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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

Decoding U.S. Election Day in 9 Key Charts

Buckle up your seatbelts—we look at 9 key data-driven charts to get you prepped for this consequential day in U.S. election history.

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After a tumultuous election cycle, the time has come at last for Americans to cast their ballots.

Media coverage has reached a fever pitch, and keeping up with the news cycle can be daunting for anyone. To keep the voting public and interested onlookers informed, we’ve compiled nine key charts that can help in answering key questions that people will have today:

  • Who’ll win the U.S. presidential election?
  • How could swing states flip?
  • When will we know the election results?
  • What are the stakes?
  • What does the rest of the world think?

Let’s start with the biggest—and most challenging—of these topics first.

Who’ll Win the Election?

As the world learned in 2016, answering this question is not as simple as it looks—even when the poll results point to a clear victory.

Chart #1: Biden remains the odds-on favorite

In 2020’s race, the poll results are once again stacked against President Trump. Here’s a look at who’s ahead in aggregated national polls:

National U.S. election aggregated polls

Source: FiveThirtyEight

Although this election cycle has been a wild ride, that volatility isn’t necessarily reflected in the polls. Over the past three months, Joe Biden’s lead in the national polls has not dipped below three percentage points.

Chart #2: Viewing odds through a 2016 lens

That said, after the colossal miscalculation by the media and pollsters in 2016, many people are skeptical of the accuracy of polls. Luckily, there’s a way to look at predictions through a more skeptical lens. As this table from FiveThirtyEight demonstrates, even if the results are as wrong as in 2016, Joe Biden is still predicted to win.

Margin of error in polls 2016

Chart #3: Betting markets also agree

Prediction markets are another way to try to gauge how the election could turn out. Traders on PredictIt are also leaning towards a Biden win on election day. President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis in early October served as a pivot point in that market.

Prediction markets for the U.S. election

Chart #4: The Sultans of Swing

There are a few swing states which will be hotly contested, with the candidates focusing their final days of campaigning on these.

Pennsylvania has received the most visits from both Trump and Biden since their last debate on October 22nd, with Trump visiting the state seven times and Biden stopping by four times.

Swing states summary

Swing states have had strong early voting turnouts. In fact, the number of early voters in many swing states is already set to surpass the total number of voters they saw in the 2016 election.

While Arizona and Georgia have voted red for the past five elections, early predictions point to these states possibly turning blue in 2020.

When Will We Know the Election Results?

While the result of the presidential election is typically known on the night of the election itself, this year could see delays due to the tight race and the amount of mail-in ballots.

No matter what, state election disputes need to be settled before December 8th, the “safe-harbor deadline”. After this date, states run the risk of having Congress refuse to accept their electoral votes, with Congress also resolving any left over disputes.

Each state’s electors then meet on December 14th in order to elect the president and vice-president. Depending on how that goes, this interactive election timeline by The Guardian looks at a few nightmare scenarios that the U.S. could get caught in.

Chart #5: Visualizing mail-in ballots so far

Mail-in ballots can slow down the election result due to late ballot deadlines and the pre-processing required for them to be counted. Expect to see a correlation between states with high mail-in ballot numbers and how long it takes them to call their result.

Ballot deadlines depend on the state, with some states accepting ballots up until November 23rd as long as they were postmarked by election day.

While some states can start pre-processing ballots before election day, others can’t start until election day itself. Some counties (including some in swing state Pennsylvania) won’t be starting mail-in ballot counting until November 4th due to limited resources.

Why Are the Stakes So High?

Voters from both parties are heavily invested in who wins this election—a trend that’s been on the rise for years, coinciding with increasing amounts of political polarization.

Chart #6: Voter apathy, no more

According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, 83% of voters say it “really matters” who becomes the next president. In 2000, only 50% felt so strongly about the outcome of the election.

Voter apathy

To be fair, this year is also unique given a global pandemic—and this has certainly weighed heavily on many voters, creating more urgency than normal.

In fact, according to a survey conducted by Gallup in April 2020, 45% of Americans think Coronavirus/disease is the most important issue the country is currently facing.

Chart #7: Voters See COVID as a Top Concern

Research has shown a correlation so far between COVID-related deaths and reduced support for the incumbent. According to this graph from the New York Times, Trump’s approval rating tends to be lower in counties with higher death rates.

U.S. voting COVID-19

Chart #8: The price of democracy

The exceptionally high stakes could be a reason why this election is expected to be the most expensive to date. Spending is projected to reach over $13 billion, almost double the amount spent in 2016.

U.S. election spending

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Chart #9: What the rest of the world thinks

Americans aren’t the only ones invested in the U.S. presidential election this year. The whole world is watching, and according to Ipsos, the majority is rooting for Biden.

How would the world vote?

But of course, the world doesn’t get to cast a vote today, making this final chart a moot point.

The real decision makers will be in the American electorate—and the forthcoming result will be on people’s minds for days, months, or maybe even years to come.

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Politics

Animated Map: U.S. Presidential Voting History by State (1976-2016)

With this map of U.S. presidential voting history by state, discover patterns that have emerged over the last eleven elections.

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U.S. Presidential Voting History by State

U.S. Presidential Voting History by State

As Americans go to cast their votes, considerable uncertainty remains about which candidate will be elected president. However, history can provide some clues as to how voters may act.

While some states have consistently seen Democrat or Republican victories, other “swing states” have flipped between the two parties depending on the year.

In this graphic, we use data from the MIT Election Data and Science Lab to show U.S. presidential voting history by state since 1976.

Each State’s Winning Party

To calculate the winning ratio, we divided the votes for the state’s winning party by the total number of state votes. Here’s another look at the same data, visualized in a different way.

U.S. Presidential Voting History by State

This graphic was inspired by this Reddit post.

As the voting history shows, some states—such as Alaska, Oklahoma, and Wyoming—have consistently supported the Republican Party. On the other hand, Hawaii, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia have been Democrat strongholds for many decades.

The District of Columbia (D.C.) is a federal district, and is not part of any U.S. State. Its population is urban and has a large percentage of Black and college-educated citizens, all of which are groups that tend to identify as Democrat.

Swing states typically see a close contest between Democrats and Republicans. For example, Florida’s average margin of victory for presidential candidates has been just 2.6% since 1996, by far the lowest of any state. It’s often seen as a key battleground, and for good reason: the candidate who wins Florida has won every election since 1964.

Memorable Election Years

Within U.S. Presidential voting history, some election results stand out more than others. In 1984, President Reagan was re-elected in a landslide victory, winning 49 out of 50 states. The remarkable win has been credited to the economic recovery during Reagan’s first term, Reagan’s charisma, and voters’ opposition to the Democrat’s planned tax increases.

In 1992, self-made Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran as a third-party candidate. He captured almost 19% of the popular vote, the highest percentage of any third-party presidential candidate in over 80 years. While he gained support from those looking for a change from traditional party politics, Bill Clinton ultimately went on to win the election.

Most recently, the 2016 election took many people by surprise. Despite having a strong lead in the polls, Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump. A total of 30 states saw Republican victories, eager for change after eight years of Democrat leadership.

A Look Ahead

Is it possible to predict the 2020 presidential election? As the last election showed, polls are not a perfect measure. They represent a snapshot in time, may overrepresent certain population groups, and measure voter attitudes rather than behaviors, among other factors.

While there’s no crystal ball, swing states may offer the most insight as to where things are heading. Here are nine states that have been identified as battlegrounds, and how they voted in the 2016 election.

 2016 Winning Ratio2016 Margin of Victory
Arizona48.7% Republican3.6%
Florida49.0% Republican1.2%
Georgia50.8% Republican5.2%
Iowa51.2% Republican9.4%
Michigan47.5% Republican0.2%
North Carolina49.8% Republican3.6%
Ohio51.7% Republican8.1%
Pennsylvania48.9% Republican0.7%
Wisconsin47.2% Republican0.7%

All saw Republican victories, but six out of nine states won by a margin of less than 5%. Trump and Biden’s success in these states may well determine the outcome of the 2020 election.

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