It’s Great Aunt Mimi’s birthday party, and the family is together for the first time in months. Your cousin Susan is a little tipsy, and your straight-laced Uncle Todd has already given his new business cards out to everyone in the room. A couple hours in, everybody is caught up on how everybody is doing, who’s been having health problems, and who got promoted at work. Stalled for topics, your father brings up the coming election to the inward groans of half the room, and the outward groans of the second half. Opinions are stated, laughingly at first, then seriously, then angrily and derisively, and suddenly, it’s Thanksgiving dinner all over again.
During a political debate, people usually think they’re arguing for the obvious side. That’s because when a topic is ambiguous, people tend to perceive only the information that confirms the opinions they already hold. This filtering of opposing viewpoints isn’t intentional; we think we’re judging the conversation accurately. When evaluating new information, our minds under-emphasize the examples that would make our preconceived notions seem faulty and put greater value on the examples that make our conclusions seem infallible. In fact, when presented with contradictory opinions, the part of our brains that deals with reasoning, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is suspiciously quiet, while the areas of the brain that are used in the processing of emotion (the orbital frontal cortex), conflict resolution (the anterior cingulate), and moral accountability (the posterior cingulate) become more active.
If that weren’t enough to make talking politics a ripe cause for a family rift, there’s also research to suggest that attitudes polarize in groups (such as political parties). Decisions formed in groups are more extreme than when made by individuals, making the middle ground seem like a dangerous concession to our belief system. On your own, you may be moderate in your opinions on fiscal policy, but as a member of a party, your beliefs jump two miles down the line.
Ironically, this information on confirmation bias could make it easier to dismiss the opinions of the people with whom we’re debating. We’ll think we’re making sound arguments against their extreme opinions, and their minds are just dismissing the information we’re presenting because it doesn’t fit with what they already believe.
Come to think of it, this blog really won’t make political debates any easier. Sorry about that.