10/18/2012 12:22 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Mental Gymnastics: 'I Believe, Then I Think'

Cognitive science is all about showing that people's thinking isn't rational -- that their explanations are either expressions of gut reactions or justifications for their beliefs and lives. As Jonathan Haidt wrote in the New York Times:

I developed an idea from Howard Margolis, the distinguished social scientist who died in 2009, that two basic kinds of cognitive events are "seeing-that" and "reasoning-why." (These terms correspond roughly to what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others call "System 1" and "System 2" and that I call the "elephant" and the "rider.") We effortlessly and intuitively "see that" something is true, and then we work to find justifications, or "reasons why," which we can give to others.

Here's how these ideas manifest themselves in politics, psychology, and film.

Politics. Politics is an experiment to demonstrate how people bend reality to suit their belief systems. And recent events have managed to drive this obvious point home with triple force. First, Republicans explained away sagging Romney poll numbers by blaming inaccurate, biased polls. More recently, they have claimed that the improved economic picture is the result of Obama's manipulating unemployment figures reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But Democrats have simply outdone these puny Republican cognitive adjustments with their reactions to President Obama's remarkably feeble effort in his first debate with Mitt Romney. I reviewed these reactions previously in the Huffington Post. And when I sent the piece to my friends, I got these responses: "How do you debate with a liar who's response to everything is, 'What? I never said that.' What strategy is possible against someone like that?"

My (silent) response was, "I don't know, isn't that what a debate's about?" A more sophisticated version:

Romney won the debate; Obama won the election. If Romney was to have a chance to win the election, he had to convince people that they couldn't trust Obama. Instead, he made claims and promises that, when challenged by Biden and Obama's team, will convince people that they can't trust him. Obama did the right thing by not playing on Romney's level. With a month to go, enough undecided voters will realize that he's the one they can trust.

Never mind that my HuffPost piece already included these reactions! Of course, I shared my good friends' frustrations -- but do their explanations really account for the events and their political consequences? Clever, yes, but reality-based? I don't think so. More like wishful thinking. Of course, Republicans' response, in order to justify their lives and worldviews, was (as I also said in the HuffPost piece) "Romney won because the conservative point of view he defended is the right one." Same as the Democratic reaction, but with a different brand.

But the best rationalization for Obama's failure, to my mind, was the one told me this morning by a gym-rat friend of mine, and attributed to Al Gore: "Obama's been running around the country and, exhausted, the high altitude in Denver impaired his cognitive functioning." That's one worthy of the new neuorpsychology of everything! Which leads into the next section.

Neuropsychiatry. My previous post was about how the new neuropsychiatry of addiction, which claims that "addiction is all about the dopamine," makes no sense. As Maia Szalavitz quoted Larry Young, in critiquing Naomi Wolf's Vagina, which explains women's depression as being due to dopamine failure through sexual frustration, "The fallacy is that she's saying dopamine is primarily involved in sexual pleasure, and that's not the case. Dopamine is involved in reward and motivation for everything we do in life -- whether we're eating good food, drinking good wine or interacting with our kids and family." Relating women's sexual desire, feminism, and happiness to dopamine -- or why some things are addictive or some people become addicted to them -- is like saying these things are due to people having brains and nervous systems.

Here is an even a better description of how people turn to neuroscience as the best way to justify their personal beliefs and prejudices, as described by John Bruer, author of The Myth of the First Three Years, a carpet-bombing of the intensely faddish view that neuroscience tells us about making young kids smart and educating children. After "following research and awarding grants in education, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience," Bruer found that their claims, "especially those offered by childcare advocates who were not brain scientists, seemed farfetched. But that is not unusual in popular articles about science and research." Bruer describes a colleague's report on a conference she attended in Colorado (aren't all such conferences held there?):

I had expected to hear about new research linking brain development, child development, and education. Instead, she began her briefing with a one-word description of the workshop: "Bizarre." She told me, and my subsequent reading of the workshop report confirmed, that there was little neuroscience presented in Denver and certainly none that I had not previously known about. There were, however, Susan told me, wide-ranging policy discussions, bordering on the nonsensical, in which early childhood advocates appealed to what might be most charitably described as a "folk" understanding of brain development to support their favorite policy recommendations. Reflecting on the Denver meeting and its report, it seemed as if there was, in fact, no new brain science involved in the policy and media discussions of child development. What seemed to be happening was that selected pieces of rather old brain science were being used, and often misinterpreted, to support preexisting views about child development and early childhood policy.

Films: Okay, what's this have to do with movies (and television)? People spend so much time -- all of their mental and emotional energy really -- justifying their existences, that they love movies and TV series about people confronting life-and-death situations where all of their intellect and emotions are devoted to survival. That includes the Mission Impossible TV and movie series, the Bourne series, The Hunger Games, James Bond, Star Wars, Harry Potter, this weekend's top film (Taken 2), etc., etc. This paradigm also explains the success of television reality series, including Survivor, The Amazing Race, and the host of survival TV shows. Screw belief systems and worldviews when everything depends on the reality-basis of your responses (the films' creators, on the other hand, made the movies and shows to justify their lives and Weltanschauungs).

Oh, you might not believe any of this, if it interferes with your standard paradigms for viewing and approaching the world.