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.
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.”
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
h/t Jay Farquharson