Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why Arguing About Politics Is Pointless

“There is nothing more likely to start disagreement among people or countries than an agreement.”
~ E. B. White

Psyblog, one of my favorite sources of information on psychological research, has a fascinating new report titled, “Why the Media Seems Biased When You Care About the Issue.” The subject is a phenomenon that has fascinated me for years: the fact that people with diametrically opposing views can watch the same news report — and both end up convinced it’s biased in favor of the other side. 

The study Psyblog discusses was conducted at Stanford University in the 1980s. A group of 144 Stanford students who variously described themselves as pro-Arab, pro-Israeli and neutral were recruited for an experiment. They were shown a selection of news clips about the tragic 1982 massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians by Lebanese militia forces. The finding: although pro-Arab and pro-Israeli students watched the same news reports, each group was convinced the reports were biased against their point of view.

Psyblog explains, “The study demonstrates what the authors call the 'hostile media phenomenon': people's tendency to view news coverage about which they hold strong beliefs as biased against their own position.” This apparently happens for two reasons: (1) people with strong political opinions tend to see everything as black and white, while news reports show gray areas that partisans read as bias; and (2) we tend to ignore the things we agree with and focus on the content that doesn’t mesh with our worldview.

“If we are all in agreement on the decision, then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
~ Alfred P. Sloan

Psyblog’s report brought to mind George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics, How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Lakoff demonstrates the chasm that separates the worldviews of liberals and conservatives in vivid terms. Read this summary and then ask yourself how political compromise ever happens at all.

Where does that leave someone like President Obama, who continues to try to achieve a middle ground — a gray area of mutual agreement — between two groups with completely different worldviews? Perhaps I should have titled this essay, “Why Bipartisanship Is Pointless.”

Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview — nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.”
~ Stephen Jay Gould

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