Politics Makes Us Mean and Dumb

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Jason Brennan, McDonough School of Business and Department of Philosophy, Georgetown University

Two Hypotheses about Political Participation

February 2017 – In Considerations on Representative Government, the great nineteenth century economist, philosopher, and early feminist John Stuart Mill advocated experimenting with more widespread political participation (Mill 1975). Mill hoped that participation would make citizens more concerned about the common good, and would entice them to educate themselves. He hoped getting factory workers to think about politics would be like getting fish to discover there is a world outside the ocean. As he said, “Among the foremost benefits of free government is that education of the intelligence and of the sentiments which is carried down to the very lowest ranks of the people when they are called to take a part in acts which directly affect the great interests of their country.” (Mill 1975, 304.)

20th century sociologist and economist Joseph Schumpeter tendered a grimmer hypothesis about how political involvement affects us: “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in away which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.” (Schumpeter 1996, 262.)

Both Mill and Schumpeter were scientific thinkers, but neither quite had the data needed to test their hypotheses. However, we now possess over sixty years’ worth of detailed, varied, and rigorous empirical research in political science and political psychology. The test results are in. Overall, Schumpeter was largely right and Mill largely wrong. In general, political participation makes us mean and dumb. Emotion has a large role in explaining why.

Hobbits, Hooligans, and Vulcans

Let’s describe three archetypical models of democratic citizens (Brennan 2016, 4-6).These models both serve as a shorthand for actual citizens and help us think more clearly about what political participation is likely to do.

In the Lord of the Rings fantasy novels, the race of Hobbits care little about adventure or the outside world, and are mostly content to just live their mundane lives. By analogy, political Hobbits are apathetic and mostly unconcerned about politics. They lack strong or fixed opinions about most issues. They have little social scientific knowledge, and are largely ignorant of major current events, world history, or national history. They prefer to live their lives without giving politics much thought.

Political Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. They hold strong and fixed world-views. They can explain and argue for their own views, but they cannot adequately explain the views of those with whom they disagree. They consume information that confirms their pre-existing political opinions, but evade evidence that contradicts or disconfirms their pre-existing opinions. They know some social science, but only the research that supports their own views. Their political opinions form part of their identity. For the American hooligans (each country of course has its own share), being a Democrat or being a Republicans is an essential part of one’s self-image. They regard the other side as misguided at best, and stupid and evil at worst.

Political philosophers tend to envision an ideal democratic participant, which I label political Vulcans. (In Star Trek, Vulcans are a race of almost perfectly rational beings.) Vulcans think scientifically and rationally about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They change their minds when the evidence calls for it. They can explain and defend contrary points of view. They are interested in politics, but at the same time, dispassionate, in part because they actively try to avoid being biased and irrational.

Mill’s hypothesis was that most citizens are Hobbits, but participation should turn them into Vulcans. Schumpeter thought most citizens are Hobbits and Hooligans, but participation would make them more Hooliganish.

Schumpeter was largely right. In the United States, the typical non-voter is a Hobbit. Most regular voters, active political participants, activists, registered party members, and politicians are Hooligans (Brennan 2016, 23-53). Most Americans fall on the spectrum between Hobbit and Hooligan. Hardly anyone can call herself a true Vulcan, though some approach that ideal more than others. Since in politics hooliganism largely rules, we need to better understand how the minds of Hooligans work.

Emotion, Bias, and the Hooligan Mind

The distinctive feature of the Hooligan mind is that Hooligans have strong preferences over beliefs, in the sense that they prefer to believe some things rather than others. To put it very broadly, they are driven to believe what they want to believe (especially what they find comforting or flattering to believe), rather than driven by a rational assessment of the evidence. They engage in “motivated reasoning”: that is, they try to arrive at beliefs that maximize good feelings and minimize bad feelings.

Here is how political psychologists Milton Lodge and Charles Taber summarize the body of extant work: “The evidence is reliable [and] strong…in showing that people find it very difficult to escape the pull of their prior attitudes and beliefs, which guide the processing of new information in predictable and sometimes insidious ways” (Lodge and Taber 2013, 169) Political psychologists Leonie Huddy, David Sears, and Jack Levy concur: “Political decision-making is often beset with biases that privilege habitual thought and consistency over careful consideration of new information” (Huddy, Sears, and Levy 2013, 11).

This predisposition to motivated reasoning leads to paradoxical results. We are accustomed to think that reasoning about evidence would make political agents more likely to acquire true beliefs and reject false beliefs. But this assumes we think like Vulcans. For Hooligans, “reasoning” can actually undermine rationality. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2010) puts it,

“…reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why [psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber] call [their theory of why reasoning developed] The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it…, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions”.

In short, the evolutionary purpose of “reasoning” is not so much to turn us into scientists who can discover how the world works. Rather, it is to give us the power to influence, manipulate, and control one another. As a result, when it comes to politics in particular, when we confront contrary points of view from our own or evidence that shows we are wrong, we tend to react by getting angry and becoming more extreme in our views.

The Root of the Problem: Cognitive Bias in Politics

Why are Vulcans benefitting from reasoning and exposure to evidence, whereas Hooligans are not? In a nutshell, true Vulcans are free of cognitive bias, while Hooligans are thoroughly infected by it. A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from rational thought. Biases are like software bugs in our brains. They prevent us from believing what we ought to believe given the information and evidence we have.

A huge and diverse range of studies indicates that most citizens process political information in biased, partisan, motivated ways, rather than in dispassionate, rational ways. Here are some examples of prevalent biases:

Confirmation Bias and Disconfirmation Bias: We tend to search for and uncritically accept evidence that supports our pre-existing views. We reject or ignore evidence that disconfirms our pre-existing views (Lord, Ross, and Lepper 1979; Taber and Lodge 2006). For example, embattled political philosopher Thomas Pogge (2005, 30) dismisses economic critiques of his theories of global justice by calling economists shills. Many political partisans are so biased that when presented with evidence that they are mistaken, they increase their confidence in their pre-existing beliefs (Nyhan and Reifler 2009; Bullock 2006).

Confirmation bias explains how we consume news and information. Most people only read news that supports their pre-existing opinions. Left-liberals read the New York Times. Conservatives flock to Fox News. Indeed, it turns out Facebook supplies conservatives and liberals with entirely different news feeds, which may explain why the US was so polarized in the 2016 presidential election.

Affective Contagion and Prior Attitude Effect: I have so far characterized Vulcans as dispassionate, suggesting that emotions stand in the way of a rational assessment of the evidence. A few political theorists have taken a different tack, and complained that Western political philosophy has long had an unfounded distrust of emotion (Kraus 2013). But the psychological evidence indeed shows that emotion corrupts our thinking. For instance, when people are (for reasons unrelated to politics) sad, angry, joyful, this corrupts their ability to think clearly about politics. How you evaluate political information, what conclusions you draw, depends upon your current mood. How you respond to evidence depends upon how you are feeling.

Experiments show that emotion causes us to ignore and evade evidence, or to rationalize political beliefs. For instance, the fact that your cat just died might change how you respond to stastical evidence of falling crime rates, even though these are unrelated things. Further, when people feel strongly about an issue, that is, when they think it is important and when it evokes strong emotions, they are more likely to evaluate arguments about that issue in a polarized, biased way (Erisen, Lodge, Taber and Young 2013; Taber and Lodge 2006).

Intergroup Bias: In politics, we are tribalistic. We are biased to form groups and to identify ourselves strongly with that group. We automatically develop animosity toward other groups. We assume our group is good and just, but members of other groups are bad, stupid, and unjust. We are biased to forgive severe transgressions within our own group but damn minor errors from other groups (Haidt 2012; Westen, Blagov, Harenski, Kilts, and Hamann 2007; Westen 2008).

To illustrate: Psychologist Henry Tajfel conducted experiments in which he randomly assigned subjects to groups. He told subjects group members shared some frivolous trait, such as shared art preferences. He then conducted experiments to determine how people would treat members of their own group and other groups. He repeatedly found that, right away, on the basis of frivolous distinctions, subjects showed strong favoritism toward their own group and distrust toward other groups (Tajfel 1981; Tajfel 1982; Tajfel and Turner 1979).

Peer Pressure and Conformity: We are biased to conform our opinion to that of the majority (or that of whatever group we want to be part of), even when it is irrational to do so. For instance, Solomon Asch found that when experimental subjects are surrounded by large numbers of people claiming that two non-identical lines are identical, many subjects would agree with the majority, even though the majority was obviously wrong (Asch 1955, 37; Asch 1952, 457-8). Even those who disagreed with the majority experienced severe discomfort and anxiety.

These are just a handful of the biases psychologists have discovered. The point is that we are not dispassionate scientific thinkers when it comes to politics. Rather, we are motivated to re-affirm our pre-existing beliefs. We are motivated to use political beliefs as a means to create and maintain tribes. Random moods we happen to be feeling can cause us to evaluate evidence in entirely different ways—the way you revise your beliefs after a news report might depend heavily on whether you were watching a comedy or a tear-jerker beforehand.

How Political Deliberation Corrupts

John Stuart Mill did not simply want citizens to vote. He hoped to they would deliberate with one another in dispassionate, reason-driven ways. Following Mill’s lead, in contemporary political philosophy, “deliberative democracy” refers to various forms of democracy in which people come together in an organized way, usually under the guidance of a moderator, to advance ideas, argue about those ideas, listen to one another, and criticize each other’s ideas with an open mind. Most deliberative democrats advocate an ideal under which citizens argue with one another in a dispassionate, scientific way, and then, as a result, reach a consensus about what ought to be done.

Philosophers seem convinced that organized group deliberation will deliver a wide range of positive moral and psychological benefits. Bernard Manin, Jane Mansbridge, and Elly Stein claim that democratic deliberation is a process of training and education (Manin, Stein, and Mansbridge 1987, 354, 363). Joshua Cohen (2006, 174) claims that deliberative procedures can be expected to “shape the identity and interests of citizens in ways that contribute to the common good.”

But what deliberative democracy does to us depends on our psychology, on whether we are inclined to develop into Hooligans or Vulcans. Of course, deliberation enlightens would-be Vulcans. Vulcans apportion belief according to the evidence and have no dogmatic loyalty to their beliefs. But we can expect deliberation to make Hooligans more entrenched in their pre-existing beliefs. Hooligans will just ignore, jeer at, and dismiss contrary evidence, digging in their heels and getting angry at the opponent.

This bring us to the empirical question philosophers are ill-equipped to answer: in political matters, do we deliberate like Vulcans or Hooligans?

In a comprehensive survey of the empirical research on democratic deliberation, political scientist Tali Mendelberg (2002, 154)  concludes that the “empirical evidence for the benefits that deliberative theorists expect” is “thin or non-existent”. Deliberation tends to undermine cooperation among groups (Mendelberg 2002, 156). When groups are of different sizes, deliberation tends to exacerbate conflict rather then mediate it (Mendelberg 2002 158). Status-seeking drives the discussion. Deliberators try to win positions of influence and power over others (Mendelberg 2002, 159). High-status individuals have more influence, regardless of whether the high status individuals actually know more (Mendelberg 2002, 165-7). During deliberation, people use language in biased and manipulative ways (Mendelberg 2002, 170-2). As Mendelberg concludes, “in most deliberations about public matters”, group discussion tends to “amplify” intellectual biases rather than “neutralize” them (Mendelberg 2002, 176, citing Kerr, MacCoun, and Kramer 1996). She says (2002, 169),

“The use of reasoned argument to reinforce prior sentiment is a widespread phenomenon that poses a significant challenge to deliberative expectations. Motivated reasoning has considerable power to interfere with the motivation that deliberative theory cherishes—the motivation to be open-minded, evenhanded, and fair. Deliberators can hardly pursue truth and justice if they view everything in favor of their priors [i.e., pre-existing beliefs] through rose-tinted glass and everything against it through dark ones”.

In short: people “deliberate” on political matters like Hooligans, not like Vulcans.

Mendelberg’s take on the empirical literature is not unusual. Other reviews of the extant political literature—including by people who favor deliberative democracy—find similar results (Landemore 2012, 118-19; Pincock, 2012). For instance, deliberation tends to move people toward more extreme versions of their ideologies rather than toward more moderate versions (Sunstein 2002). Deliberation over sensitive matters—such as pornography laws—often leads to “hysteria” and “emotionalism”, with parties to the debate feigning moral emergencies and booing and hissing at one another (Downs, 1989).

Relatedly, political scientist Diana Mutz’s (2006) empirical work shows that deliberation and participation do not come together. The people who are most active in politics tend to be Hooligans. Vulcans tend to stay home.

Mutz finds that being exposed to contrary points of view tends to lessen one’s enthusiasm for one’s own political views. Cross-cutting political exposure decreases the likelihood that a person will vote, reduces the number of political activities a person engages in, and makes people take longer to decide how to vote (Mutz 2006, 92, 110, 112-113). In contrast, active, participatory citizens tend not to engage in much deliberation and tend not to have much cross-cutting political discussion (Mutz 2006, 30). Instead, they seek out and interact only with others with whom they already agree.  When asked why other people hold contrary points of view, participatory citizens tend to respond that others must be stupid or corrupt.

Many political theorists advocate provide more meaningful opportunities for political participation.  Mutz, in effect, finds that the people most likely to take advantage of such opportunities are extremists and partisans (Mutz, 135-6).

Some might wonder, if deliberative democracy does not work, then what does? Unfortunately, the answer might be nothing.

The Economics of Emotion

In some sense, it is strange that emotion and motivated reasoning dominate our political beliefs. After all, in general, having false beliefs is dangerous for an agent. If our ancestors’ had had mostly false beliefs about how to get food or protect children, we would not be here. Further, while people are irrational on occasion in their daily lives, it seems odd that they are so disportionately irrational when it comes to politics. We need some explanation for why people are like this, and psychology does not seem to have the answer.

Perhaps we should turn to economics for the answer instead. Economics offers a simple but powerful account of why voters behave the way they do. When we look more closely at the costs and benefits of political rationality, it makes sense that people indulge their biases. To acquire and retain information takes time and effort. From an economic standpoint, we would expect people to acquire and retain information only if the expected benefits of doing so exceeds the expected costs. So, for instance, I remember where the local gas stations are because such information is useful, but I remain rationally ignorant of where the gas stations are in Alaska. Further, to overcome biases and to think rationally takes time and effort. Again, from an economic standpoint, we would expect people to think rationally about a subject only if the expected benefits of doing so exceeds the expected costs.

Suppose a person is about to cross the street. She would first gather information by looking both ways. She would not allow herself to remain ignorant of whether a car is coming, as such ignorance could kill her. Further, if she sees a truck barreling toward her, should not dare indulge the fantasy that the truck is, say, made of ectoplasm and cannot harm her. Indulging such irrationality could kill her.

But when it comes to politics, we can afford to be ignorant and irrational. As individuals, most of us can only influence politics through our votes. But the probability that our votes will make a difference is, for most of us in most major elections, vanishingly small. (A voter in a genuine battleground state might have as high as a 1 in 20 million chance of determining the outcome, while a voter in California has no chance at all). While the outcome of an election, i.e. the aggregate result of millions of people voting, matters a great deal, how any one of us votes (or whether any one of us votes at all) does not matter. In the same way, winning the lottery is worth hundreds of millions, but an individual lottery ticket is worth almost nothing.

In short, the reason people are mostly ignorant and biased about politics is that the incentives are all wrong. Democracies make it so that no individual voters’ votes (or political beliefs) make a difference. As a result, no individual is punished for being ignorant or irrational, and no individual is rewarded for becoming informed and rational. Democracies incentivizes us to be “dumb”.

Why It Matters 

There are two major sets of reasons why bias-driven politics is dangerous.

First, it contributes to the growing political polarization in the United States. Americans have become more distrustful of each other on the basis of political differences. Legal theorist Cass Sunstein (2014) notes that in 1960, only about 4-5% of Republicans and Democrats said they would “displeased” if their children married members of the opposite party. Now about 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats admit they would be displeased (Sustein 2014, citing Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes 2012). Sunstein says that explicit “partyism”—prejudice against people from a different political party—is now more common than explicit racism. In fact, it appears that “implicit” partyism is stronger than implicit racism too (cf. Iyengar and Westwood 2014).

For instance, political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood (2014) find that people are much more likely to discriminate against job candidates with different political viewpoints than they are to discriminate on the basis of racial differences. At least in some cases, for democracy to work, we need people to reach across the aisle, compromise, and work together. What the various biases discussed above tells us is that this is unlikely to happen.

Second, in a democracy, what we as a collective electorate believe about politics matters, even if what any individual voter beliefs does not. Individual voters do not matter at all, but voters as a whole matter a great deal. While many things—special interest lobbying, party politics, legislature preferences, bureaucratic autonomy, luck—influence and determine political outcomes, how voters vote makes a difference. Voters elect candidates with certain policy slants, and electing such candidates makes it more likely such policies will be enacted. Further, who makes it on the ballot in the first place is largely depends on what voters want.

But what voters want depends on what they know. Most citizens and voters have low levels of information; they are generally ignorant or misinformed (Somin 2013). But, it turns out, better informed voters have systematically different political beliefs from badly informed voters, and these differences in policy preferences are not explained by demographic factors, such as race, income, or gender (Althaus 2013). But, as this article has discussed, what voters know (or do not know) is not primarily guided by a dispassionate, reason-driven search for truth. Instead, our beliefs are largely determined by emotion-based biases.

In short, emotion-driven politics does not just make us biased. Rather, it makes us dislike each other and mistreat each other. It causes mutual distrust and diffidence. Further, it leads to us voting in ways that we would not vote if only we were better informed or if we processed political information in rational ways. Emotion-driven politics means we get worse political culture and worse government.

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