Confirmation Bias: How the Left Resists It and the Right Enlists It
If you aren’t familiar with how confirmation bias can distort political thinking, head on over to Vox and read Ezra Klein’s debut piece “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.” It’s a solid, albeit lengthy, introduction to the phenomenon. To make a long story short, people resist factual information that contracts their deeply held values and beliefs. In fact, correcting misinformation can lead people to double-down on their false beliefs.
Now confirmation bias isn’t the end-all, be-all of political psychology, but it clearly poses significant challenges to basic democratic theory. Representative government — and most modern political strategy — is premised on the idea that we can reason our way to public agreement and good governing decisions. But it turns out that human beings spend most of their time and energy rationalizing what they already believe than reasoning their way to correct judgments. Facts, evidence, and truth just aren’t all that persuasive, and changing minds is extremely hard.
Studies show that liberals are just as prone to confirmation bias as conservatives and centrists, socialists and libertarians. Yet it’s hard to avoid noticing some pretty clear differences between the left and the right when it comes to truth, empiricism, and engagement with reality. As Paul Krugman put it, the “stupidity” is asymmetric. But why?
To answer Krugman’s question, it’s important to first understand that psychology both precedes and determines ideology. Over the past few decades, psychologists have identified a wide range of cognitive and personality traits that are strongly linked to ideological beliefs and political behaviors. As America’s political parties have sorted into competing ideological camps (through self-selection), the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives have grown more pronounced — as each side reinforces its own best and worst tendencies.
Confirmation bias it isn’t the only psychological phenomenon that governs our relationship with the truth. The motivations, characteristics, and dispositions that give rise to liberalism serve as an antidote to confirmation bias and to a host of other cognitive biases. None of these traits make individual liberals immune from errors in judgment and reasoning, but the psychology behind liberalism gives liberal groups and movements ways to resist and correct these errors over time.
Here are some of the psychological antecedents of liberalism that make liberals interested in the truth and more likely to find it:
Low right wing authoritarianism. Low right wing authoritarians don’t hesitate to challenge established ideas and authority figures. They question everything — except perhaps at times themselves — in their quest to live out their personal truth. Low RWAs are generally found only the left, and they can be as wrong as anyone. But by insisting on freedom of expression, they guarantee the truth always has a chance to be heard — whether or not it gets accepted in the end.
Openness to experience. One of the key domains in the five-factor model of personality (a.k.a. OCEAN). Openness includes things like active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, emotional intuition, preference for variety, and curiosity. It is very strongly associated with liberalism. Indeed, open-minded liberals are usually tolerant (if not outright welcoming) of new ideas, experiences, and ways of looking at the world. In stark contrast, closed people prefer the traditional and the familiar — and tend to be extremely prejudiced. Again, openness is no guarantee of being right, but open-minded people are less likely to reject a truth simply because it’s different from what they already know and believe.
Need for accuracy. Some people are just more emotionally and psychologically invested in getting to the correct answer. It doesn’t mean they are right; it just means they’ll go to much greater lengths to ensure that their beliefs about the world conform to empirical reality. These days, those with a high need for accuracy are much more likely to feel at home on team blue — which trumpets science, reason, and learning.
High cognitive complexity & need for cognition. Some people are better at handling complex ideas than others, prefer this complexity to simplicity, and enjoy thinking about things. Unsurprisingly, those on the high end of these metrics gravitate toward the left. Those with high cognitive complexity and need for cognition are more likely to understand and engage with the complexity of the world than those on the low end of the spectrum.
Low need for closure. On the opposite end of the scale, people with high need for closure detest ambiguity, want quick and easy answers, and resist changing their answers in the face of new information. People with low need for closure have a high tolerance for ambiguity as well as answers that don’t come quickly, and are more willing to change their minds. The latter are more common on the left. The former are more common on the right.
Obsessive-Compulsive personality traits. One of the six political personality types. If you want to understand who they are, just think of data-driven policy wonks as well as professional economists, scientists, and academics. Though it’s possible to find obsessive-compulsives on the right, we see an absolute preponderance of them on the left. Obsessive-compulsives tend to be administrators more than leaders, but they usually have superior analytic minds and strive to make evidence-based decisions. They have just as many biases as the rest of us, but work hard to overcome them.
A culture of truth. Liberal organizations tend value and enforce the truth using proven research methods, extensive documentation, and fact-checking. While a certain amount of human error and rhetorical excess are inevitable, most groups on the left won’t publish material they know to be false or misleading — and take active steps to avoid doing so. The truth doesn’t happen by accident: most liberal institutions make it a top priority.
As controlled experiments show, none of these psychological characteristics can keep confirmation bias from distorting the reasoning of an individual person, regardless of their ideology. But in a movement full of liberals — who are psychologically invested in free expression, new ideas, and all manner of wonkery — errors are generally going to be recognized and corrected, especially errors that directly imperil the left’s political goals. Depending on the nature and scope of the error, a correction may be forthcoming immediately or it could take centuries. At times the arc of liberalism may seem long, but it generally bends towards truth.
Now to be clear, we are not claiming that conservatives lack the above psychological traits entirely. Rather, studies find them in abundance on the left, but not on the right. Nor are we suggesting that conservatives are stupid. You can be a person of intelligence without possessing any of the above characteristics, Indeed, there are plenty of intelligent conservatives, even as the modern conservative movement as a whole has adopted an anti-intellectual posture. But as we’ve seen, intelligence offers no protection from cognitive biases — especially where questions of truth are concerned.
In contrast with liberalism, the psychological antecedents of conservative ideology make conservative movements prone to error, denial, and unfounded prejudice. That’s because the right is made up of people who are simplistic, closed-minded, judgmental, and authoritarian. Building a political party or a movement atop these traits carries significant risks. Among them, there is a risk of epistemic closure: the inability to engage meaningfully with new ideas, not because they’re wrong but simply because they’re different.
In a way, epistemic closure is what happens confirmation bias becomes the central organizing principle of a group or movement — when people systematically reject any idea, fact, or reality that contradicts established beliefs and goals. The normal conservative mind is already dispositionally closed. In a movement where no minds but conservative ones are permitted, the discourse can quickly become disconnected from reality. To borrow a term from clinical psychology, it can have a dissociative quality to it.
If it seems like liberals have it better off, consider that liberal psychology produces its own set of problems. Consider the weak leadership skills of the obsessive-compulsive personality, the individualism that often keeps low right wing authoritarians from organizing effectively, and the contempt for repetition that leads the open-minded to lose focus and wander off-message. Every psychological configuration represents a set of tradeoffs and produces its own unique set of biases; those mentioned here are no exception.
In his piece, Klein refers to what he calls the More Information Hypothesis. It’s the notion that people can be persuaded by giving them more information, more facts, and more evidence. For a variety of reasons — psychological, intellectual, economic, and others — modern liberals are deeply invested in the idea that truth will set you free. Confirmation bias conspires with this uniquely liberal rationalism to create something of a double-bind for liberals. As evidence mounts that people pick and choose their own facts, liberals tend to dismiss or avoid dealing with these findings because they fly in the face of the left’s deep commitment to rationalism. In effect, confirmation bias itself makes liberals extremely reluctant to accept what confirmation bias does to human judgment.
We now have overwhelming evidence from psychology that people systematically choose their own facts and see what they want to see. This alone makes most liberals squirm. But tell a liberal that that the truth isn’t all that motivating to most people, that their own enlightened reasoning faculties may be biased and flawed, and that they may be picking and choosing their own facts…well this will understandably send most liberals into a tizzy of rage. Liberals are profoundly invested in their own rationalism and empiricism — but they are wrong to project these attributes onto the rest of the world, to believe that everyone is this way.
Conservatives badly need to open their minds and their hearts, but liberals need to open their eyes and face the realities of human psychology. We don’t advise liberals to abandon their commitment to truth and reason, because in the long run it protects the left from error and contributes to human progress. But politically active liberals and progressives need to understand that human beings (including themselves) are predictably irrational. “More Information” approaches to campaigning and persuasion don’t work and often backfire. Tacking on emotional appeals and values-driven rhetoric won’t make much difference if they lack a foundation in the psychological processes that drive political attitudes and behaviors.
Persuasion is extremely hard, though not impossible. The key to making it work it to target people’s motivations, not their attitudes. If you understand people’s motivations, you can begin to craft messages that are more likely to change their minds. Unfortunately, modern polling techniques only probe what people believe. Pollsters don’t yet know how to probe why. They can test competing messages to see which ones get the most favorable response, but they don’t really understand the psychology that drives these attitudes.
Just as liberals construct a reality governed by rationalism and empiricism, people located elsewhere on the ideological spectrum construct realities based on their own distinct motivations and commitments. Those realities are then reinforced and validated by confirmation bias. If you want to persuade people or motivate them to take action, you need to know what their realities look like and how they work. At First Person Politics, we use a psychological model of ideology and a set of polling tools designed to do just that.
It’s easy to see why confirmation bias makes liberals uncomfortable, but we think these anxieties will turn out to be overblown. Political psychology has plenty of solutions and answers. It’s long past time for consultants and strategists to start asking the right questions.