Political Psychology, Bias, and Being a Team Player

In the afterword of The Ethics of Voting, I wrote up a brief account of political bias and some measures one could take to overcome it (somewhat). An excerpt:

Dangerous Biases in Politics

We suffer from many biases. Here are a few of the most dangerous in politics…

…Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias means we tend to search for and uncritically accept evidence that favors our current opinions. We ignore, reject, are bored by, or are suspicious of evidence that undermines our current opinions. We give every benefit of the doubt to arguments and people supporting our views. We dismiss arguments and people critical of our views. We care not about the truth but about defending our turf.

Confirmation bias explains how we consume news and information. The Internet makes good information cheap and easy to get. Why isn’t everyone well informed? The problem: Most people only read news that supports their preexisting opinions. Left-liberals read the New York Times. Conservatives flock to Fox News. People who consume news want to be informed—they want to be informed that they were right all along.

In-Group/Out-Group Bias

For all but 600 of the past 200,000 generations, our ancestors’ survival depended on group solidarity in tight-knit family clans. These clans were often at war. We thus evolved with a bent toward tribalism.

We are biased to believe that our group is usually good and right, and that other groups are usually bad and wrong. We tend to stereotype and demonize members of other groups.

The psychologist Henri Tajfel produced many famous experiments testing this bias. He would randomly assign subjects to groups. He would then lie and tell group members they shared some trait. Subjects would immediately play favorites with their own group and show animosity toward other groups. For example, if asked to rate other subjects’ personalities, subjects rated people in their own group as most likable, although they had no basis for this opinion. (In the experiments, group members did not speak or interact with one another.)

Once you commit to a group identity, you become biased to forgive your group’s biggest mistakes, but to damn the other group for slight errors. You are biased to believe that anything the other side says is wrong, just because it is their view. You are biased to believe that anything your group believes or does—no matter how baseless or bad—is good, just because your group believes or does it.

The afterword was meant to be a popular treatment, but for a more scholarly account, see the excellent Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology.

Here’s a related bit from the main body of The Ethics of Voting:

…the existence of rational irrationality is supported by at least one recent psychological study. Drew Westen published an experiment on motivated reasoning, the theory that the brain tries to converge on beliefs that produce maximum positive feelings and minimize negative feelings.

Westen’s subjects were loyal Republicans and Democrats. Subjects were shown a statement by a celebrity, followed by information potentially making the celebrity seem hypocritical. Then, subjects were presented with an “exculpatory statement.” (A test run had a quote by Walter Cronkite saying he would never do TV work again after retiring, followed by footage showing he did work again after retiring, followed by an explanation saying it was a special favor.) In the experiment, the celebrities were identifiable as Republicans or Democrats. Democrat subjects strongly agreed that the famous Republicans contradicted themselves but only weakly agreed that the Democrats contradicted themselves. Republican subjects likewise readily accepted exculpatory statements from their favored party, but not the other party. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that subject’s pleasure centers were activated when condemning members of the other party, and activated again when subjects denied evidence against members of their own party.

Anyways, these kinds of biases are why I think it’s important not to be a team player. For an intellectual to see himself as belonging to Team Libertarian (or Team Left-Liberal, Team Marxist, Team Paleoconservative Academy-Hater, or whatever) is both corrupting and a sign of  existing corruption. If you find yourself defending just any work that has conclusions you agree with, you’re probably intellectually corrupt. It’s important that you be able to identify people with whom you disagree, but who you think do good work, and people with whom you agree, but who you think do bad work.

I don’t care to be on Team Libertarian. I care to be on Team Good Argument. And so I am willing to criticize libertarians who do bad work, especially when the biographical evidence available to me indicates they did bad work because they were intellectually and morally corrupt. (Mere incompetence doesn’t call for condemnation, especially public condemnation.) And I am willing to praise non-libertarians and even anti-libertarians who do good work, even if I think their arguments are ultimately flawed and their conclusions are mistaken.

  • Team Bad Argument Player

    You’re just expressing your own confirmation bias in favor of Team Good Argument. You forgive all the mistakes of those on Team Good Argument, and you’re biased to believe that anything we on Team Bad Argument say is wrong.

    You are biased to believe that anything your group, Team Good Argument, believes or does is good, just because your group has good arguments and believes or does it.

    You chose the wrong team, man.

  • Hume22

    Yes and no. As a philosopher, I’m on board. As an an agent in an extremely nonideal world, I’m not so sure this is always a good practical principle.

  • Jameson Graber

    A popular idea among intellectuals is that bias is one of the worst of all failings, and they make it their mission to deliver sermons against it. The problem is that, just like sermons from any religious tradition, their hearers will quite often convince themselves they’ve gotten the message, without actually having done so. Thus many people adopt the *language* of being bias-free, which only confirms and strengthens their own bias. “If only the other side listened to facts or to plain reason,” the upright says in his heart, “instead of their own biases, then we could have a real discussion!”

    I suppose that doesn’t exclude the priests from their obligation to go on preaching. But I confess I get tired of hearing the same sermon over and over.

  • Andreas Wolkenstein

    I pretty much agree with you, Jason. First of all, I think that bias is in fact a problem, although one should take into account recent studies in the heuristics and bias-literature and the discussion around it (Kahneman vs. Gigerenzer), that evolves around the idea that what might seem as a bad bias (Kahneman) could instead turn out to be some kind of better decision-making process (Gigerenzer). However, it is not only bias that causes problems, but also some kind of not hearing to what the other side is saying. Discussions very often work like this: Person A says X, and person B says Y, presupposing (and not concluding) that what person A says is wrong. The problem often is that person B doesn’t examine X, or what person A really meant, but either presupposes that person A is wrong or just utters her position. I like the idea that in medieval academic debates, the interlocutors had to repeat what the other person has been saying before going ahead with their own argument. This enabled people to talk about the same thing and more importantly about what the first speaker was saying. Having said this I need to add that it appears to me that in analytically-trained philosophers. such a way to proceed in discussion is far more common than in everyday discussions or in other philosophical debates.
    Second of all, I want to add to the Team-thing you, Jason, mentioned, that I am always wondering why libertarians often generate a very strong We-identity, held against the rest of the “bad world”. To be more precise, let me say this: In Germany libertarianism is not very common. However, there are some people, they act politically, and they even have magazines. The atmosphere in these magazines is really crazy, as the only thing those people can do is to bash other people (and not analyze, discuss and refute what they’re saying), to bash media (and not concentrate on what oneself has to say), and to view the world as “all other corrupt people against us”. Why is that, I am wondering? Why can’t they just analyze and put forward good arguments against what one thinks is a bad way of doing politics (or political philosophy)? People write “we libertarians must stand together” etc., but why can’t they write “libertarian ideas X and Y must be put forward against policy Z”? It seems to me that this would be a more interesting and more honest way to defend libertarian positions. I like to add, however, that in principal, nothing speaks against having a “Team Libertarians” in the sense of sharing a common interest in a certain way of seeing things, or sharing some ideas about how society should look like and so on. But to form a strong, excluding We-identity is something I do not appreciate, especially if it does not proceed in the way the “Team Good Argument” proceeds: by putting forward good arguments and going to where these arguments lead.

    • Damien S.

      “I like the idea that in medieval academic debates, the interlocutors had
      to repeat what the other person has been saying before going ahead with
      their own argument.”

      Yep. These days sometimes called the ideological Turing Test: can you state your opponents’ ideas in a way that your opponent will recognize and accept?

      Probably most people fail. Certainly the libertarian commenters here who talk most about what liberals think totally fail.

      • Sean II

        You’ve got it the wrong way round: results from ideological Turing Tests show that libertarians do best, conservatives second best, and liberals/progressives worst.

        • Damien S.

          a) Citation needed
          b) Even if true, that doesn’t contradict the fact that most of the libertarians right here cannot describe liberal beliefs accurately. I grant the reverse is true of a lot of liberals, too.

          • Sean II

            a) My source is Haidt’s famous questionnaire, summarized thus: “The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal.’ The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives.”

            b) In light of that Damien, isn’t it just possible that you are the one failing to understand what the libertarians here do and do not understand?

          • Damien S.

            a) Ah.

            b) No, it’s not. Haidt’s study, if valid, applies to libertarians in general. I didn’t say anything about them, nor that they were less Turing-capable than liberals; I said that the libertarians here — who are probably not representative of Haidt’s study — mostly fail at representing liberals. This is a matter of direct observation. Anecdotes don’t wipe out statistics, but statistics don’t make anecdotal data go away, either. At least one of the bloggers and many of the commenters here — including you, Sean — embarrass yourselves every time you speak about how liberals think, what we want, or what we know or don’t know of economics. It’s the same level of invincible ignorance as is displayed by those liberals who think libertarians are about nothing but cutting their own taxes and clinging to guns.

          • Sean II

            Oh, it’s a matter of direct observation? With you acting as the direct observer? Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Heck, why even bother to ask me for a citation as you did two comments ago, when all the data you’re ever going to need is conveniently filed inside your head?

            Classy response. A lesser man might have admitted he was wrong there, but you dragged that temptation back into the alley and straight kicked its ass.

          • good_in_theory

            A study giving population statistics for libertarians is pretty irrelevant to the assertion that, “Probably most people fail. Certainly the libertarian commenters here who talk most about what liberals think totally fail.”

          • Damien S.

            I actually thought you were smarter than that. Guess I was wrong. As good_in_theory says, and as I said, these are two different things under discussion, one of which was introduced by you. I asked you for a citation for your claim, not for my claim, which is unrelated.

          • Sean II

            I sure am sorry to disappoint, and I hope to win back your intellectual respect just as soon as I can find a way to deserve it.

            Until then, consider: If libertarians on average outperform conservatives who outperform liberals on the ideological Turing Test…then, in order to rescue your claim, you’d have to say the libertarians here at BHL were somehow below the libertarian average.

            I wonder whether you can say that with a straight face.

  • Jay Baldwin

    Bias isn’t the problem. As you note, it has biological roots and serves real human needs (identity, solidarity, belonging). Most of the problems arise from our coercive insistence that people who hold differing beliefs and who ascribe to different value hierarchies mustn’t do so.

  • Tobi


    The reason interview is very careful not to name Rothbard, if that is whom you are hinting at here, as the author of the racist newsletters. Nor do I see how writing racist newsletters, if true, discredits the academic work he did. Man, Economy and State is an impressive piece of work and smearing the man who wrote it will not change that fact. If you believe that work to be bad, then say so, and say so why. Otherwise you’re just poisoning the well and that’s not exactly a good argument.

  • Sean II

    “It’s important that you be able to identify people with whom you disagree, but who you think do good work, and people with whom you agree, but who you think do bad work.”

    Oh, but this in turn simply gives birth to the Breaking Character Bias.

    The way this bias works is, the self-satisfaction one gains from being “not part of a team” and “caring only about the work”…eventually leads the afflicted to go far out of his way, sometimes by following convoluted paths, in order to loudly advertise his unexpected (and of course, oh-so-courageous) opinion on this or that point.

    Any reader of this blog knows what I’m talking about. Sometimes it makes for fascinating reading and useful self-criticism. Sometimes it makes for outrageous double standards* and posturing and novelty for novelty’s sake.

    How to tell the difference? Well, there is no sure way, but here’s a quick clue: when the guy doing it won’t stop talking about how awesome he is for doing it, that’s probably not a good sign.
    * One such double standard: why should it be better to have good methods and bad conclusions, than bad methods and good conclusions? Both entail some level of…you know, badness.

    • jdkolassa

      So, basically…philosophical hipsters?

      • Jameson Graber

        And don’t forget: the most hipster thing you can do is deny you’re a hipster.

        • Sean II

          Until you get to the next stage of meta-post-ironic bullshit beyond that, where it becomes cool to admit you are a hipster in order to set yourself apart from all the hipsters who deny it.

          Scientists believe this moment will arrive in June of 2015.

    • Sergio Méndez

      * Maybe because good methods usually lead to good conclusions and viceversa?

      • Sean II

        Okay, but that can’t be his reason, because then why does Brennan like “good” methods even when they lead to bad conclusions?

  • DST

    I agree wholeheartedly with your primary thesis that we should accept good arguments, and reject bad ones, regardless of where they come from. However, you seem to undercut that very point in your final paragraph when you say that you are especially ready to criticize libertarians who, based on biographical evidence, have motivations that you find “corrupt” (which, given you reference to Ron Paul newsletters, I am assuming means something along the lines of politically incorrect). If you can accept a good argument from someone who by all accounts is authoritarian, why not accept a good argument from a libertarian you find to be personally objectionable?

  • Theresa Klein

    I generally agree with this sentiment. But I do notice that Jason Brennan seems to go out of his way to emphasize his differences with “cartoon libertarians” in a way that seems less intended to convince “cartoon libertarians” they are wrong, and more intended to point out to any left-liberal audience members that he’s not really one of THOSE people.

    In other words, are you SURE you’re just avoiding confirmation bias, or are you REALLY doing liberal in-group signalling?

    • dalecarville

      It would SEEM that way to a cartoon libertarian, wouldn’t it?

  • martinbrock

    When I meet someone who recognizes his own confirmation or in-group bias, or someone who cares to be on Team Bad Argument, I’ll pass this wisdom along.

    In my way of thinking, being a libertarian is practically the antithesis of being a team player, but I have no problem being on Team Libertarian, as long as others, particularly other “libertarians”, understand that I’m bound only by my own understanding of the term.

    My libertarianism is all about choice, so if someone’s choice of a team is important to him, that’s fine with me. If Christians want to focus most of their attention on communing with other Christians, I have no problem with that, and I don’t suppose they lose much by failing to read mainstream journals.