One of my favorite bloggers is Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. In a recent post, Scott wrote about the inability of small children to conceive that other people have different beliefs or perspectives than they do:

In a classic demonstration, researchers show little Amy a Skittles bag and ask what she thinks is inside. She guesses Skittles, but the researchers open it and reveal it’s actually pennies. Then they close it up and invite little Brayden into the room. Then they ask Amy what Brayden thinks is inside. If Amy’s three years old or younger, she’ll usually say ‘pennies’ – she knows that pennies are inside, so why shouldn’t Brayden know too? If she’s four or older, she’ll usually say ‘Skittles’ – she realizes on a gut level that she and Brayden are separate minds and that Brayden will have his own perspective.

Scott then tied this in to a recent Washington Post article on police protests:

The Post argues that because the Democrats support gun control and protest police, they are becoming the ‘pro-crime party.’ I’m not sure whether the Post genuinely believes the Democrats are pro-crime by inclination or are just arguing their policies will lead to more crime in a hyperbolic figurative way, but I’ve certainly seen sources further right make the ‘genuinely in favor of crime as a terminal value’ argument. And this doesn’t seem too different from the leftist sources that say Republicans can’t really care about the lives of the unborn, they’re just ‘anti-woman’ as a terminal value. Both proposals share this idea of not being able to understand that other people have different beliefs than you and that their actions proceed naturally from those beliefs. Instead of saying ‘I believe gun control would increase crime, but Democrats believe the opposite, and from their different perspective banning guns makes sense,’ they say ‘I believe gun control would increase crime, Democrats must believe the same, and therefore their demands for gun control must come from sinister motives.’

So maybe it’s not just children who have a problem with understanding differing points of view. During a recent appearance on MSNBC, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman boasted about how liberals like him were so much better at groking opposing viewpoints than were other people:

There’s this hermetic universe of you only watch Fox News and you only listen to people and if some information that doesn’t suit your worldview comes along, it’s because of the liberal bias of the media… People like me are aware of what’s on Fox News. I have a suspicion that the people who are Fox News watchers have no idea what’s on MSNBC. And we see that in lots of things. One of the kind of things we do in my professional circuit is we say a liberal economist can imitate a conservative economist, can pretend, what will one of those guys say? The reverse is not true. So there is a level of openness to at least acknowledging that there are other viewpoints – not agreeing with them, but understanding them –that is not symmetric.

Even more impressive, Krugman is able to predict what conservatives think despite the fact that he refuses to read conservatives:

Some have asked if there aren’t conservative sites I read regularly. Well, no. I will read anything I’ve been informed about that’s either interesting or revealing; but I don’t know of any economics or politics sites on that side that regularly provide analysis or information I need to take seriously. I know we’re supposed to pretend that both sides always have a point; but the truth is that, most of the time, they don’t.

So how does Krugman explain why conservatives think how they do? Easy, it’s because they “have an intense desire to be wrong.”

One criticism I face fairly often is the assertion that I must be dishonest — I must be cherry-picking my evidence, or something — because the way I describe it, I’m always right while the people who disagree with me are always wrong. And not just wrong, they’re often knaves or fools. How likely is that?

But may I suggest, respectfully, that there’s another possibility? Maybe I actually am right, and maybe the other side actually does contain a remarkable number of knaves and fools.

Sure. And maybe little Brayden only says the bag is full of Skittles because she is a knave and a fool with an intense desire to be wrong. After all, we know the bag is full of pennies.

As it happens, researchers have tested whether liberals or conservatives are better able to predict the other’s point of view, and the results may surprise you, at least if you’re Paul Krugman. For example, in one experiment, conservative participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire on moral issues as if they were a liberal, while liberal participants answered pretending they were conservative. Conservatives were able to predict more accurately how real-life liberals answered the various questions, while liberals struggled to put themselves into the mindset of a conservative. In particular, liberals tended to assume, that since conservatives favored polices they thought were unfair or uncompassionate, therefore conservatives must not value fairness or compassion. Sound familiar?

I say all this not just to pick on Paul Krugman. Krugman is a smart guy. If he is so blind to his own biases, then chances are, so am I. So, probably, are you, my dear reader. And as the twelve-steppers say, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

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