Democracy, Current Events

Why We’re Dumb about Politics

I wrote another post at the Princeton University Press blog. This summarizes the theories of rational ignorance and rational irrationality, while also explaining some findings in political psychology.


Few of us form our original political beliefs after first weighing the evidence. Instead, when we first start thinking about politics, we come to the table with groundless political beliefs. We begin with bents to believe some things and disbelieve others. For no good reason, we start off left or right, libertarian or authoritarian, market-friendly or anti-market, and so on.

Our political beliefs are at least moderately hereditable. Our genes dispose us to vote one way rather than another. Early childhood experiences also push you one way rather than another. By sheer accident, you might come to associate the Democrats with compassion or the Republicans with responsibility. For you, for the rest of your life, the word “Democrat” will automatically conjure up positive emotions. For the rest of your life, you’ll have a bent—based on no evidence at all—to vote one way rather than another.

When people first start thinking about politics, they come to the table with (often strongly held) pre-existing beliefs. That’s already a worry. Yet if we were really good at assessing evidence and changing our beliefs in light of evidence, then our non-rational bents would not be so bad. Sure, we’d start with groundless, baseless beliefs, but we’d end up with well-grounded beliefs. Young people would start as hacks, but end up as sages.

Alas, we are bad at assessing evidence. Most of stay hacks.


  • dL

    Not as dumb as you might think. “The Firm” is a more explanatory model, particularly in the US, than Rational Ignorance or Rational Irrationality.

  • Jay_Z

    The people selling the political product have little incentive to appeal to rationality over emotion. Rationality doesn’t sell that well. They want to cover as many emotional bases as possible, make as many people as possible think that the pol is on their side. They can do this easier by fooling people than by telling them the truth. They will tell the truth if it’s to their advantage, but otherwise it’s a con game. That’s why so many of them were lawyers at some point.

  • Sean II

    Jonathan Haidt must be stopped. My genes told me that. They must have, because my pleasures centers are going wild as I write this comment. So he says “reasoning was not designed to pursue truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.”

    First of all, one cringes slightly to hear that something was “designed by” evolution. No doubt Haidt is well versed in the big teleology debate, but…man, that sure sounds like pandering to a popular misconception about biology.

    Worse, though, he makes it seem like his is some sort of scientific claim (but you know, the evidence is back at the lab so we should simply take his word for it). Of course it’s not scientific at all, merely a “just so story” with a plausible ring. There is not and can be no scientific evidence as to whether natural selection favored a trait called “argument winning” before speech, before recorded history, before literacy, during most of which time winning an argument summoned a swift adze to the head. Even so, Haidt just goes ahead and makes it sound like an established fact.

    Yet I could just as easily say the opposite: “As we know, argumentation is one of humanity’s best tools for discovering truth, testing theories, interacting with facts and ideas in a competitive process. Unfortunately, we didn’t evolve to win arguments, we evolved to avoid them, for you see…we are all hard-wired to set aside truth in favor of consensus and group membership.” That has the exact same scientific value (none) and the exact same susceptibility to evidence (none).

    Third, come to think of it: winning arguments and pursuing truth aren’t unrelated at all, not over the long run in life or in history.

    But most damningly from my point of view, it is obvious that all of “our” brains didn’t evolve to be contest winners, or else how could we have a Jonathan Haidt to sort this question out so dispassionately. According to his own theory, he should be too busy twitching away in response to some “care/harm” stimulus to weigh these issues and write these books.

    So…he doesn’t really mean that WE evolved to win arguments, or that OUR brains are wired for this of that. He means that THEY are designed to ignore truth in favor of confirmation, emotional cues, etc.

    And who are THEY? Probably people who don’t attend TED Talks, if I had to guess.

    And what does that leave of his idea? I’m not entirely sure, but its starting sound like yet another effort in the long history to infantilize people, deny their consciousness and agency, and ultimately medicalize their dissent.

    As it turns out, I do have an emotional response to that.

    • TracyW

      Good point, whenever someone argues that people are irrational, the more I am convinced by them, the more I find myself doubting them. (Exceptions being when they point to a separate source for their critical thinking, eg, note read the mouse-over).

    • David Burns

      “According to his own theory….” No, Haidt would not agree at all. Perhaps that makes his theory even less testable, but it does not require that no one ever changes their mind, just that it’s unusual and even more difficult if we’re trying to do it on our own.

  • Pingback:

  • Pingback: angara fahise()

  • Pingback: accident()