How confirmation bias, tribalism affects politics | opinion

At the height of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to support a congressman’s pet project. An enraged Stanton told the congressman the president was a “damn fool”.

The congressman, hoping to flatter himself with the president and hurt Stanton, shared the comment with Lincoln. In pure Lincoln style, the President replied, “If Stanton said I was a damn fool, then I must be, because he’s almost always right and generally says what he means.” I’ll go over and see him.”

There is much to admire about this anecdote. First, Stanton was not only openly critical of the president, but was also a former member of the opposing party, having previously served as Attorney General under James Buchanan.

However, Lincoln not only valued dissent, but encouraged it. Such magnanimity is being lost in much of American politics today, but during this election season we can follow Lincoln’s lead and overcome quirks in our psychology that, if left unchecked, make us poor citizens and leaders.

Social psychologists and behavioral economists study how people see the world, and understanding these natural tendencies can help us overcome polarization. First is our affinity with the tribe. Social groups are important to people because they can build trust and break down barriers to peace and trade. However, tribalism can be counterproductive when it leads us to view those who look, think, or worship differently as “others.”

Adam Grant, an academic psychologist, interviewed Yankees fans about how they view Red Sox fans. One comment stood out: “What would it take for me to cheer for the Red Sox? If they played al-Qaeda… maybe.”

Rivalries in sports can be fun and entertaining, but in politics they can be downright toxic. While tribes can offer us social networks and built-in friend groups, tribes punish defection with exclusion or reduced social standing. Behavioral economists have found that favor within the group can be more important than overall societal well-being. Simply put, many voters care more that their group wins than that the most qualified candidate is elected. We put party across the country.

Once our tribal identity is established, we develop a strong liking for information sources that “prove” our beliefs are correct; This is called confirmation bias. Over the past decade, the rise of algorithms in social media and news outlets has allowed us to personalize unhealthy eating with media junk food. Rather than question our beliefs when new information emerges in a changing world, our brain weaves a comforting cocoon to protect us from the pain of change.

When we discover we’ve made a mistake, that our beliefs are wrong, our brain signals physical pain. It emits an electrical wave called error-related negativity. We find it best to avoid this discomfort at all costs and delve deeper into the carnival-like distortion of reality.

Finally, our brain experiences something known as “negativity bias.” To survive in an ancient world, we had to weigh heavily the slim chance of being eaten by a lion against the likely event of finding food. This fight-or-flight mechanism ensured the species would persist, but in the modern world it can wreak havoc.

For example, when I get my course reviews, I might have 20 students saying they liked my course, but I’ll focus on the one response that says I was the worst professor ever. Negativity leads us to turn to conspiracy theories and fake campaigns as we respond to candidates who tell us our communities are failing and economies are faltering—even though that’s far from the truth. We panic over an isolated incident of something we don’t like, forgetting that these events are exceedingly rare.

Political parties, social media companies, and cable news understand these mental quirks and are investing in strategies to elicit these reactions from voters and viewers. Their goal is to hold your attention and then get the resulting votes and ad revenue.

Filling potholes, reading budgets and sitting on committees is not meant to be entertaining. As such, this part of governance is ignored in favor of issues that divide our community into tribes, mollify our previous (and perhaps mistakenly held) beliefs, and infuse us with anger.

We are all human and suffer from the same flaws. I do. They do. Your neighbor does. The tricky part is that if you’re reading this column and only thinking about someone on the “other side,” you’ve fallen into the trap. It’s everywhere and it hurts our discourse. Calm and critical thinking should prompt us to reflect on why we see the political world the way we see it this election season.

Michael S. Kofoed, @mikekofoed on Twitter, is an associate professor of economics at the US Military Academy and a research fellow at the Institute of Labor Economics. A native of Utah, he holds degrees in economics from Weber State University and the University of Georgia. These opinions are those of the author and do not represent the US Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.


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