Only Evil People Disagree with Me

Well, not really. But that’s what many people think according to this Washington Post story, that reports on a study by Glenn D. Reeder, a social psychologist at Illinois State University.

When Reeder and his colleagues asked pro-war and antiwar Americans how they would describe the other side’s motives, the researchers found that the groups suffered from an identical bias: People described others who agreed with them as motivated by ethics and principle, but felt that the people who disagreed with them were motivated by narrow self-interest.

I don’t think most of us required a survey to realize that tempers are hot, and the other side is generally accused of bad motivations. I would suggest, however, that not only is it a question of how convinced we are of a position and how important that issue to us, it’s also a question of how much moral investment we have in it. Such commitments drive the intense debates about abortion, for example, in which people on one side cannot imagine how anyone reasonably human can accept the “slaughter of millions of babies” while folks on the other side see a massive invasion of their personal lives at the very deepest level. On the war in Iraq, we’re dealing with people getting killed, and that is certain to be very emotionally invested.

I really liked the following note, however:

“Partisans within ideological groups tended to view themselves as atypical vis-a-vis their group: atypical in their moderation, in their freedom from bias, and in their capacity to ‘see things as they are in reality’ even when that reality proves to be ideologically inconvenient or ‘politically incorrect,’ ” Harvard Business School researcher Robert J. Robinson and his colleagues concluded.

This is behavior I have noted in myself. But hey, I really am more moderate than everyone else! 🙂

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  1. It would appear that the complement of partisanship is some sort of fuzzy post-modernism. I guess the question is: how do you test the accuracy of your position?

  2. People described others who agreed with them as motivated by ethics and principle, but felt that the people who disagreed with them were motivated by narrow self-interest.

    I see this type of thing as the result of the decades-long domination of public discourse by the technique C. S. Lewis called Bulverism. We’ve spent so much time short-cutting intellectual debate by alleging some taint on the part of an opponent that we’ve come to take it for granted, and assume that someone who disagrees with what we see as essential must have a nefarious motive for that disagreement. We’ve gotten so used to Bulveristic debate and examining motives instead of facts that I’ve begun to suspect that public argument is no longer about “Who is right?” (that is, who is seeing the issues correctly and figuring out correct responses to them), but about “Who is righteous?” (who is approaching the issues with “good motives”). Which really doesn’t help much, as it is quite possible to pursue bad solutions out of good motives, and at that point, examining motives won’t help the situation any.

    I think we’ve also taken the next step, too. In an environment where “wrong opinions” are seen to be intrinsically tied to bad motives, disagreement will be seen not just as a difference of opinion, but as an attack alleging bad motives on your part. If iincorrect opinions are seen as always coming from bad motives, and I disagree with you, then I’m going to be seen as not only disagreeing with your reasoning, but as attacking your motivations. This makes it very difficult to take disagreement as anything other than a personal attack.

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