Friday, September 25, 2009

The psychology of intellectual elitism

Barbara Oakley looks at how some of the brightest people stop thinking. Kiss my APA! | Psychology Today

The introduction to Westen's session was a real eye-opener. The moderator was so confident everyone in the room was a staunch Democrat that he jokingly interrupted his disclaimer that the APA couldn't be seen as endorsing any particular political party with repeated exhortations of "Barack!" (You might think I'm kidding, but I'm not.) Party unity thus assured, the session began.

A brief video of an embarrassing Jennifer Lopez-inspired slip of the tongue by Fox newscaster Shepard Smith led to Westen's first key point: the general public associates the word liberal with negative connotations that, (he confidently assured us), were untrue – elite, tax and spend, out of touch, big government. The word conservative, on the other hand, had no negative associations.

Hold on a minute. Has Westen studied this? If so, why didn't he present the results so we could judge for ourselves? It would be interesting to analyze Westen's own word linkages. As he spoke, I heard the word conservative disdainfully associated with racist, intolerant, and narrow-minded.

How do bright people get this way?

How can Drew Westen, a remarkably intelligent man, make the kinds of one-sided statements he made, and why did no one in the room question the sheer inanity of what was being presented?

My theory – call it the "Oakley effect" – is that really smart people often don't know how to accept and react constructively to criticism. (A neuroscientist might say they "have underdeveloped neurocircuitry for integrating negatively valenced stimuli.") This is because smart people are whizzes at problems that only need one person to figure out. Indeed, people are evaluated from kindergarten through college prep SATs on the basis of such "single solver" problems. If you are often or nearly always right with these kinds of problems, your increased confidence in your own abilities would be accompanied by an inadvertent decrease in your capacity to deal with criticism. After all, your experience would have shown that your critics were usually wrong.

But most large-scale societal issues are not single solver problems. They are so richly complex that no single person can faultlessly teach him or herself all the key concepts, which are often both contradictory and important. Yes, smart people have an advantage in dealing with such problems, because they've got natural brain-power that allows them to hold many factors in mind at once, bringing formidable problem-solving skills to bear. But smart people have a natural disadvantage, too: they're not used to changing their thinking in response to criticism when they get things wrong.

In fact, natural smarties – the intellectual elite – often don't seem to learn the art of soliciting the criticism necessary to grasp the core issues of a complex problem, and then making vital adaptations as a result. Instead, they fall in naturally with people who admire, rather than are critical, of their thinking. This further strengthens their conviction they are right even as it distances them from people of very different backgrounds who grasp very different, but no less crucial aspects of complex problems. That's why the intellectual elite is often branded by those from other groups as out of touch.

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