Friday, October 12, 2012

Counter-arguing the fact checkers

Since it is the political silly season and much of the silliness is only possible because of the foibles of human cognition, I thought I would dedicate this post to our repeated inconsistencies when it comes to information processing about our preferred candidates and issues.  Some of this is based on a recent Timemagazine article that got me thinking about it.

I think this is a particularly important topic because of the growth industry in fact checking.  Most of the mass media now have their cadre of fact checkers rating political ads, sound bites, and debate speeches.  “Four Pinocchios” or “misleading” or even “liar, liar, pants on fire.” 

So why hasn’t all of the fact checking led to more honest politicians?  Aren’t they worried about being called a liar on the national news?  No, actually they are not.  And with good reason.  Precious few in the electorate is swayed by it.  Why not?   It is the usual culprits – cognitive dissonance, loss-aversion, self-identity, and confirmation bias.

Here is just a simple example of what I am talking about.  In 2006, researchers at Georgia State conducted a study where they brought in liberal and conservative voters.  They gave them an article outlining how President Bush claimed his 2003 tax cuts increased government tax revenue and then the proof that it hadn’t.  So what happened in the minds of the voters?  Of course the liberal voters accepted that President Bush’s claim was false.  But not only were the conservative voters unswayed, they were even more sure that he was right after reading that he wasn’t.  The same thing happened in reverse for an article about a John Kerry claim that Bush had banned stem cell research.

So what happened?  These are not opinions - these are facts!!  And yet we disregard them to our own ignorance. The process is actually straightforward.  Take the first case – the conservative voter and the Bush tax cuts.

1.  As a conservative voter, I like Bush and the tax cuts.  It becomes part of my self-identity.
2.  I hear something I want to believe.  It is easy to incorporate this into my worldview and strengthen its contribution to my self-identity. 
3.  I hear that the claim is false.  This is not only contradictory to what I thought, it is threatening.  It goes how I thought the world worked (cognitive dissonance).  It goes against who I am (self-identity).  It implies that my previous opinions, statements, and votes were wrong (loss-aversion). 
4.  So I engage in some simple self-protection counter-arguing.  I can either change my world view and my self-identity or I can find a reason not to believe the counterfactual.  It is a biased media.  Their data is flawed.  They didn’t report the whole story. 

Some mediating variables:
1.  Ironically, the more informed the voters were, the more susceptible they were to this.  They had more ammunition to counter-argue with. 
2.  Perhaps not ironically, the more self-confidence the voters had, the less susceptible they were.  When the researchers (in a follow up study) made their participants feel good about themselves before asking, they were more likely to believe the falseness of the original claim.
3.  It also depends on who is making the counterclaim.  When it was Fox News that reported the claim was false, the conservative voters had a harder time counter-arguing.  So they were more influenced by the report.

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