The Conservative Religion
Jay Rosen commented on Twitter: “Providing facts that contradict strongly held beliefs can backfire and deepen those beliefs, political scientists say. But notice what happens when this "backfire" article asks whether conservatives and liberals behave in the same way.”
Rosen is talking about something that’s not all that new to someone with much of a brain and a little bit of awareness. It’s also not something new to science, actually; confirmation bias has been known to exist since the 1960s. The thing is that it’s not been discussed that much within general political science. “Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true.”
As Joe Keohane mentions in the Boston Globe article, “[i]t’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one.” Our Founding Fathers rested much of their forming philosophy on this foundation of thought and that was likely the greatest inspiration for making freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, the very first amendment in our Constitution. It does make a lot of sense that an informed public would make the best decisions for itself but the belief that people are rational beings, like the beloved Ayn Rand wants people to think, is absolutely false. Human beings are emotional animals and the likeliest bit of reason is left for those who brush aside their pride and actually listen to facts. Keynes’ “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” comment to his critics rings loudly on this topic. Most people don’t change their minds despite the facts smacking them in the face.
If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight… Maybe not… It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”
The worst part is this: people with more conservative beliefs are worst at this than those with liberal beliefs.
[James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign] led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)
This is where it gets good, though. On the reasons why this happens:
One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.
In other words, a nation filled with fear, threat and doubt is easy to manipulate and misinform. What large source of information both misinforms and tells Americans that their very nation, lives, families and wealth are being taken away by the evil progressives? Fox News, of course.
Which political party is always trying to use fear mongering its way into political power? The Republican Party, of course. Sadly, it’s those who are most susceptible to informational backfiring that fall for this type of crap, meaning it’s nearly impossible for liberals to correct the record and make it stick. This is why there’s so much bullshit out there people still believe about President Obama and pretty much everything else they fear is going to get them. Socialist groups have failed miserably due to their own incompetence yet it’s the biggest boogieman in the country, other than a black guy.
You just don’t question the crazy guy that says he’s Napoleon or the crazy woman who thinks she has a skinny black guy fat on the socialisms trying to suppress her rights and turn the country into a nation of slaves.
The people who told people questioning the authority of the irrational told anyone who doesn’t comply with their insanity to leave the country if they didn’t like it. (Limbaugh, by the way, still hasn’t left the country.)
Miss Banshee tells us a little story about questioning authority, or the crazy people, and just what kind of response one should expect from someone unwilling to listen to reasonable thought:
The day I changed from a terrified little schoolgirl into a, well, miscreant and misfit was the day I raised my hand in Theology class and asked “if the stories in the Old Testament are representational and symbolic, how do we know the New Testament is true? Where is the line drawn between symbolism and reality?” It was an honest question, something I wasn’t trying to ruffle feathers with, something I was genuinely curious about, as a logic question.
I was thrown out of class.
It’s easy to draw this line between religious conviction and the ignorance of the conservative masses that fall for misinformation and
let it fester in their brains. This is the conservative religion, Republicanism. It’s not reliant on facts; it’s mostly reliant on selfishness and ignorance.
Sadly, liberals are prone to confirmation bias (it’s not a partisan thing). From the Boston article:
The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.
This explains a lot of things, including why liberals aren’t simply falling in line behind President Obama and question his every action as not good enough instead of what Republicans did during the Bush years (hint: they fell in love with government expansion and fiscal irresponsibility and made excuses for all of it). Liberals may not be completely immune to confirmation bias but at least we’re not an ignorant bunch of selfish assholes.
That, my friends, is why science is awesome.