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Elizabeth R. Thornton Headshot

Government Shutdown -- Subjectivity Run Amok

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We have come to expect some degree of subjectivity from our politicians but what we are witnessing now is subjectivity run amok. As human beings, we are inherently subjective. It is quite natural for us to perceive and respond to everything we experience through the lens of our mental models. These mental models are our deep-rooted ideas, assumptions and biases about the way the world works and how things ought to be. When we encounter a person, situation or event, we instantly project our mental models, which often results in cognitive errors, or distortions that lead us to perceive, judge and respond incorrectly. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes our assumptions and our interpretations of events are wrong and cause us to over-react or otherwise respond inappropriately. This lack of objectivity can cost a lot: a relationship, a business, a job or promotion, reputation and peace of mind.

Based on everything I have researched, written and taught about how to increase our objectivity, it is clear that the current standoff in Washington is because of extreme subjectivity, which has already cost too many of us too much. Objectivity is recognizing, accepting and responding to "what is" without projecting our mental models and enables us to respond thoughtfully, appropriately and effectively. Clearly, we are witnessing a small group of Republicans who lack objectivity.

When this current crisis started, this small group of Republicans was unable to accept the reality that the Affordable Care Act, which passed both the House and the Senate, was affirmed with the 2012 election and upheld by the Supreme Court, was going into affect October 1. Aaron Beck, who proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions, calls this the "say it isn't so" moment. We've all been there. It's that moment when you want so badly for something not to have happened that your brain jumps through every mental hoop in the book and creates cognitive distortions to conceive and force a different reality. This is what is happening in Washington right now.

A small group of Republicans has decided to shut down the government to force Democrats to amend the Affordable Care Act in order to create their own reality. The problem is when subjectivity runs amok in this way; it takes on a momentum of its own fueled by one cognitive distortion after another, such as:

1) We assume that most people think like we do and will agree with us. These assumptions are often referred to as projection bias or false consensus bias.

• While many Republicans do not like the Affordable Care Act, most do not believe that extorting concessions at the expense of the American people is the answer. When President Obama challenged the small group of Republicans to put up a clean bill for a vote, blinded by false consensus bias, they refused claiming there would not be enough votes to end the shutdown.

2) We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough, called the fallacy of change.

• When the small group of Republicans realized that they did not have a consensus, they resorted to name calling, threats and intimidation to try to force their colleagues to agree with them.

3) We make premature cognitive commitments, which lock us into one view of reality that cannot be changed by any contrary evidence or persuasion.

• This small group of Republicans was so entrenched in their own thinking that they only considered one possible response to their actions - the Democrats would yield to the extortion and just give them what they wanted. As in most cases of premature cognitive commitments, they did not seek to understand any other points of view or perspectives. Johnathan Chait, in New Yorkmagazine article, "How Republicans Failed to Understand the Democrats' Debt-Ceiling Logic" said it best: "...The GOP's strategic failure has grown out of its intellectual insularity (or, to reprise a once-hot term, epistemic closure) leaving them so unaware of the principles motivating the other side that they couldn't anticipate the Democrats' obvious response."

The small group of Republicans then tried to turn it around and blame the Democrats for not being willing to negotiate!

• Even when it was clear that the Democrats would not be held hostage and the polls and the media reported the anger and frustration of the American people, instead of rethinking their position based on this contrary evidence, they proposed legislation to minimize the impact of the problem they created, such as back pay for furloughed employees and military death benefits.

4) We have to be right. This is a common cognitive distortion that leads us to believe that being wrong is unthinkable. Being right often is more important than everything else.

• Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) said it best: "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is..."

So in order to be right, to save face, to force Democrats to amend the Affordable Care Act, the small group of Republicans have threatened to add even more to the extortion plot such as defaulting on the nation's debt, claiming that it would not be catastrophic. Now it appears that their need to be right is blinding them into thinking that the best thing to do now is push a six week debt ceiling increase, but keep the government shut down until Thanksgiving.

In most cases, when our subjectivity, often a distorted projection, defies objective reality to this degree, when it is clear to the majority that our view of the world is incorrect and can not be accommodated or supported, objective reality will prevail in one of two ways:

1) The cost becomes so high that we finally accept objective reality and we do what is required

Perhaps the small group of Republicans will finally see that: 1) their response to the situation has been inappropriate because of their distorted view of reality; 2) people do not agree with them and cannot be bullied into doing so and 3) the consequences of their actions are hurting too many people. Is it possible that the latest Gallup Poll reporting that just 28 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of the Republican Party and more than one-quarter of Republicans (27 percent) viewed their own party unfavorably will serve as a wake-up call?

2) There is an intervention and we are forced to accept objective reality by outside pressures and influences.

In this extreme case of subjectivity, the intervention must include:

• American Citizens: Launch a grass roots campaign against the Republican's distorted reality before it further threatens our economy. Each of us must call, e-mail, tweet and peacefully protest until both the shutdown ends and the debt ceiling is raised.

• Democratic Leaders: Continue to reach across the isle as President Obama has done and communicate your willingness to have discussions about the key issues after the government is funded and the debt ceiling is effectively addressed.

• Republican Leaders: There are Republicans that have a track record of bi-partisanship and objectivity. With courage and foresight, these leaders must intervene and help their colleagues see they are also risking their personal futures as well as the future of the Republican Party.

Clearly, we have seen over the years how polarized, divisive and dysfunctional our political system can be. However, when a system breaks down to this degree it is often a sign that the fundamental principles upon which the system is built must be re-evaluated and re-defined. Now that we are experiencing the consequences of subjectivity and self-interest run amok is it possible that one of the fundamental principles of our political systems going forward must be objectivity?