Psych in Sum: Confirmation Bias in Politics

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Image from Clay Bennett

We saw the first debate between the two major party nominees for president this Monday, and critiques of the candidates’ performances flooded the internet. As with every debate, there are people declaring victory on both sides. Not only did their candidate win, but he/she mopped the floor with the other one! But political experts largely agree that Hillary Clinton won the debate, and polls of likely voters that were conducted offline show the majority of the electorate thinks Clinton won as well. So how do a bunch of people take some unscientific online polls and use them as real evidence that Trump won? Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek out information that supports your position (hello .net web address!) and to interpret information in such a way that it confirms what you already think.1 Everyone is vulnerable to this bias. In fact, scientists regularly try to avoid having their a priori beliefs affect the later interpretation of their data through various techniques, like deciding sample size before looking at the results, or using a blind experimental design. They go through this trouble because we know that people tend to selectively expose themselves to information they agree with, and tend to ignore information they don’t agree with.1 That isn’t good science, and it isn’t the road to good decision-making either.

Thinking your biases are founded in fact can be extremely problematic and lead to overconfidence in judgments, such that you are more certain your judgment is correct than your evidence warrants.And if there’s something worse than someone who is wrong, it’s someone who is desperately trying to convince you they aren’t. Generally, if you look hard enough, you’re going to find something that assures you that you are right. Whether or not that something has any real merit is often another story.

 

  1. Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology2(2), 175.
  2. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1977). Intuitive prediction: Biases and corrective procedures. DECISIONS AND DESIGNS INC MCLEAN VA.
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Pernicious personalities: The real threat of narcissistic leadership

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Image from The Independent

Personality traits are often somewhat ambiguous. While it’s good to be agreeable, it’s not good to be TOO agreeable. While it’s good to be conscientious, you can be so conscientious that you never eat that piece of cake or splurge on that great meal. But narcissism, having an overinflated view of the self that leads to a sense of entitlement, self-centeredness and superiority, is pretty clear cut. Narcissism is bad for everyone. Being a narcissist comes with no real long term advantages, though short term advantages might be present. In fact, narcissism is such a bad quality that it’s considered part of the “dark triad” of personality traits, which also includes Machiavellianism (being very manipulative) and psychopathy (being callous and lacking empathy).1 Narcissism is not simply having high self-esteem, it is having a grandiose sense of self that is not grounded in reality.

That description might as well be a description of Donald Trump, former reality star and gold enthusiast and current candidate for the Presidency of the United States. When Donald Trump equates his personal success with the sacrifices of a gold star family, or when he talks about how he alone can fix the problems we face (after all, he knows more about ISIS than the generals and he could deal with thorny issues like illegal immigration and health care during his first 100 days in office), he is displaying a classic example of the narcissistic personality. So why do we care?

Well, psychologists have not only studied how narcissism affects individuals, they have also studied how narcissistic leaders affect their constituency. Jerrold Post has suggested that narcissistic leaders have impaired judgment and decision making.2 Because narcissists tend to think they know best, they are less likely to take criticism or advice from others. This is obviously a terrible leadership quality, as narcissistic leaders are more likely to make uninformed decisions, or to go forward with decisions even once contrary information has come to light. Because narcissists have a grandiose view of themselves, they are more likely to be overly optimistic about the efficacy of their beliefs.2 This problem is compounded by the narcissistic tendency to surround oneself with people who agree with the narcissist.3 In the case of the narcissist, the “best people” to surround himself with are the people who agree with him.

But the problems don’t stop there. Betty Glad finds that narcissistic leaders have an easier time rising to power than they do in actually wielding it.3 Narcissists are charismatic, so it is not surprising that narcissism may sometimes help someone get into a position of power.3 But Glad finds that once that power is attained, narcissists run into some serious problems.3 Oftentimes, narcissists have very bad ideas that cannot be enacted when they don’t have power. But once they do, they are less in touch with reality, more likely to display erratic behavior, have difficulty attaining goals and ultimately become paranoid and defensive.3 And when you surround yourself with people who agree with you, this leads to the perfect storm of malignant narcissistic leadership: Someone who thinks too highly of themselves and their own ideas, running essentially unchecked.

There is one more quality of narcissistic leaders that makes them incredibly dangerous: They have superego deficiencies.3 In other words, narcissistic leaders don’t have a very well developed conscience. The very thing that prompts restraint in our actions, that encourages us to think about how our actions affect others, that tells us to put the brakes on when our ideas are out of control…this basic sense of restraint and morality that children develop early on in life is largely missing from narcissistic leaders. So the next time Donald Trump asks why we can’t use nuclear weapons or vows to deport 11 million people, take him seriously. He has demonstrated that he isn’t a man who can really conceive of the consequences of his actions. But we know better. You cannot declare bankruptcy to get out of nuclear war.

 

  1. Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of research in personality36(6), 556-563.
  1. Post, J.M. (1993). Current concepts of the narcissistic personality: Implications for Political Psychology. Political Psychology, 14(1), 99-121.
  1. Glad, B. (2002). Why tyrants go too far: Malignant narcissism and absolute power. Political Psychology23(1), 1-37.

 

 

Political Psych in Sum: Ideology

This fall, we’ll be breaking down various aspects of the American presidential election, ranging from the psychology of why people support particular candidates to the role of group processes in dismissing people who don’t support your beliefs and everything in between. First up, ideology.

Ideology is a motivation-based orientation of being in favor of or against a social system.1 This orientation breaks down into the right-left spectrum we all know so well in today’s political system (the historical origins of determining right wing and left are quite interesting). Whether people endorse right-wing (conservative) or left-wing (liberal) ideas is typically determined by two fundamental dimensions:

  • advocating versus resisting social change (i.e., do you want to keep the social status quo?)
  • accepting versus resisting inequality2

Generally, although with some exceptions,3 knowing where people exist within these dimensions can predict their explicit political attitudes and opinions. And, as recent research shows, these differences also exist in implicit (i.e., automatic, non-conscious) associations (Side note: if you’re unfamiliar with implicit bias, check out the Implicit Association Test). The figure below shows the results of implicit preferences for five values. Higher scores indicate a greater preference for the first value in each pair.

 

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Jost, Nosek, & Gosling. (2008). Ideology: Its resurgence in social, personality, and political psychology. Perspectives in Psychological Science

 

Jost et al. also suggest that people’s threshold for managing risk or uncertainty, as well as their tendency to justify the current political and social system, predicts their place in the right-left spectrum. So, what does this mean?  Consider this: a conservative’s preference for order and fear of uncertainty translate to wanting to maintain the status quo. In contrast, a liberal’s lack of preference for traditional values (or their preference for feminism) translates to endorsing social change and more progressive ideals.

The more you know!

 


References

1 –  Jost, Nosek, & Gosling. (2008). Ideology: Its resurgence in social, personality, and political psychology. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 3, 126-136.

2,3 – Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway. (2003). Exceptions that prove the rule—Using a theory of motivated social cognition to account for ideological incongruities and political anomalies: Reply to Greenberg and Jonas (2003). Psych Bulletin, 129, 383-393.

 

Bias Blind Spot

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Image from Digital Journal

Ah, it’s that time of year again. Pumpkin spice everything, apple cider, political elections… And of course, with elections come those discussions we all know and love about how _______ party is full of it and _______ party has all the answers. Having a conversation with someone with different beliefs than you is often an exercise in futility, with one of you insisting that the other one doesn’t know jack. One of the reasons that we may engage with others this way is bias blind-spot. Bias blind spot is the tendency to easily recognize bias in others, but an inability to recognize it in ourselves. In a group of studies, participants rated themselves as less susceptible to biases than other people, were more likely to consider their assessments of themselves as objective even after being told they could be biased, and were more likely to say that other people’s attributions about performance on a test were biased, but that their own attributions were not (1). So next time you pull onto condescension highway, check your bias blind spot first.

1. Pronin, E., Lin, D.Y., & Ross, L. (2002). The bias blind spot: Perceptions of bias in self versus others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(3), 369-381.