Thursday, August 2, 2012

Political division and the psychology that exacerbates it

 "The mind intent upon false appearances refuses to admit better things" --Horace
Say you were asked to identify a specific rule that defines the sequence 6, 8 and 10. More than one rule can be identified, but your job is to spot a particular guiding formula. You can try as many three-number sequences as you wish to better identify the specific rule at play. With each guess the experimenter will answer “yes” or “no” depending on whether your sequence is consistent with the rule.
Let’s say you begin by asking, “Does the sequence 16, 18, and 20 fit the rule?” 
 Experimenter:  “Yes." 
“Does the sequence 64, 66, and 68 fit the rule?” you ask hoping to confirm that counting by two’s is the rule of choice. 
Experimenter:  “Yes.”
Most subjects in this experiment deliberately, although perhaps not intentionally, search for confirming evidence, that is, they propose number sequences in a manner such that a “yes” from the experimenter will give them the information they are seeking.  What subjects fail to do, is propose sequences in an attempt to get a “no” answer. Why not ask if 65, 75, and 85 fits the rule? Or how about 3, 6 and 9?  If both of those sequences violate the rule that would strengthen your theory that the rule is “even numbers counting by two.”
Most subjects guess “counting by two’s is the rule” when in fact the rule was “three numbers in ascending order.”  Participants often fail because they actively seek confirming evidence but seldom think to test their hypotheses by refuting it.
Give it a try on your friends or co-workers.  You will find that many of them do the same thing:  guess a few sequences like 14, 16, and 18 and 34, 36,and 38 and then guess that the rule is “even numbers counting by two’s.”  Despite the opportunity to acquire so much more information by suggesting number sequences that might contradict the rule, people actively seek only confirming evidence.
This was the seminal experiment used by cognitive scientists to identify a quirk of the human brain known as confirmation bias, which is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceived notions while disregarding evidence to the contrary.  Consequently, people recall information selectively and subconsciously interpret it in a biased manner.  This is particularly true for emotionally charged issues.   
What does this have to do with fiscal policy?  People on opposite sides of an issue can read the exact same piece of information but come to diametrically opposed conclusions.  Confirmation bias only exacerbates that division.  Consider the debate over healthcare.  When asked the question, “Is Obamacare a good thing?” people in favor of the healthcare law actively seek evidence that supports their claim.  Opponents of the healthcare act do the opposite:  they seek evidence that supports the claim that Obamacare is not a good thing.   People form their opinion and then seek evidence which verifies it.  What they should do is first seek evidence of both sides of the argument and then form opinions. 
As the airwaves grow increasingly saturated with political ads in the run up to the November election in our state that not only contains the continental divide but also a staunch political divide, confirmation bias adds to our political polarization.  Understanding this psychological quirk is essential if we are to have any chance at correcting it.  When we accept that we have an inclination to unconsciously weigh evidence selectively, we no longer run the risk of being boxed into one perspective.  We must acknowledge that we are bias processors of information.  Only then can we begin to have authentic discussion with the people who disagree with us.  And only then can we begin to resolve the major issues like unemployment, tax policy, national debt, and healthcare.  

-Christopher Stiffler   (                                            

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