Cognitive biases are hot right now. Everyone’s talking about them. Even Elon Musk. I’ve seen people of all political stripes posting about them, advocating learning them, and so on. Presumably, folks think their political opponents could use a few lessons on critical thinking. As we become increasingly polarized, we seek out explanations for the peculiar behaviours and attitudes of others and cognitive biases offer us an answer to “what’s up with Uncle Doug.”
You may have heard about the cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is the tendency for people with low knowledge or skill in an area to overestimate their abilities. When we know very little, we have high confidence, and our confidence actually declines as we learn more. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is often cited as an explanation for the pandemic-era phenomenon of watching a couple YouTube videos and then proclaiming oneself an expert on health issues.
A few weeks ago I wrote about some historical differences between various Mennonite groups that might contribute to varying attitudes regarding public health orders, but I’d like to supplement that with a bit of psychology. As with my explanations of Mennonite history, I’ll add the caveat that I am not an expert on psychology or cognitive biases and I welcome any feedback from folks more knowledgeable than I am about this topic. What follows is pure speculation.
Back to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I do think it plays a significant role in our current discourse, but I’d like to suggest another cognitive bias that I haven’t seen discussed as often, that may be equally useful in its explanatory power, especially (but not exclusively) among Mennonites. That is Reactance Bias.
Reactance bias is the tendency to do the opposite of what you’re being asked to do, especially if you feel your freedom of choice is being removed.
The reason this behaviour is irrational (and a cognitive bias) is because the individual is not making a choice based on facts and information, but instead by reacting against what they’re being asked to do. Yes, unthinkingly following the crowd is problematic, but so too is unthinkingly doing the opposite. This is why many of the people who call others “sheeple” are actually sheep themselves, in that they too are not making their own decisions. It is no more rational or independent or an act of free will to arbitrarily defy orders as it is to arbitrarily follow them. Both choices are being dictated by emotion (either reactance or compliance) and not rational thought.
We see this when a child defies their parents for no apparent reason other than to exert their independence. When Twisted Sister sang, “we’re not going to take it,” what exactly were they not going to take? The band was hardly known for its subtle social commentary. Instead the song simply captured a youthful, albeit vague, sense of rebellion. It was reactance bias, pure and simple, and we can see it along the entire political spectrum. A similar lyrical sentiment can be found in the lyrics of “Killing in the Name” by lefty band Rage Against the Machine who repeat, “F*** you. I won’t do what you tell me.” This too is reactance bias at work. For most listeners, I suspect, the thrill of the song is not in engaging with any particular political ideology, but in the repeated refrain of “F*** you. I won’t do what you tell me,” which can be directed at whomever the listener chooses and not, necessarily, at the political target the songwriters intended.
However, we also see reactance bias among adults.
Recently I was speaking with my grandmother, and we joked that if the government wanted to convince more Mennonites to get vaccinated, all they would need to do is say, “Mennonites are not allowed to get vaccinated,” and they’d be flocking for the vaccine. Reverse psychology works because of reactance bias.
Look at how much of the opposition to public health orders is framed in the language of “freedom.” This makes perfect sense, of course, because the reactance bias is most prevalent when people perceive a threat to their freedoms. This restriction of freedom doesn’t always have to be from government. It can be, as already discussed, directed towards parents, employers (ie. “Take this job and shove it”), or any other authority figure. It’s also very selective.
We often hear that government is trying to “take away our freedoms,” and yet this seems to be cherry picking the data. Survey history and it does not appear, in democratic countries at least, that freedom is slowly slipping away, or that things, in general are more restrictive. If anything, we’ve seen a gradual liberalization and relaxation of laws over the decades, granting more and more people more and more freedom to do as they please. In the last few years, we’ve seen legalization of same-sex marriage and cannabis use in Canada, to cite just two examples. Ironically, some of the same folks who, at the current moment, are complaining about a loss of “freedom” were opposed to these increases of freedoms in recent years. My point here is that reactance bias is irrational and selective.
This isn’t to say that there are no legitimate reasons to protest. Certainly there are. My point is only that we need to do a significant amount of self-reflection about our own motivations and our own psychology to see if our reactions are legitimate. Even when we think our reaction is justified, we need to consider the possibility that our reactance has come first and that we’ve then rationalized it after the fact.
Maybe there is something in our own Mennonite history or within our own personal experiences that causes us to react instead of reflect. Why do we (I mean Mennonites here but, no doubt, this applies to others as well) not like being told what to do? Well, that’s an interesting question to explore, but more interesting is why, when we feel this way, do we choose to react by doing the opposite?
Surely there are things the government wants us to do or not do, that we agree with. We probably agree with the government on more issues than we disagree with them. The Canadian government, for example, has tightened laws and spent millions of dollars in advertising in the past few decades to prevent drinking and driving. Should we then say, “F*** you. I won’t do what you tell me?” Should we deliberately drink and drive simply to avoid being seen as a sheep? Clearly not.
I’d also like to point our that we, as Mennonites, are not nearly as self-reliant and independent as we think we are. We’ve actually had a history of communal living (maybe not to the same degree as Hutterites, but certainly to a much greater degree than we currently see in our communities). Likewise, some of us have fled all over the world to avoid following government orders and yet quickly acquiesce to any order, no matter how absurd, from church leadership.
As Mennonites, we need to acknowledge that reactance bias is a problem in our communities. It’s one thing to be skeptical of government, and it’s an entirely different thing to be so distrustful that we rashly do the opposite just to be different. Instead of reacting, let’s pause, listen, discuss, think, learn … and maybe acknowledge that our grandparents were right all along to warn us against listening to too much Twisted Sister.
(photo credit: YouTube)