What can we do against political polarization?
Source: Mariam El AICHAOUI. Committee. [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons
We live in an unbalanced world – personally, politically, economically and environmentally. Falling into political polarization, Americans reacted defensively, attacking “the other side” instead of working together to solve our problems.
One of the reasons for this polarization is what psychologists call the “confirmation biasIn which our beliefs and emotions cloud our perception, causing us to interpret information to match our expectations (Evans, 2016; Nickerson, 1998). Too often we see what we want to see, what we fear see, or what we hope to see instead of what’s really there.
The confirmation bias undermines our relationships, our work efficiency and our ability to solve problems both personally and politically.
As early as the 17th century, Francis Bacon (1620) recognized this tendency, calling our prejudices “The four idols”. He identified them as Cave Idols (prejudice based on personal experience), Tribe (prejudice based on the limits of human senses and emotional responses), Theater (prejudice based on our belief systems) and the Market (prejudice based on responses to words and symbols).
For years, studies of confirmation bias have shown how our underlying expectations shape our perception of reality (Nickerson, 1998). For example, people assigned intelligence and children’s educational success according to the socioeconomic status of their parents (Darley and Gross, 1983). And today, receiving our news from a single cable television channel inevitably shapes our perception of the news.
Confirmation bias raises a serious question: if we see our world through lenses colored by our expectations, how can we understand and solve the complex problems of our time?
One answer comes from two studies at the University of Illinois. Researchers Ivan Hernandez and Jesse Lee Preston (2013) asked study participants to read political and legal texts either in Times New Roman or in a difficult-to-read and dysfluid version (in an unknown font or a weakly legible, degraded by successive photocopies). They found that the effort required to read the material in the dysfluid text made the participants slow down, producing a more careful and thoughtful examination of the material. Instead of responding with confirmation bias, participants made more use of their higher-level cognitive abilities.
According to the researchers, the “results suggest that changing the style of presenting an argument may lead to a change in attitude, favoring a more complete consideration of opposing views” (Hernandez & Preston, 2013, p. 178 ).
Other studies may offer additional information, revealing the different areas of the brain involved. But from this study, we can see that slowing down concentration can help us overcome confirmation bias.
Maybe the next time you find yourself facing a burning political issue, or someone with opposing views, you could try slowing down to focus and engage your higher-level cognitive resources.