Monday, March 19, 2007

"Tom Patterson is a retired emergency"

That's how The Tribune describes another of their regular columnists. There's something about Dr. Patterson that makes him appear to me as if he wears a "KICK ME" sign on the back of his suit jacket. And the best thing about writing about politics in Arizona is that after 10 years, you get to trot out your old stuff as a history lesson, not a lack of imagination.

Patterson's column is available, for another couple of days, here. The Reeder et al. paper is Reeder, G. D., Pryor, J. B., Wohl, M. J. A., & Griswell, M. L. (2005), On attributing negative motives to others who disagree with our opinions, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1498-1510, and The Washington Post article quoting Reeder is here. If you get nothing else out of my column, you should know that Mike Kopetski is a very good guy.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 18, 2007

Among my many regrets in life is a speech I made in the House of Representatives during the NAFTA debate. Convinced that words "free trade" were a magic incantation overwhelming all doubt, I accused those opposing the trade pact of political cowardice.

When I finished, Rep. Mike Kopetski of Oregon gave me some friendly but stern advice. He instructed me never to attack my opponents' motivations. Nobody really can know others' motivations, and it's too easy to believe people who disagree with you act out of malice, or fear. Attributing bad motives to your enemies also makes it too easy to dismiss their arguments. Mike told me to assume that those who disagreed did so in good faith, and never to attack their motivations instead of their arguments.

That's not easy to do, especially because social science research shows that most people automatically assume the worst about their opponents. In a delightfully-titled paper called "On attributing negative motives to others who disagree with our opinions," Prof. Glenn Reeder of Illinois State University and his co-authors tested people with strong opinions about the Iraq war. They found people on both sides shared an identical bias: Both described those who agreed with them as ethical and principled, but assumed those who disagreed were motivated by self-interest. Reeder told The Washington Post that our brains interfere with our ability to accept disagreement on issues of great public importance: "We find it difficult to grant that other people come to their conclusions in good faith if they reach a conclusion that is different than ours."

Other studies show that we tend to assume those who disagree with us are less well-informed, and on issues where even partisans must admit that opponents are also knowledgeable, we then assume opponents are biased or selfish.

Not only do we assume the worst about those who disagree, we also believe we're better than the typical person who agrees with us. A Harvard Business School study found that we tend to consider ourselves more moderate, freer from bias, and abler to "see things as they are" than our fellows. Not only are we apparently hard-wired to believe the worst of our opponents; we're also hard-wired to think that we're also superior to even those who wisely share our opinions.

Everybody thinks they're an above-average driver. Why shouldn't we think the same thing about politics?

Kopetski's advice, and this social science research, came to mind in reading Tom Patterson's column last week attacking Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., for supporting card-check legislation. Instead of considering any of the arguments for the Employee Free Choice Act, Patterson just assumed he knew Mitchell's motivations, that he voted for the bill because of political payback to union supporters.

There are several facts that supporters of card-check might note in favor of the legislation, some of which might be more persuasive than "research" by GOP pollsters hired by groups opposed or 40-year-old court cases. First, it's not just a "far left-wing" issue; the Democratic Leadership Council endorsed card-check. Even Joe Lieberman supports card-check.

Several recent studies have found employer coercion is a significantly bigger problem than union coercion. Patterson may think that the law "assiduously" protects the right to organize, but employers do fire employees for union activity before elections can be held -- and the penalties remain extremely low. Voters should consider whether the same managements who backdated stock options, or violated accounting standards, or gave themselves far more generous health care benefits than regular workers will be suddenly scrupulous in respecting employees' rights to organize. And if you claim the Bush administration will protect the rights of the little guy, some Katrina victims and Walter Reed outpatients just might disagree.

Finally, while serving as state Senate majority leader, Patterson lobbied some lobbyists and a state employee on behalf of his private business interests, leaving himself uncomfortably open to criticism from some observers (like me) over his ethics. Next time, Patterson should stick to the merits and not attack others' motivations from inside his glass house. The way our brains work, I just can't resist throwing stones back.

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