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Surprising Science

Human Reason: Capricious Rationalizing

When asked to observe a man making mundane decision in his apartment, a sample of people placed greater emphasis on the importance of individual decision making in life.

What’s the Big Idea?

How capricious are we? Are the political and social ideals we defend at length subject to quick reversals from a mere suggestion? What we consider true and just may have little to do with our capacity for rational thought. Rather, our environment may form the ground on which our supposedly objective conclusions rest, and when circumstances in our lives change, so too might the opinions we have been holding onto so tightly. Broadly speaking, people tend toward a conservative politics as they acquire more money, for example.

What’s the Most Recent Development?

A forthcoming study in the journal Psychological Science demonstrates how simply being in a different frame of mind may affect our predilection toward a wide spectrum of political and social ideas. When subjects were asked to watch a video of a man making mundane choices in his apartment—What to do? What to eat?—they were more likely to emphasize the importance of responsible decision making in life, favoring policies like legalizing marijuana while expressing skepticism of affirmative action and government regulation of pollution.

Obama’s early life was decidedly chaotic and replete with traumatic and mentally bruising dislocations. Mixed-race marriages were even less common then. His parents went through a divorce when he was an infant (two years old). Pathological narcissism is a reaction to prolonged abuse and trauma in early childhood or early adolescence. The source of the abuse or trauma is immaterial: the perpetrators could be dysfunctional or absent parents, teachers, other adults, or peers.

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