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.