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Do our politics shape what we believe?
Polarization of beliefs is often explained by the political values we hold – but we argue new explanations are needed
One of the biggest challenges of our time is how and why do we hold beliefs that, on the face of it, seem counter-intuitive and irrational. Why do some people still challenge the science of climate change or at the very least assume there is little that can be done to change things? When the evidence for the value of mask wearing and vaccination programmes is so great, why do the streets of Ottawa continue to be blocked by people protesting against them?
Over the next couple of issues, will be looking at how we form our beliefs and what behavioural science can do to engage effectively in the debates and help unlock some of these big challenges that we face.
Do we have a deficit in our rationality?
We start our exploration with what is probably the most popular explanation of ‘problematic beliefs’ - the notion that as humans we have rationality deficits due to the way how information is processed. If we find a conclusion unpalatable, then we are motivated to martial our intellectual capabilities to find ways to reject it.
One of the key ways in which psychologists tend to explain motivated reasoning is through political polarisation. As we have outlined previously, one the main advocates of this is Dan Kahan, whose identity-protective cognition framework.
He makes a case for the way in which the cultural values we hold define our social identities – which in turn then shape our beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether humans are responsible for climate change; whether the death penalty prevents murder).
This helps to explain why groups with different cultural outlooks (such as left or right of centre political orientation) disagree about important societal issues. On this basis disagreement is not due to people failing to understand the science or even that they lack relevant information. Instead, according to Kahan, disagreement is generated from the way “people endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important ties”.
Kahan suggests this is a form of motivated reasoning; advocating beliefs that are not consistent with the sentiment in one’s group could threaten one’s position within the group, in which case people may be motivated to “protect” their cultural identities.
But is this really quite the case?
Philosopher Neil Levy sets out a challenge to Kahan’s account. He suggests that ‘bad belief’ formation does not inevitably correlate with identity. For example, there has been little evidence (at least historically) that anti-vaxx sentiment, or indeed opposition to genetically modified organisms is predicted by group identity.
He suggests that there are, of course, some beliefs that are predicated on our identities, particularly when those beliefs are core to the nature of the identity. Evolution, for example is a case in point: while some theological views are consistent with evolution, others are passionately committed to a story of creation where God created the world in seven days. For this group of believers, evolution is clearly inherently threatening to this ‘identity-constitutive commitment’.
But, as Levy suggests, other cases such as climate change are less clear. As he points out, the notion of climate change can be threatening to those who support free markets, as any adequate response would involve heavy regulation of the market. However, when we dig into it we can see that there is not necessarily an inherent requirement for those to the political right to object to climate change.
There is almost always a gap between our ideological stance and any policy position. For instance, most people who call themselves fiscal conservatives actually express as much support for government spending as those who don’t think of themselves as fiscally conservative. And on the topic of climate change, Levy describes how only fairly recently there was no partisan divide on the environment, either between politicians or among the general public in the United States.
This would suggest the opposite of Kahan – that we rarely reject something due to conflict between ideology and policy. Levy goes onto point out that the same right of centre that frets about market interference strongly supports subsidies to fossil fuel interests.
So while the rhetoric might be that climate change is threatening because it interferes with the market, those who engage in the rhetoric seem willing to interfere with the market to see off the threat. In other words, if we were to accept motivated reasoning as the central plank of why people adopt the extreme beliefs we are seeing, then surely we would expect there to be much more broader consistency between tribal ideologies and the policy positions: the evidence does appear to call this into question.
This is not to say that a motivated reasoning explanation is wrong – but simply that it is not the full explanation of why we find people adopting positions which seem so much at odds with what we might expect.
So how do come to form ‘bad beliefs?
If we are challenging the more popular position in belief formation then do we have a decent alternative account? We have previously mentioned, counter to Kahan, that when prior beliefs are taken into account then deliberation actually helps people to properly evaluate new climate information.
We will set out the way in which our beliefs have a significant social element to them – which is in fact critical for our success as humans: relying on others for knowledge is inevitable for human flourishing. But in addition we will set out the way in which we glean knowledge and beliefs from others can lead to, as outlined by Levy, ‘epistemic pollution’: where cues we use for knowledge from others can lead us astray.
Keep posted with Part II on this topic as well as other regular articles on applied behavioural science