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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

Political Longshots That Caught America by Surprise

Nothing is certain in politics until the results are in. Here’s a roundup of the most surprising longshot victories in American history.

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Millions of Americans rely on polls and the media to gauge the direction of political elections. Politics are sometimes unpredictable though, and on occasion, election outcomes can defy conventional wisdom.

These surprises, known as political longshots, are scattered throughout American political history. As time winds down to the 59th U.S. presidential election in November, today’s visual article from PredictIt goes back in time to showcase moments when polls, media outlets, and the American public were left stunned.

The Truman Show

PredictIt

What Happened?

As elections approached in 1948, incumbent Harry Truman led a struggling Democratic party.
Not only had they lost control of both chambers of Congress two years prior, they also faced internal divide over Truman’s civil rights initiatives. To make matters worse, Truman’s approval rating in June 1948 sat at just 39%.

Pollsters and the media were unanimous in declaring Republican Thomas Dewey the next president, but this didn’t discourage Truman from running a tactical campaign which featured:

  1. Clear demographic focus: Truman campaigned heavily in rural communities where working-class citizens felt neglected.
  2. Populist messaging: Truman often attacked Republicans, pinning them with the blame for a range of issues.

Despite being overlooked by many, Truman went on to claim a decisive victory. This caused one of the most famous media blunders in U.S. history—with high confidence in the polls, editors at the Chicago Daily Tribune prematurely reported Dewey as the winner of the election.

We stopped polling a few weeks too soon. We had been lulled into thinking that nothing much changes in the last few weeks of the campaign.

—George Gallup Jr.

Pollsters took a hit to their credibility, but used the opportunity to refine their methods. They extended the deadlines of polls and, over time, began using a methodology known as random sampling. This replaced quota sampling, a methodology prone to bias because it questioned a predetermined number of people from certain ethnic and age groups.

Murkowski’s Comeback

PredictIt

What Happened?

After losing the Republican primary to Joe Miller, incumbent senator Lisa Murkowski decided to run in 2010 as a write-in candidate. A somewhat unique aspect of American politics, a write-in candidate is one whose name does not appear on the ballot, and instead needs to be written in by the voter directly.

Miller, the Republican nominee, was supported by the Tea Party movement and former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. All momentum seemed to be in his favor, according to polls conducted roughly a month ahead of election day:

PollDate AdministeredJoe Miller (R)Lisa Murkowski (R)Scott McAdams (D)
Raasmussen ReportsSept. 19, 201042%27%25%
Moore ResearchSept. 23-27, 201043%18%28%
CNN, Time, Opinion ResearchSept. 24-28, 201038%36%22%

Source: Rasmussen Reports, Moore Research, CNN/Time/Opinion Research

Despite Miller’s lead in the polls, Murkowski’s write-in campaign was able to capitalize on the state’s significant number of independent voters. On election day, Murkowski collected 101,091 write-in votes—a comfortable margin above Miller’s 90,839 votes.

[I]n our state, we have got over 54 percent of the electorate that chooses not to align themselves with any party at all, not Republican, not Democratic, not green, not anything.

—Lisa Murkowski

Miller challenged 8,000 write-in votes on the basis of name misspellings, but his claims were rejected by the Alaska Superior Court—perfect spelling on write-in ballots is not required if the voter’s intent is clear.

The Trump Train

PredictIt

What Happened?

Donald Trump’s 2016 victory will likely top the list as one of the most shocking political events of our time. As election day approached, many of America’s mainstream media outlets pointed to a decisive Clinton victory.

OutletClintonTrump
L.A. Times
by electoral count
352186
Fox News
by electoral count
274215
New York Times
by chance of winning
85%15%
CNN
by chance of winning
91%9%

Source: The Wrap, CNN

While Trump’s rhetoric was largely opposed in urban regions (which often lean Democrat), the media failed to recognize that his message was resonating in America’s industrial Midwest. One potential explanation for this is that the region’s manufacturing jobs had been drying up, causing workers to feel abandoned by the existing political establishment.

This led to a number of Democrat-controlled states flipping Republican, and was a critical force for propelling Trump to the White House.

PredictIt

In PredictIt’s market, Will Trump Win the 2016 Presidential Election, traders also underestimated Trump’s chances of winning. Throughout the entire campaign phase, Trump’s “yes” shares failed to break past the 50 cents marker.

Source: Predictit

Share prices climbed 64% after FBI Director James Comey released his letter regarding the Clinton email investigation, but these gains were erased in the days leading up to elections. It wasn’t until November 8th, election day, that the prediction market swung by an incredible 345% in favor of Trump.

The Rise of AOC

PredictIt

What Happened?

The biggest surprise from the 2018 midterm primaries was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) victory over incumbent Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. That’s because the two candidates were nearly complete opposites of one another:

MetricAlexandria Ocasio-CortezJoseph Crowley
Age2856
Past Political ExperienceOrganizer for Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaignU.S. Representative from New York's 14th congressional district (1999-2019)
Fundraising$300,000$3,354,370

Source: abc news

AOC led a grassroots campaign appealing to the district’s ethnically diverse population, which many believed Crowley could not relate with. Her platform included:

PredictIt

Also lending to the surprise factor was AOC’s relatively sparse media coverage. Because her campaign was largely operated through social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, it flew under the radar of traditional political media coverage.

The traditional media pay attention to one metric—money—but there should be other considerations: number of volunteers, social-media engagement, small-dollar donations.

—Dave Weigel, Washington Post

AOC would go on to win New York’s 14th Congressional District in the 2018 midterm election, defeating Republican Anthony Pappas with 110,318 votes to 19,202, to become the youngest woman to ever serve in the U.S. Congress. More recently, she secured her re-election in the 2020 Democratic primaries. This time, however, it comes as less of a surprise.

What’s Next?

The very definition of a longshot means that they are difficult to quantify and predict.

However, one potential longshot in the making may be 21-time Grammy Award winner Kanye West, who announced his intention to run for president on July 4th. While he hasn’t taken any official steps towards running as an independent candidate, he has garnered the support of notable figures like Tesla CEO Elon Musk. West first declared his interest in the presidency during an acceptance speech at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards.

Looking further down the road, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has still not declared his running mate. Much is at stake for Democrats hoping to deny Trump a second term, and the VP nominee will likely play a significant role in how the party performs. Biden has a long list of candidates that, for the first time in history, predominantly features women of color.

Speculation is ramping up as the 2020 presidential elections approach. While it’s difficult to say when politics will surprise us again, more longshots are sure to be in store.

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Visualizing the True Size of Land Masses from Largest to Smallest

Maps can distort the size and shape of countries. This visualization puts the true size of land masses together from biggest to smallest.

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The True Size of Land Masses from Largest to Smallest

Is Greenland the size of the entire African continent?

No…

But looking at a map based on the Mercator projection, you would think so.

Today’s infographic comes from the design studio Art.Lebedev and shows the true size of the world’s land masses in order from largest to smallest using data from NASA and Google.

Check out the actual shape and size of each land mass without any distortions.

Distorting Reality: Mercator Misconceptions

Maps can deceive your eyes but they are still powerful tools for specific purposes. In 1569, the legendary cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, created a new map based on a cylindrical projection of sections of the Earth. These types of maps were suited for nautical navigation since every line on the sphere is a constant course, or loxodrome.

Despite the map’s nautical utility, the Mercator projection has an unwanted downside. The map type increases the sizes of land masses close to the poles (such as in North America, Europe, or North Asia) as a side effect. As a result, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s surface, when in reality these nations only occupy 5%.

“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” – Phaedrus

This collection of images above represents the world’s land masses in their correct proportions. Measurements are based on Google Maps 2016 and NASA Earth Observatory maps, with calculations based on the WGS84 reference ellipsoid, or more simply, a specific model of the Earth’s shape in two dimensions.

We take for granted Google Maps and satellite imaging. Making these accurate representations is no small task – the designers went through six steps and many different iterations of the graphic.

Countries are arranged by descending size and shown without external or dependent territories. For example, the total area for the contiguous United States shown does not include Hawaii, Alaska, or overseas territories.

Top 10 Largest Land Masses

Although Mercator maps distort the size of land masses in the Northern Hemisphere, many of these countries still cover massive territories.

JurisdictionArea (km²)
Russia16,440,626
Antarctica12,269,609
China9,258,246
Canada8,908,366
Brazil8,399,858
United States (contiguous)7,654,643
Australia7,602,329
India3,103,770
Argentina2,712,060
Kazakhstan2,653,464

The top 10 land masses by size account for 55% of the Earth’s total land. The remainder is split by the world’s 195 or so other countries.

Top 10 Smallest Land Masses

Here are the 10 tiniest jurisdictions highlighted on the map:

JurisdictionArea (km²)
Sealand0.001
Kingman Reef0.002
Vatican City0.5
Kure Atoll0.9
Tromelin Island1
Johnston Atoll1
Baker Island1
Howland Island2
Monaco2
Palmyra Atoll3

While the Earth’s land surface has been claimed by many authorities, the actual impact of human activity is less than one would think.

Human Impact: Humbled by Nature

Political borders have claimed virtually every piece of land available. Despite this, only 20% of land on the planet has been visibly impacted by human activity, and only 15% of Earth’s land surface is formally under protection.

The remaining 80% of the land hosts natural ecosystems that help to purify air and water, recycle nutrients, enhance soil fertility, pollinate plants, and break down waste products. The value of maintaining these services to the human economy is worth trillions of U.S. dollars each year.

While some nations are not as big as they look on the map, every piece of land counts.

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