The imaginarium of politics

Dimitria Electra Gatzia is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Akron Wayne College and Research Affiliate of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research. Her research centers on issues in perception, philosophy of mind, and cognitive science.  

Dimitria Electra Gatzia is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Akron Wayne College and Research Affiliate of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research. Her research centers on issues in perception, philosophy of mind, and cognitive science.  

A post by Dimitria Electra Gatzia and Brit Brogaard.

In Terry Gilliam’s film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Doctor Parnassus and his ragtag crew travel as sideshow performers luring audience members up on stage and through a magical mirror into the imaginarium, where Doctor Parnassus guides their imagination. Once there, they are presented with a choice between difficult and transient perseverance and “the fabled bliss of ignorance,”[1] mirroring Doctor Parnassus’ own wager with the devil, first winning what appears to be alluring immortality by attracting twelve disciples, and later regaining his covetable youth and beauty in exchange for his daughter’s soul. Deeply infatuated with a young woman Doctor Parnassus chooses youth in exchange for his daughter’s soul but later regrets and engages in yet another wager with the devil: his daughter’s soul in exchange for the souls of five strangers. When gullible spectators choose blissful ignorance rather than difficult and heartbreaking perseverance Doctor Parnassus captures their soul. Doctor Parnassus regretted his rash choices of what initially appeared to be unrivaled among alternatives. But is that the fate for all of us? Can we ever choose and not regret? How do we make choices when their real outcome is only disclosed once the choice has already been made?

Berit Brogaard is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami and the Director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research. Her research focuses on issues in philosophy of mind, language, and cognitive science. 

Berit Brogaard is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami and the Director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research. Her research focuses on issues in philosophy of mind, language, and cognitive science. 

The process of making choices is often spelled out in terms of a calibration of our desires in light of our beliefs (Smith, 1987; Davidson, 1963). Indeed, the predominant philosophical theory of choice is that deciding between alternatives is a matter of comparing the probability of the satisfaction of desires given background beliefs. Call this the “belief-desire model.” Suppose, for example, that you are trying to decide whether you should dine at an Italian restaurant in your neighborhood or at home in your dusty living room. On the belief-desire model, which alternative you choose will depend on your desires and background beliefs. If your primary desire is to have a good meal (as opposed to, say, save money) and you believe that your cooking is subpar, or if you believe that the restaurant never fails to satisfy you desire for a good meal, you will most likely choose to go to the restaurant.

Although this theory has a certain degree of initial plausibility, it conflicts with a large body of empirical evidence indicating that the choices we make are influenced by a variety of irrelevant factors, including the order in which questions/alternatives are raised, the way in which questions or problems are framed, unrelated experiences, environmental factors, and even whether one holds a warm or a cold cup of coffee when making choices (Tai et al., 2011; Swain et al., 2008; Valdesolo & DeSteno, 2006; Zhong & Liljenquist 2006; Tversky et al., 1981). The fact that our decisions are influenced by a number of seemingly irrelevant factors further suggests that our choices are far less rational or reliable than we often assume.

In light of such findings, an alternative account to the belief-desire model has been proposed. On this view, when we make choices we first imagine ourselves in alternate scenarios and then compare these imaginings, much like Doctor Parnassus and the visitors of his imaginarium (Nanay, 2016). Call this the “imagination model.” To see how we make choices according to this model, let us return to the example above. When you are deciding whether to dine out or at home, you are imagining yourself dining at the restaurant and you are also imagining yourself dining at home. Let’s say that when you imagine yourself dining at the Italian restaurant, you imagine being served a delicious mushroom risotto and sipping a glass of Chianti, while engaging in a pleasant conversation with your partner. When you imagine yourself dining at home, by contrast, you imagine having made a mediocre Spaghetti and Meatball dish, which after all the cooking is done leaves you with an unmanageable mess in the kitchen. Given just these two imaginative scenarios, you will likely choose to hit the Italian place and forget all about yesterday’s plan to save money.

On the imagination model, your beliefs (e.g., your belief about the Chianti at the Italian restaurant, your belief about your mediocre cooking abilities, your memory belief about how huge the pile of dishes was last time you attempted to cook something edible) as well as your desires (e.g., your desire to sink your teeth into that deliciously slightly-chewy yet creamy mushroom risotto, your desire to chat about all and nothing with your partner, your desire not to spend most of your evening washing a pile of dishes) influence and constrain your imaginative episode. But what determines your choice is the comparison between the two imaginative episodes, and the choice you make is likely based on which episode seems realistic and most preferable.

What is interesting about the imagination model is that it captures the idea, supported by a large body of empirical evidence, that our choices are not as rational or reliable as we would like to think. We have known for a long time that our unconscious thoughts guide our behavior, goals, and motivations with respect to a variety of decisions associated with, among other things, consumer behavior, parenting, race relations, and even addiction (for reviews see e.g., Bargh, 2017 and Jost et al., 2003). As a result, the aim of the imagination model is not to explain the deviations from what we regard as the ideal by appealing to our human biases. Rather, the goal is to explain why we make irrational, unreliable choices as often as we do, why, for instance, Doctor Parnassus made the regretful decisions he did. The answer lies in the role imagination plays in the decision-making process.

Take as an example the process of decision-making in politics. How do we make political decisions? Current evidence indicates that participants respond to dispositionally or situationally salient (real or imaginary) threats by adopting conservative political or social positions (Jost & Hunyady, 2002; McGregor et al., 2005; Sales, 1972; Ullrich & Cohrs, 2007). For example, in one study liberal participants were asked to describe in writing the feelings the thought of their own death aroused in them and what they thought would happen to them physically as they died and once they were dead. They were then asked to first indicate their opinions about capital punishment and abortion from a list of 10 diverse attitude statements and then answer 10 questions about their convictions for each of the opinions the selected. The results indicated that imagining their own death caused liberals to adopt more conservative attitudes on capital punishment or abortion (Nail et al., 2009). Evidence of the connection between threat and conservatism has also emerged from neuroscience. Studies indicate that there is a positive correlation between conservatives and the size of the right amygdala (a region of the brain implicated in processing fear, see Kanai et al., 2011). In addition, conservatives display more activation in the right amygdala during a risk-taking task than liberals (Schreiber et al., 2013).

Given that imagining a threat (e.g., imagining being vulnerable) elicits conservative responses, we would expect that imagining being impervious to a threat would elicit liberal responses. Indeed, one study found that physical invulnerability (e.g., feeling invincible) lessened exclusion-triggered negative attitudes toward stigmatized groups (Huang, Ackerman, & Bargh, 2013). Participants were asked to imagine that they had a superpower. Participants in one group imagined that the superpower rendered them invulnerable to physical harm while participants in the control group imagined that the superpower allowed them to fly. After imagining having the superpower, participants were asked to rate their positivity towards stigmatized groups (e.g., the obese, illegal immigrants, Muslims, crack or heroin addicts, and so forth). The results indicate that the participants who imagined being invulnerable were significantly more positive towards stigmatized groups than their counterparts who imagined flying. Interestingly, the study also found that imagining that one is not in pain did not lessen negative attitudes toward stigmatized groups.

A more recent study used the same imaginative task to determine whether conservative participants would elicit more liberal responses (Napier et al., 2017). As with the aforementioned study, participants in this study were asked to imagine that they had a superpower that made them invulnerable to physical harm. The researchers found that making conservatives feel physically safe increased their liberalism on social and political issues. By contrast, priming did not affect the social or political attitudes of liberals as they chronically perceived themselves as being less threatened.

Although we typically think of the political decisions we make as rational and reliable, the findings just outlined indicate that even our political  choices are heavily influenced by and limited by our imagination. Doctor Parnassus regretted having chosen eternal life when he grew old and spectators no longer cared about his tricks and immortality became “everlasting torment.”[2] The limits of his imagination made him choose an existence where he was “Forgotten. Lost. Alone and desperate.”[3] Imagining being the victims of immigrants “stealing” our livelihood or “out-groups” destroying our morals or imagining acts of terrorism taking the lives of our loved ones plays a decisive role in the choices we make. In order to make enlightened choices, we must deliberately broaden our imaginative capacities and envision a more positive worldview. We must imagine the world as we hope it will turn out and stop irrationally reacting in response to fear of what the world will become. Feeding on fears creates a barrier to progress in our lives and runs counter to the original aim of politics--understood as things concerning the highest form of community: the polis (as opposed to the family, the classroom, or the sports team). As Aristotle argued in Politics, the true aim of political decisions is to inculcate us with ethical and epistemic virtues. A real engagement in politics, therefore, requires the courage to embrace what may initially seem unimaginative and learn to envisage a brighter, more welcoming, and tolerant world.

[1] The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Script - Dialogue Transcript.

[2] The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Script - Dialogue Transcript.

[3] The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Script - Dialogue Transcript.


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