When I was a kid, I was raised to believe that everyone should vote. At some point in early college, I suspended this particular dogma as I found out that a lot of people – adults, even, with jobs – didn’t know squat about government and that we were probably better off with them not voting. I wrote a piece in The Daily Packer (my alma mater’s newspaper) to this effect. I’ve been reconsidering that in recent years, though, because of this study. Well actually, not because of the study itself because it hadn’t been run yet. But I knew full well that what it had to say was true after spending years hashing out political differences on the Internet:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. 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.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

My observation was similar: People who educate themselves on politics and government simply learn how to make more complete arguments for the positions that they held before they educated themselves. I read somewhere a couple of years back that the most educated voters tend to lean strongly to the right or left (or be libertarians, if they were statistically significant). Moderates tend to be the least informed. This, combined with my experiences debating people, lead me to the pretty simple conclusion that not only do people hear what they want to hear, as the saying goes, but they read what they want to read. Only moreso, because it’s hard to accidentally read something that tells you what you don’t want to know and it’s easier to hear it.

In the final seasons of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano’s psychologist comes to a similar conclusion (or is presented with evidence) that psychopaths actually attend therapy not to mend their ways but rather to learn how to better justify their misdeeds. And so it goes with politics.

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7 Responses to Confirmation Bias

  1. web says:

    The problem I have with that is that the “arguments” put forth are often not easily decidable. It’s not a matter of claiming that a particular set of facts are “contradictory”, but more the fact that your opinion rests on your priorities and your evaluation of what fundamental principles are more important. Two people can look at a situation with the same factual numbers, and based on their emotional perspective, one declare that the situation is just fine, while the other declares that it’s no good or “not there yet.”

    Part of the problem with the discussion is also that “misinformed”, “uneducated”, and other terms have become political epithets and insults, as the various echo chambers try to convince their partisans that their cause is correct, righteous, etc… and that, for instance, “rethuglicans are all a bunch of backwoods deer-humping rednecks” or “demorats are all a bunch of easily fooled criminal-loving wimps.”

    Suggesting that someone has incomplete information – or that an earlier report was wrong – is one thing; suggesting that the person themselves are “misinformed” is today an insult, which instantly triggers the emotional backfire response.

  2. DaveinHackensack says:

    “My observation was similar: People who educate themselves on politics and government simply learn how to make more complete arguments for the positions that they held before they educated themselves.”

    Actually, research has shown that voters will often adopt the positions of candidates they like, rather than voting based on the issues. Howard Stern demonstrated an example of this a couple of years ago, when he sent one of his man-on-the-street interviewers to Harlem to interview Obama supporters. His interviewer took a list of Republican positions and presented them as Obama positions, and the interviewees — believing those were really Obama’s positions — vigorously defended them.

  3. trumwill says:


    I used to chalk a lot of disagreement up to a difference in priorities and I think it really holds true for broad opinions. But once the broad position is taken, facts become arranged, accepted, or explained away for the purpose of making one’s argument stronger or (probably more frequently) the issue simpler.

    That’s not to say that issues cannot be discussed because everybody is impenetrable. Sometimes headway can be made and even though consensus is rarely reached between opposing parties, understanding sometimes is.

    Your point about “misinformed” and “uneducated” being code for “disgrees with me” is spot on. And yeah, there is a difference between correcting (what one perceives to be) misperceptions and calling somebody stupid.

  4. trumwill says:

    That’s the answer to a somewhat different question: why do people support the policies they do? Obviously sometimes it’s because the candidate supports that position. Sometimes it’s how the issue affects them. My personal theory is that it almost always comes down to morality and tribalism. One’s preferred candidate is merely a symbol of one’s tribal coalition and in broad strokes morality. Actual policy is just details and one is free to fall into line on any issue where one does not have strong contrary views, which when it comes to specific issues includes the vast majority of them.

  5. Mike Hunt says:

    Where did your other post from today go?

  6. trumwill says:

    Other post? Not sure what you’re referring to. I haven’t pulled any posts today.

  7. Mike Hunt says:

    I confused one of your replies with a new post.

    As Cher Horowitz once said: My bad.

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