Philosophy Weekend: When Cognitive Bias Gets Scary

This surreal image is a real screenshot from a real website — the victory website that went live after the polls closed on USA election day 2012, because apparently, stunningly, incredibly … Mitt Romney’s staff was that sure that they would win. They had given unconditional orders — unconditional! — to launch the website when the election ended.

Four days after the election, the revelation that not only Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan but their entire entourage and staff were sure they would win is still rocking the world. It turned out that Romney spent the evening of election day stewing in his hotel room with his yes-man entourage, doing nothing but smoothing out the final draft of his acceptance speech.

The prior evidence that he would lose was, of course, rather overwhelming. His campaign had gone unusually badly in the public eye, he had barely unified his own party, and had never dominated any polling cycle. Nate Silver, the most influential poll analyst in the world, a nonpartisan observer who in the past had correctly predicted Republican victories as well as Democratic ones, had already announced in the New York Times that polling numbers strongly favored President Obama. The Obama administration knew it would win, and said so. I knew Obama would win. Even Bob Dylan knew Obama would win.

Yes, of course, the Romney campaign was projecting confidence in its public statements, and everybody on Fox News and conservative talk radio was parroting the weak evidence that Romney might win, but few of us imagined that the Romney inner circle had wrapped itself so deeply in delusion that they believed it deep inside. This was a greater cognitive disconnect than anyone expected. Isn’t Mitt Romney supposed to be a solid businessman? Don’t businessmen use actual information and data to make decisions? If his judgment was so murky about his own chances to beat a popular President, how could he be expected to produce rational policies involving, say, the chances that a hostile approach towards Iran or China would be successful, or the chances that greater tax breaks for the wealthy would help the middle class, or the chances that deregulating Wall Street banks would not enable another orgy of corruption, or the chances that global climate change was not a serious scientific concern? Romney’s final day as a candidate found the man who would be President at an absolute peak of cluelessness, his head completely in the clouds.

Ahh, the power of cognitive bias. I am furious that this fraudulent candidate got as close as he did to the awesome power of the presidency, and I am still stunned to imagine the harsh and ugly punishments he would have inflicted on us all if his childlike dream of completing his father’s mission for the Presidency had somehow managed to succeed. I am pretty sure his presidential style would have replicated George W. Bush’s (the American electorate also knew this, which was one of several reasons we didn’t elect him) but with an added layer of delusion: George W. Bush carried out George W. Bush’s policies, weak echoes themselves of Ronald Reagan’s policies, before they proved themselves to be outdated for the 21st century. Romney was clinging to George W. Bush’s policies after they had proven themselves to be outdated for the 21st century.

The purpose of today’s blog post is not to gloat — though Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow have both produced epic moments of post-election summarizing that are well worth watching. The purpose of this blog post is to point out how incredibly powerful cognitive bias can be. And, let’s be honest: it can afflict us all. I’ve sometimes fallen into the trap myself.

I really have no right at all to be smug about my own predictions for election 2012, because in 2004 I was completely blindsided by George W. Bush’s victory over John Kerry. The polls had predicted a tight Bush win, but the mood I saw in the streets and my own passionate conviction that the war in Iraq put us on a wrong track that needed to be reversed had caused me to delude myself.

My location helped to enable my self-delusion. Sure, I saw a big pro-Kerry mood on the streets … because I was in midtown Manhattan, the blue heart of the bluest state. I watched the results on big screens at Rockefeller Center with a friend who was as gung-ho as I was, and we spent the early evening plotting where we’d hoist our celebratory beers when it was finally called. As the battleground states ticked off on the big screen, my friend and I quickly lost track of each other in the crowd, because we couldn’t bear to see each other’s faces. I sat on a cement barrier in total shock, without a clue what to do next. The polls had said Bush would win, and yet I hadn’t seen it coming at all.

Some liberals are now celebrating the bursting of the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh fake-fact bubble, as if this bubble were a singular event, as if truthfulness had now won a decisive victory over popular delusion, as if the problem of cognitive bias in USA politics were now solved. Hah! Of course, nobody really believes that delusions this thick can burst like bubbles. We know that cognitive bias has much more staying power than this. It also has very sharp teeth.

Forget for a minute about cognitive bias in democratic elections; let’s talk about cognitive bias in times of war. The American Civil War was enabled by the belief of the Southern people that their intrinsic nobility and greater enthusiasm would guarantee their victory over the Yanks, even though their military position had obviously fatal disadvantages. (This can be seen in the perceptive party scene in Gone With The Wind in which the brave Rhett Butler informs a crowd of eager young enlistees about how rough the ride is going to be, though of course they don’t listen.) In fact, the Confederate States of America never chose to lose a Civil War — it only ever chose to win one. In this case, the cost of cognitive bias to the American society was over 600,000 lives, and a legacy of bitter North-South hatred that still seems to affect election maps to this day.

The First World War in Europe was also enabled by an illogical belief in certain victory on all sides. The same basic human frailty that was seen in Mitt Romney’s clueless hotel room on election night in 2012 was directly responsible for the three decades of war that ravaged the European people, and the frailty was shared on all sides. Perhaps the most dreadful exhibition of cognitive bias in modern wartime was the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940 — a fall that so demoralized France’s elected government that at the most critical moment the government failed to remain coherent at all, instead falling to pieces and allowing a fascist uprising to step into its place.

Cognitive bias is some scary shit. We should all be afraid of it, and we shouldn’t waste much time at all laughing at our opponents when they fall victim to it (though, really, you should watch the Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow videos above, and then stop laughing when you’re done).

What can we each do to avoid falling victim to the universal human phenomenon of cognitive bias? Well, for me, that’s what this whole Philosophy Weekend series is about. What we can do is think: think hard, think always, think critically. We should communicate as openly with different people of different backgrounds as often as we can. For me, the discussions I had online through this election season in 2012 were highly enlightening and enjoyable. Some say that political arguments on the Internet are a waste of time, but I had some awesome, intelligent and surprising discussions and debates with friends and opponents here on Litkicks and on Facebook and Twitter. I learned something new every single time. I can’t think of a better medicine against cognitive bias then continuous, vigorous, enthusiastic debate.

I am looking forward to talking less politics here on Philosophy Weekend once this crazy election mood finally dies down — and I have no doubt that a large portion of my readership here, perhaps even a majority, will welcome this change. But in the past year I didn’t have a choice — politics is the application of ethical philosophy to the real world, and when a moral hurricane like the Obama vs. Romney election occurs (and when a spouting, green Ayn Rand acolyte like Paul Ryan shows up on the Republican ticket to boot!) — there is absolutely nothing else for a philosopher of ethics to talk about.

It happens that my two favorite philosophy blogs have also been covering the election, supporting clear positions on opposite sides. Brian Leiter of Leiter Reports is a Nietzschean liberal who summed up election night with a mostly satisfied sigh, while unfortunately Bill Vallicella of the Maverick Philosopher seems to have swallowed his bad election night news with a big hot cup of cognitive bias, and is temporarily beyond the realm of observable reason.

The economy is bad, the opposition fought hard and well, and the incompetent leftist won anyway. Why? The Left promises panem and the culture’s circenses have kept the masses distracted from higher concerns and real thought. That’s the answer in a sentence.

Maybe the Left promised panem in France in 1789, but here in America the only thing the Obama/Biden/Pelosi/Reid so-called Left is trying to offer is a balanced and sensible path to deficit reduction that doesn’t unfairly punish the American middle class while coddling the very wealthy, who continue to get richer and richer every year.

But even angry Bill Vallicella finds a great thought to close with:

What we lose in vitality we gain in wisdom.

The consolations of philosophy are many.

Amen to that, brother.

13 Responses

  1. Well, I believe that Romney’s
    Well, I believe that Romney’s conceit was part of his cluelessness. He just could not wrap his head around the fact that he might lose this time around.

    I think, Ann, his wife was the same way when I saw her on THE VIEW. Barbara Walters had to remind her that Mitt might lose. I don’t think it really occurred to her at that moment.

    Paul Ryan was also wrapped in his own conceit. Romney mentored that conceit. Talking down to the electorate was part of the republican strategy. Fortunately, for the country, Obama & Biden were re-elected.

    Levi, I found your philosophical quotes to be very interesting. Philosophy is the backdrop for all of politics. Without a philosophical view, the politicians are just empty suits. Obama kept his compassion on his sleeve & was very grateful to his campaign workers for helping him get re-elected.

    I find it very strange that Romney, et al, actually were conceited enough, and vain enough to actually put the website up, without the victory, sight unseen! How inept & stupid! No one should count the chickens until they’re hatched.

    Romney was Truman in reverse!

  2. Wasn’t Rove on FoxNews late
    Wasn’t Rove on FoxNews late refusing to call the election? Maybe the fix had been in but somehow it went wrong, e.g., Florida–a friend told me he saw active attempts at scaring new Americans from registering and joy-riders driving by yelling and sneering at early voters. I heard on late-night TV that supposedly people were going through retirement homes trying to dupe people out of voting by ballot.

  3. I find it ironic that the
    I find it ironic that the dude you quoted near the end of this calls the left incompetent. My view is that both sides are incompetent. My question is who has more cognitive bias, me or him? That is rhetorical, but I do enjoy reading this, Levi. For what it’s worth, I enjoy your political posts but I am looking forward to what you decide to tackle in the future. Cheers.

  4. I just read you cognitive
    I just read your first cognitive bias piece. Have you ever written about poker & philosophy?

  5. Hi Levi,
    Hi Levi,

    You may get a kick out of this article

    It’s about Ayn Rand and Jack Kerouac. The author contends they were opposite sides in shaping the baby boomer’s consciousness based on each publishing a “bible” of neoconservatism and the counterculture.

    But, its a ludicrous article, full of factual errors. It says Jack Kerouac was Abbie Hoffman’s mentor. It says he was a French Canadian expatriate.

    Still, I think it possible LitKicks’ humble creator may be influencing rather dull and thick academicians.

    As far as cognitive bias — yeah, a lot of it — on both sides. The GOP country clubbers definitely had it bad.

    I don’t, though, think the web site of Romney is an example. Both sides had to have something ready to go in case they won.

    There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance around as well. On both sides.

    And, by the way, I think its a rather extreme emotion to be “furious” that Romney could get that close. Furious?

  6. does this mean the american
    does this mean the american electorate can’t be bought after all?


  7. No. Proves they are bought
    No. Proves they are bought easy. Free cell phone. Free health care. Free whatever you need.

    There’s a famous quote supposedly from a Scottish guy in the 19th century that goes like this:

    Democracy “can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits…”

    This seems to have now happened in the US.

  8. Hi TKG — well, I like that
    Hi TKG — well, I like that article about Rand/Kerouac a little more than you do. I have also reflected upon the coincidence that the two writers I probably write about more than any others (because I love Kerouac, and deeply disagree with Rand) both published their signature books in 1957. Something in the air …

    Yes, I am furious that Mitt Romney got so close to winning. Considering how hilariously badly he ran his campaign, can you imagine what a disaster he would have been as President? Please, Republicans, find a better candidate to nominate next time.

    But, TKG, your comment about “people wanting free stuff” is seriously misguided. If this is all the Republican party has learned from the lesson of 2012 (and, based on what I’ve heard on talk radio the past couple of days, this is all they have learned) then the Republican party will keep losing elections, and well deserves to. Nobody wants free stuff. We just want competent and honest government, and a financial sector that isn’t bloated with corruption.

  9. I’ve always seen Ayn Rand as
    I’ve always seen Ayn Rand as a rather marginal figure, kind of blurred together with the pulpy SciFi ghetto of the post-war period. As a philosopher I considered that she was derivative, not original but at best a popularizer of a mish-mash of various political philosophies. I must say, though, that I really have not ever been interested in becoming too familiar with her oeuvre. I always saw the Randians as odd-ducks who aren’t quite right. And that god-awful band Rush…

    But, you are right, there is something in the air. I know to some degree what “going galt” means just from osmosis.

    Kerouac I don’t think of as in even the same class as her, nor do I think they are opposites in any way. Kerouac’s richness actually encompasses much more than any political philosophy can. Kerouac encompasses the individualism she sought to extoll and he encompasses other philosophies as well because he is a writer of life.

    Maybe contrast her to Vonnegut or someone else that is less multi-dimensional than Kerouac.

    Rand’s popularity is symptomatic, I say with probably unfair cynicism, of our dumbed down culture.

  10. TKG, of course I agree with
    TKG, of course I agree with you that Kerouac is deeper — oceans deeper — than Ayn Rand.

    However, let there be no mistake about this: Ayn Rand is extremely popular in the USA and in the world right now. More popular than ever before. We nearly elected a Vice President who cited Ayn Rand as his greatest inspiration last week, for instance. Think about this …

  11. Maybe Rand is just a fad.
    Maybe Rand is just a fad. Thank God no one is pushing for an Ayn-Rand studies program at any university now.

  12. free cell phone? jeez, how
    free cell phone? jeez, how did i miss that? sign me up !

    one of mitt’s freeloading moochers

  13. I also thought Kerry would
    I also thought Kerry would win in 2004, but my perspective is different. I live in Maine, where ex-governor Angus King was campaigning for Kerry in New Hampshire. As a result New Hampshire was the only state to switch from Bush in 2000 to Kerry in 2004. Bush still won and he did it easier than his first run for the white house.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!