Hearing what we want to hear

Yale law study indicates that our political views get in the way of our ability to think critically

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Politics turns our brains into mush. And that’s science.

OK, it’s a little more nuanced than that. Consider a study led by Yale law Professor Dan Kahan titled “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government.” Sounds like a real page-turner.

Kahan’s research team surveyed a sampling of 1,111 U.S. adults, testing them on their math skills and asking them about their political views. The subjects were then presented with a set of fake survey results to correctly interpret. Some were told the results were from a study on the effectiveness of a skin rash treatment. While others were told that the very same numbers came from a study of gun bans in U.S. cities.

When it came to crunching skin rash results, subjects’ success depended mostly on their math abilities. But when it came to gun control, political views got in the way. Subjects came up with much different answers to the same questions, depending on their views. And in the most surprising result, even those people with the best math skills flunked questions when the right answer conflicted with their politics. In fact, the higher subjects’ “numeracy” abilities, the more likely it was that they got it wrong. It was true of both liberals and conservatives.

See? Like I said, mush.


Hey, let’s do a quick study of our own.

Question 1. Rain begins to fall and President Obama offers you an umbrella. How do you respond?

A. Say thank you and take the umbrella.

B. Stand silently in awe of the president’s eloquence and commitment to fighting climate change.

C. Make it clear that no socialist is going to deny your God-given right to be wet, and vow to repeal Umbrellacare.

Question 2. Rep. Steve King of Iowa is a crossing guard at a busy intersection. He gives you a “don’t walk” hand signal.

A. Stay put until he signals that it’s OK to cross.

B. Stride straight into traffic on your cantaloupe calves in solidarity with those who have risked it all to cross the border.

C. Take King’s obvious, unspoken cue and begin demanding that everyone at the corner provide proof of citizenship before crossing.

How did you do? You don’t have to say.

Kahan’s real study has been greeted with wails and lamentations on how these results kill the lofty notion that if we just provide voters with all the best evidence and information available, they’ll make the best decisions. Instead, we all hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest, as a couple of guys from Queens once put it. Those irrational, “low-information” voters that both sides like to beat up on are actually selective information voters, and they’re in both camps.

For anybody who watches politics closely, this was really no surprise at all. People who shape and run campaigns already know this stuff, and they tailor messages and strategies to take advantage.

Campaigns’ TV ads mostly are crafted to inflame the passions of a candidate’s or party’s supporters and maybe dishearten their opponents. Most spots, mailings, etc., are about motivating, not convincing. Turning out yours and prompting theirs to stay home are far more important strategic goals than providing evidence that your policy positions are sound.


That’s also why fact-checking is such a futile exercise. A candidate can go out and say pretty much anything, be confronted with clear evidence to the contrary, and feel almost no need to take it back. So long as his supporters find it compelling, and so long as they can find other sources, even dubious ones, that say it’s right, there’s no reason to let honesty get in the way of a compelling message. Why get mired in substance when “death panels” will do?

There’s not much reason to prove much of anything anymore. Folks clamoring for evidence or details probably are your opponents, or, at least, can be easily depicted as your opponents. Even actual elections don't mean much if you can find some new opinion polling that helps you justify ignoring a previous, clear voter verdict. And you always can.

I can’t help but wonder how social media affects all this. Staking out our views so strongly in public would seem to make altering those views or changing our minds more difficult. And so much of the stuff you see on Facebook and comment threads is designed to gloat, goad and belittle. Persuasion largely has been abandoned.


This is a tricky time to be in the opinions business, obviously. I write about partisan political issues when I have something to say, not because I necessarily expect to change a bunch of minds. If that actually happens, great. I certainly try to make a persuasive argument, but I know my chances of denting the high stone walls of dogma are very slim.

That doesn’t mean we should just stop trying. Look, for instance, at how far the marriage equality issue has come in just a few years. There are times when reality undermines even strongly held views to such an extent that people have no choice but to re-evaluate.

So, despite all the evidence, I can be persuaded that it’s not hopeless. Yeah, I know. Mush.

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