We like to think we’re rational beings.
We’re conservatives and libertarians for crying out loud. That’s our rallying cry. We’re the logical guys.
Realistically, you and I are just as illogical and emotional as the next guy.
Democrats and progressives are no more emotional than you and I are.
Humans are emotional, and routinely irrational beings. That’s just how it is. But you don’t have to live in the dark about it.
There’s certain tricks that your irrational mind plays on you. They not only affect your judgment but your views of the world.
Once you understand how they affect you, you can avoid them and get the upper logical hand in a discussion (or just in life).
We’re going to go through some of the common mental distortions, how they affect you, and how you can avoid them.
Too many of our political views are influenced by these reality distorting mental modes. Too many policies are based on bad reasoning.
Politics is very much an emotional and irrational game. But you can make sure you’re rarely affected by the game’s slanted rules.
Political Biases & Blunders
Too Much Emphasis on Too Little Information (Anchoring & Adjustment)
Description: when you overweigh one piece of information and make assumptions based on that information. The information is the anchor, and the assumptions are the adjustments you make. The problem is there’s not enough information to make a proper judgment. And your adjustments are rarely sufficient to make it logically sound.
Example: political elections are easy victims of this cognitive bias. Saying Iowa determines who wins the nomination, without looking into surrounding factors is a good example of this. Just because winning Iowa “correlated” with winning the nomination last election cycle doesn’t mean it’ll ring true this election.
How to Beat it: awareness is the easiest way to avoid anchoring & adjustment. Creating a standardized process by which you have to follow before making an assumption based on information is also effective. Always find more information surrounding the object of your analyzation.
Likelihood & Probability (Availability Heuristic)
Description: when you over weigh information that is recent and readily available, using it to assess the likelihood of certain situations.
Example: fear of terrorist attacks. After the Paris attacks, everyone was freaking out about how it’s going to happen to them in their little part of the world. When, in reality, the likelihood of such an attack happening again is minuscule.
How to Beat it: realize how easily recent stories and events can influence your view of what’s probable. Base the probability on more general facts and numbers. Never base the likelihood of something on if it happened recently or not. Go for a broad, diverse set of information.
Detecting Patterns That Don’t Exist (Representativeness Heuristic)
Description: when you see the outcomes of random processes, and start detecting patterns that you think have great meaning but are just due to chance. It’s our unwillingness (whether consciously or not) to accept randomness, opting to look for a pattern.
Example: repeatedly tossing a coin is a good example of this. Looking for patterns of gun violence or terrorism are another. How many articles have you seen that say Republican or Democrat states have the most violence?
How to Beat it: remember that your brain will always try and seek out a pattern, even when no pattern exists. Try to hold yourself back from creating patterns where none exist, or where you have very little information. Especially if those patterns are politically motivated.
“It Won’t Happen to Me” (Optimism Bias)
Description: when you overestimate your personal immunity from harm, you take risks without preventative steps. Too much optimism can turn you invincible in your mind.
Example: this cognitive bias is clearly seen in US interventionism. We fail to realize that other nations have tried the very same tactics we’re using, ultimately failing. “We’re America, we can conquer any obstacle and help any nation.” In reality, there’s more to the situation than just ‘Murica.
How to Beat it: focus on base rates, not on your own optimism and confidence. And realize you’re relying solely on your own personal confidence instead of the facts, or reality.
Choosing the Default Option (Loss Aversion)
Description: when you have to give something up, the hurt from giving it up is more than the pleasure you received from acquiring it. You end up avoiding the possibility of loss for the safety of the default choice.
Example: this is one reason why it’s so hard to remove government regulations once they’re in place. The possibility of loss from removing the regulation is too much, so legislators do nothing. Opting for the familiar default position (yes, corruption might exist thanks to the regulation, but what happens if we remove it? Will more people be harmed because of it?).
How to Beat it: loss (and failure) is a way of life. It’s one of the most effective ways to learn. Realize that. And in some cases, you won’t know if it’s better until you opt out of the default position. Familiar territory can be dangerous, especially if you refuse to improve on current systems (or completely replace them).
Moods & Emotions Affect Your Decision Making (State of Arousal)
Description: when you underestimate the influences of strong emotions, instead attributing someone’s views or actions to logic or reason. It’s also called the “empathy gap.”
Example: almost every heated discussion is a good example of this empathy gap. One side is forgetting how much moods and emotions are affecting the other person. So you end up with one person feeling misunderstood, and their views trivialized, and the other looking apathetic.
How to Beat it: humans are emotional. Whenever you’re in a discussion, try to discern the emotions that are affecting their views. What environments, influences, mentors, etc have molded their outlook? Always try to be sympathetic to the other’s plight, regardless of how much you disagree. It’s the difference between coming across as open and understanding, and being a cold-hearted jerk.
“Would I still do this if everyone else was not?” (Peer Pressure)
Description: when you believe or do something because those around you believe or are doing it. Your views are shaped more by who’s around you, than by your own judgment and information.
Example: politics is a hell hole for peer pressure. Demonstrations, riots, and protests are good examples of where peer pressure takes over. Even patriotism has a peer pressure facet to it. The masses define what is patriotic, and if you don’t conform to the mass’s standards you’re labeled unpatriotic…or worse.
How to Beat it: ask yourself, “would I still do this if everyone else was not?” Avoid situations where group think is prevalent. Never believe something solely because the majority does, regardless of whether it’s patriotic or not.
Sources & Suggested Reading:
Conclusion: Don’t Fool Yourself
It’s so easy to get fooled by your own mental biases. Especially in politics.
The number of times I catch myself falling into the cognitive biases listed above is embarrassing. I can’t imagine how often I don’t catch myself.
Politics is inherently emotional and volatile.
You can thank identity politics for that.
The amusing thing is too many conservatives, and yes even libertarians (you guys aren’t above this) think they’re logical.
They don’t see the numerous instances where their emotions take control. Ultimately leading them astray.
No political party or ideological group is more predetermined to logic or emotion. It’s evenly spread throughout the political spectrum.
The key is making sure you yourself don’t fall prey to it.
Avoiding these cognitive distortions help you in conversations. Avoiding them helps you analyze and evaluate political issues better. It prevents you from falling for populist tendencies, and politically emotional advertising.
Not to mention, you’ll be calmer.
So here’s a few questions to wrap this up: Can you think of any times when one or more of these cognitive biases affected your beliefs? Do you see these biases in others? How do you avoid them yourself? And lastly, do you see how political pundits and politicians try to influence you with them?
Leave your answers and opinions in the comments below.