this manic disorder of liberty/freedom versus its plantation economy mindset, and more often than not, the latter wins outright.

It's the deliberate misapplication of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" to cheapen and exploit labour for the purpose of obsessive resource extraction.

There's always been one group of people who are easily mislead by demagogues, right from pre-seperation from the English empire. From Nathan Bacon, there's always been some glorified a-hole leading mobs to murder, pillage, and destroy without any thought to what should come next.

frencieoswald jennistontaxton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
frencieoswald jennistontaxton said...

The last force is the one which occurs in the front of the audience. More information on Mentalism Psychology – 5 Psychological Tricks - Mentalism Minds on