We make thousands of decisions and judgments every day. Unbeknownst to the individual, however, research in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics exhibits said decisions can be clouded in many ways by cognitive bias. Cognitive biases are predictable and systematic deviations from rational thinking, often manifesting due to the brain’s natural tendency to take shortcuts and misperceive reality. In this time of instant information and political polarization, we are particularly vulnerable to cognitive bias as we consume news, form opinions, and make voting decisions. Being aware of the various types of cognitive biases can help us avoid the trap of solidifying our political views without the benefit of critical analysis and thoughtful decisions.
Judges and Snack Breaks
Cognitive biases appear in unlikely places. One example comes from a study that followed eight judges over the course of 1,000 parole applications, analyzing a variety of factors that could impact their decisions, including prior convictions, participation in rehabilitation, sex, and ethnicity . Judges started the day with a baseline of favorable rulings, but their clemency dropped as the hours passed, only to spike back to the baseline at two predictable points—meal breaks. These judges, trained professionals who surely approached their tasks with careful consideration, ruled differently based on how recently they had eaten. As the judges grew tired, their minds took the easy path of maintaining the status quo—denying parole requests—only to return to initial clemency levels after eating.
Hunger isn’t the only reason we take easy mental paths. Dual process theory explains two ways in which our brains form thought: the “automatic” system, which involves effortless tasks such as solving 1＋2, and the “conscious” system, which involves effortful tasks such as walking faster than your regular pace . While there is a clear purpose for the automatic system, such as quick math or reacting to danger, political analysis should be piloted by the conscious system. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, as the automatic system often leads the way.
Asking the Wrong Questions
Substitution bias occurs when we’re faced with a complex question and we unknowingly swap it for an easier question . Cable news capitalizes on this bias by providing emotionally-charged stories and visuals instead of in-depth analysis. Partisan divides grow when it’s easier to rely on an emotional reaction and make an immediate judgment, rather than taking effort to think through an issue. The question “should we go to war with Iran?” requires significant analysis of current events. It’s much easier for our minds to (unintentionally) substitute that question with “what is my emotional reaction to the killing of an Iranian military leader?” The question “is Donald Trump a good president?” also requires significant analysis, but it’s easier to swap that question with “am I bothered by this tweet?” Substituting questions harms our ability to think critically and rationally, and allows us to rely on gut feelings and emotion for issues that demand more from us.
Seeing is Believing (What We Already Believe)
Confirmation bias occurs when we selectively seek, favor, interpret, and even remember information that confirms what we already believe. There are many theoretical explanations for this bias, including psychological overconfidence in our ideas, especially ideas tied to our emotions and identity . It is cognitively easier to believe what we already believe, and our automatic system can make those judgments quickly. Doesn’t it feel better to read news that confirms our own opinions? Aren’t we quick to accept victories on our side, but skeptical to concede a win to the other side? Is it really the case that we’re always right? We want to let our automatic system instantly believe certain headlines and ignore others. We let our emotions take charge far too often.
What to Do?
There are many ways to combat these biases. It is an especially important task as college students, as research consistently shows that political views are malleable in young adulthood, but grow stable in later years . To prevent substitution bias, we can discern when we jump to conclusions, and map out our thought process to sense when we aren’t actually answering the right questions. When we get offended by something, we can relax and analyze why we’re upset. To avoid the trap of confirmation bias, it is critical that we regularly expose ourselves to opinions, views, and experiences that are different from our own. Balance your news consumption with (reliable) left or right-leaning sources. Respectfully talk to people about issues. Don’t be afraid to change your mind on something. Seek out evidence that contradicts your views, and see what happens. Beyond politics, we can look to avoid cognitive bias in our personal lives, our education, and our relationships, allowing our decisions to be well-informed and stable.
- Economist: https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2011/04/14/i-think-its-time-we-broke-for-lunch
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. 2011.
- Kahneman, Daniel. 2003. “Maps of Bounded Rationality: Psychology for Behavioral Economics.” American Economic Review, 93 (5): 1449-1475.
- New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/27/opinion/sunday/youre-not-going-to-change-your-mind.html
- Pew: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/09/the-politics-of-american-generations-how-age-affects-attitudes-and-voting-behavior/
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