Many of you are familiar with the Müller-Lyer illusion but I will present it anyway because seeing it is useful for my thesis, which I admit is very speculative. Please begin by looking at the diagram.
Now decide which of the horizontal portions of the two lines is longer. If you measure them, you will then KNOW they are identical but you will have difficulty seeing that even after you know it to be true. Can the optical illusion be overcome? With some effort it can be, but our tendency is not to try hard. Constantly questioning our intuitive judgments is unpleasant and often unrewarding. I believe that most of us have an instinctive liking for Barack Obama and a strong intuition that he is a good man who means well. Our trust in Obama is the cognitive analogy to our trust in the perceptual experience of viewing the illusion. We are making a mistake but my merely telling you so without much argument gets me nowhere. You already know some of his his worst policy errors but you have a way of dismissing them as “not his fault.” Because you may be right, my arguments, if I presented them, would strike you as curiously flimsy. “You can’t fight City Hall,” so to speak. So I won’t.
Mental effort is hard for all of us. Just ask students at Harvard, M.I.T, or Princeton to solve this math puzzle: “A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Any person smart enough to be admitted to any of these schools can figure out the answer if he allows himself 20 seconds of thought but a study has proved that most of them get the answer wrong because they take the path of least resistance. The intuitive (and wrong) answer is that the ball costs ten cents. This is almost the cognitive equivalent of the Müller-Lyer illusion. Of course it doesn’t take too long to see one’s error in the bat and ball “illusion” but I simply don’t know what can be done about the Obama illusion. The trouble is that it may very well be the case that Obama really is a good man who means well but our intuitive feeling that this is so is not based on a study of evidence but is a hastily formed opinion based on his apparent affability.
Quick judgments are the very stuff of life in a world that crowds us with important decisions that will not wait. Consider this problem: “All roses are flowers. Some flowers fade quickly. Therefore some roses fade quickly.” A person who has a grasp of elementary logic sees this is a fallacious argument and may even be able to name the error. The rest of us require a moment of reflection. But why bother? What would it prove? If we get it wrong, we get it wrong. How does it bear on Obama’s goodness? Answer: I don’t know but I think it is another instance of hasty judgment. Is Obama what he seems to be? My answer is this: Why rush to judgment? If it is too much trouble to think long and hard about it, don’t form an opinion. Let history decide unless you are willing to put your brain in the hands of others. Dangerous business, that.