Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Metacognition Deficit

David Brooks nicely expresses the nature of a core cultural issue that's troubled me for some time:
...we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. ... We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group....the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness. Today’s culture is better in most ways, but in this way it is worse. 
...There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized. There’s a rigidity to political debate. Issues like tax cuts and the size of government, which should be shaped by circumstances (often it’s good to cut taxes; sometimes it’s necessary to raise them), are now treated as inflexible tests of tribal purity.
...To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate.... Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one.

Amen, my brother. You're preaching to the choir here. 
Of Course, it should be no time at all before someone responds that Brooks is a patronizing egghead of the "political class." And encourages us all to ignore him, and embrace the wisdom of crowds.


  1. Couldn't agree more. I've been blogging for over four years, have been arguing with both the left and right over that time. I am continually astounded at their complete failure to understand the depth of the metacognition deficit they suffer. I wondered if I might be similarly afflicted?

    To find out, I recently spent several hours in quiet meditation specifically to ponder the weakness in my own thinking and what I should do to compensate. After several hours of reflection and deep introspective analysis I had an epiphany - there was no weakness in my thinking. No one was more surprised than me to learn this, but I admit - it was a relief to understand that I am in fact - right.

    Since then, I've decided to dedicate myself to helping others to understand the depth of their metacognition deficit by explaining clearly and forcefully exactly how wrong they are.

  2. I read that op-ed yesterday, and it had some resonance right up until the last few paragraphs where Brooks starts slinging conclusions. What Brooks laments shows up in his own writings, and IMHO he mistakes the symptom for the disease.

    The basic assumption underlying Brooks' conclusions is that if only those "in public life" would recognize the flaws in their thinking, everything would get better. But (speaking of the politicos here, not the True Believer mobs) those "in public life" are often QUITE aware of the "metacognition gap" that Brooks laments, and exploit it for their own purposes. Namely to achieve and retain their positions of power.

    This is the natural and inevitable result of extreme partisan polarization. A tiger must be served, and in this case the tigers are the extremist base factions that hold the key to winning partisan primaries. It is very very difficult to get to power without "riding the tiger", and to mount the tiger you must first distract it with some bloody meat. Once you achieve power by riding the tiger, it becomes incredibly difficult to dismount without being eaten by the tiger ... and if you don't keep steering it to fresh bloody meat, YOU will become that meat. For a real-life example, witness Murkowski's loss in her Senate primary last night.

    Of Course, it should be no time at all before someone responds that Brooks is a patronizing egghead of the "political class."

    The problem with trying to pre-emptively defuse that argument is that there is some solid basis to it. Brooks is falling into the classic trap of "If only people would think like me, our problems would be so much less." This is reminiscent of the old argument that Communism hasn't worked to date because The Right People haven't been in charge. Or Thomas Friedman's autocratic longings, though at least Brooks didn't quite fall into THAT trap. The good part of attempting to defuse that argument is that as an argument it falls into the ad hom category. However true it might be, it doesn't really relate to Brooks' argument and is thus an irrelevant distraction.

    His argument itself, well, bad assumptions lead to bad conclusions. The disconnect in Brooks' argument lies in bad underlying assumptions about the dynamics of power in a democratic structure, his assumption that those in power can once there ignore the tiger at will, and that their failure to do so must be a result of defective thinking.

    BTW, humans do not function on a herd mentality, but more on a pack/troop mentality.

  3. Thanks for the the thoughtful reply, Tully.

    I think I can understand why anyone would be offended by the "if only folks would think more like me" argument if they feel it's what was being implied.

    I didn't get that feeling, but I can see someone else might. As you went on to point out, I was driving at the idea that the identity of the messenger is not relevant to the value of the message.

    I didn't cite Brooks because I agree with his political views or think he has special insight into any particular political issue. I only did so because I really wish more folks would metacogitate. In other words, look for error in one's own thought. I feel that many folks views harden quickly as they sink into their 30s and onward.

    I may fail, but I at least try hard to test my own ideas against new and powerful arguments when I see them. I don't seek out confirming opinion, I seek additional perspectives, and I seek out explanations for new unanswered questions when they arise in my mind. When someone brings up a good point that isn't accounted for in whatever my working hypothesis is, I chew on it. Either I find a way to digest it, or I keep it around.

    So contra MW's sarcastic comment, I don't think I have no metacognition deficit, and so I don't approach discussions with an eye to helping folks see that they are wrong Instead, I try to invite them to incorporate other perspectives, However, most folks seem to prefer to expel the undigestible.

    BTW, totally agreed that many smart folks understand and take full advantage of the metacognition deficit. It's a problem.

  4. I really wish more folks would metacogitate

    Hear hear!