American in Spain

In politics, the smarter you are, the dumber you are

April 28, 2011

brainAs I've approached and entered my thirties, I've become increasingly interested in politics. Not that I would ever, ever participate beyond the ballot box or a donation, but as a spectator, I'm fascinated. Another of my interests in recent years is the psychology of decision making, belief, and logical fallacies. Of particular curiosity is the growing ideological gulf between the political left and right in the United States brought on by increased access to information. The most interesting psychology experiments are those that prove our intuitions completely wrong, and we're wrong an awful lot when it comes to reasoning about issues not on the African savanna. Yesterday, one of my favorite neuroscience authors, Jonah Lehrer, published an article on The Ignorance of Voters. In it, he quotes an article from The Economist about a recent study conducted by Kimberly Nalder, of Cal State Sacramento, who surveyed Californians about Prop 13, a California voter initiative to apply a tax cap on all property, both residential and commercial.

Ms Nalder found that the best-educated (those with more than a master\'s degree) were most likely to answer incorrectly that Proposition 13 applies only to residential property. Those with the least education (high-school dropouts) were most likely to get it right. Similarly, those who were already of voting age when Proposition 13 passed were most likely to answer incorrectly and the youngest correctly. The same pattern held for income, with wealthier respondents being more likely to be misinformed. Perhaps most intriguingly, the largest group among homeowners (who directly benefit from Proposition 13) were misinformed, whereas the largest group of renters (who do not benefit) answered correctly.

These results are puzzling and troubling. As Ms Nalder suggests, perception (as opposed to knowledge) of issues such as Proposition 13 appears to have more to do with “self-interest and a potential blindness to issues outside of one\'s own experience” than with the content of the legislation. This would explain why those respondents who were “non-citizens” or “registered elsewhere” (probably recent arrivals) were more likely to give the correct answer than voters who are registered where they live.

How terribly, terribly depressing! The more you think you know, the less you actually know.

The reason for this, as Lehrer rightly points out, is our strong innate fact filter that simply ignores facts that don't resonate with our core beliefs. It is really, really hard to listen attentively to an argument against your position. I tried once, as a mind broadening experiment, to get into a regular habit of reading some Conservative Christian, pro-life, anti-gay-marriage blogs, and I must say that I failed miserably. It was horribly annoying, sort of the intellectual equivalent of that kid behind you on the airplane kicking your seat repeatedly; I wanted to either shout at them or change seats to the section where people have moral values more like my own.

And so here we are, condemned to view the world like fans from either side at a sporting match, as unfair and biased against our side. I can't really imagine that we'll ever find a solution to this natural information bias, but learning more about it can't hurt. In science, unlike politics, learning more about a topic is helpful.

This information, of course, is counter-intuitive and goes against your beliefs, and thus you will ignore it, because you really are an informed voter.