Confirmation Bias is the Mindkiller

Consider this a sequel to yesterday’s post. Or at least a good bit of serendipity. Because you can’t really ask for a better example of the kinds of things that were wrong with yesterday’s WSJ article than Bobby Azarian’s Why do Some People Respond to Trump?: it’s Biology 101.

The thesis here is an oldie but goodie – if Trump support seems irrational, then that’s because it is!. In fact, it’s not just irrational, it’s fear-driven, a kind of automatic animal response by people who aren’t evolved enough to help themselves.

As humans, we are first and foremost programmed to survive. Millions of years of evolution through natural selection have sculpted instincts and intellect aimed at staying alive. Fast, sudden movements instantly capture our attention, and unexpected noises cause us to jump back reflexively. It only takes common sense to see that survival requires a certain degree of sensitivity to threat. A desire to feel safe is part of our hardwiring, and as such, we tend to want people and rules in our lives that are going to help protect us from harm. For some people, Donald Trump and his policies are seen as that protection.

And which people? Well, conservatives only, of course.

Neuroscience and psychology research supports one clear explanation: Conservatives are hypersensitive to threat compared to liberals, and thus respond more fearfully.

Never mind that Trump’s supporters are not run-of-the-mill Republicans (Trump himself touts this as his biggest gift to the Republican Party, the number one reason why the RNC should wholeheartedly embrace him), we’ve got Science to do here!

It goes on to cite exactly two studies that purport to show that people who identify as conservative have heightened fear responses to stimuli, which is not exaxtly a comprehensive survey. But let’s be good sports and accept the premise for the sake of argument. After all, it makes a kind of intuitive sense. If William F. Buckley’s famous description of conseratives as "standing athwart History yelling ‘Stop!’" is anywhere close to the mark, then conservatives are the more cautious tribe, the one that wants to move more slowly, more deliberately. It’s easy to immagine that that kind of attitude could correlate well with people who have heightened fear responses. My objection isn’t to the evidence or method of collecting it, therefore, it’s to the way it’s framed.

First of all, why "fear" and not "caution?" Presumably because "fear" is seen as weak and negative, where "caution" has more positive connotations. Unfortunately for the author’s desired spin here, "caution" is actually the more appropriate term.

Trump is popular amongst the right because he can tap into irrational fears and amplify them. Then, when threat seems imminent, he offers the most drastic solutions. And when danger is on the doorstep, there’s not much time for rational thinking.

Leaving aside the fact that Azarian has done exaxtly diddly squat to establish that Trump’s appeal is based on fear, notice that the political policies Trump has proposed are much longer-term than anything that requires a split-second decision. Trump’s running on, among other things, building a wall across the southern border to keep unwanted Mexicans out, scaling down America’s military commitments abroad, putting the brakes on free trade expansion (at least along its current trajectory), and taking a more aggressive posture in the War on Terror. We can debate the various merits of these policies, but one thing they’re all not is time-sensitive. They are, each and every one of them, the kind of thing that takes a lot of time and political capital to implement, and Azarian seems not to have noticed that Trump’s personal sales pitch on all of them factors that in. Remember, this is the guy who sells himself on his ability to hammer out deals, not to ram things through Congress. It’s his negotiating skills that he considers his best attribute (however much his subjective evaluation of his ability may miss the mark in reality). Trump doesn’t often say that any particular past policy is wrong (the one glaring exception is the War in Iraq); what he prefers to say is that it was poorly implemented, that we didn’t get the best deal we could’ve gotten. So, in an important sense, Azarian has misread Trump support.

Second of all, even if he hadn’t misread it, why would conservatives be any more beholden to their lizard brains than liberals? Azarian is happy to style conservatives as a group identified by a shared birth defect (they can’t help it, they have larger amygdalas!), but this only begs the question of what pathologies drive other groups? If evolution explains Trump support, shouldn’t it also explain Bernie Sanders support?

Not for Azarian, who concludes his article like this:

The rise of Trump has defied almost all logic. But he isn’t appealing to logic. He is appealing to our most basic survival instincts. Those include fear and the natural tendency to thrive and conquer. This presidential election will be an important test for our nation. We will see if we are evolved enough for our logic to overcome our instincts.

But I think the rest of us are not convinced. We’ve all met thousands of people in our day, and exactly none of them resemble Mr. Spock. Everyone has emotional foibles, weaknesses and character flaws. It’s asking for a lot of faith to imply that one, and only one, political group is characterized by its animal side. I mean, I get why liberals whould like to believe that they’re just instictively more rational than everyone else – who wouldn’t? – but on the question of whether they actually are, anyone who’s met a liberal or a hundred can tell you that seems unlikely. Surely the null hypothesis here is that all groups are emotional and shortsighted in their own ways, the quesiton isn’t so much one of "how much" as it is of "how?" And again, if your goal here is to actually understand where Trump support comes from, rather than to just pat yourself on the back for not being an example of the trend, then you’d rather start by getting at the truth – and any honest attempt to get at the truth invariably involves asking yourself questions you might not want to hear the answers to, questions that might invalidate your conclusion. I see no evidence that Azarian has done that. Indeed, there’s hardly any mention of members of other groups at all.

But finally and most importantly, even if Azarian wants to only focus on conservatives, he’s a long way from even establishing his conclusion with the evidence he does cite. He gives us links to two studies that say that conservatives in general have heightened fear responses, but we’re pointedly not talking about conservatives in general. We’re talking about Trump supporters, who are not typical conservatives. And even if they were, what evidence is there that it’s their fear responses that explain their attraction to him? It could be any number of things. To establish this, you’d have to do a study priming Trump supporters for fear responses and then measuring whether their support for Trump increases or decreases in that environment. Sounds like a daunting task – pointedly one that Azarian hasn’t undertaken. But let’s go back to the fact that Trump supporters are not typical conservatives. Azarian is on some pretty thin ice when he says things like

Why is it that liberals and progressives feel like Trump is the actual danger and not the protector?

There’s a pretty glaring omission there: lots of conservatives feel the same way about him, including prominent political commentators and high-ranking members of the Republican Establishment. If heightened fear explains conservatism and also explains Trump support, don’t you think you should bother to account for conservatives who don’t support Trump? Shouldn’t that, in fact, be your biggest, most interesting question, the one your article is focused on?

The scary thing about articles like this is that Azarian gives every indication of being sincere. It doesn’t read like a political hit piece, and his byline is careful to cite his neuroscience street creds. It really is, in other words, our dear old friend confirmation bias rearing its ugly head yet again another time already. Which just goes to reinforce the point from yesterday: I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect that the number one way educated people go wrong is by not asking enough questions. In Azarian’s case, the problem just seems particularly accute is all.

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