Behavior Economics

The Faux Outrage over Michelle Wolf’s WHCD Remarks and Motivated Reasoning and Other Cognitive Tom Fuckery

Unless you’ve been stuck deep in a subterranean parking garage far far away from any 4G or wifi connection, then you’ve heard about the controversy over Michelle Wolf’s insults of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ appearance. How she went after her looks and it was terrible because we never insult someone over their looks because that would be bullying because you can’t really change your looks and it would really hurt someone’s feelings if you called them a fat slob or remarked on their face not being pretty enough to be president or their eyes being all sleepy and shit. You know, like that. And, we all know that the outrage is spread evenly like butter on toast at a diner during the breakfast rush across the political world. Anyone who insults another person’s looks gets called out no matter where they are on the political spectrum, no matter who they are because it is just plain wrong and we don’t tolerate it in our culture.

Of course, we all recognize this for the bull shit that it is. We don’t need to go over the Twitter war concerning Michelle Wolf’s WHCD remarks in great detail. Deadline does a good job reviewing the twitter exchanges here. Just suffice it to say that many people are mortally offended by Michelle Wolf’s appearance-based insults of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. All I can say is Sanders knew what she was signing up for when she agreed to go to work for the Ol’ Pussy Grabber. Oh and she’s a mother.

The Transcript

Let’s have a look at the transcript of Wolf’s remarks about Sarah Huckabee Sanders in their verbatim entirety courtesy The Washington Post:

Every time Sarah steps up to the podium, I get excited because I’m not really sure what we’re going to get: you know, a press briefing, a bunch of lies or divided into softball teams. “It’s shirts and skins, and this time, don’t be such a little b—-, Jim Acosta.”

I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like, maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies.

It’s probably lies.

And I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders. You know, is it Sarah Sanders? Is Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Is it Cousin Huckabee? Is it Auntie Huckabee Sanders? Like, what’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know: Aunt Coulter.

Or if you’d rather, you can listen to her remarks (starts at about 13:23):

Any honest reading of her remarks shows that she was not insulting Sanders’ appearance. She didn’t even insult her choices in her make up. She was calling her a liar. In fact, one could argue that the punchline to every joke about Sanders was, You’re a liar!

The truth is, it wasn’t particularly funny, but it was speaking truth-to-power. It was: here listen to this funny joke I’m about to tell about Sanders: What do you get when Sanders leads a presser? She’s a liar! It was funny when you realized (a) the truth of it all and (b) that she’s a liar was the shtick.

However, the reaction shots of Sanders were hard to watch. You could see a couple of things. First, she wasn’t sure how to react. She would smile or start to. But then, the smile would fade as she realized the joke wasn’t particularly funny. And, when it became clear that she was being called a liar, AGAIN, she would look away in shame. I saw a lot of shame on her face.

Maggie Haberman got one thing right, she sat in there and took it. But, Michelle Wolf wasn’t saying anything about her that we didn’t already know and anyone with any honesty in their heart wouldn’t own up to having thought at the very least if not having said out loud, so why are so many people accusing Michelle Wolf of attacking Sanders for her looks?

Motivated Reasoning

Motivated reasoning. Wolf was offensive. She was crass. She was vulgar. She did not pull her punches and called it like she saw it. And, I found it hard to watch her roast Sarah Huckabee Sanders. So, the viewer’s emotional reaction to all of that was to feel sorry for Sanders. Once that emotion got started, you wanted to defend her. You wanted to attack Michelle Wolf. It is an entirely human reaction. Her roasting of Sanders didn’t seem fair. It is very human to want to defend someone in that position and to be angry at the attacker.

The problem is that the roasting was fair. It was a very fair criticism of Sanders and whole administration and the Ol’ Pussy Grabber. So, in steps motivated reasoning.

Motivated reasoning is the cognitive tendency to begin with your conclusion and then fight like hell to rationalize it. The reasoning you use to justify your conclusion is motivated by the need to justify your conclusion. See how circular it all is?

The problem is that we are emotional decision makers. Emotions are fast and easy. Upon encountering a thing, you immediately like it or dislike it, and that forms the basis of your conclusions about it, and how you justify your conclusions about it.

Unfortunately, Michelle Wolf started out with several strikes against her: (a) She’s a woman. (b) She has that god-awful squeaky voice, which is a description not an insult. That’s why one of her first jokes was about her vocational test results recommending mime to her. And (c) she’s a well-known liberal. Her audience was anticipating that the butt of her jokes would be conservatives.  Add to that the pity you felt for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and it was easy to get to, We’re really pissed at Michelle Wolf, and here’s why.

Cognitive Tom Fuckery

To accomplish this amazing feat of cognitive Tom Fuckery, we jumped through all sorts of rationalizing hoops. First and foremost, we have to ignore any and all evidence to the contrary, i.e. confirmation bias. My favorite drunk uncle, Uncle Inguus, can be forgiven for having misheard her or misremembered her and assuming that Michelle Wolf made fun of Sanders’ looks, but Maggie Haberman? Trey Yingst? Mika Brzezinski? Come on, y’all are professionals. Go back and read the transcript and pinpoint where the insult to Sanders’ appearance occurred.

Active Information Avoidance

To maintain the conclusion — you’re mad at that big meany, Michelle Wolf, for making poor Sarah Huckabee Sanders feel so bad on C-Span — you have to come up with a reason — she insulted her appearance which is not fair (except when it is) — and then ignore the fact that (a) she didn’t and (b) you’ve defended the Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s insults of the disabled, various women’s appearance, and the behavior and mental processes of one and all political opponents.

But, you can’t stop there. If it stopped there, you might, you just might stumble upon, accidentally like, without meaning to, a transcript of her remarks and be amazed, dumbfounded, and hornswoggled that there is no insult to Sanders’ appearance there. So, now, you have to actively avoid any and all possibility of being confronted with the TRUTH! You have to actively avoid contradictory information. Why do you think Maggie Haberman, Trey Yingst, or Mika Brzezinski haven’t quoted the insults? Why aren’t they posting the transcript complete with highlighted passages?

The Illusion of Truthiness

But, even this isn’t enough. Because how do you stave off the chorus of people saying No she didn’t! She didn’t insult Sanders’ appearance? Well, you evaluate the truthiness of what you’re hearing. And, this is the insidious way that that works: Each time you hear a statement repeated, it sounds truer than the last time. You might have doubts that my Uncle Inguus was a stowaway on Apollo 13 and that is the real reason it was off course, but the second time you hear it, it will sound truer than the first time. And, the third time you hear it, it will sound truer than the second time and so on and so forth.

It is now common knowledge — irretrievably so — that Michelle Wolf insulted Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ appearance. It has been repeated so often and by so many people and said in so many ways and appeared on so many media platforms that it is now just accepted as truth by… most people?

Go back and read her remarks that are taken verbatim from her remarks. Listen to her remarks that are spoken verbatim as she said them in real time and tell me in the comments where she insulted Sanders’ appearance. It can’t be done. It doesn’t exist. Yet, how many of us believe it? And how many of us have not had our certainty of Michelle Wolf’s insult of Sanders’ appearance shaken?

19 replies »

  1. Awesome post, man. I completely agree. It’s also nice to look at the psychological aspects of this whole thing.

    It’s true that most of the people looking at Michelle Wolf’s set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner had a hard time hearing the jokes aimed at Sarah Huckabee Sanders because Sanders was clearly uncomfortable. It’s only natural to feel for her to some degree, but that emotion skews what really transpired. Wolf’s jokes weren’t that mean-spirited. They were true and she didn’t go after women’s looks, but their demeanor and how they functioned within Trump’s “regime.”

    Also, I know why members of the press were really angry at Michelle Wolf. It’s not about Sanders. They’re just using her as a cover. I’m doing a write-up of that right now. I will link back to this post if that’s alright with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Shmaltz!

      It’s good to hear from you! And, thank you for the pingback. It is greatly appreciated as are the kind words.

      Like so many others, I felt for SMS during the moment, but she totally deserves to be put in that position. This administration should not be allowed to violate our social norms so egregiously. This administration lies so routinely that the only recourse is to (a) call them out at every lie and (b) just assume everything stated is a lie. We should not be giving them the benefit of the doubt, and we sure as hell are far far past hand-wringing surprise when they do lie. Mincing words and politeness will not work here because that is what they are relying on to get away with the tremendous graft that they are trying to pull off.

      The whole thing is infuriating. It’s also very frustrating to be able to see it so clearly and articulate it so precisely and continually read and watch the reactions in the media. It is the problem with using the profit motive to run everything. The media has been bought by the 1%, and they use it to keep us in the dark.

      I’ll swing by and read your column. I’m sure it has the usual detail and precision that you bring to everything you post.


      Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Francese!

      It was clear to me that a lot of the brouhaha over Michelle Wolf’s remarks at the WHCD were because it was a cheap political point to be scored with the base a la the Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s kvetching on Twitter even though what he said at his “rally” was actually much much worse, more divisive, a lot more corrosive to our political discourse, oh, and also not true. What really got me were the liberals, even some that I respected demanding that Wolf apologize for having used SHS’s appearance in her jokes when even the most sensitive of person, much less NYT’s Maggie Haberman, identify the appearance based insult.

      The funny thing is that I do feel sorry for SHS just like I felt sorry for Sean Spicer. Their job is to go out there and lie for the administration. And, they are either telling bald faced implausible lies or defending them. But, why would you have that kind of a job. She had shame deeply etched into her face throughout Wolf’s roasting of her. Why? Why would you leave yourself open to that kind of attack?

      It’s clear it isn’t just politics as usual. People who are attacking Wolf as being too harsh are normalizing — that’s got to be a follow up post — this very abnormal administration. If anyone who detects a lie being uttered by anyone associated with this admin does not immediately stand up and shout that is a lie! then they are enabling the destruction of our democracy. Why would we do that?

      Good food for thought.



  2. Score another one for my not watching TV. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is someone for whom I do not want to feel pity. She has chosen to serve a bad master. I find it very difficult to believe she cannot be aware she is telling lies, obfuscating, distracting, and creating fake news. Any pity I might feel for her is about the twists, turns, reversals, and vagaries of her boss she has to try to deal with. I have no doubt she knew perfectly well that it was not her appearance that was being criticized, and just maybe she will be embarrassed enough to quit the job, but, she is as good at motivated reasoning as anybody else, so maybe not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      I live in China, so all of my TV watching is done through a VPN and at a delay. No live broadcasts here, or if there are, they are about 12 hours off, i.e. at a time I’m either in bed or at work. Anywho, I watch via the internet not cable service. It was funny as I watched the tap of Michel Wolf, I kept reacting to SHS’s face in the reaction shots. As Wolf was talking and when she was on screen, it was mostly, “she did not just say that” and “whoa” and “she got that right,” but when SHS was on, I could not help but feel for her and annoyed with Wolf. Generally, I feel the same way about SHS. She doesn’t get half of what she deserves. But, I couldn’t help but react to the shame that was evident in her reactions.

      She needs to own her shit and step down. All of them do. The Ol’ Pussy Grabber does nothing but corrupt those around him and destroy their lives, but not in the Seinfeld kind of good way, in a very Faustian sold your soul to the devil horrific way.


      Liked by 1 person

        • I used that line just today on twitter, but the snarky, sarcasticky, profaney version: If you like in the gutter with Stephen Miller, don’t be surprised with the smell of unwashed crotch won’t come off and your scabies can’t be cured. That’s kinda what it’s like to work at the White House nowadays.


          Liked by 1 person

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