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How Political Fans are Like Sports Fans - Why Voters are Highly Biased in their Evaluation of Political Information:

Both Slate and the Washington Post have interesting new article summarizing recent social science research showing that voters tend to be highly biased in their evaluation of political information. Voters tend to overvalue the importance of new information that supports their preexisting views or makes their preferred party look good; and they tend to discount any information that cuts the other way. As the Slate article puts it:

This has nothing to do with ideology. Politics isn't about ideology. It's about joining a team, and we judge fairness as partisans. In 1951, Princeton and Dartmouth students watched a film of a football game and were asked to take note of foul play. Princeton stalwarts saw all the penalties that should have been called on the Dartmouth players. Dartmouth students were convinced the refs missed clips and offsides committed by the Princeton players.

We judge politics the same way—as team members, not truth-seekers. Last week the Washington Post reported on a slew of experiments showing that political misinformation feeds people's pre-existing beliefs.

These findings - and the sports analogy that goes with them - are not new. I summarized earlier findings of this type in a 2006 article in which I similarly compared political partisans to sports fans.

The interesting question is why voters behave like biased sports fans instead of trying to evaluate new political information in an unbiased way. After all, isn't politics far more important than sports, deserving of a more serious effort to get at the truth?

The answer I gave in the article is that political fans are similar to sports fans in so far as both have little or no incentive to be truth-seekers. Because there is little or no chance that your vote will be decisive in an election, voters whose only reason to acquire political information is to do a better job of choosing the "right" candidate tend to be "rationally ignorant." Those who do acquire political information are likely to do so for other reasons - reasons that have little to do with truth-seeking. Here's a brief relevant excerpt from the article (pp. 260-61):

[T]he theory of rational ignorance does not predict that voters will choose not to acquire any information at all. Rather it predicts that they will acquire very little or no information for purposes of voting However, some voters will acquire information for other reasons....

A useful analogy is to sports fans. Fans who acquire extensive knowledge of their favorite teams and players do not do so because they can thereby influence the outcome of games. They do it because it increases the enjoyment they get from rooting for their favorite teams. But if many of the citizens who acquire significant amounts of political knowledge do so primarily for reasons other than becoming a better voter, it is possible that they will acquire the knowledge that is of little use for voting, or will fail to use the knowledge they do have in the right way.

Here again, a sports analogy may be helpful. Committed Red Sox fans who passionately root against the Yankees are unlikely to evaluate the evidence about these teams objectively. The authors of one recent history of the Red Sox and Yankees note that they chose not to write "a fair and balanced look at the Red Sox-Yankees 'rivalry,'" because "neither author of this book wanted to represent the Yankees [sic] point of view. . . . Neither of us could bring ourselves to say enough complimentary things about [the Yankees] to fill the back of a matchbox, let alone half a book" (Nowlin and Prime 2004, 4). . . Similarly, Democratic partisans who hate George W. Bush, and Republicans who reflexively support him against all criticism, might well want to acquire information in order to augment the experience of cheering on their preferred political "team." If this is indeed their goal, neither group is likely to evaluate Bush's performance in office objectively or accurately.

This intuition is confirmed by studies showing that people tend to use new information to reinforce their preexisting views on political issues, while discounting evidence that runs counter to them . . . Although some scholars view such bias as potentially irrational behavior . . . , it is perfectly rational if the goal is not to get at the "truth" of a given issue in order to be a better voter, but to enjoy the psychic benefits of being a political "fan."

Candidates and the media understand the biases of "political fans" and often exploit them for their own benefit.

How do we get out of the dangerous box in which public policy is determined in elections where most voters are either rationally ignorant about even basic political information or highly biased in their evaluation of what they do know? There is no easy answer to that question. In the article linked above and in some of my other scholarship (e.g. - here), I suggest that we consider making fewer decisions through the political system and more through free markets and civil society - where people have much stronger incentives to both seek out information and evaluate it at least somewhat rationally.

Visitor Again:
Good effort to deflect criticism of the Republicans for the unholy mess they've made of things. Bias or not, Ilya, shit is shit.
9.25.2008 1:39am
Ilya Somin:
Good effort to deflect criticism of the Republicans for the unholy mess they've made of things.

Nothing in this post says anything positive about the Republicans - or any party for that matter. In addition, if I were somehow trying to make the Republican Party look good, I wouldn't have just devoted a whole series of posts to attacking the Republican administration's massive bailout plan.
9.25.2008 1:44am
timd:
Politics, like sports, is inherently social. The reason that people are active politically is *usually* (and mostly) in order to be around people that they want to be around and to have those people like them.

Interpreting new information in a way that is favorable to the group probably increases group cohesion and increases the belonging-ness of the person doing the interpreting.

Being a truth-seeker is lonely...
9.25.2008 1:45am
Nate in Alice:
It certainly makes the whole thing more exciting.....and as someone who doesn't get sports, I'm glad the competitiveness in politics is so important.
9.25.2008 2:01am
richard cabeza:
Good effort to deflect criticism of the Republicans for the unholy mess they've made of things.

Yeah, stupid Republicans and their socialist causes, getting government to force subprime lending in order to wipe out illusury usury.
9.25.2008 2:07am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Is there any research at all that suggests that people whose loyalty to their side is arbitrary or "rationally ignorant" bias their evaluation of incoming information any differently from those who take sides out of genuine cognizance of their rational self-interest? And if not, then isn't your leap from "bias in evaluating incoming information" to "being rationally ignorant in choosing a side" entirely unwarranted?

For example, if one had a perfectly rational, well-understood interest in the correctness of a theory that one had repeatedly espoused, that meshed well with one's overall philosophy, and on which one had partially based one's career, mightn't one evaluate incoming neutral information as confirming one's theory, when in fact it did no such thing--just as if one were "rationally ignorant" and had chosen sides arbitrarily?
9.25.2008 2:21am
John Moore (www):
There is also the normal human error of confirmation bias. It's hardly news that people rate confirmatory information higher than contradictory data.
9.25.2008 2:22am
astrangerwithcandy (mail):

Good effort to deflect criticism of the Republicans for the unholy mess they've made of things. Bias or not, Ilya, shit is shit.


gotta be sarcasm.
9.25.2008 2:23am
CB55 (mail):
Several muggings by trusted state officials is enough to make a masochist bias.
9.25.2008 2:52am
Visitor Again:
Hmmm, I wonder whether judges and jurors are exempt from this phenomenon. Do they process information according to their preconceptions, or not? Of course they do; everyone does, not only with respect to sports and politics but with respect to EVERYTHING. Tell us something new, Ilya. I stand by my first comment. I don't doubt you have criticisms of the solutions so far put forward. I'm talking about the whole mess, not the bona fides of a particular solution.
9.25.2008 3:27am
Visitor Again:
And by the way, Ilya, do you think I--and every other interested person, milions of persons--didn't KNOW 50 years ago what you now posit? Do you think we were morons before surveys undertook a particular question? I know you are a lot younger than a lot of us here--a mere 40 or less, I'd say--and I know you came from some Eastern European country, but it ill behooves you to think that those of us in the U.S.A. long before you were complete idiots who did not realize that pre-existing views affect their current views. Please, treat us with respect.
9.25.2008 3:38am
David Warner:
Ilya,

"I suggest that we consider making fewer decisions through the political system and more through free markets and civil society - where people have much stronger incentives to both seek out information and evaluate it at least somewhat rationally."

a) I concur wholeheartedly.

b) How do I distinguish your suggestion from mere cheerleading for our (libertarian) team?
9.25.2008 3:39am
astrangerwithcandy (mail):

And by the way, Ilya, do you think I--and every other interested person, milions of persons--didn't KNOW 50 years ago what you now posit? Do you think we were morons before surveys undertook a particular question? I know you are a lot younger than a lot of us here--a mere 40 or less, I'd say--and I know you came from some Eastern European country, but it ill behooves you to think that those of us in the U.S.A. long before you were complete idiots who did not realize that pre-existing views affect their current views. Please, treat us with respect.


wow. not sarcasm. angry. bitter. aggressive. but no sarcasm. blows me away (though thats not saying much).
9.25.2008 3:47am
Alan Gunn (mail):
Indiana is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. I've lived here for nineteen years and have seen no ideological difference at all between Indiana Democrats and Indiana Republicans. Our senators, for instance, are Bayh and Lugar, whose positions on almost all issues were the same (until Bayh started pretending to be a leftist when seeking the presidential or VP nomination). Yet many people are passionate fans of one or the other party, and issues like whether we should go on daylight time--which has nothing to do with left/right--get decided on nearly party-line votes. Even local elections, where there are no ideological issues--just who can run the place less inefficiently--attract mostly party-line votes. It's astonishing. So is the fact that so many academics whose work deals with policy issues are members of political parties, a sure sign that their work will not be impartial.
9.25.2008 9:09am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I don't follow sports except those in which I participated when younger, which happen to be about as obscure as can be imagined. So I don't follow sports.
But the sports analogy fails. Citizens have an additional concern about politics.
Whether your team wins or loses means you get to be cheerful or morose when discussing the subject on Monday at work.
Citizens look at political issues with the knowledge that the outcome may have considerably more effect on them, considerably more, than whether they can gloat on Monday.
When Reagan was first elected president, our area voted for him. A UAW biggie was interviewed about the question. Well, he said, if it hadn't been for foreign policy, the economy, and crime, the union guys would have voted dem.
IOW, the lumpen you love to hate voted for their own interests as opposed to going with Their Kind.
Neither the first nor the last time.
9.25.2008 9:13am
richard cabeza:
Even local elections, where there are no ideological issues--just who can run the place less inefficiently--attract mostly party-line votes. It's astonishing.

That's one office among many in the election, yes? It's my experience that there are only a handful of candidates about which you know anything, so party lines are the best information to use. Sometimes someone's singled out for acting very unlike their party or for being vocal for the right things (certain local judges and state senators here come to mind), but that's rare.

What I mean to say is that it's very hard to be an informed voter, and even when you are you have little to rely on but voluntary associations (political parties) to act as stump blurbs.
9.25.2008 9:22am
Nebuchanezzar (mail):
This practice of "rooting for the team" in politics (aka partisanship) is not surprising. It's human nature as other commenters point out.

More interesting to me are the cases where people switch their political team. How and when can non-conforming facts and ideas break through confirmation bias and make a person change their views?

Mainly it seems to be dramatic events (either personal or on the national stage) that cause a jump. Anecdotally, I'm aware of a lot of people who changed their political views and/or "team" after 9/11. Major life changes also seem to do it -- e.g. a lot of folks seem to switch sides when they leave school and start working full-time. Similarly, I've seen a number of seniors go from Republican to Democrat once they retired and became concerned about medical care.

Absent those dramatic events or major life changes, it seems there is nothing to "political thought" except pulling for the team.
9.25.2008 9:25am
John Burgess (mail) (www):
An interesting book on the topic is True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, by Barhad Manjoo. The book is flawed, but he provides some good examples, from conspiracy theories to politics (if these actually differ).
9.25.2008 10:31am
Al (mail):

Both Slate and the Washington Post have interesting new article summarizing recent social science research showing that voters tend to be highly biased in their evaluation of political information. Voters tend to overvalue the importance of new information that supports their preexisting views or makes their preferred party look good; and they tend to discount any information that cuts the other way.


Of course,the fact that journalists at the Washington Post, NYT, LAT, NBC, ABC, CBS, NPR, Time, Newsweek, etc. lean overwhelmingly to the left is not a problem and does not impact how they present the news because they are able to put their biases aside, unlike the rest of us.
9.25.2008 10:34am
John from Dallas:
Timid: "Being a truth-seeker is lonely..."

I think this nails it, but I would go one step further. Being a truth-seeker is antisocial behavior. To seek the truth, one must challenge all assumptions, including those advocated by your social group. Anyone willing to engage in such an endeavor will find that many of the "facts" argued by his social group are not true and will have antagonized his social group for merely questioning those assumptions, even when the assumptions are ultimately confirmed.
9.25.2008 10:35am
Sk (mail):
Frankly, I think you are wrong (or, at best, partially right).

Human beings may be truth seekers, even in politics. Its simply that it is impossible to get to the truth.

Hypothetical: President Bush announces a new policy in Iraq.
Fox News reports that its a good policy that will lead to peace.
CBS reports that its a hopeless attempt to save a hopeless situation.

Which one is 'true'? The politically active voter has no way of determining that. Reading alot, or watching alot of news, or whatever method you come up with will not expose the voter to 'right' answers (or, rather, answers that the voter knows are right). If I read 6 articles and watch 4 newshows about the same subject, and get a spread of opinions (say, 6 in favor of Bush, 4 opposed), do I now know the 'truth'? Of course not, because there is obviously a difference of opinion, even among experts, and besides, I as a viewer know that each of those 10 experts has his own personal bias that will affect his interpretation of the issue.

In short, I think you are discounting the fact that politics isn't math or logic, and the 'truth' in politics is often either unknown or impossible to determine.

Voters know that, and are thus, from an absolute-truth perspective, entirely justified in listening to what agrees with their preconceptions, while downplaying that which doesn't.

Sk
9.25.2008 10:40am
richard cabeza:
Al, no that's not it. There's just no bias at all. Such perceptions simply "stem from the proliferation of politically charged radio talk shows and television analysis programs, which viewers and listeners 'mistake' for journalism."

You see, people are just too ignorant to read conclusions of their own. They turn to "pundits" and "talking heads" and "bloggers" who mix opinions and ungood eventdata, and they just can't separate out what's going on. It's a good thing that reliable institutions like the Washington Post exist to feed the proles realfact.
9.25.2008 10:43am
Sarcastro (www):
Truth seekers are such noble and rare creatures! I'm thrilled to be in the presence of such awesome mavericks on this blog.

I, alas, am like most people and don't seek the truth at all. I picked a side and just bask in the sample bias. This, of course, makes me super popular.
9.25.2008 10:50am
The Oracle of Syracuse:
I wonder which team most of the MSM are on.
9.25.2008 10:53am
Sarcastro (www):
Also, the opinion page of a newspaper is exactly like the front page! There is no objectivity, only postmodern hermeneutics!

That's why I never trust anything I read - it's all biased lies!

I've solved so many confusing problems by rejecting the "em-ess-em."
9.25.2008 10:56am
Frog Leg (mail):
It sounds like the author of the Slate article was not immune to this bias:


Princeton stalwarts saw all the penalties that should have been called on the Dartmouth players. Dartmouth students were convinced the refs missed clips and offsides committed by the Princeton players.


The Princeton people saw real penalties, while the Dartmouth students were merely convinced that penalties occurred the other way. The writer must have been a Princeton alum (poor sap).
9.25.2008 11:20am
Shertaugh:
Politics is tribal. And members of the tribe, particularly leaders, will acknowledge error or change at the margin. But that's it. The idea is to retain power/land/food sources/water access/etc. Seems to me, at least.
9.25.2008 11:22am
richard cabeza:
Sarcastro,
Also, the opinion page of a newspaper is exactly like the front page! There is no objectivity, only postmodern hermeneutics!

God, it's people like you that make facsists fabricate polls that indicate people have no critical thinking skills. Don't you know that the opinion page is written about thoughts, whereas the front page is about events? Obviously the opinion page has greater Truth because it is a first-hand account of first-hand thoughts.

From the OP:
Voters tend to overvalue the importance of new information that supports their preexisting views or makes their preferred party look good; and they tend to discount any information that cuts the other way.

This is a tautology. Politics is like sports because only the viewer can decide the True rightness, or "spin", of the situation (it's all very complicated, please read Einstein if you're interested in Quantum Moral Relativity). If what you see exists, then external bias is meaningless! Quod erat diddlyum.
9.25.2008 11:40am
Omnipresent Specter:
Richard Cabeza- As noted by the WSJ, even the Washington Post discredits itself to promote its liberal bias. Last week John McCain's campaign put out an ad criticizing Barack Obama for his ties to Franklin Raines, former CEO of Fannie Mae. The ad said that Obama relies on Raines "for 'advice on mortgage and housing policy.'" The Washington Post claims that the McCain ad is "a stretch":

So what evidence does the McCain campaign have for the supposed Obama-Raines connection? It is pretty flimsy, but it is not made up completely out of whole cloth. McCain spokesman Brian Rogers points to three items in the Washington Post in July and August. It turns out that the three items (including an editorial) all rely on the same single conversation, between Raines and a Washington Post business reporter, Anita Huslin, who wrote a profile of the discredited Fannie Mae boss that appeared July 16. The profile reported that Raines, who retired from Fannie Mae four years ago, had "taken calls from Barack Obama's presidential campaign seeking his advice on mortgage and housing policy matters."

So the Washington Post is saying you can't believe McCain's ad because it is based on reporting in . . . the Washington Post. The Washington Post is not a reliable source of information, according to the Washington Post.
9.25.2008 11:45am
p. rich (mail) (www):
"I suggest that we consider making fewer decisions through the political system and more through free markets and civil society"

Which pretty much describes a basic tenet (or two) of conservatism. Good luck, because there is a major political party with a communist-socialist philosophy that has been pushing in the opposite direction for 80 years or more. Today we call them liberal-progressives. Semantics is a wonderful thing.
9.25.2008 12:15pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I am sure that there are political independents out there, but we just don't hear them that much. Surely not in any medium of very great distribution. I see myself knee jerking to one side, as I see others knee jerking to the other. If you start with the proposition that your guy is good, and the other is evil incarnate, then everything that either side does is colored by our respective biases.
9.25.2008 12:57pm
plutosdad (mail):
"Citizens look at political issues with the knowledge that the outcome may have considerably more effect on them"

Yes but what do most of us do to effect that outcome? Our one vote barely makes a difference, which I think is the underlying point. If I wanted to bring about what I think is the best course of action I wouldn't simply think about things and vote, I'd join an organization or try to convince others.

(Any by trying to convince others I don't mean shouting at work how half the country are "stupid" and "morons" like my boss does).
9.25.2008 1:12pm
TCO:
I have observed this aenecdotally as well. For instance, climate skeptics will giggle and cheer Climate Audit, but make little effort to parse some questionable statements. And the same happens in reverse for "defenders" (to wit Tamino's Open Mind site, which did an explication of PCA short centering, but failed to really consider the posiitons, rather just reiterating a "Team" defense"). Same thing tends to happen on political sites.

It takes a rare person to parse and question their own side. For instance, I LOVE Sarah Palin. But I would still sleep easier with a paternity test for Trig, proving she's the mother. I think she is. I want her to be. But I would just like even better to have proof.
9.25.2008 1:17pm
Pep rally for the override:
I would suggest that it's the participation that makes things more social and educated. We have friends over every week for the football game. I am not a huge sports fan but love having the friends over. I learn a lot about the game and teams from them as as result.

If I went to a Town Hall meeting or local political discussion group every week, or had to vote on something significant every month or so, I'd end up learning things that otherwise I would not be exposed to, or feel that I have any choice in the matter.
9.25.2008 1:18pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
plutosdad
I vote, among other things, because a million guys died to preserve that right.
I vote because nobody can tell me that my effort is so small I shouldn't be making it.
I vote because I may have an effect.
And this discussion does not exclude other activities.
9.25.2008 1:22pm
commontheme (mail):
I am afraid I have to agree with this post and admit that my bias controls how I see things.

I have always thought that witch hunts and belief in witches is laughably stupid. When I read that Sarah Palin's pastor has engaged in actual witch hunts in Africa, I immediately assumed the was crazy as a lavatory mouse.

Then when I saw the video of Sarah Palin standing in front of her church while her pastor prayed to protect her from witches, I then immediately assumed she, too, was unqualified to hold any position of responsibility.

I will try to be more open minded about witches.
9.25.2008 1:46pm
josh:
Al:

"Of course,the fact that journalists at the Washington Post, NYT, LAT, NBC, ABC, CBS, NPR, Time, Newsweek, etc. lean overwhelmingly to the left is not a problem and does not impact how they present the news because they are able to put their biases aside, unlike the rest of us."

I wonder if these studies challenge that assertion somehow. The alleged bias may be a result of the refusal to recognize facts and become more entrenched in one's beliefs. Support the war? Then, certainly, any stories about violence in Iraq shows liberal media bias and enforces one's support. Oppose the surge? Then stories reporting decreased violence entrench one's belief that ethnic cleansing, and not 30,000 additional US troops, was the cause.

I think this study goes to reader bias, not reporter bias.
9.25.2008 1:53pm
richard cabeza:
I wonder if these studies challenge that assertion somehow. The alleged bias may be a result of the refusal to recognize facts and become more entrenched in one's beliefs.

Like I said, it's not the newspapers that are "wrong", it's that you see enemies everywhere. Phlebitis is sure to follow.

Similarly, when newspapers report government officials' criminal conduct, it isn't that they never mention when the party affiliation is Democrat, it's just that Democrats are usually liberal and liberals are just good people. Why bring down the name of the Party when goodfact is just as not ungood?
9.25.2008 2:07pm
JBL:
Are there studies of bias among people who bet on sports? There's money at stake, so there's an incentive to get better information.

That may or may not be a better analogy to the political situation. The insignificance of individual votes isn't the only factor in rational ignorance. Group membership increases political power, and has many benefits - it helps rent-seeking, the existing support base makes it easier to enact policies, etc. So the sports analogy isn't exact (few analogies are; that's why they're analogies). But it does serve to illustrate the power of bias, which (though not new) is certainly a relevant point.

I would guess that even people who bet on sports are not completely unbiased, but they probably use a different filter.
9.25.2008 2:14pm
Aultimer:
I really like IS's rational ignorance model for politics, but Timd and John from Dallas hit the nail on the head. Groupthink is a kind of rational ignorance I guess.
9.25.2008 2:31pm
TCO:
I trust the market valuation of current debt more than I do the political guys like Bernanke and Paulson (who have already been wrong, been hopeful, failed to speak honestly about dangers, etc.)
9.25.2008 2:45pm
Wince and Nod (mail) (www):
Frederick Pohl said we should rely on juries for more political decisions.

Yours,
Wince
9.25.2008 2:53pm
Al (mail):
josh,

I don't necessarily disagree with you, but it's not an either/or issue. Like media consumers, journalists are likely to value and interpret information based upon whether or not it reinforces their existing beliefs. The problem arises when those journalists largely share those same beliefs.
9.25.2008 3:18pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Al.
And, when pressed, insist those are the Right beliefs. Foolish to question them.
9.25.2008 10:40pm