Why Pure Reason Won’t End American Tribalism

If you haven’t encountered any reviews of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s new bestseller Enlightenment Now—which would be amazing, given how many there have been—don’t worry. I can summarize them in two paragraphs.

The positive ones say Pinker argues convincingly that we should be deeply grateful for the Enlightenment and should put our stock in its legacy. A handful of European thinkers who were born a few centuries ago set our species firmly on the path of progress with their compelling commitment to science, reason, and humanism (where humanism means “maximizing human flourishing”). Things have indeed, as Pinker documents in great detail, gotten better in pretty much every way—materially, morally, politically—since then. And if we stay true to Enlightenment values, they’ll keep getting better.

The negative reviews say things like this: Pinker attributes too much of our past progress to Enlightenment thought (giving short shrift, for example, to the role of Christian thinkers and activists in ending slavery); his faith in science and reason is naive, given how often they’ve been misused; his assumption that scientifically powered progress will bring happiness betrays a misunderstanding of our deepest needs; his apparent belief that secular humanism can fill the spiritual void left by rationalism’s erosion of religion only underscores that misunderstanding; and so on. In short: In one sense or another, Pinker overdoes this whole enlightenment thing.

My own problem with the book is the sense in which Pinker underdoes the enlightenment thing. In describing the path that will lead humankind to a bright future, he ignores the importance of enlightenment in the Eastern sense of the term. If the power of science and reason aren’t paired with a more contemplative kind of insight, I think the whole Enlightenment project, and maybe even the whole human experiment, could fail.

If you fear I’m heading in a deeply spiritual or excruciatingly mushy direction—toward a sermon on the oneness of all beings or the need for loving kindness—I have good news: I’ve delivered such sermons, but this isn’t one of them. Eastern enlightenment has multiple meanings and dimensions, and some of those involve more logical rigor than you might think. In the end, an Eastern view of the mind can mesh well with modern cognitive science—a fact that Pinker could have usefully pondered before writing this book.

Pinker’s argument is more sophisticated than some caricatures of it would have you believe. In particular, he recognizes the big kink in his famously optimistic take on the future: Though reason can help us solve the problems facing humankind, our species isn’t great at reasoning. We have “cognitive biases”—like, for example, confirmation bias, which inclines us to notice and welcome evidence that supports our views and to not notice, or reject, evidence at odds with them. Remember how unseasonably warm it was a few months ago? The answer may depend on your position on the climate change question—and that fact makes it hard to change people’s minds about climate change and thus build the consensus needed to address the problem.

Pinker also understands that cognitive biases can be activated by tribalism. “We all identify with particular tribes or subcultures,” he notes—and we’re all drawn to opinions that are favored by the tribe.

So far so good: These insights would seem to prepare the ground for a trenchant analysis of what ails the world—certainly including what ails an America now famously beset by political polarization, by ideological warfare that seems less and less metaphorical.

But Pinker’s treatment of the psychology of tribalism falls short, and it does so in a surprising way. He pays almost no attention to one of the first things that springs to mind when you hear the word “tribalism.” Namely: People in opposing tribes don’t like each other. More than Pinker seems to realize, the fact of tribal antagonism challenges his sunny view of the future and calls into question his prescriptions for dispelling some of the clouds he does see on the horizon.

I’m not talking about the obvious downside of tribal antagonism—the way it leads nations to go to war or dissolve in civil strife, the way it fosters conflict along ethnic or religious lines. I do think this form of antagonism is a bigger problem for Pinker’s thesis than he realizes, but that’s a story for another day. For now the point is that tribal antagonism also poses a subtler challenge to his thesis. Namely, it shapes and drives some of the cognitive distortions that muddy our thinking about critical issues; it warps reason.

Consider, again, climate change. Pinker is not under the illusion that many members of his (and my) climate-change tribe are under: that people in our tribe have objectively assessed the evidence, whereas climate change skeptics have for some reason failed to do that. As with most issues, few people in either tribe have looked closely at the actual evidence. On both sides, most people are just trusting their tribe’s designated experts.

And what energizes this trust? Often, I think, the answer is antagonism. The more you dislike the other tribe, the more uncritically you trust your experts and the more suspiciously you view the other tribe’s experts.

For purposes of addressing this problem, a key link in the tribalism-to-cognitive-distortion chain is this: The antagonism is directed not just toward the other tribe’s experts but toward their evidence. Seeing evidence inimical to your views arouses feelings of aversion, suspicion, perhaps even outrage.

If you don’t believe me, just observe yourself while on social media. Pay close attention to your feelings as you encounter, respectively, evidence at odds with your views and evidence supportive of them. It’s not easy to do this. Feelings are designed by natural selection to guide your behavior automatically, without you reflecting on them dispassionately. But it’s doable.

And, by the way, if you manage to do it, you’re being “mindful,” as they say in Buddhist circles. Mindfulness involves being acutely aware of, among other things, your feelings and how they guide your thought—an awareness that in principle can let you decide whether to follow this guidance.

If earning the label “mindful” isn’t enough of an incentive for you, how about this: The foundational Buddhist text on mindfulness, the Satipatthana Sutta, says that complete and all-encompassing mindfulness (of feelings, physical sensations, sounds, and much more) brings full-on enlightenment—the utter clarity of apprehension that is said to entail liberation from suffering. So to become a bit more mindful as you peruse social media is to realize an increment, however small, of enlightenment in the Buddhist sense of the term.

Or, to translate this back into Western talk: an increment of making-inroads-against-cognitive-biases. So long as you remain truly mindful, you will be less inclined to reflexively reject evidence at odds with your views, less inclined to uncritically embrace—and impulsively retweet—evidence supportive of your views.

One take-home lesson from this mindfulness exercise is that the term “cognitive bias” is misleading. Confirmation bias isn’t just a product of the cognitive machinery, a purely computational phenomenon. It is driven by feeling, by affect. You reject evidence inconsistent with your views the way you reject food you don’t like or the way you recoil at the sight of a spider. The thought of embracing unwelcome evidence makes you feel bad. You may even have an urge to, in a sense, attack it—find the critical factual error or logical flaw that you know must be propping it up. Evidence that supports your views is, on the other hand, attractive, appealing—so much so that you’re happy to promulgate it without pausing to fully evaluate it; you love it just the way it is.

This view of cognitive biases is consistent with a decades-long trend in psychology and neuroscience (a trend that was anticipated by Buddhist psychology eons ago): the growing recognition that the once-sharp distinction between cognition and affect, between thinking and feeling, is untenable; thinking and feeling inform one another in a fine-grained and ongoing way. I assume Pinker knows this at an abstract level, but he doesn’t seem to have really taken it onboard.

That, at least, could help explain why his prescriptions for combating cognitive biases sound less than potent.

He wants schools to do more effective “cognitive debiasing”—to cultivate “logical and critical thinking” by encouraging “students to spot, name, and correct fallacies across a wide range of contexts.” Back when I was in high school, we did exercises very much like this in English class, and they blessed me with an enduring tendency to … look for such fallacies in arguments made by people I disagree with. Period.

And, actually, human beings are pretty good at that even without special instruction. The problem isn’t that natural selection didn’t bless us with critical faculties; it’s that our feelings tell us when to use those faculties and when not to use them, and they do this in a way that typically escapes our conscious awareness.

Pinker also has some ideas specifically geared to cognitive biases that surface in a tribal context. He suggests changing the “rules of discourse in workplaces, social circles, and arenas of debate and decisionmaking.” Maybe we can “have people try to reach a consensus in a small discussion group; this forces them to defend their opinions to their groupmates, and the truth usually wins.” Or get “mortal enemies” to “work together to get to the bottom of an issue, setting up empirical tests that they agree beforehand will settle it.”

These things don’t sound very scalable—even leaving aside the question of how long any of the supposed benefits would last in the wild.

I’m not saying these proposals are worthless. And I certainly agree with Pinker that no student should graduate from college without learning about cognitive biases. (I’d also encourage college students to read this book, which, like all of Pinker’s books, is a model of sharp analysis and clear exposition, an example worthy of emulation whether or not you agree with all of it.)

Still, if I could implement only one policy to solve the problem Pinker wants to solve, it would be the teaching of mindfulness meditation in public schools. One virtue of this approach is that it doesn’t involve convincing participants to buy into some high-minded goal like collaborating with “mortal enemies.” Indeed, the practice of mindfulness meditation often starts as simple self-help—a way to deal with stress, anxiety, sadness. The path from that to, say, more mindful engagement on social media is, if not quite seamless, pretty straightforward.

The path to full-on enlightenment is, of course, a bit more tortuous. Happily, the salvation of humankind doesn’t depend on anyone in the next generation actually getting there. (I’m agnostic on the question of whether anyone ever has gotten there.) One of the most underappreciated aspects of full-on Buddhist enlightenment is the sense in which it is a state of complete objectivity, an absolute transcendence of the perspective of the self: a kind of view from nowhere. And from the very beginning of a mindfulness meditation practice, there can be gains along that dimension; as you get less reactive and more reflective, you can, in principle, get better at objectivity, bit by bit by bit.

And note one bonus of this approach to combating cognitive biases. By addressing the antagonism that underlies them, mindfulness can make direct inroads on the more obvious threat posed by tribalism—the conflicts that kill people, the simmering tensions that keep them from getting together and solving problems like, say, the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons.

The great Enlightenment philosopher David Hume—who used careful introspection as part of his methodology—famously wrote that reason is “the slave of the passions.” Pinker doesn’t quote this line. He does note that Hume and other Enlightenment thinkers were “aware of our irrational passions and foibles” and says they saw that “the deliberate application of reason was necessary precisely because our common habits of thought are not particularly reasonable.”

But I don’t think the “deliberate application of reason” is by itself up to the challenge. After all, our minds are designed to delude us into thinking we are being reasonable when we’re not. It is only when we make it a practice to look carefully at the mechanics of the delusion—look at the way affect steers reason, the dynamic Hume so vividly described—that we have much hope of solving the problem. And if you want to do that, if you want to actually look at those mechanics and see them at work in yourself, then reason alone isn’t going to do the trick. If you really want to see these things, I recommend that you start by sitting down and closing your eyes.

Meeting of the Minds

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