This post is part of an ongoing series looking at the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.
It’s often said that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become a “master” at a skill.
While that principle isn’t scientific fact, the general idea of “practice makes perfect” applies in forming our political opinions over time. Not that time necessarily hones our opinions towards being more correct. Rather, it tends to codify our views, and make us increasingly certain of our position, right or wrong.
Earlier in this series, I argued that our genes provide a robust first draft for our political attitudes and behaviors. But genes can only go so far. Over time, this “first draft” is either hardened, broken or left untouched by political information that we may or may not receive along the way.
Take someone who is predisposed to having a liberal ideology and who grows up in rural Tennessee. Chances are, their first “more liberal” draft doesn’t get reinforced over time — their family and friends tend to be more conservative, and they are eventually socialized into being just as conservative as everyone else around them.
The same is true for a predisposed conservative growing up in Portland, Oregon. All things being equal, their natural predisposition may lead them to seek out, or be sympathetic to, confirming information, but only if it is available. Over enough time and with enough confirming information, ideology hardens into frames that accept or reject new information; colloquially, we become “set in our ways.”
This is exacerbated by the oft-discussed rise in echo-chamber news (e.g., partisan news channels like Fox or MSNBC, or partisan blogs). With broader, cheaper and easier access to confirming information, it becomes easier to harden political attitudes over time. Information consumers tend to seek out information that confirms what they already know; when that information is readily available we are able to tell ourselves that we are right, over and over again, and each successive piece of information further solidifies our particular set of neural networks (this is why priming “Democrat” with “bad” will have different effects on different people).
We like being right, we don’t like being wrong; and this is true beyond our conscious evaluations of correct and incorrect. One study showed that levels of testosterone in male voters were affected by whether or not their candidate won. As the New York Times reported:
…the male McCain voters “felt significantly more controlled, submissive, unhappy and unpleasant.” The testosterone effect was “as if they directly engaged head-to-head in a contest for dominance” and lost, one researcher told a reporter when the study was published in 2009. The men who voted for Obama fared better. The researchers speculated that there might be an Obama baby boom.
Politics is more than an individual pursuit. With high stakes and clearly-defined opponents, we place a high premium on being on the winning team, both in arguments and in elections. By arming ourselves with “correct” information and rejecting “incorrect” information, our political attitudes are socialized, or solidified, over time.
So what about moderates? With the increasing number of self-identified Independents, it would seem that there are a growing number of people who are lukewarm, or indifferent, on a wide range of issues.
Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, points out that while an increasing number of people self-report as Independents, less than ten percent of our population actually lacks a partisan lean, and a large portion of that group doesn’t vote. Moreover, when true Independents do vote, they tend to be uninformed:
While undecided voters are a tad more informed than that, the principle remains: In the heat of a presidential election, how the can you make it through months and months of information without forming an opinion, unless you either avoid/ignore such information, or are too confused by it to understand it? Given the amount of information available, and the stark differences both in ideology and tone of the information, how can one be both informed and neutral. In American politics, if you don’t have an opinion, you probably haven’t been paying very close attention.
This is further backed up by Abramowitz’s findings which show that political debates tend to confirm, rather than change, positions held by their viewers. Since partisans are more likely to engage in the political process by watching a debate, the debate is less likely to change minds. Instead, debates serve to educate partisans on their candidate’s positions. Moreover, the “winner” and “loser” are rarely declared based on facts or issues.
You’ll recall that after the first debate in the 2012 cycle, President Obama was declared the loser because he was “flat,” “moody” and “aloof,” but not because he was necessarily “wrong.” In fact, many on the left thought Mitt Romney outright lied during the first debate, but we still felt that Romney won and Obama lost (probably, in part, because many worry that anyone who’s independent that late in the race is seriously uninformed, and thus prone to believe the lies).
You can check out how strongly-held some of your own latent biases are at Project Implicit.