Stupefying Politics

Trent Ernst, Editor

You’ve all heard me rant on about how the dichotomy of politics is tearing society apart. But here’s a new one: Politics makes you stupid.

It’s true. Or at least, factually supported.

You see, back in 2013, a group of researchers at Yale were wondering why good evidence didn’t resolve political debate.

For instance: why, in the face of mounting proof about climate change, do so many people still remain skeptical? Is it just because people don’t understand science? Would a smarter, better educated population mean people would look at these results and go “ah. I understand. Carry on.”

In political theory, it’s called the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings.

The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change or taxes or the budget. If only people were better informed, the theory goes, there wouldn’t be all this fighting.

But the Yale researchers had a different idea. Maybe it isn’t people are stupid. Okay, it isn’t that all people are stupid. Or lacking knowledge. Perhaps it is because they don’t want to find the right answers so much as they want to be right.

Maybe at the heart of reason is not a drive to find truth, but other outcomes, like increasing their standing in their community, or sucking up to the leader.

To test this theory, the group took 1000 Americans from different sides of the political divide and then gave them a math question about a new rash cream.

It used a common social science trick, which tests people’s abilities to slow down and consider the evidence. It forces people to get past their first instinct and do the work of figuring out the solution.

Not surprisingly, people who were good at math tended to get the problem right, while people who weren’t good at math got the answer wrong.

But the researchers didn’t stop there. They then asked the same question, but about a proposal to ban concealed handguns. Instead of asking about rashes, the data now compared crime data in cities that banned handguns against crime data in cities that didn’t. And here, a funny thing happened: a person’s math skills suddenly stopped working. Instead, they answered the question based on their political ideology, not on their math skills.

This isn’t a one-time study. The group of researchers has conducted the same study under various guises numerous times, and every time, when a question had an underlying political component, people would answer along party lines, not bothering to actually do the math.

People will resist facts that threaten what they believe.

This has nothing to do with math or science and everything to do with social positioning. If everyone around me believes that climate change is a hoax and I don’t, it can affect my standing in my social group. This theory is called Identity-Protective Cognition: What we believe about the facts,” writes the researchers, “tells us who we are.”

As time goes on, party politics is becoming just another form of tribalism, where the people inside your tribe are your family and the people outside your tribe are the enemy. Each meme reinforces the tribalism. Each news bite shared on social media resonates within the group that you ascribe to and alienates the group you don’t, widening the gulf between the groups. Ottawa becomes less about the work of government and more about reinforcing identity-protection cognition.

The trouble is, as more and more people ascribe to a line of thinking with no basis in the actual facts, it becomes more and more dangerous. It allows politicians to make decisions based on politics and emotions rather than on facts and data.

To bring it back to the original example of global warming, the ice caps don’t care if it’s rational for us to worry about our social relationships. If the world keeps warming, they’re going to melt regardless of how good our individual reasons for doing nothing are.