There’s a simple theory underlying much of American politics. It sits hopefully at the base of almost every speech, every op-ed, every article, and every panel discussion….It’s what we might call the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information….If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.
It’s a seductive model. It suggests our fellow countrymen aren’t wrong so much as they’re misguided, or ignorant, or — most appealingly — misled by scoundrels from the other party. It holds that our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all….
But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.
There are more than enough observations, experiences, and research to confirm that conclusion.
THE LOGICAL APPROACH
Arguing the facts doesn’t help—in fact, it makes the situation worse. In 1979, Charles Lord performed a seminal piece of research that revealed when you show someone factual, scientific evidence that they are wrong, they react badly. They will only accept the evidence that fits their pre-existing views. Lord called this effect ‘confirmation bias.’ There have been hundreds of studies since, all finding the same results: when you argue using facts and evidence, people generally reject or discount your evidence. Instead of changing their minds, most will dig in their heels and cling even more firmly to their originally held views. Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter have also documented an even more alarming tendency, which they call ‘the backfire effect.’
[W]e often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.
[C]orrecting people actually increased their misperceptions. When you are confronted with information that contradicts your attitudes, beliefs, impugns your identity, or groups that you identify with, you—we—all of us are motivated to reason through that information in a way that keeps our original attitudes intact. So, we’ll counter argue, we’ll criticize the data source, not pay attention to information that contradicts our pre-existing attitudes. At the very extreme we won’t allow ourselves to be exposed, in the first place, to information that contradicts.
All fine and well, of course … human nature being what it is. Can anyone honestly deny they are at least on occasion guilty as charged?
[T]he political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science. [Prof. Larry Bartels]
In an election, the chance that your vote will make a difference to the outcome is almost always infinitesmally small. As a result, most voters are ‘rationally ignorant’. Large numbers of voters are routinely unaware of even very basic facts about political issues, candidates, and the structure of government. In addition to having very little incentive to seek out relevant knowledge, voters also have poor incentives to do a good job of analyzing the information they do learn. Instead of acting as truth-seekers on political issues, they often act as biased ‘political fans’ cheering on Team Red or Team Blue, and dismissing or distorting opposing evidence. Politicians and parties are well aware of widespread voter ignorance, and have a variety of strategies for exploiting it, many of which have been particularly evident in this year’s election.
GREAT! SO NOW WHAT?
For those of us on the Left, “they don’t understand” or a less-charitable variation thereof is an easy argument to make in challenging the extreme contortions too many on the Right attempt to either justify policy, or to validate the rationales expressed in support. Donald Trump’s candidacy has given them ample opportunities to practice.
Shouldn’t it be of greater concern to us all that millions choose a path where facts, reason, reality, and thoughtful consideration of contrary viewpoints are turned aside in favor of base emotions? It’s all the more troubling when these shortcuts are applied to matters of vital importance affecting everyone.
We’re all guilty of making less than well-reasoned decisions on occasion, of course, but when that approach is the sole one depended upon, we all suffer. And we will….
~ My Photo: Moon Rise Over Rockport [MA] Harbor © – 09.16.16
Looking Left and Right:
Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows
Be the change you want in the world – Gandhi
The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because
of those who look at it without doing anything – Albert Einstein
~ ~ ~
As I state in the “About Me” section, I’m driven by an intense commitment to learn why those on the conservative side of the fence view so many matters of great importance to us all so differently than do those of us on the progressive side. Those contrasting behaviors, beliefs, and ideologies are contributing factors to the very problems we’re trying to solve—the ones we must solve if our own ambitions and our hopes for a peaceful and prosperous world we leave to our children are to be well-served.
If we don’t recognize and accept that bitter partisanship is not always the wisest or most beneficial strategy, the goal of a better future will forever be as far away tomorrow as it is today.
The late Senator Paul Wellstone’s observation continues to hold far more truth and power than we give it credit:
We all do better when we all do better
Why make setting up inevitable and enduring conflict the primary objective of policy and planning?