This year’s presidential election may ultimately be decided in the US Supreme Court. What could drive the election to the high court is a term everyone who plans to vote needs to become versed in. That term is “confirmation bias”.
Confirmation bias is defined as the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, or recall information in a way that confirms a person’s preexisting beliefs or ideas, while at the same time, giving much less consideration to alternative possibilities.
Understanding this process is critical because the biases that can effect belief interpretation are persistent, regardless of a person’s intelligence level. You can find this discussed at length on Wikipedia where a study of confirmation bias as it relates to an earlier presidential election, the 2004 race between then George W. Bush and John Kerry was outlined in detail.
The study utilized participants who said they held strong feelings about the presidential candidates (not unlike the election we have taking place today). These participants were shown what were apparently contradictory pairs of statements, from Bush, Kerry, or a third (politically neutral) public figure.
The participants were also given further statements that made these apparent contradictions seem reasonable. From these three pieces of information, each participant had to decide whether or not each candidate’s statements were inconsistent.
The reaction involved strong differences in the evaluations, with the participants more likely to interpret statements from the candidate they opposed as contradictory.
What was interesting, is that during this experiment, the participants made their judgments while in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner which monitored their brain activity.
As they evaluated contradictory statements by their preferred candidate, the emotional centers of their brains were aroused. This did not happen with the statements by the other candidates.
It was inferred that the different responses to these statements were not due to passive reasoning errors. But rather, to each participant actively reducing the cognitive dissonance created in their mind when they read about their preferred candidate’s irrational or hypocritical behavior.
Ultimately the participants in these tests held strong differences in their evaluations (and opinions) and were much more likely to interpret statements from the candidate they opposed as contradictory.
Doe any of this strike a chord with what you are hearing in regard to this year’s election? I thought it might.
The battle for the voter’s mind has never been more fierce. Confirmation bias will keep ardent supporters of each party or candidate on track. The real battle will be those few who still can be swayed from one side to another – or persuaded to vote third party – or not at all. It’s a delicate mix creating a complex equation of demographics, psychology, inspiration and fear.
And while everyone is focused on the general election. This election, much like the year 2000, may very well be decided in the electoral college – and if questions remain – ultimately by the US supreme court.