Deep Bias

I was watching storm coverage on CNN last evening and was intrigued by all the praise that was heaped upon New Jersey Governor Chris Christie simply for complimenting President Obama’s work in dealing with the crisis and for lauding federal relief efforts in the midst of a closely contested presidential race in which Christie supports the President’s opponent.  Christie was surely right to say what he did, but it’s a striking illustration of how deeply polarized we are as a nation when mere common decency is deemed worthy of great praise.

Jamie Barden, a psychologist at Howard University, ran an experiment (reported in The New York Review of Books) whereby he gathered a group of students, both Republicans and Democrats, and told them a story about a political fund-raiser who had a serious car accident after a wild night at a fund-raising event. A month later he makes an impassioned appeal against drunk driving on the radio. Barden then asked the students whether they think the fund-raiser is a hypocrite or changed man.

It turns out that the students (Democrats and Republicans alike) were two and a half times as likely to think the fund-raiser was a hypocrite if they were told he belonged to the other party. As if you didn’t know already, this study provides yet more evidence of how deeply divided and biased we are. 

It should go without saying that both politics and investing demand careful and objective analysis to give us the best possible chance of success.  Unfortunately, we aren’t capable of it very often.  Indeed, we see it so seldom that we are prone to praise it disproportionately when we do.