Contrary to what we may think about ourselves, it turns out we do a far better job of gathering evidence to support our views than we do weighing factual data in establishing them. This is quite handy for those of us who like a good story – and it is convenient for post-hoc analysis as well.
Take the apocalypse. Until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to the purported Mayan-foretold promises of the world’s demise. But lately, I’ve been trying the notion on and have been overwhelmed at just how much data there is to support the premise that our days could number in the single digits.
There have been epic, unprecedented meltdowns performed by my nearest and dearest, for instance, and the increasingly inexplicable behavior of drivers on roads cannot mean nothing.
Then there are the far more serious examples of something being amiss: Dylan Redwine’s disappearance days before Thanksgiving or the heart-shattering events Friday at a Connecticut elementary school. It is easy to assign these occurrences a common denominator, using them to shore up a conviction that the world must be about finished.
Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who discusses this phenomenon in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He uses moral psychology to explain that “conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president.” The principle such behavior demonstrates, Haidt says, is that, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”
While it comes in handy for knitting together a narrative that explains why things are the way they are – according to each of us – the principle is also essential for the Monday-morning quarterbacking that follows elections, informing analyses ad nauseam. It can be great fun both to predict the future and analyze the past, and the bedfellows such a practice can make is even more interesting because the facts can come from anywhere; after all, some would perhaps say that President Obama’s re-election or the new makeup of the La Plata County Board of Commissioners are sure signs that God has turned his back on us because both are obviously a United Nations conspiracy.
Or maybe they mean that voters locally and nationwide are fundamentally dispirited with the leaders they are offered.
While Obama’s victory was decisive, it was hardly a landslide, and both Julie Westendorff and Gwen Lachelt won by microscopic margins. That voters were neither impressed enough with Mitt Romney to elect him nor sufficiently enamored with Obama to sweep him to victory supports a ho-hum feeling among Americans about their president. The slim victories Westendorff and Lachelt won could be explained by a countywide cynicism about the efficacy of the commissioners in general – that the leadership options were a virtual toss-up.
That is far from the case – both at the local and national levels – and it is now incumbent upon those elected in November to help voters draw different conclusions. Doing so will not be easy, but engaging constituents in meaningful discussions about values, goals and policies that embody them will be instrumental to that success.
Locally, there is plenty to support a conclusion that voters are jaded about county government. The comprehensive planning process that imploded a year ago left many feeling demoralized, and the county commissioners responsible for the plan’s demise have not since done much to remedy those blues. The explanations offered suggested that the plan was the victim of a dysfunctional system rather than a breakdown of leadership. No wonder, then, that voters were not particularly enthusiastic about any candidates – incumbent or otherwise.
Westendorff and Lachelt have the opportunity and challenge of changing that perception. They will be successful if they champion a revived comprehensive planning process that sets clear goals and commits to achieving them. This will be neither easy nor expedient, but success in the effort will have far-reaching positive consequences for the county and for civic engagement.
Haidt’s model suggests that the effort can be community-building: “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs,” Haidt says. But, he warns, that the context in which that exchange of evidence occurs is critical: “When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. ... But if there is affection, admiration or a desire to please the other person,” it can and often does occur.
Given the hard feelings that may still be bristling after the comprehensive plan’s failure, this scenario is a bit “Kumbaya.” There is reason to be hopeful, though, and it is important that we give the new county board a chance to re-engage its constituents. Even if our minds are already made up, listening to people we like and respect – though might not agree with – can broaden our perspectives. At the very least, it is a rosy post-apocalyptic vision that I am busy gathering evidence to support. Here’s hoping.
Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.