How Do You Know?—Cognitive Biases and Politics

Who did you vote for in the last election? More importantly, why did you vote for that person? Was  it because you thought they were the best person for the job, or was it because you thought that person would be pleasant to have a drink with? Did you go through each candidate’s history, policies, and positions, or did you pick the candidate that your friends did? For most people the answers to these questions aren’t just one way or the other, yet most people would agree that doing the thorough work of meticulously sorting through the candidates is a better way to go. These are just some of the ways in which our decision making as voters is imperfect, but there are many more ways of being an imperfect voter and what’s worse, they affect us without our knowing. Am I talking about some supernatural or paranormal beings controlling our minds when we go to the voting booth? Absolutely not, in fact, psychologists have a word for the errors I’m talking about, they are called ‘cognitive biases’.

A cognitive bias is a kind of filter that allows us to fit new things we learn with our already formed beliefs instead of forming new beliefs, even if it means holding opposing beliefs.
A cognitive bias is a kind of filter that causes us to fit new things we learn with our already formed beliefs and values instead of forming new ones, even if it means unconsciously holding opposing beliefs.

A cognitive bias is sort of like a filter or rule of thumb for our decision making processes, and as we all know, rules of thumb are inherently imperfect. For instance, many people would agree to the rule of thumb that children should not take drugs, but this is in no way an absolute truth because we all know that if a child gets very sick, drug treatment may be the best way to heal them. Similarly, one well known cognitive bias called ‘the authority bias’ may not at first seem like a problem. The authority bias shows itself when we take someone’s (who we view as an authority on some subject) word as the truth, without ever investigating for ourselves the claims they make. There’s a kind of ‘slippery slope’ going on here (since it’s 100% true that each and every one of us needs to outsource our knowledge if we are to get anything done). To some degree, patients need to trust doctors, non-engineers need to trust engineers, and so on. But this outsourcing can get us into logical trouble. As the 2016 presidential election draws nearer and nearer, US voters are trying to pick who to vote for. For the Democrats, there are relatively few options (basically Hillary or Bernie). For Republicans though, there are many more possible nominees. Right now Donald Trump (the real estate mogul and reality TV star) is winning. And there really isn’t a better example of the authority bias than can be found in some of the minds of his supporters—as many Americans appeal to Trump’s billionaire status as a window into how he would handle economic responsibilities as president. This is not to say that Trump definitely wouldn’t be able to effectively handle the economy, it’s more the point that people believe that he will be solely because he has made a considerable fortune over his lifetime. Just to nail this point down, imagine that you were considering getting a new doctor and you decided that the best option would be the person who was the healthiest, strongest, and most disease free, regardless of their lack of medical experience or background. You would probably agree that this is at the very least an ignorant or risky decision.

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Though you probably would not choose a doctor based on how strong and healthy he looks, this is arguably quite comparable to how some people think about Trump’s money.

Another important one of these biases is called ‘the halo effect’, where we see one positive characteristic of someone and we generalize that positivity to our entire view of them, making them ‘good’ in our eyes. Why would having this hyper-positive outlook of all people be a problem, how could seeing everyone as ‘good’ have a negative outcome? The answer is that on certain scales, this type of thinking can get us into trouble. At this point, many people have set this article down and resumed their life, assuming that I am some pessimist or antagonist of positive human interaction, I promise this is not the case. Let’s just consider how this effect might manifest itself in politics, specifically with The Donald. Trump is well known for his unconventional style of speaking—his simple rhetoric, his non-politically correct statements, etc.—and Trump supporters definitely favor that colloquial nature as well. Let me give you an example in the following quote from his June 2015 campaign announcement speech (about 22 minutes in):

“Right now, think of this: we owe China $1.3 trillion. We owe Japan more than that. So they come in, they take our jobs, they take our money, and then they loan us back the money, and we pay them in interest, and then the dollar goes up so their deal’s even better. How stupid are our leaders? How stupid are these politicians to allow this to happen? How stupid are they?”

When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate refer to “our leaders” as “stupid” with such fervor? Probably never. Nevertheless, his supporters adore this type of talk probably because it gives him a ‘regular guy’ kind of status (no sooner were those words uttered than did the audience begin cheering “we want Trump! We want Trump!…”). That is the ‘halo’ with which Trump has been crowned by some of his supporters, it’s the idea that if he says these controversial things with such gusto, that he must be right. To certain people, Trump’s confidence and braggadocio are signs that he knows exactly what he’s talking about—that he seems too sure to be wrong.

 

Trump's confidence helps explain the 'halo' ascribed to him by some supporters.
Trump’s confidence helps explain the ‘halo’ ascribed to him by some supporters.

Lastly, and probably the most important cognitive bias for politics, is the ‘in-group bias’. This one is complicated by the fact that it is a social effect. The in-group bias, as defined by the skeptic and psychologist Michael Shermer in his book “The Believing Brain” (a great read, by the way), is “the tendency for people to value the beliefs and attitudes of those whom they perceive to be fellow members of the group, and to discount the beliefs and attitudes of those whom they perceive to be outside of the group”. It goes without saying that politics has these groups, they are called political parties and if there is one place where this bias manifests itself it is probably congress. Still most of us can’t deny that at some point we’ve fallen into the trap of following party lines and blindly accepting what our favorite politician says, we have to try to abandon this.

Personally, I can’t come to full agreement with either the left or the right at the moment because people see this as a binary issue—you’re either for gun control and you’re a tree-hugging leftist or you’re for gun rights and you’re a conservative gun-nut.

Pew Research Center published a poll this summer and found that America is about 50/50 on gun control versus gun rights, with the recent events and the totally unacceptable number of mass shootings in this country, these numbers become increasingly important. Personally, I can’t come to full agreement with either the left or the right at the moment because people see this as a binary issue—you’re either for gun control and you’re a tree-hugging leftist or you’re for gun rights and you’re a conservative gun-nut. We as a nation really don’t have time for this kind of division because there are equally pressing concerns that demand our energy and attention. We know that we cannot all get exactly what we want on this issue, so we need to compromise and, even more importantly we need to be honest. Honest not just about what we believe, but honest (and skeptical) with ourselves about how we formulated those beliefs in the first place. Cognitive biases are a way of seeing how, not just Trump supporters, but all of us take mental shortcuts that lead to illogical conclusions and intellectual laziness. So for all our sake, let’s step off our podiums for a moment and make an honest attempt at conversation with those we disagree with most and instead of digging our heels in even deeper, let’s make progress toward a peaceful and productive global society.

 

References:

“Donald Trump Campaign Announcement Speech”  (YouTube): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_q61B-DyPk

“Pew Research Center Gun Rights vs. Gun Control” http://www.people-press.org/2015/08/13/gun-rights-vs-gun-control/#total

Shermer, Michael. “12. Confirmations of Belief.” The Believing Brain – From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies. New York City: Times, 2011. N. pag. Print.

 

Pictures Used:

“Stuff You Agree With”  (http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/18x3pcgd6phaxjpg/original.jpg)

“Vintage Strongman” (https://www.pinterest.com/Archiburlington/strongman/)

“Donald Trump”  (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/07/donald_trump_may_be_a_choir_boy_in_the_first_republican_debate_being_polite.html)

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