The study of political bias is very important. Once the source of what motivates political bias—which no doubt would translate to other facets of life—is found, individual action can be taken to minimize any future bias. Two recent studies found that contrary to other studies showing that conservatives are more biased than liberals, both groups were equally as biased.
Everyone is biased—even physicians (Cain and Detsky, 2008). When beliefs we hold to be true are questioned, we do anything we can to shield ourselves from conflicting information. Numerous studies have looked into biases in politics, with some studies showing that conservatives are more likely to be biased towards their views more than liberals. However, recent research has shown that this is not true.
Frimer, Skitka, and Motyl, (2017) showed there were similar motives to shield one’s self from contradictory information. Hearing opposite viewpoints—especially for staunch conservatives and liberals—clearly leads to them doing anything possible to, in their heads, defend their dearly held beliefs. In four studies (1: people would forgo the chance to win money if they didn’t have to hear the opposite sides’ opinions on the same-sex marriage debate; 2: thinking back to the 2012 election; 3: upcoming elections in the US and Canada; “a range of other Culture War Issues” (Frimer, Skitka, and Motyle, 2017); and 4: both groups reported similar diversions towards hearing the opposite group’s beliefs), both groups reported that hearing the other side’s beliefs would induce cognitive dissonance (Frimer, Skitka, and Motyle, 2017). They meta-analyzed all of their studies and still found that both groups would “rather remain in their ideological bubbles”.
Ditto et al (2017) also had similar findings. They meta-analyzed 41 studies with over 12,000 participants, testing two hypotheses: 1) conservatives would be more biased than liberals and 2) there would be equal amounts of bias. They discovered that the correlation for partisan bias was “robust”, with a correlation of .254. They showed that “liberals (r = .248) and conservatives (r = .247) showed nearly identical levels of bias across studies” (Ditto et al, 2017).
These two studies show what we know is true: it’s extremely hard/damn near impossible to change one’s view. Someone can be dead wrong, yet attempt to gather up whatever kind of data they possibly can to shield themselves from the truth.
This all comes down to one thing: the backfire effect. When we are presented with contradictory information, we immediately reject it. Everyone is affected by this bias. One study showed that corrections frequently failed to correct political misconceptions, with these attempted corrections actually doing the opposite, people increased their misconception of the group in question (Nyhan and Riefler, 2010). The thing is, people lack the knowledge about political matters which then affects their opinions. These studies show why it’s next to impossible to change one’s view in regards to anything, especially political matters.
New York University’s Professor of Ethical Leadership and social psychologist with a specialty in morality Jonathan Haidt also talks about partisan bias in his outstanding book on religion and politics The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Haidt, 2013). This book is outstanding and I highly recommend it. I’ve written about some of his thoughts in his book, his theory on the evolution of morality is very well argued. Moral reasoning is just a post-hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments that people have already made. When asked why people are so averse to questions they find morally wrong, they cannot give good reasons to why they find the scenarios morally wrong (Haidt, 2001). More specifically, people couldn’t say why it was morally wrong to have sex with a sibling even though they were told that they used birth control and both enjoyed the act, suffering no emotional damage. This is direct evidence for Haidt’s ‘wag-the-dog’ illusion.
Haidt (2001: 13) writes:
If moral reasoning is generally a post-hoc construction intended to justify automatic moral intuitions, then our moral life is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the “wag-the-dog” illusion: we believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the “wag-the-otherdog’s-tail” illusion: in a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of an opponent’s arguments to change the opponent’s mind. Such a belief is like thinking that forcing a dog’s tail to wag by moving it with your hand should make the dog happy.
Except the opponent’s mind is never changed. People always search for things to affirm their worldviews.
In his book, Haidt cites a study done on 14 liberals and conservatives who were stuck into an fMRI machine to scan their brains when shown 18 slides to see how their brain changed when viewing them (Weston et al, 2006). The first of which slide one set was George W. Bush praiding Ken Lay, the CEO of Enron. After, they were shown a slide in which the former President avoided mentioning Lay’s name. “At this point, Republicans were squirming” (Haidt, 2013: 101). Then they were finally shown a slide that said that Bush “felt betrayed” by the CEO’s actions and was shocked to find out that he was corrupt. There was a set of similar slides showing similar contradictory statements from John Kerry. The researchers had engineered situations that made the individual uncomfortable when shown their candidate contradicted themselves, while at the same time not showing any signs of being uncomfortable when it was shown their ideological opposite was caught being a hypocrite (Haidt, 2013: 101).
This study shows that emotional and intuitive processes are the causes for such extreme biases, with one only employing reasoning when it supports their own conclusions. Weston et al (2006) saw that when the individuals looked at the final slides, they had a sense of ‘escape’ and ‘release’. They cite further studies showing that this sense of escape and release is associated with the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum in other animals (Weston et al, 2006). So the subjects experienced this small hit of dopamine when they saw the final slide that showed everything was “OK”. If this is true, then this explains why we engage in these ‘addictive behaviors’—believing things with such conviction, even when shown contradictory information.
Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Even partisanship may be literally addictive. (Haidt, 2013: 103)
Haidt has also been covering the recent University protests that have been occurring around the country. About fifty years ago, a judge predicted the political turmoil we see in Universities today, writing:
No one can be expected to accept an inferior status willingly. The black students, unable to compete on even terms in the study of law, inevitably will seek other means to achieve recognition and self-expression. This is likely to take two forms. First, agitation to change the environment from one in which they are unable to compete to one in which they can. Demands will be made for elimination of competition, reduction in standards of performance, adoption of courses of study which do not require intensive legal analysis, and recognition for academic credit of sociological activities which have only an indirect relationship to legal training. Second, it seems probable that this group will seek personal satisfaction and public recognition by aggressive conduct, which, although ostensibly directed at external injustices and problems, will in fact be primarily motivated by the psychological needs of the members of the group to overcome feelings of inferiority caused by lack of success in their studies. Since the common denominator of the group of students with lower qualifications is one of race this aggressive expression will undoubtedly take the form of racial demands–the employment of faculty on the basis of race, a marking system based on race, the establishment of a black curriculum and a black law journal, an increase in black financial aid, and a rule against expulsion of black students who fail to satisfy minimum academic standards.
This seems to have come true today, seeing as political diversity has decreased in psychology, for instance, in the past fifty years (Duarte et al, 2015). In America, they found that 58-66 percent of social science professors identified as liberals, whereas only 5-8 percent identified as conservatives. Self-identified Democrats also outnumbered Conservatives by almost 8 to 1. Other researchers found that 52 to 77 percent of humanities professors were liberal with only 4-8 percent identifying as Conservative, for a ratio of about 5 to 1, favoring liberals. Finally, 84 percent of psychologists identified as liberal, with only 8 percent identifying as conservative for a 10.5 to 1 ratio (Duarte et al, 2015). However, this skew has only existed for about fifty years. When our institutions show this heavy skew in political beliefs, self-affirming, self-fulfilling prophecies will affect the quality of what is taught to students which will have a negative effect on the type of education received.
Finally, when talking about political biases, one cannot go without mentioning Stephen Jay Gould. Although I’ve come to love his work on evolutionary theory, he was horribly wrong on human differences and let his motivations, biases and political views cloud his judgement and drive him to be grossly dishonest in his posthumous attacks of a man long dead who could no longer defend himself in one Samuel Morton, which first appeared in 1978. This culminated in his widely acclaimed (and, as fas as I can tell, still given to college students to read) book Mismeasure of Man (Gould, 1981). In the book, he attacked Morton for being biased in his measurements of his skull collection. However, in 2011, an anthropology team lead by Jason Lewis remeasured Morton’s skulls and found that Morton was not biased and his measurements were correct (Lewis et al, 2011). Gould was the one who ended up showing the huge bias that he accused Morton of and, ironically for Gould, he was the case study in avoiding bias in scholarship and science, not Morton.
However, as is usually the case, long debates such as this are not so easily settled. Philosopher Michael Weisberg (Weisberg, 2014) argued that Gould’s arguments against Morton were sound and that “Although Gould made some errors and overstated his case in a number of places, he provided prima facie evidence, as yet unrefuted, that Morton did indeed mismeasure his skulls in ways that conformed to 19th century racial biases.” Further, Kaplan, Pigliucci and Banta (2015) argue that Gould’s problem with Morton’s measurements came down to how the measurements should have been done (lead shot or seed). They contend that many of Lewis et al’s (2011) claims against Gould were “misleading” and “had no relevance to Gould’s published analysis.” They also argue that both Gould’s and Morton’s methods (inclusion/exclusion of skulls, how to compute averages, etc) were “inappropriate”. Nevertheless, the point is, this debate seems to be far from over and I await the next chapter. Whatever the case may be, Gould vs. Morton is a perfect case of politics and bias in science.
Everyone is biased. Researchers, physicians, normal everyday people, etc. But where we become most biased is when politics comes into play. To become better, well-rounded people with a myriad of knowledge, we need to listen to other’s viewpoints without immediately rejecting them. But, first, we must recognize the cognitive bias and attempt to correct it. Political differences begin in the brain and then are shaped by experience. These political differences then lead to feelings of disgust when hearing of the views of the ‘opposite team’. Both sides of the political spectrum are equally as biased, contrary to each groups’ perception of this particular issue. There are differences in the brain between Conservatives and Liberals, and when they see their ‘enemy’ engage in contradictory behavior they get joy, whereas when they see their guy engage in the same contradictory behavior they show disgust.
The long debate on Morton’s skulls that’s been raging for over forty years is the perfect look into how politics, motivation, and bias comes into effect in science, no matter which camp ultimately ends up being right (I’m in the Morton camp, obviously). Studying the causes and effects of why we have such strong biases can lead to a better understanding of the causes of these underlying defense mechanisms—the causes of the backfire effect and similar cognitive biases. Everyone and anyone—from the scientist to the layman—should always let what the facts say guide their points of view and not their emotions.
When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say. —Bertrand Russel, 1959