Blinders Hypothesis

September 3, 2018

Among the hunted, horses have eyes at the sides of their heads, giving them great peripheral vision. Horses can go fast in a straight line, making horse racing a popular sport. Blinders are used to keep the focus of horses straight ahead. Blinders became a metaphor for focus, having a goal and sticking to it. 

 

I propose to expand this metaphor to include most people in both career and everyday activities. As an accountant, part of the training is to develop a blinders system to consider events from an accountant's perspective: internal control, accounting for all transactions, or providing the best information for decision-making. All great, right? But others see accounting from entirely different perspectives, from useless to manipulative. Much to the horror of most accountants, the critics are not necessarily wrong. Accountants may view other professions with equal disdain: marketing as propaganda, management as manipulation, and so on. All professions probably develop "professional blinders." Added to that, people are not very good at predictions/forecasts (for example, important for medical diagnostics). Simple algorithms often to a better job. Feel free to expand the blinders hypothesis to other activities and everyday life (I expect to do this in future blogs).

 

Consider police from a blinders perspective. They have guns and, apparently, if they draw their weapons expected to use them. They are likely to have specific psychology profiles to start: rule-following conservatives with motivations toward anger and consider their's a position of authority and superiority. They are trained to deal with criminals. This can lead to unnecessary violence, but they may not have the training to deescalate tense situations--there are lots of police officers, lots of local government entities almost all with limited budgets. With cameras everywhere, the most brutal examples are made public.    

 

Part of the problem is the psychology of decision-making, which has become a major focus of behavioral economics. Several MVG posts describe many of the biases (e.g., hindsight bias, availability, cognitive dissidence), as well as heuristics used (e.g., anchoring and adjustment) that are problematic. Added to that are psychological scales that differentiate us (conservative to liberal, introvert versus extrovert); leaders can be hedgehogs or foxes, according the Isaiah Berlin, a metaphor picked up by several academics and researchers since Berlin's 1951 essay. Again, the blinders metaphor can be expanded across the social sciences and history, and perhaps most human events and perspectives.

 

In some sense, I view these as potential blinders to decision-making and evaluation of others' actions and opinions. A key point is blinders can mean disastrous actions and decisions by otherwise experienced, perhaps brilliant people. Many of history's disasters may be best explained by considering key players having gigantic blinders in place when evaluating information and then making decisions. This could be useful to explain US failures in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and countless other actions across the world. Critiques of these and other disasters are widespread (and I have described several in earlier blogs), but I'm suggesting the blinders hypothesis as an additional tool for evaluation. The US had brilliant, dedicated people from the CIA, military and state department in Afghanistan for example. But the net effect was a bloody, expensive disaster. My perspective is each group (to some extent, each individual) had blinders on seeing only their limited perspective, driven by specific goals and tactics at odds with broader perspectives that could have been more obvious with blinders removed. Bush/Cheney did not have the necessary leadership, nor did the Obama team.

 

It seems likely that conservatives have tighter blinders than liberals given key characteristics like focusing on black and white (with little interest in the gray between), focusing on tradition and following rigid rules, and swayed by anger. Hedgehogs have big blinder characteristics, with a set ideology and likely suffering from ill effects of cognitive dissidence. Take a recent George Will column (probably almost any of his columns would do). On first reading he seems to take an extreme position and be snarky, insulting and as obnoxious as possible. However, I have a bit more empathy for him as a conservative hedgehog [that is, he sees the world through gigantic blinders]. On July 8, his topic was: "How Can Presidential Candidates be so Silly?" after the first set of Democratic debates. His focus was on Kamala Harris' positions on health care, a complex issue and virtually impossible to describe in short bursts. Almost all candidates had some form of "Medicare for all," a topic easily criticized. He used the usual Republican approach of criticizing "more government, not less" and assuming that most Americans like their private health insurance; he accused her of flip-flopping as an "alibi." Will quickly moved to busing, calling her position a "maladroit debate decision to wrap herself in an unpopular policy that ended 20 years ago." Will has a useful if unusual perspective, but I find his insults off-putting. However, they fit the general pattern of conservative-hedgehog blinders. 

 

One of my assumptions is that moderates (including median voters) are most likely to view the world without blinders (more likely smaller blinders), consider circumstances from multiple sides, and willing to incorporate additional information and perspectives. This is not an approach to get headlines, but it could make the world a better place. Consider Plato's "Allegory of the Cave, where the people are chained to the back of the cave and only see shadows of the real world. The "philosopher" escapes to discover the real world. In particular, the hedgehogs seem to fit the prisoners who see only shadows. Tetlock's superforecasters more or less fit the definition of the philosopher in the sense of understanding the world (plus probabilities and Bayes) to make accurate predictions. They have to be foxes and probably moderates. This is an empirical question which I would pursue if I was still an academic.   

 

 

 

 

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© 2016 Gary Giroux

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