Infographic: 11 Cognitive Biases That Influence Political Outcomes
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11 Cognitive Biases That Influence Political Outcomes

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cognitive bias in politics

Cognitive Biases in the Political Arena

With the 2020 U.S. presidential election fast approaching, many people will be glued to the 24-hour news cycle to stay up to date on political developments. Yet, when searching for facts, our own cognitive biases often get in the way.

If this isn’t problematic enough, third parties can also take advantage of these biases to influence our thinking. The media, for example, can exploit our tendency to assign stereotypes to others by only providing catchy, surface-level information. Once established in our minds, these generalizations can be tough to shake off.

Such tactics can have a powerful influence on public opinion if applied consistently to a broad audience. To help us avoid these mental pitfalls, today’s infographic from PredictIt lists common cognitive biases that influence the realm of politics, beginning with the “Big Cs”.

The First C: Confirmation Bias

People exhibit confirmation bias when they seek information that only affirms their pre-existing beliefs. This can cause them to become overly rigid in their political opinions, even when presented with conflicting ideas or evidence.

When too many people fall victim to this bias, progress towards solving complex sociopolitical issues is thwarted. That’s because solving these issues in a bipartisan system requires cooperation from both sides of the spectrum.

A reluctance towards establishing a common ground is already widespread in America. According to a 2019 survey, 70% of Democrats believed their party’s leaders should “stand up” to President Trump, even if less gets done in Washington. Conversely, 51% of Republicans believed that Trump should “stand up” to Democrats.

In light of these developments, researchers have conducted studies to determine if the issue of confirmation bias is as prevalent as it seems. In one experiment, participants chose to either support or oppose a given sociopolitical issue. They were then presented with evidence that was conflicting, affirming, or a combination of both.

In all scenarios, participants were most likely to stick with their initial decisions. Of those presented with conflicting evidence, just one in five changed their stance. Furthermore, participants who maintained their initial positions became even more confident in the superiority of their decision—a testament to how influential confirmation bias can be.

The Second C: Coverage Bias

Coverage bias, in the context of politics, is a form of media bias where certain politicians or topics are disproportionately covered. In some cases, media outlets can even twist stories to fit a certain narrative.

For example, research from the University of South Florida analyzed media coverage on President Trump’s 2017 travel ban. It was discovered that primetime media hosts covered the ban through completely different perspectives.

Each host varied drastically in tone, phrasing, and facts of emphasis, […] presenting each issue in a manner that aligns with a specific partisan agenda.

—Josepher, Bryce (2017)

Charting the ideological placement of each source’s audience can help us gain a better understanding of the coverage bias at work. In other words, where do people on the left, middle, and right get their news?

cognitive bias in media and politics

The horizontal axis in this graphic corresponds to the Ideological Consistency Scale, which is composed of 10 questions. For each question, respondents are assigned a “-1” for a liberal response, “+1” for a conservative response, or a “0” for other responses. A summation of these scores places a respondent into one of five categories:

Ideological CategoryRanking
Consistently conservative+7 to +10
Mostly conservative+3 to +6
Mixed-2 to +2
Mostly liberal-6 to -3
Consistently liberal -10 to -7

Overcoming coverage bias—which dovetails into other biases like confirmation bias—may require us to follow a wider variety of sources, even those we may not initially agree with.

The Third C: Concision Bias

Concision bias is a type of bias where politicians or the media selectively focus on aspects of information that are easy to get across. In the process, more nuanced and delicate views get omitted from popular discourse.

A common application of concision bias is the use of sound bites, which are short clips that can be taken out of a politician’s speech. When played in isolation, these clips may leave out important context for the audience.

Without the proper context, multi-faceted issues can become extremely polarizing, and may be a reason for the growing partisan divide in America. In fact, there is less overlap in the political values of Republicans and Democrats than ever previously measured.

In 1994, just 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat. By 2017, that margin had grown considerably, to 95% of Republicans. The same trend can be found on the other end of the spectrum. Whereas 70% of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican in 1994, this proportion increased to 97% by 2017.

Overcoming Our Biases

Achieving full self-awareness can be difficult, especially when new biases emerge in our constantly evolving world. So where do we begin?

Simply remembering these mental pitfalls exist can be a great start—after all, we can’t fix what we don’t know. Individuals concerned about the upcoming presidential election may find it useful to focus their attention on the Big Cs, as these biases can play a significant role in shaping political beliefs. Maintaining an open mindset and diversifying the media sources we follow are two tactics that may act as a hedge.

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Politics

Which Countries are the Most Polarized?

This chart plots polarization for various countries based on the Edelman Trust Institute’s annual survey of 32,000+ people.

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Which Countries are the Most Polarized?

How do you measure something that’s made headlines for half a decade but is still difficult to quantify? We’re talking about polarization.

Even within the social sciences, polarization covers everything from racial segregation, to labor skill levels, to class divide, to political ideology.

How Do You Quantify Polarization?

Edelman’s data on which countries are the most polarized comes from survey results asking respondents two very simple questions:

  • How divided is their country?
  • How entrenched is the divide?

The questions help bring to light the social issues a particular country is facing and the lack of consensus on those issues.

Plotted against each other, a chart emerges. A country in the top–right corner of the chart is “severely polarized.” Countries located closer to the lower–left are considered less polarized.

In the report, Edelman identifies four metrics to watch for and measure which help quantify polarization.

Economic AnxietiesWill my family be better off in five years?
Institutional ImbalanceGovernment is viewed as unethical and incompetent.
Class DividePeople with higher incomes have a higher trust in institutions.
Battle for TruthEcho chambers, and a low trust in media.

Following Edelman’s metrics, countries with economic uncertainty and inequality as well as institutional distrust are more likely to be polarized. Below, we look at key highlights from the chart.

Severely Polarized Countries

Despite being one of the largest economies in Latin America, Argentina is the most polarized country surveyed by a large margin. Foreign loan defaults, a high fiscal deficit, and now surging inflation have created a perfect storm in the country.

43% of the Argentinian respondents said they will be better off in five years, down 17 percentage points from last year.

Along with fiscal upheaval, Argentinians are also dealing with enduring corruption in the public sector and abrupt policy reversals between governments. Only 20% of those surveyed in Argentina said they trusted the government—the least of all surveyed countries.

Here are all six of the countries considered to be severely polarized:

    🇦🇷 Argentina
    🇨🇴 Colombia
    🇺🇸 United States
    🇿🇦 South Africa
    🇪🇸 Spain
    🇸🇪 Sweden

In the U.S., heightened political upheaval between Democrats and Republicans over the last few years has led to strengthening ideological stances and to an abundance of headlines about polarization. Only 42% of respondents in the country trust the government.

And in South Africa, persistent inequality and falling trust in the African National Congress also check off Edelman’s metrics. It’s also second after Argentina with the least trust in government (22%) per the survey.

Moderately Polarized Countries

The biggest cluster of 15 countries are in moderately polarized section of the chart, with all continents represented.

    🇧🇷 Brazil
    🇰🇷 South Korea
    🇲🇽 Mexico
    🇫🇷 France
    🇬🇧 United Kingdom
    🇯🇵 Japan
    🇳🇱 Netherlands
    🇮🇹 Italy
    🇩🇪 Germany
    🇳🇬 Nigeria
    🇹🇭 Thailand
    🇰🇪 Kenya
    🇨🇦 Canada
    🇦🇺 Australia
    🇮🇪 Ireland

Some are on the cusp of being severely polarized, including economic heavyweights like Japan, the UK, France, and Germany. On the other hand, smaller economies like Thailand, Kenya, and Nigeria, are doing comparatively better on the polarization chart.

Less Polarized Countries

Countries with fair economic outlook and high trust in institutions including China, Singapore, and India are in the bottom left sector of the chart.

    🇮🇩 Indonesia
    🇨🇳 China
    🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates
    🇸🇬 Singapore
    🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia
    🇲🇾 Malaysia
    🇮🇳 India

It’s interesting to note that of the seven countries in that sector, three are not democracies. That said, there are also more developing countries on this list as well, which could also be a factor.

Looking Ahead

Edelman notes that polarization is both “cause and consequence of distrust,” creating a self-fulfilling cycle. Aside from the four metrics stated above, concerns about the erosion of civility and weakening social fabric also lead to polarization.

Edelman polarization quote

As global events unfold in 2023—including looming worries of a recession—it will be fascinating to see how countries might switch positions in the year to come.

Where does this data come from?

Source: The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer

Data note: Survey conducted: Nov 1 – Nov 28, 2022. Survey included 32,000+ respondents in 28 countries. Russia was omitted from this year’s survey. See page 2 of the report for more details.

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