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Kevlar for the Mind: Wrong thinking leads to political mess

Dec. 12, 2013 - 01:41PM   |  
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You don’t have to be a political news junkie to understand the level of dysfunction that exists within our political system.

The seemingly unending conflict between Democrats and Republicans is not only frustrating, but has real implications for the lives of millions of service members, veterans and their loved ones when common ground cannot be found on important issues.

Although there are multiple explanations for why political stalemate has become the norm, psychology can explain a lot. Generally outside of conscious awareness, humans are prone to a variety of cognitive errors.

In simple terms, these are rigid, inflexible and often incorrect beliefs that shape how we perceive ourselves and others. If left unchecked, these errors can lead to stiff and unproductive positions and even hostile interactions.

Below are a few of the more common cognitive errors you’re seeing that may explain why they “just can’t seem to get along” in Washington — and also why we often find ourselves in heated political exchanges with friends and family.

Fallacy of defense. The best offense is not always a good defense — or at least not a fast defense. Instead of giving due attention to a contrary viewpoint, many feel the urge to promptly attack a perceived challenge to their opinions or ideas. When this happens, the opportunity to compromise is all but impossible.

Confirmatory bias. We have a knack for searching for things that confirm what we already believe. When presented with something that doesn’t neatly fit our worldview, we quickly dismiss it — which explains the popularity of partisan television news programs and talk radio. Unfortunately, dismissal of the “flip side of the coin” merely reinforces already entrenched beliefs, and we miss the sensibility that can be found in both perspectives.

Overconfidence bias. Humans tend to think their judgment and analysis of a situation is better than it is. It’s not unlike the “above average effect” when 90 percent of people rate themselves as above average on a given task, characteristic or trait — which, of course, is mathematically impossible. Overconfidence bias is perceived as arrogance by others, which leads to an unwillingness to make concessions during critical discussions.

Mind reading. We can’t really know what other people think or feel, even though we may think so at times. We can guess, but research shows we are more often wrong than right. Consequently, we form opinions and make decisions based on biased and inaccurate information.

Politicians may not be more prone to cognitive errors than the average person; it may just seem that way because their cognitive errors are routinely broadcast for all to see. Still, it’s quite possible that some, if not many, of our elected leaders would benefit from consulting a psychologist.

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq. Email http://kevlarforthemind@militarytimes.com. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

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