Speculating about others’ motives is a dangerous action. It leads us to wrong conclusions while ignoring the empirical consequences.

When someone disagrees with us on an important issue, we often assume they have an evil motivation. When someone agrees with us, they are kind and intelligent people.

Shankar Vedantam’s recent articleDisagree about Iraq? You’re Evil shows how pervasive these beliefs are.

He cites a poll asking people what Bush’s motives were. Those who support the war believe Bush’s motives were Self-defense (74%) and Aiming to do good (70%) while just 11% claimed it was for Hidden motives and Revenge. Anti-War respondents said Self-defense (39%), Aiming to do good (27%), Hidden Motive (50%), and Revenge (31%).

Huh? Revenge? What evidence do they have of hidden motives or revenge? They have no evidence (that’s why it’s hidden!), they’re making it up to feel good about themselves.

And we know it gets worse. If you oppose the war, you want to hump goats with Osama in caves.

I wish to point out that Bush did not decide to go to war. This is not as silly as it sounds. The US foreign policy bureaucracy functions like a mandarin class, gathering information and constructing policies. In the end, any President gives the green-light to the preferred policies. The mandarins assure that there is little change in American foreign policy despite changes in the Presidency.

But we cannot personalize a vast bureaucracy of thousands of individuals. Instead we look upon Bush and judge his motives based on… our own personal feelings.

What is interesting about the clash from a psychological perspective is not that supporters and critics disagree, but that large numbers of people on both sides claim to know the motives of people who disagree with them. When was the last time you heard people say that those who disagree with them on the Iraq war are well-meaning, smart, informed and thoughtful?

A wide body of psychological research shows that on any number of hot-button issues, people seem hard-wired to believe the worst about those who disagree with them. Most people can see the humor in such behavior when it doesn’t involve things they care about: If you don’t care about sports, for example, you roll your eyes when fans of one team question the principles and parentage of fans of a rival team.

Stop and wait a second. How did you come to your political conclusion? Where did you get your information and is it a representative sample of reality? Is your hypothesis falsifiable? How well-informed is your rational model of decision-making?

How often are you wrong?

Politics is no different than engineering or science. It’s about tradeoffs. We construct a rational model to look at and understand difficult problems around us.

What is unfortunate is that many are ill-informed of the tradeoffs. Not being aware of tradeoffs means they falsely believe they know the one true answer. We can become emotionally and morally attached to our opinions. If our rational model is challenged by a different person – we attack them. They must be evil to challenge the one true path. Rarely we stop and question how well informed we are.

When challenged – Update your rational model.
Don’t just deflect rational criticism by claiming your opponents are evil. Disagreement does not mean you were wrong, but it may mean you have missed something. This is obviously true if you are not an expert. Few people are specialists in warfare, so their opinions on Iraq are without substance. But this is especially true of experts. The ignorant at least know they are ignorant. The expert delude themselves over time unless they test and retest their theories.

For the record, I do not know what Bush’s motives are. Nor do I know Nancy Pelosi’s motives. If I suggested otherwise, I apologize – because I made wild speculations which are probably wrong. I try, perhaps despite human instinct, to focus the debate on the probable consequences of policy.

Another study found that liberals and conservatives not only overestimate their opponents’ partisan motives on questions such as abortion and same-sex marriage but also overestimate the partisan motives of people on their own side.

“Partisans within ideological groups tended to view themselves as atypical vis-a-vis their group: atypical in their moderation, in their freedom from bias, and in their capacity to ‘see things as they are in reality’ even when that reality proves to be ideologically inconvenient or ‘politically incorrect,’ ” Harvard Business School researcher Robert J. Robinson and his colleagues concluded.

When you become a follower of the one true path, how can you be anything but a calm, rational, ethically pure moderate?

And damn them who say this is not the one true path.

Is this not a primitive tribal mentality? But I seem to be waging a one-man war against motivation bias.

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