Why People Are [Epistematically] Irrational About Politics

Dated Aug 31, 2021; last modified on Mon, 05 Sep 2022

Motivation: Why are politics so contentious? How can I relate better with people that hold opposing political beliefs?

  1. Why People Are Irrational About Politics. Michael Huemer. Philosophy, Politics and Economics. 2015.

Salient features of political disagreements: widespread (many people disagree on many issues), strong conviction/confidence, and persistent (difficult to resolve).

Political Disputes Are Not Explained by Miscalculation or Ignorance

Miscalculation Theory: Political issues are difficult and partisans make mistakes in their reasoning.

Ignorance Theory: Partisans have insufficient/different information available to them.

Having been relatively well-educated, I tend to think that we only need to make sure that everyone is well-educated. notes that it’s harder to resolve disputes with the educated & biased than with the non-educated & biased.

Partisans regard their political beliefs as not difficult to verify. Furthermore, the presence of others with opposing beliefs does not shake their confidence.

If the disagreements were due to ignorance, then partisans would be aware of their level of ignorance, and not be as confident.

Partisans do commonly share their reasons and evidence, but the disputes persist.

Political beliefs corelate with non-cognitive traits, e.g. minorities are more likely to support affirmative action. This correlation suggests bias, rather than miscalculation, plays a major role.

Logically unrelated political beliefs do cluster, e.g. supporting gun control and abortion rights. Sometimes, the correlations are opposite, e.g. abortion rights and animal rights. Even if some cluster of beliefs is “the truth”, we’d not expect a sizeable number of people with belief clusters systematically directed away from “the truth”.

Political Disputes Are Not Explained by Divergent-Values

Divergent-Values Theory: Political issues turn on moral/evaluative issues, and people have divergent fundamental values.

Why would people have different fundamental values? Many people falsely think that value questions have no objective answers, and they’re a matter of personal feelings/preferences.

says that “moral anti-realism is entirely unjustified” and links to some paper that I’m yet to locate.

Given the clustering of political beliefs, there should be some core moral claim for liberals, and one for conservatives. However, sometimes the predictions from a fundamental moral theory are wrong (e.g. abortion and animal rights).

Most importantly, many political disputes involve factual disputes too, e.g. effect of gun control laws on violent crime.

Rational Ignorance and Rational Irrationality

The Irrationality Theory: People disagree about political issues mainly because most people are irrational when it comes to politics.

The cost of collecting information may be greater than the expected value of that information, e.g. researching candidate X doesn’t matter if the rest of the voters are going to vote for whomever they were going to vote for before you collected the information.

The cost of rational beliefs may exceed their benefits, e.g. being more rational about immigrants' ability to run convenience marts than immigrants' general effects on society.

Rational Irrationality assumes that there are certain things that people want to believe, and that individuals can exercise some control on their beliefs.

Sources of Belief Preferences

People tend to hold political beliefs that, if generally accepted, would benefit themselves or the group they identify with, e.g. the poor are much more likely to believe in the justice of redistribution of wealth.

People prefer to hold the political beliefs that best fit with the images of themselves that they want to adopt and to project, e.g. advocating increases in military spending to showcase their toughness.

People prefer to hold the political beliefs of other people they like and want to associate with. Groups therefore tend to converge over time, even when the cluster of beliefs converged on was largely a matter of historical accident.

People are biased towards beliefs that ‘fit well’ with their existing beliefs, e.g. few think both that capital punishment deters crime, and that many innocent people are convicted.

Mechanisms of Belief Fixation

Biased weighting of evidence. Relatedly, people have easier times remembering facts/experiences that support our beliefs.

Selective attention and energy. People think more of arguments that support their beliefs. People are more likely to accept supportive arguments at face value, and look for flaws in opposing arguments.

Many people choose to listen mainly or solely to those they agree with.

For most controversial social issues, there will be anecdotes that support either side, e.g. O.J. Simpson’s trial as a failure of the American justice system.

Use of subjective statements that necessitate judgment calls, e.g. “American TV programs are very violent” vs. “The number of deaths portrayed in an average hour of American TV programming is greater than the number of deaths portrayed in an average hour of British TV programming”.

Use of speculative arguments for which we lack decisive evidence for or against them, e.g. “The Civil War was primarily caused by economic motives”.

What to Do

Explicit awareness of the mechanisms of belief fixation should cause one to avoid using them.

We should identify cases in which we are particularly likely to be biased, and in those cases hesitate to affirm the beliefs that we would be biased towards.

Hesitate to affirm beliefs that we’d be biased towards: own interests are involved; strong feelings; traditional clustering, e.g. liberal; can be predicted given race, sex, occupation, personality traits; existing beliefs before gathering empirical data, or persistent beliefs despite contradicting data.

Given others' irrationality, adjust confidence in reported information. Weigh both sides before accepting an argument.

When debating, avoid insulting the individual or the group they identify with. Aim for a suspense of judgment rather than conversion, e.g. “what evidence is relevant to X?” instead of “is X true?”. Most times, neither party has the necessary data.

Display fair-mindedness: qualify claims; acknowledge contradicting evidence and correct points made by the other interlocutor.