Monday, January 10, 2011

Political extremism and my-side bias

The recent shootings in Tucson have called attention to the lack of civility in politics, and the use of intemperate rhetoric, especially by right-wing politicians and media personalities, sometimes to the point of advocating violence ("second amendment remedies" Sharron Angle). One more culprit should be mentioned: my-side bias.

My-side bias is a group of psychological processes that defend beliefs and choices against arguments on the other side. These processes include selective exposure (failing to look for information that might impugn the belief, then behaving is if no such information exists), and biased assimilation (responding to positive evidence by strengthening the belief but not also responding to negative evidence by weakening it). They lead to such phenomena as "belief overkill", in which people think that no argument exists for the other side. Thus, opponents of the health care bill are not content to point to its costs as sufficient reason to reject it; they must also convince themselves that it will not improve anyone's access to care. The same about those who oppose regulation of carbon dioxide emissions: while it might be sufficient for them to argue that the cost of regulation is too great, they also convince themselves that global warming does not exist or that people cannot control it.

People differ in the extent of these biases. At least part of the differences seem to be the result of different ideologies about how beliefs should be formed and maintained. Some people believe that self-questioning is a kind of disloyalty or betrayal. Others take the attitude of science and other modern scholarship, which is that beliefs must be open to challenge and that modifying them in response to challenges is the only way to approximate truth. (Hence the public confusion about scientists who are skeptical of what other scientists believe. People see this as a weakness rather than as a necessary part of science itself.) Some religions actually teach people not to question, and the resulting attitudes toward thought itself may help maintain adherence to these religions. Because of these differences in ideology, it may be difficult to reform education to put more emphasis on the opposite of my-side bias, which has been called "actively open-minded thinking".

The extreme example of my-side bias is paranoia. Paranoid thinking seeks evidence for delusional beliefs and rejects evidence against them. The extremeness of paranoid thinking may not be a category, distinct from how many "sane" people think. It may just be one end of a continuum. Closer to the extreme are those commentators and politicians who are now being discussed. Thus my-side bias is at work even when we can write off assassins as mad.

I agree with those commentators who say that this paranoid style is not always limited to the political right, although it does seem to be there now. I remember in the 1960s when many people I knew, mostly students, thought that a left-wing revolution in the U.S. was immanent. I thought to myself, "Don't these people ever get out of their holes and go talk to their relatives and neighbors back home?" They may have even done so, but they didn't listen or hear. I now think the same about whether opponents of the health-care bill ever talk to anyone who is excluded from health care because of a pre-existing condition.

A good bumper sticker for the times: "Don't believe everything you think."

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