The Irrational Tribalism of Partisan Politics

NPR demonstrates perfectly how a simplistic psychological tribalism is at work when most people think about politics. And the polls show this on nearly every issue, changing our answers to questions depending on whether it helps or hurts the party we identify with:

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn’t an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard…

Along with Jason Reifler at Georgia State University, Nyhan said, he’s exploring the possibility that partisans reject facts because they produce cognitive dissonance — the psychological experience of having to hold inconsistent ideas in one’s head. When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices — the information challenges their dislike of the president.

That’s exactly what it is, I think, and many psychological studies show that it’s nearly ubiquitous. That’s why I used the word “we” above, because none of us are immune to it — though we often act as though only those we disagree with could possibly be so inconsistent. Probably no one avoids it entirely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better about it. We can learn to be more skeptical and rational by being aware of those biases and by asking ourselves questions about our own motivation. Some of us are better at it than others, and better at it in some circumstances than others; we all have our blind spots.

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