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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

Visualizing the State of Democracy, by Country

Has the world become more or less free? To find out, this graphic highlights the changing state of democracy in 167 countries since 2006.

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Visualizing the State of Democracy, by Country

View the full-sized interactive version of this infographic by clicking here

From Norway to North Korea, governing systems differ around the world. But has the world become more or less free in the past decade?

This visualization from Preethi Lodha demonstrates how democracy levels of 167 countries have changed since 2006. The original data comes from the Democracy Index, which is compiled annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Four Levels of Democracy

First, it’s important to understand the classifications made by the Democracy Index.

Based on answers to 60 questions across a nation’s electoral process, civil liberties, government functions, political participation and political culture, countries are assigned a range of scores in the Democracy Index.

Based on these scores, a nation automatically falls into one of the following four types of governance. Here’s which category fits the bill, depending on the range of scores:

Governance TypeDescriptionExampleDemocracy Index Score
Authoritarian RegimeNations which exhibit frequent
infringements of civil liberties,
unfair elections, and rampant censorship.
🇨🇳 China
🇰🇵 North Korea
🇦🇪 UAE
0.0-3.99
Hybrid RegimeNations with regular electoral
fraud, corruption, and low
political participation,
and suppressed opposition.
🇰🇪 Kenya
🇵🇰 Pakistan
🇹🇷 Turkey
4.0-5.99
Flawed DemocracyNations with fair elections,
underdeveloped political
participation and culture,
with minor issues in civil liberty
and government functions.
🇧🇷 Brazil
🇮🇳 India
🇺🇸 U.S.
6.0-7.99
Full DemocracyNations where political freedoms
are respected with limited
problems, governmental
checks and balances,
and diverse media exist.
🇦🇺 Australia
🇨🇦 Canada
🇳🇴 Norway
8.0-10.0

One thing that stands out is that many hybrid regimes and flawed democracies are also considered high potential emerging markets, but are held back by their political instability.

Notable Improvements

In recent times, public demonstrations have been a major cause behind increases in Democracy Index scores and changes in governance classifications.

Algeria moved from authoritarian to hybrid regime in 2019, the only country in the Arab region to do so in the index. This came after sustained protests against the previous president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika—who had served for 20 years.

Chile experienced similar turmoil, for the better. After a spike in the scale of middle class unrest over inequality and unfair policies in late 2019, the political participation moved it up from a flawed to full democracy.

Sliding Countries

The U.S. has one of the oldest democracies in the world. However, it was downgraded from a full to a flawed democracy as of the 2016 index, a status that had been “teetering” since before then, according to the report that year.

Venezuela dropped into an authoritarian regime in 2017, and it doesn’t seem to be improving anytime soon. The state was found to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on any dissent against the government.

Global Change in Democracy Levels

All in all, the average global democracy score worldwide emerged at 5.48 in 2019, although it’s clear that certain countries pull this value towards the opposite extremes.

North Korea, an authoritarian regime with a 1.08 score, has remained consistently one of the lowest ranked countries in the index. Meanwhile, its alphabetical successor Norway steadily keeps up its high score streak, with 9.87 being the best example of a full democracy in 2019.

Here’s how many countries made up each system of governance over the years, and the global Democracy Index score for that year.

YearAuthoritarianHybrid Flawed DemocracyFull DemocracyScore
2006553353265.52
2008523552285.55
2010573153265.46
2011543553255.49
2012523753255.52
2013514051255.53
2014523952245.55
2015523659205.55
2016514057195.52
2017523957195.48
2018533955205.48
2019543754225.48

Authoritarian regimes peaked in 2010 with 57 countries, whereas the full democracy category peaked in 2008 with 28 countries.

Since 2006, the average global score has slid from 5.52 to 5.48, and the total of countries categorized under full democracy decreased from 26 to 22.

Does this signal an increasingly divided world? And will the global pandemic—which is already delaying elections—have a further pronounced effect on backsliding these democracy scores?

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Politics

Every Presidential Candidate’s Running Mate Since WWII

Picking the right VP makes all the difference to a President’s success. We look at running mates of all Presidential hopefuls since 1940.

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Every Presidential Candidate’s Running Mate Since WWII

Since the U.S. Constitution was first instituted, there have been 48 vice presidents. They’ve supported presidents in seeing the country through wars, economic expansions and contractions, a global pandemic—and much more.

A president’s success depends on the strength of their team, so it’s only natural that as second-in-command, the pick for a VP carries significant weight. In some cases, they can even make or break the race to secure a spot in the White House.

In this graphic, we take a look at the hand-picked running mates of presidential hopefuls since 1940, including the upcoming November 2020 elections.

Running More Than Once

The graphic highlights 33 running mates, out of which nine have ran for VP more than once. Here’s how their number of terms compare, and who continued on to become an eventual presidential candidate:

Running MatePartyVP terms servedPresidential candidate?
Mike Pence🔴 RWon 1 term
Currently running for second term
No
Joe Biden🔵 DWon both termsCurrently running for president
Dick Cheney🔴 RWon both termsNo
Al Gore🔵 DWon both termsYes, but did not win first term
Dan Quayle🔴 RWon 1 out of 2 termsNo
George H. W. Bush🔴 RWon both termsYes, won one term
Spiro Agnew🔴 RWon both termsResigned during VP second term
Richard Nixon🔴 RWon both termsYes, won both terms
Walter Mondale🔵 DWon 1 out of 2 termsYes, but did not win first term

Of the running mates since WWII, Republicans Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush are the only two to have served as president after being vice presidents for two previous terms—unless Joe Biden wins in November 2020.

Prior Gigs

What career paths did aspiring VPs take before running on the big ticket?

Interestingly, 2 of 3 running mates profiled in today’s graphic had a prior background as a lawyer before choosing to enter politics.

A curious exception to the typical career path is that of former professional football player Jack Kemp, who was chosen as the running mate for Bob Dole’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1996.

At the President’s Right Hand

The vice president is the first in line of succession for the Oval Office, in the event that the sitting president dies, resigns, or is removed from office. Throughout history, nine VPs have ascended to presidency this way, of which three occurred since 1940.

  • After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Harry S. Truman ascended to the presidency.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson became the President upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
  • Following evidence of political corruption, Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973. He was replaced by Gerald Ford, who then became President after Nixon’s post-Watergate resignation in 1974.

Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump are three Presidents who have been through the impeachment process, but were later acquitted by the Senate. Otherwise, the list of VPs ending up as the commander-in-chief might look much more different.

The Youngest and Oldest Running Mates

Based on the first time they ran on the ticket, the average running mate is 54 years old. In contrast, the average presidential candidate is 58 years old.

Comparing the age difference between presidential candidates and their running mates paints a unique picture. The biggest age gaps both occurred in 2008:

Running-Mates_supplemental_v2

There was a 28-year difference between older candidate John McCain (72) and younger VP pick Sarah Palin (44) on the Republican ticket. On the Democratic side, younger candidate Barack Obama (47) and older VP pick Joe Biden (66) saw a 19-year gap.

Harry S. Truman’s historic win in 1948 was considered a surprising political longshot. His running mate, Alben W. Barkley was the oldest running mate ever picked, 71 years at the time.

Meanwhile, Richard Nixon was one of the youngest running mates to be chosen, 39 years in 1956—second only to John C. Breckinridge (36 years old in 1856). Finally, at age 92 years in 2020, Walter Mondale is the oldest living former VP.

Cracking the Glass Ceiling

Last but not least, there have only been three women selected as VP running mates to date.

  • Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman VP nominee for the Democratic Party in 1984.
  • Although she had only two years of political experience as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin was the first female Republican VP nominee in 2008.
  • Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor with almost four years of experience as a Senator, is the first woman of color to be nominated on any major party’s ticket in 2020.

Palin herself shared a few words of wisdom for Harris across the aisle:

Congrats to the democrat VP pick 🇺🇸 Climb upon Geraldine Ferraro’s and my shoulders, and from the most amazing view in your life consider lessons we learned…

—Sarah Palin (via Instagram)

Could Harris become the first ever right-hand woman? We’ll find out in a few months.

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