Bounded rationality, unbounded out-group hate

By popular demand & for a change of pace … a guest post from someone who actually knows what the hell he or she is talking about!

Thanks Dan K for giving me the chance to post here.  Apologies – or warning at least – the content, tone etc might be different from what’s typical of this blog.  Rather than fake a Kahan-style piece,[1] I thought it best to just do my thing.  Though there might be some DK similarity or maybe even influence.  (I too appreciate the exclamation pt!)

Like Dan, and likely most/all readers of this blog, I am puzzled by persistent disagreement on facts.  It also puzzles me that this disagreement often leads to hard feelings.  We get mad at – and often end up disliking – each other when we disagree.  Actually this is likely a big part of the explanation for persistent disagreement; we can’t talk about things like climate change and learn from each other as much as we could/should – we know this causes trouble so we just avoid the topics. We don’t talk about politics at dinner etc.  Or when we do talk we get mad quickly and don’t listen/learn.  So understanding this type of anger is crucial for understanding communication.

It’s well known, and academically verified, that this is indeed what’s happened in party politics in the US in recent decades – opposing partisans actually dislike each other more than ever.  The standard jargon for this now is ‘affective polarization’.  Actually looks like this is the type of polarization where the real action is since it’s much less clear to what extent we’ve polarized re policy/ideology preferences- though it is clear that politician behavior has diverged – R’s and D’s in Congress vote along opposing party lines more and more over time.  For anyone who doubts this, take a look at the powerful graphic in inset to the left, stolen from this recent article.

So—why do we hate each other so much?

Full disclosure, I’m an outsider to this topic.  I’m an economist by training, affiliation, methods.  Any clarification/feedback on what I say here is very

The fingerprint(s) of polarization in Congress….


Anyway my take from the outside is the poli-sci papers on this topic focus on two things, “social distance” and new media.  Social distance is the social-psych idea that we innately dislike those we feel more “distance” from (which can be literal or figurative).  Group loyalty, tribalism etc.  Maybe distance between partisans has grown as partisan identities have strengthened and/or because of gridlock in DC and/or real/perceived growth in the ideological gap between parties.  New media includes all sorts of things, social media, blogs, cable news, political advertising, etc.  The idea here is we’re exposed to much more anti-out party info than before and natural this would sink in to some extent.

There’s a related but distinct and certainly important line of work in moral psychology on this topic – if you’re reading this there’s a very good chance you’re familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind in particular.  He doesn’t use the term social distance but talks about a similar (equivalent?) concept—differences between members of the parties in political-moral values and the evolutionary explanation for why these differences lead to inter-group hostility.

So—this is a well-studied topic that we know a lot about.  Still, we have a ways to go toward actually solving the problem.  So there’s probably more to be said about it.

Here’s my angle: the social distance/Haidtian and even media effects literatures seem to take it as self-evident that distance causes dislike.  And the mechanism for this causal relationship is often treated as black box.  And so, while it’s often assumed that this dislike is “wrong” and this assumption seems quite reasonable—common sense, age-old wisdom etc tell us that massive groups of people can’t all be so bad and so something is seriously off when massive groups of people hate each other—this assumption of wrongness is both theoretically unclear and empirically far from proven.

But in reality when we dislike others, even if just because they’re different, we usually think (perhaps unconsciously) they’re actually “bad” in specific ways.  In politics, D’s and R’s who dislike each other do so (perhaps ironically) because they think the other side is too partisan—i.e. too willing to put their own interests over the nation’s as a whole.  Politicians are always accusing each other of “playing politics” over doing what’s right.  (I don’t know of data showing this but if anyone knows good reference(s) please please let me know.)

That is, dislike is not just “affective” (feeling) but is “cognitive” (thinking) in this sense.  And cognitive processes can of course be biased.  So my claim is that this is at least part of the sense in which out-party hate is wrong—it’s objectively biased.  We think the people in the other party are worse guys than they really are (by our own standards).  In particular, more self-serving, less socially minded.

This seems like a non-far-fetched claim to me, maybe even pretty obviously true when you hear it.  If not, that’s ok too, that makes the claim more interesting.  Either way, this is not something these literatures (political science, psychology, communications) seem to talk about.  There is certainly a big literature on cognitive bias and political behavior, but on things like extremism, not dislike.

Here come the semi-shameless[2] plugs.  This post has already gotten longer than most I’m willing to read myself so I’ll make this quick.

In one recent paper, I show that ‘unrelated’ cognitive bias can lead to (unbounded!) cognitive (Bayesian!) dislike even without any type of skewed media or asymmetric information.

In another, I show that people who overestimate what they know in general (on things like the population of California)–and thus are more likely to be overconfident in their knowledge in general, both due to, and driving, various more specific cognitive biases–also tend to dislike the out-party more (vs in-party), controlling carefully for one’s own ideology, partisanship and a bunch of other things.

Feedback on either paper is certainly welcome, they are both far from published.

So—I’ve noted that cognitive bias very plausibly causes dislike, and I’ve tried to provide some formal theory and data to back this claim up and clarify the folk wisdom that if we understood each other better, we wouldn’t hate each other so much.  And dislike causes (exacerbates) bias (in knowledge, about things like climate change, getting back to the main subject of this blog).  Why else does thinking of dislike in terms of bias matter?  Two points.

1) This likely can help us to understand polarization in its various forms better.  The cognitive bias literature is large and powerful, including a growing literature on interventions (nudges etc).  Applying this literature could yield a lot of progress.

2) Thinking of out-party dislike (a.k.a. partyism) as biased could help to stigmatize and as a result reduce this type of behavior (as has been the case for other ‘isms’).  If people get the message that saying “I hate Republicans” is unsophisticated (or worse) and thus uncool, they’re going to be less likely to say it.

For a decentralized phenomenon like affective polarization, changing social norms may ultimately be our best hope.

[1] Ed.: Okay, time to come clean. What he’s alluding to is that I’ve been using M Turk workers to ghost write my blog posts for last 6 mos. No one having caught on, I’ve now decided that it is okay after all to use M Turk workers in studies of politically motivated reasoning.

[2] Ed.: Yup, for sure he is not trying to imitate me. What’s this “semi-” crap?

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