Building Blinders

I blogged about “The Blinders Hypothesis” in 2018 (September 19), what I considered a reasonable summation for much of irrational behavior. I’ve tried to combine as many different perspective (psychology, economics, philosophy, history, sociology …) to figure out why people behave in seemingly strange ways. My focus in this blog is considering multiple perspectives from the social sciences; plus, consider the unusual events happening in 2020 and early 2021, especially in the political arena--that's for part 2. Explaining the rabid followers of Donald Trump, for example. Or, more generally, why politicians are so effective angrily shouting propaganda (or more precise, fake ideology). Apparently, a Republican can (metaphorically) push an unsuspecting person into the mud and point to the nearby Democrat; the mud-socked victim would then attack the Democrat. The Democrats are poor at this approach, in part because they get no support from mainstream media. The State Department (as demonstrated by Richard Stengel’s book, Information Wars) is equally bad at countering Putin’s propaganda machine. Framing tools can include, for example, cherry-picking and label fact-based information to show, say, that some humanitarian is evil. After all, my freedom fighter is your terrorist. Gratuitous insults and strategic outright lies can be used effectively and firmly part of the American political scene.


Blinders are used on horses to reduce their peripheral vision so they can focus on running fast on a racetrack. I believe we all have metaphorical blinders, perhaps multiple pairs simultaneously. Start with culture. Post-World War II may have been a “golden age” in many economic respects, but I recall a culture of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism—in other words, great for white men. McCarthy’s anti-Communism wasn’t so great either. Plenty of blinders at work. Much of society (and me, I hope—my id may act up, but my ego seems to be in control) have moved away from those perspectives, but recent politics (and surveys of racial resentment) demonstrates that number is roughly 50/50.


Blinders are considered in psychology as restricting perspectives and open mindedness, and can be categorized as “cognitive blinders” or “ideological blinders.” This includes a lack of compassion for alternatives and disparaging new ideas. Because people are perpetually exposed to new ideas, technological breakthroughs, and issues develop like extreme partisanship, removing blinders should enhance self-awareness and encourage solutions to real issues—the MVG way is particularly encouraged.


Which naturally leads to current political issues. Let’s assume that Obama and Biden are both moderates and want to move political decisions on a path to improved public policy. Obama’s memoirs and other sources indicate his plan was to convince opponents (and sometimes allies) of the logic of his preferred position. Facing extreme blinders (Mitch McConnell comes to mind), this was usually a waste of time or even counter-productive. McConnell has different perspectives and incentives and may use the added information from Obama’s logic against him. Biden might be more effective (based largely on Osnos' biography) not bothering to explain his logic, but find common ground and compromise positions. This can be based on some understanding of the motivations of the opposition. Sorry Barack, MVG thinks this should be a better tactic. The coming months (or years) should determine the soundness of this prediction.


This brings us to recent culprit number one. Trump claimed he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing votes. It is amazing to watch. Cartoonist Scott Adams called this persuasion and named Trump the Master Persuader—of course he won the 2016 election! Adams wrote Think Bigly. The difference between Adams’ ideas of persuasion and propaganda are unclear to me. Dark charisma may apply. Authoritarians can generate a large following of loyal followers, apparently based in part on fear and hatred. Multiple examples exist this century, more than matched by each of the earlier centuries. What is more surprising is their effectiveness in rich democracies (the US is now rated as a “flawed democracy”). Populists have sprung up over much of the developed world, especially in Europe.


Professional training may require blinders. Consider my training and experience as an accountant. Beginning with elementary accounting and related business and economic courses. A thick set of blinders was required. There is a necessary focus on numbers and analytical ability to evaluate both detailed and highly summarized information. I got refitted for bigger, narrower blinders as I advanced toward degrees and work as an auditor. As a CPA, ethics were required, just not much resembling the justice/fairness perspectives of philosophy (of course, not violating criminal codes was important). I think like an accountant, more analytical, less empathetic. As an auditor, more testing, less trusting. Key accounting jobs also include tax avoidance and earnings management to aid corporate income goals. Others may view these as ethical outrages that should generate moral shame, a perspective not shared by most accountants short of tax evasion and fraud. There are large areas between avoidance and fraud, with each side claiming an ethically tenable position. Blinders in action?


Other business professions may take a dim view of accountants, which is often reciprocated. It is not hard to claim that marketing tends to resemble propaganda and may serve unethical purposes (and adopted by politicians for unprincipled behavior). This includes “addictive by design:” markets exploit weaknesses, like gambling addiction. I assume marketeers consider themselves very moral and trustworthy, but not accountants. Seems to be blinders at play.


Military folk have different perspectives than diplomats or aid workers. Military blinders are introduced in basic training, but no doubt expand with experience—especially for career military. Professional and personal incentives are reinforced by blinder that are probably increasingly rigid over time. Ditto politicians. Honesty, apparently, does not get you elected. In my scenario blinders are developed to reinforce all the actions necessary to get elected and maintain the expected level of power and success (and possibly money). Talk to people in other professions and listen for evidence of blinders: engineers, clerks, healthcare workers, public safety professionals, lawyers. My point is not to criticize professions, but to point out that blinders are expected.


It would be hoped that blinders would be less rigid over extended time, as people see result more fully and with increased empathy. It seems this is less the case than hoped for. The Osnos bio of Biden suggests that Biden may have reduced blinders, because he has experienced both success and failure and immense personal tragedies. At one point early on, Osnos said colleagues claimed Biden was an arrogant windbag, no doubt with blinders about his own brilliance. Osnos suggested that after tragedies and losses, he is more humble and empathetic (and, of course, old). The possibility exist that he listens more, is less rigid and can direct policies and people pragmatically; the potential for compromise solutions is a MVG position. I think this is interesting test case for blinder challenges.


Let’s get back to culture. Yuval Harari introduced the concepts of factual reality (mainly science) and imagined reality (everything cultural from government, to religion, to caste systems and economics). Blinders many be partly the result of genetics, brain chemistry (and other elements of science). However, I suggest blinders are typically associated with imagined reality and certain parts of this I’ll stay away from, beginning with religion. What is one person’s perception of blinders can be another person’s deeply held beliefs. Perhaps both could be considered to have blinders. However, there are certain beliefs that have a deep impact on humanity and the world.


I suspect that most people claiming racial resentment do not believe they are racist (consider the Central Park birding incident). Blinders seem to show off their raging id. Most people view themselves with unrecognized blinders, perhaps overconfident in their abilities and/or forms of inferiority. Blinders probably stop people from listening, especially those that have different views. Two points: listening is a key attribute and understanding other’s perspectives and motivations essential to successful interactions.


It is difficult to understand why so many people think the arrogance and lack of empathy of authoritarians are great attributes for a leader. Kings and emperors have been the rule as rulers throughout history, emphasizing brutality over any measure of kindness. Democracy was a short, ultimately unsuccessful experiment in the dinky city-state of Athens, quickly yielding to empire rule. Rome had somewhat better luck with a republic. During the Middle Ages and beyond measures of expanding democracy developed in fits and starts in Britain (which did not give up the monarchy, just made it ceremonial). America was the most successful, with the first attempt 400 years ago (House of Burgesses in Virginia), then a Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It has worked in many countries and failed in a greater number of countries. Authoritarians rule in the majority of countries now, at least some (Russia comes to mind) with reasonable popularity. Given this long view, a Trump presidency does not seem such an outlier. Adding blinders can be an additional explanatory tool.


There may be obvious differences between relatively small, wide blinders that may be translucent from large, narrow, black blinders, like being a KKK member or neo-Nazi. Ditto, extreme liberals. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are Democratic-socialists more or less on par with Scandinavian countries, not outright socialists. Even so, they are too extreme for me. There are still plenty of socialists and communists out there, only some of which are practicing military rule and violence. My claim is, thanks to blinders for conservatives, anything labeled as socialist is some combination of evil and catastrophe. MVG wants to give compromise a chance ("Make Compromise Work Again?").


Defining Terms


Now is the time to consider perspectives that might shed some light on the blinders phenomenon. Most of these are psychology related, but include economics, political science, and philosophy—with attempts by me to control my own blinders. A major point is these concepts all have blinders components.


First off are psychology and behavioral economics. Tradition is a key factor (and particularly favored by conservatives), related to Tversky and Kahneman’s anchoring and adjustment from prospect theory. People have key anchors on what they believe and move away from those perspectives slowly. Consider some definition of patriotism. Some people may insist this means waving the flag or “America, right or wrong.” Others mean private service (in the military, for exmple) and silent respect. Because of anchoring on, say the flag, flag wavers may consider others as “unpatriotic” or worse. The silent patriots may just role their eyes.


Confirmation bias supports anchoring and adjustment. This is the search for confirming evidence and interpreting new information as supporting existing beliefs, including wishful thinking. Fact-based evidence from a reliable (let’s call it mainstream) source may not be required—or rejected out of hand. Given blinders, people turn to sources they agree with rather than those most trusted.


Cognitive dissonance suggests people don’t process information that “violates” their firmly-held beliefs. People I admire sometimes criticize some of mainstream media as overly biased against Trump and various supporters at least in some circumstances, because of cognitive dissonance. For example, not evaluating actual Trumpian decisions objectively. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Objectively, this could be supported on several grounds like their links to terrorism and the unfrozen money used to enhance their support. My point is decisions have tradeoffs, which should be considered objectively. You don’t have to agree, but these should be considered. (Ian Bremmer generally takes a relatively objective look at decisions like this. He doesn’t support Trump, but gives him credit when due.)


Hindsight bias (from prospect theory). After the fact, we know the outcome. Now we can claim we knew it all along. I love history and have to struggle against hindsight bias. Authorities that claimed boom periods would go on indefinitely in 1929 and 1999 seemed like idiots in 1930 and 2001. Consider for example a stock investment (or investment strategy). Before the fact, who knows. I make decisions based on something. For example, I invested in Apple after Steve Jobs died and the stock plummeted, assuming Apple would be fine (even if less innovative). That turned out to be correct, not because I’m an investment genius. More likely, just blind luck. I also bought General Electric after it declined substantially, but GE continued to go down. I lost money. It was a bad bet. The results are obvious with hindsight bias. Because I’ve gone both ways, I know I’m a mediocre investor who should rely on index funds.

Motivated irrationality is a form of self-deception; some action is taken toward a desired goal based on faulty information or analysis. I suppose we do this constantly. Consider that spur-of-the-moment car purchase based on some irrational belief (“it’s really fast” or “wow, a convertible”) that may seem pretty stupid after the fact, like when the monthly payments come due. It can be difficult to leave the irrational blinders at home when shopping.


Endowment effect: people prefer what they already have, associated with status quo and loss aversion. My daughter, a realtor, runs into this regularly. House sellers often see their dingy houses as spectacular and worth a million bucks. Multiple experiments have been conducted demonstrating this point, often suggesting irrational decisions.


Framing (from prospect theory) is how something is presented (like universal health care versus socialized medicine). This is a big deal for both marketing and politics and can easily turn unethical or worse. Republicans have been great at it, labeling attempts at expanding healthcare insurance labeled socialized medicine by bleeding hearts, even with “death panels.” Frank Luntz came up with “death taxes” rather than inheritance taxes. Luntz uses focus groups to determine which terms are most effective to support a position. From my perspective, this plays into people’s blinders. Bumper-sticker-speak can be amazingly effective, like “Make America Great Again.” Seemingly meaningless, but listeners can fit their own definitions and consider the originator a genius.


Obedience to authority: people will follow the orders of superiors (those in authority) even when breaking ethical norms. After World War II, the question discussed was whether there was something brutal to the German character. Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments showed that obedience was a common human trait. About 65% of subjects would continue to give someone increasingly painful electric shocks if the leader said do it. Considerable study has been made on the rationale and limits to obedience. (At least 35% resisted in the Milgram experiments, perhaps because of lack of blinders.)


Bandwagon effect: beliefs and trends increase the more they are adopted by others; particularly true in voting when people switch to perceived to perceived majority view. Other people may consider this “lemming” behavior leading right off the cliff. I fall for this, in the sense that I'm a laggard for adopting new technology.


Default to truth: people are expected to behave in certain ways, but may be “mismatched” and, therefore, misinterpreted. People are poor at identifying those who are mismatched and lie (occasionally, liars that tell the truth). For example, people who are mismatched may be treated by police as guilty. Default to truth was a major perspective for Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. He starts with Sandra Bland, a black woman having had typical negative interactions with police. Why would a policeman pull her over for no apparent reason? He had particular perceptions (basically negative) of what she was up to based in part on his training, a mismatch based on his blinders. This ended badly for Sandra.


Ariely’s dishonesty: behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s experiments demonstrated that people are somewhat dishonest, but the level of dishonestly is limited enough to consider themselves honest. People may cheat on their taxes because “everybody does it.” Not only that, people can be manipulated to be totally honest or flagrantly dishonest.


Philip Tetlock, focusing on expert political judgment and “super forecasting,” introduced the hedgehog and the fox as the best explanatory tool: foxes know many things, the hedgehog one great thing. Hedgehogs have thick, narrow blinders and cannot think outside this narrow perspective (if I liked to use common sayings, I’d say they can’t think outside the box). Foxes, on the other hand, base their perspectives/forecasts on the most recent relevant facts and change their perspectives as new information is discovered and processed—consistent with Bayes theorem of updating probabilities. Hedgehogs can act authoritative like they have all the answers and attract people who believe their perspectives; the rest of us (fox or not) think they’re morons. Economists Paul Krugman uses the term zombies (at least in an economic context—another book review available). His right-wing zombies always consider trickle down/supply side justifications to support tax cuts for the rich folks, always ignoring the relevant facts against this (like the 1990s economic boom after tax increases and the 2000s tax cuts that did not result in a great boom; ditto Trump tax cuts). In blinders world, being a fox is a big deal. I spend a good deal of time trying to get updated information on major events (and minor ones too). Hopefully, I can use this continually updated information is a foxlike manor).


John Hibbing and others dissect psychological conservative versus liberal perspectives. Conservatives are conscientious, self-reliant, believe in authority, hierarchy and order, and traditional values. They prefer black and white issues and avoid ambiguity. Liberals believe in equality, tolerance, change from tradition, tolerate ambiguity and levels of gray. Liberal are more sympathetic to out-groups and rule-breakers. While conservatives favor merit and personal liberty, liberals value community actions and responsibilities. Liberal more likely focus on the “undeserving rich,” while conservatives see “undeserving poor.” Conservative public policy focus is on security and pay attention to negatives and authority to limit bad stuff. These are characteristics that relate directly to likely blinders for both groups. They also suggest that conservatives have larger, narrower blinders.


Authoritarianism: The leader has almost complete control over people, which seems to be related to obedience. The term “dictator” started in the ancient Roman Republic, when a dictator took control in times of crisis. Sometimes they didn’t want to give up their new power. Kings, queens, and emperors were common throughout recorded history, including any number of bloodthirsty monsters. Authoritarians have centralized government, typically maintained by repression and use of fear, lies and propaganda, plus prosperity for some (booty, promoting graft for a few). Forget rule of law or freedom. The authoritarianism of Trump is not unexpected in leaders, but not expected in US political leadership.


Narcissism. In most circumstances, narcissism would not be mentioned except as a possible footnote. In the Trump era, it is front and center and the search is on for narcissists everywhere. In Blinders World narcissist blinders are narrow and block out any evidence for empathy, win-win decisions, or listening.


In summary, blinders can be considered a generic term and a likely starting point for discussion. Blinders may be easy to see; then the next steps would be why, a fuller explanation, and possible corrective actions. Or shrug your shoulders and move on.


Postscript, January 6,2021: Does anyone now wonder why Hitler was so effective in 1930s Germany?