Confirmation Bias, Halo Effect and Contemporary Politics

Of the cognitive biases that I think most about, especially with this past election cycle (and the fun keeps coming), is the halo effect and confirmation bias. The halo effect is the tendency of the mind to assume those people that we like have positive traits that we value without ever seeing evidence of such. Basically, I meet a new coworker and find him charming and interesting, and without any evidence, assume he is also smart and generous. I see this playing out consistently when discussing politics, as once someone chooses a candidate, they act as if that person can do no wrong. The reverse–sometimes referred to as devil effect or horns effect–is also true, as once someone chooses sides, their political opponent can’t have a single good idea or trait (I think this has some relation to the not invented here bias too). The confirmation bias, is pretty much what it sounds like: it is the mind’s tendency to grab onto any evidence and reasoning that confirms one’s beliefs and discredit/dismiss/ignore evidence and reason that challenges one’s beliefs. This is obvious in the news programs people choose to follow/read/watch/listen to, and can be seen in memes that have little connection with logic, ignore subtlety, make large logical jumps, tend to point out the “hypocrisy” of the other side, and if you see one that you don’t agree with, you find will immediately be filled with the impulse to point out how incredibly stupid it is, and probably everyone that’s shared it too.

So, those are the biases that I find most relevant to the current political goings on. In this time of internet, and half your family and friends signing up to be propagandists, the problems created and exacerbated by these biases are pretty easy to spot. For one, it completely breaks down communication between anyone who disagrees and in that break down pushes people to isolate themselves ideologically, which tends to lead to further radicalizing (this is for fun, so as of right now, no citations), and further break downs. We see in the current system a disagreement on what used to be thought of as facts, we see the world through our biases, and these prevent any of us from seeing the world as it is, but we certainly can tell that the other side doesn’t (another important aspect of cognitive biases is that we are blind to our biases). We can watch as people will explain away and rationalize the most egregious of their chosen candidate’s statements and actions while suggesting that the most minor of infractions and faux pas’ of the other candidate(s) are enough to disqualify them from contention. It’s all getting a bit ridiculous.

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