In several of my previous columns, I’ve taken a look at a range of topics in politics, including why we should care about them at all, what you can do to get involved, and, more recently, topics of interest such as terrorism and the separation of church and state. When considering more contentious issues (such as the last two I listed), people tend to get very heated, and all too often what could be civil discussions devolve into seething hotbeds of resentment and frustration. People, on all sides of the aisle, generally treat politics like sports — when a person’s favorite team is up to bat, it doesn’t matter whether that team is better or worse than the opposition, it just matters that it’s their team. Herein lies the problem, and the topic for this month’s column.
The sports-like atmosphere that politics all too often assumes is facilitated by something called confirmation bias, which Princeton.edu defines as “the tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.” So, if people tend to value information that confirms what they already think about the world, they will naturally tend to disfavor information that conflicts with their views. We can see this in debates ranging from gun control to foreign policy and beyond.
The first step to addressing this problem, to recapitulate the old cliché, is to recognize that there is a problem. Looking back, I can see that I myself have suffered from confirmation bias on a number of occasions in my life. We all have. It doesn’t mean that we’re terrible people, but it is something that we need to identify and rectify if we can.
So, how does this play out in politics? For one, if people decide that they favor a certain party, they will favor information that casts that party in a positive light. Take both our current and former presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Bush ran his initial presidential campaign on a policy of scaling back intervention in foreign affairs, but did the entire Republican base jump ship when he launched multiple wars? Well, he was elected a second time, so presumably not. Senator Obama was sharply critical of what he saw as civil rights abuses under the Bush administration, but did the rest of the Democratic Party abandon now-President Obama after he reauthorized certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act? Again, no. So, did the Republicans and Democrats of the world have deep, thoughtful changes of heart on these issues? Honestly, probably not. When the opposing team was in the batting box, their intentions must have been terrible, and therefore inexcusable. But when the home team is at the plate, these formerly questionable actions must have a reasonable explanation. After all, we’re the good guys.