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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Heuristics, Cognitive Bias and Other Strange Psychological Processes

I’ve been interested for some time now in behavioral economics and other related discoveries in psychology. Firstly, I believe that behavioral economics is a field of psychology not economics. It was created by psychologists studying psychological effects. With that said, I’m going to be starting a series of posts that collect these different psychological processes.

I have no plan or goals beyond collecting my thoughts about them and how they’re related to my other interests. This is also meant to be a way for me to learn the many systematic errors our brains make and therefore better understand the people around me, and myself.

I one day hope to find ways of incorporating this information into my work as a school social worker and will probably lay out some ideas, but again, at the start of this series, there is no connecting factor(s) besides my interest and what I’m thinking at the moment.

Discrediting Trump’s Followers

Trump discrediting of the media doesn’t just serve to discredit media institutions, but to discredit all political discourse. Whether by intention or unintended consequence, Trump undermines the credibility of his own supporters. He undermines his supporters’ trust in news and fact-checking organizations, and posits the idea that the only credible source of information is him and those who agree with him. This in turn undermines the credibility of his supporters to the people who recognize these institutions as trustworthy and relatively neutral.

There has been a lot of focus on the dangers of undermining the mass and mainstream media. To suggest that news that doesn’t immediately confirm one’s previously held beliefs as fake shields people from having to second guess their beliefs. Most frightening is that many (if not all) beliefs are emotional rather than logical. Trump and his team want to suggest to their supporters that if they hear something that doesn’t feel correct, dismiss it as fake (hearkening to Colbert’s idea of truthiness). Even worse, they suggest that, “if you want to know the truth, look to us: we’ll provide you with the truth.” This has always happened on a small scale, there have always been groups that believe they have divined the truth and either everyone else is fooled or part of some major conspiracy to cover up the truth or push their agenda. But, to have the leader of the most powerful country in the world start suggesting these sort of things is profoundly dangerous.

If the argument is that the media and scientist and unions and teachers and the university system, and park rangers, etc. is conspiring to push a liberal agenda, then equally valid is the argument that the Trump administration is pushing a conservative (or worse) agenda. But, who should we question more? We should obviously take heed of Trump’s assertion, but what is more likely to be of an immediate threat? I would argue that the people in charge of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government with the confirmation¬†of a new justice tipping the judicial branch in their favor as well, is the greatest immediate threat. We should question power first before we question narratives of those in lesser positions of power.

Again, many other people have been talking about this, we see it, but what’s equally important is that Trump and Co. are actively undermining the credibility of their own supporters. They are making their supporters look ignorant, because simply dismissing something as fake is just that, ignorant. It fails to even consider the other point, and therefore refuses to address it; which means that they don’t even need to be knowledgeable about something to talk about it, and that by nature is ignorant. When you dismiss information, you don’t learn about it, and ignorance is not knowing about something. Trump and his administration are telling their supporters to be ignorant, to actively refuse to be informed.

I didn’t start writing this with the intent of attacking or insulting Trump supporters, they are no different from the rest of us. It is Trump and his team that are working to create a rift between his supporters and everyone else. This means discrediting media that disagrees with him, ¬†and discrediting his supporters in the eyes of everyone else. When both sides dismiss the other as fake, false, ignorant, stupid, brainwashed, or any other reason, the discussion breaks down completely.

 

A Response to Criticism

I asked Kim, my wife, to look over my last (only) post, and she said that she liked the layout and pictures I chose. The nice way of saying that the post itself was not very good. She elaborated on this by explaining that in the light of the current political climate, my message of the importance of examining ourselves appears to be directed at the followers of Trump, only exposing both the truth of the statement and the hypocrisy of the post. She most certainly has a point, it was not my political allies I had in mind when writing the post. I hope to have this criticism reflect in future posts, as the last one wasn’t anything I was particularly proud of; it was only the most organized of the drafts I was working on at the time.

After this criticism, I have the urge to delete the post, but this post is my way of fighting that urge. I want to only publish perfection, but cannot reach that point without a lot of work, and I know that if I keep stumbling on self-conscious feelings and the cognitive dissonance of not already being a great writer (despite the lack of effort and practice that it would take to be one), I will never improve and never publish any of my drafts or put the necessary effort toward editing.

Writing is the creative outlet I am drawn to, and am working to prevent myself from standing in my way. I have an intense desire to write, despite often struggling to know what to write. This blog is meant to be a space for me to improve and grow, to exercise that creative drive. So, I will fight the urge to delete the (hopefully) mediocre post, and carry on.