Our cognition continues to be emotionally led…
Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arle, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
In the realm of public opinion, climate change isn’t a scientific issue, it’s a political one. Climate change science is relatively new and technically complicated, and many Americans adopt the opinions of their tribal leaders: the political elites. Even though better-educated Republicans may have more exposure to information about the science around climate change, they also have more exposure to partisan messages about it, and this matters more.
“We’ve had three years of Americans arguing about different perceptions around facts: say, the size of crowds at Trump’s inauguration versus Obama’s inauguration. It’s easy to laugh that off, because it doesn’t have any consequences. But now we have a virus that imposes enormous risks to people’s health,” van Bavel says. “And the risks have non-partisan consequences because most people have a family member or work with someone who’s from a different political party. If they get exposed to the virus and contract the disease, they put you at risk. So there is a very strong reason to try to figure out a way to solve this.”
Since we have culturally evolved to acquire our knowledge and beliefs primarily through high-fidelity copying of others rather than by invention (by looking at the evidence and deciding for ourselves), we are vulnerable to this problem of copying unreliable models. Worse still, because we have culturally learned to value rational explanations over subjective ones for scientific issues, we can be manipulated into believing the opinions we copy are rational, so it is harder to change them.
Despite our culturally evolved norms for rationality and evidence-based decision making, our biological evolution has not caught up and our cognition continues to be emotionally led. The problem is not necessarily that we use the emotive part of our brain more than the rational in decision making, but that we are self-delusional. Even experts are prone to biases and these mean costly mistakes are made, and irrational prejudices are systemic in organisations where people believe themselves to be non-racist, non-sexist and to hold the positions they do through skill rather than luck.
Often, the main role of reasoning in decision making is actually not to arrive at the decision but to be able to present the decision as something that’s rational. Some psychologists believe we only use reason to retrospectively justify our decisions, and largely rely on unquestioned instincts to make choices. It may be that our unconscious instincts – despite our cognitive biases and prejudices – are more capable of rationality than our logical thought-processing minds. Few of us are able to fully separate our subjective and objective reasoning during decision making – this is one of the promises of artificial intelligence.