Bias Blindness and Political Polarization

If you doubt the power of confirmation bias or the bias blind spot, simply consider some “analysis” of the presidential election. After last week’s vice presidential debate, polling data suggested that the contest ended roughly in a tie.  Whatever one makes of the data, there was certainly no clear winner.  But if you were watching MSNBC, you saw the pundits there crowing about an overwhelming victory for Vice President Biden.  Last night’s debate appears to have been a narrow victory for the President but, not surprisingly, Fox News disagreed

We live in a politically polarized time.  Even Facebook is full of political messages and imagery. My Facebook news feed today includes multiple passionate defenses and vociferous criticisms of each presidential candidate among my friends. Relationships are being fractured because of it. Just as predictably, ways to avoid the political morass have been created too.  The divisiveness is pervasive.

My sense is that the key element here is that most partisans see “their side” as not just true, but obviously true. It’s a by-product of the bias blind spot.  We tend to see bias in others but not in ourselves. Therefore, our strongly held positions aren’t really debatable — they’re objectively and obviously true.  After all, if we didn’t think our positions were true, we wouldn’t hold them.  And (our thinking goes) since they are objectively true, anyone who makes the effort to try should be able to ascertain that truth. Our opponents are thus without excuse. 

If they disagree with me, they are denying reality.

Accordingly, few partisans accept that their opponents are generally people of goodwill who simply disagree about what is best for the country.  They are deemed as necessarily being engaged in denialism.  To hear the Republican zealots tell it, President Obama is intentionally trying to ruin the country.  Similarly, Democratic ideologues insist that Governor Romney’s primary goals are to start another war and cut taxes for the rich so as to stick it to the middle class and the poor. Because the assumption — steeped in bias blindness — is that the “other side” is not generally acting in good faith, the necessary conclusion is that they must be stupid, delusional or dishonest to take the positions they do.  

Sometimes it’s true that the “other side” (whatever side one chooses) is what I’ll call irrational with intent. But I doubt that it’s the usual case.  We should never underestimate the power of confirmation bias and bias blindness. 

Brad DeLong is an excellent economist.  He’s also a very active partisan (not there’s anything wrong with that).   Ramesh Ponnuru is a fine writer.  He’s also a very active partisan (not there’s anything wrong with that).  After the debate last night, Ponnuru tweeted the following.      

Like the veep debate. Obama stopped the liberal handwringing, so that’s a victory. Otherwise a draw.

Given the closeness of the debate overall (per the data) and Ponnuru’s strong position favoring Governor Romney (our confirmation bias means we all tend to see what we want to see), his conclusion is perfectly understandable.  Given DeLong’s strong position favoring President Obama (confirmation bias and bias blindness are at work in him too, as in all of us), it isn’t surprising that he sees things differently.  He takes his position as being objectively true – not merely his opinion based upon an interpretation of the facts.  Accordingly, the bias blind spot we all suffer – again, we may recognize behavioral biases generally, but we don’t think we are susceptible to them – likely caused DeLong to conclude that Ponnuru was not just wrong, but dishonest.  DeLong’s tweet follows (my emphasis).   

When Ramesh Ponnuru claims he thinks that the debate was a draw in the eyes of America, I know that he is lying to me.

DeLong knows no such thing.  It’s possible, of course, that Ponnuru is lying, that he thought President Obama dominated the debate last night but engaged in activist spin simply because he is (in DeLong’s expression), a lying hack. But there is no evidence to support the claim.  The more likely explanation is that Ponnuru simply saw things differently.  Our behavioral biases provide more than enough basis to support my explanation as the appropriate default, without clear evidence of nefarious intent.

If we are to have any hope of seeing leaders with different viewpoints working together to solve problems, it ought to start with the idea that those who disagree are generally people of goodwill acting in good faith.  In other words, they may be wrong, but they aren’t necessarily (or even likely to be) stupid, delusional or evil.  Recognition of the reality and the power of our behavioral biases would provide a good start toward making some progress in that direction.

We can only hope.


Update: The Wall Street Journal‘s consistently excellent Jason Zweig pointed me to this famous 1954 study which focuses on “selective perception” concerning a Princeton v. Dartmouth football game.  It provides further support to my argument.  Thanks, Jason.


46 thoughts on “Bias Blindness and Political Polarization

  1. This is one of the most sane pieces I have seen on current ideological conflict in our current election mania.

    Three of my four sisters and my brother are all ardent Democrats. My oldest sister has forbidden me to enter her home because I am a Republican.

    When ideology triumphs family ties the insanity has taken firm hold.

    • Actually, I am not too worried about the family breach. It is 20 days to the election and the time of ideological dementia. This too will pass.

      What I found striking about your article is that you are the first I have seen addressing the issue of ideological conflict substantively.

      You have put your finger on the issue: the knee-jerk presumption of bad faith on the part of one’s ideological foes.

      The discussion usually proceeds on the basis of “civility”. This is the specialty of Democrats and usually lasts 20 hours.

      But civility is merely an epiphenomenon of the presumption of good faith. Without that presumption there can be no authentic civility.

  2. The vituperation surrounding this campaign goes well beyond bias blindness. There’s an assumption of bad faith on the part of people whose views differ from your own that makes the election more like a crusade than a choice. In my world, academia, the vituperation seems to come much more from the left, but this might reflect my own biases.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Since your expertise is much greater than mine….

      If bias blindness doesn’t explain it all, from what else do you think this presumption of bad faith comes?

      • I think that politics has replaced religion as a focus of many people’s morality. This seems likely to be most true for people who are atheists or agnostics, which is correlated with leftist political sentiments.

      • That’s an interesting idea.

        It’s surely true that political messages are increasingly cast in moral terms. The President is particularly adept at it.

        Any thoughts on how to test the hypothesis?

      • Very good question. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who’s in the business school at NYU, has written a very interesting book about differences in moral beliefs that underpin liberal and conservative political beliefs. Based on data from many countries around the world, he identifies five dimensions that are central to moral sentiments — fairness, care, liberty, loyalty, and authority — and finds big differences between liberals and conservatives not only in which dimensions they care about most but even in understanding of why some of the dimensions, such as loyalty and authority, are moral issues for anyone. As might be expected, liberals overwhelming emphasize fairness and caring for those unable to care for themselves; they view people who don’t emphasize those values (which everyone includes to some extent) as immoral. Conservatives tend to view all five dimensions as important; they emphasize the first two dimensions less, and the last three more, than liberals do.

        Very interesting discussion; I hope the sad spectacle of this election inspires a lot of rethinking where our civic discourse has run off the rails.

      • Thanks to the magic of Amazon Prime, I’ll have it Saturday. I need to finish Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise and I’ll be on to Haidt.

  3. This is the best thing I’ve ever read about politics (and I am a political scientist) other than Walter Lippmann’s book, “Public Opinion” (1920), in which he wrote:

    “The opponent has always to be explained, and the last explanation that we ever look for is that he sees a different set of facts….

    “Where two factions see vividly each its own aspect, and contrive their own explanations of what they see, it is almost impossible for them to credit each other with honesty. If the pattern fits their experience at a crucial point, they no longer look upon it as an interpretation. They look upon it as ‘reality.’ …

    “Thus…the opponent presents himself as the man who says, evil be thou my good. He is an annoyance who does not fit into the scheme of things….And since that scheme is based in our minds on incontrovertible fact fortified by irresistible logic, some place has to be found for him in the scheme….[So] out of the opposition we make villains and conspiracies.”

    I don’t think that Haidt has the whole picture here, because he reduces all political differences to differences in values. This is just a milder version of “my opponent is evil,” at least on economic issues, because it suggests that the opponent doesn’t care about the well-being of all citizens–the opponent has different values, not a different analysis of what would serve the well-being of all citizens.

    Political science has not taken Lippmann’s point seriously, but some political scientists have shown that most political disagreements are over facts, not values–or rather, which interpretations of facts are true, and interpretations of which facts are significant. That is one of the most important points of this post, I think.

  4. Has facebook replaced religion? Along with “separation of church and state” which has never happened at the polls, I’m patiently waiting for the left and right wing baby boomers to be unable to cast a vote so we can socially liberalize with a side salad of conscientious spending. I’m heart broken with 25% of an online quiz saying vote MIT for economy, 75% no MIT for every other reason under the sun. -Middle Class

  5. Great thread. Two contributions: on biases, one can’t go more right than to read Dan Kahnemann’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Tells us about the cognitive underpinnings for bias, which nobody — not even academics/scientists let alone TV pundits — escape. On the divides — political, cultural, social — that human groups generate…Zygmunt Bauman’s chapter “Us and Them” (really, Sociology 101 but nothing wrong with that) is worth dredging up. Mix those two sets of ideas in with the commodification of news — and the incentives that produces — and there you go. I’ll stay very far away from the moral/ethical stuff….

    • As regular readers know, I am a huge fan of Kahneman’s work and cite it regularly (including in some of the links from this piece). I even got to meet him and hear him speak a couple of times this year (which I also wrote about). Bauman I’m going to have to dig up.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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