Politics is Often an Irrational Animal: The Impact of Our Beliefs

Since this contentious and controversial political election year, politics is on the minds of many. It would stand to reason, that we should rationally examine — this oft too often — irrational endeavor. Even thinking about our beliefs about politics can be irrational. As non-scientific observers (and even professionals) we may jump to general conclusions on the basis of only a few observations or even based on emotion of unconscious prejudices or bias. Science can protect us against our emotional selves. Based on our own “naked” observations we often make mistakes. Whereas people often observe inaccurately — -science tries to avoid such errors by making observations in a more careful and deliberate way. So it may be worth examining to review what psychological science has to say about how we think and behave politically, what underlies our political behavior as well as the impact of these beliefs.

Bias and Need for Cognitive Closure

Typically, we have the tendency to approach the task of understanding our world categorically through a narrow lens. Categorical or binary thinking, while developmentally has helped our thinking (e.g. helps understand and encode information in our memory) — it also distorts our ability to see reality. Categorical thinking is the tendency to see the “general” rather than the “specific.” This type of thinking latches onto one example and overgeneralizes. Rather than considering the details of a circumstance, the situation is seen in a simplistic way as one latches onto one example and overgeneralizes, and seeks simplistic problem-solving. An example of this would be viewing the best way to deal with any increasing crime rate is merely by increasing punishment. Solutions to issues are seen as having simple causes or solutions rather than the view that problems are multifaceted or multi-causal.

Categorical or dichotomous thinking offers the emotional comfort of certainty — and as anxious-prone beings — we seek assurance that the world has stability. Yet — seeking this “cognitive closure” — if you will leave us vulnerable to politicians and political messages that can take advantage of what scholars call “cognitive biases”. Cognitive biases are thinking distortions that make us believe something is true because we feel it is true, regardless of the evidence or rationality. This phenomenon is also known as emotional reasoning. This bias is often driven by anxiety and the need to certainty or “closure” or quick resolution to a perceived conflict. This type of thinking is also associated with the terms “all or nothing thinking” or “black-and-white” thinking (Thórisdóttir & Jost, 2011).

System 1 and System 2 Thinking

Researchers note that the conditions under which the need for closure are likely to arise because of “the difficulty of information processing and its laboriousness” (Kruglanski, Pierro, Mannetti, & De Gradap. P. 96). Evolutionary pressures have given us the biological systems that tread towards quick and intuitive decisions based on an autopilot system of thinking. This system of thinking and decision making is more primitive and automatic, and driven by fear and the flight or fight response. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes there are two systems of thinking in our brains: System 1, and System 2. System 2 is the intentional system is deliberate and reflective. System 1, as mentioned, is the “fast” or more reflexive circuit. Kahneman terms these as “fast” and “slow” thinking (Kahneman, 2011). He notes it takes time and processing effort to identify and override the bias expressed in System 1.

System 1 seeks the safety of certainty (even if in error or imagined) because as a species when we are faced with a potentially life-threatening situation, we must make an instant decision and act on it. There is no time for ‘ perhaps this’, or ‘ perhaps that’. Even in our developed brain functions there is the inherent propensity of limbic and amygdala activation (fear and aggression) — which often takes precedence to the more recent frontal cortical (logic centers) emergence in human evolution. Psychology has shown that deep inherent (and unconscious) processes in System 1 thinking provide the tendency towards cultural and racial prejudice (implicit bias), even among the most “enlightened” among us (Madva, & Brownstein, 2016; Greenwald, & Krieger, 2006).

System 2 is more open to complexity and ambiguities to arrive at the truth of reality, but one must tolerate any anxiety this may cause. System 2 thinking requires deeper mental processing and tolerance of uncertainty and internal conflicts (dissonance) and can see facts over opinions. It can recognize and see things from multiple viewpoints and recognize self-error. It acknowledges things are not always what they seem or have absolute certitude. System 2 thinking can take in data and arrive at rational conclusions.

Differences in Political Thinking?

It is interesting to note that the need for certainty or cognitive closure is positively associated with social conservatism and negatively correlated with economic conservatism (Feldman& Johnston, 2014). In other words, veering from social traditions and norms are seen (or really felt) as dangerous to personal safety. This need for safety may not apply to seeking economic certainty. This may explain in part why social conservatives may vote against their own economic interests, as they are more driven by what are group constructed consensuses as traditional/ longstanding social values.

Psychological research has consistently found that political conservatives are more anxious than more progressives, which may result in a desire for stability, structure and simplicity in the face of complexity (Jost, Napier, Thorisdottir, Gosling, Palfai, & Ostafin, 2007; Altemeyer, 1998; Chirumbolo, 2002; Kemmelmeier, 1997; Webster & Kruglanski, 1994). “Conservatism, apparently, helps to protect people against some of the natural difficulties of living,” states social psychologist Paul Nail; “The fact is we don’t live in a completely safe world. Things can and do go wrong. But if I can impose this order on it by my worldview, I can keep my anxiety to a manageable level” (Azarian, 2015). Neuroscience also has found that biologically the social conservatives have a larger amygdala in the brain (Kanai,Feilden, Firth, & Rees, 2011). That is the part of the brain partly responsible for threat identification and fear based reactions.

Scholars suggests that this type of research demonstrates the need for security and certainty — such as social conformity, intolerance of ambiguity, threat sensitivity, and needs for order, structure, and security — attract people to a to a more conservative ideology (e.g., Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003).

One must also keep in mind — that if more political progressiveness is associated with less fear, or anxiety, this does open the door for more permissiveness in risk-taking behaviors. This can result in the vulnerability in the acceptance or normalization of potentially dangerous behaviors. A certain about of fear or anxiety is required for safety or discrimination of actual peril.

Group Behavior

The outcome of system 1 or biased prone fast-emotional thinking may also have to do with adherence to one’s own reference group. Research has indicated the need for closure induces group-centrism as well as in-group favoritism and out-group derogation (Kruglanski, Pierro, Mannetti, & De Grada, 2006). This means the bias towards one’s own actual or psychological group membership, and need to “vilify” the perceived “outgroup”. This would be likely be true regardless of political leanings, but certainly can become more prone as for the ‘ideologues” at both ends of the political spectrum. This really suggests modern day “tribalism” and the emotional need to seek group affiliation and fear of the “other” (outgroup). Another outcome in need for System 1 thinking is an association for the demand in consensus under heightened need for closure. Kruglanski, Pierro, Mannetti, & De Grada, (2006) states this demand for consensus “may encourage the emergence of an autocratic influence structure in the group the likelihood of groupthink increases when decision makers are under stress occasioned, for example, by the complexity and impenetrability of the issues being addressed” (p.96).

Coping and Health Outcomes

What are the impacts of the way we think? Do cognitive styles impact our health in any way? Based on existing research, it is suggested that cognitive styles associated with System 1 fear-based reflexive thinking and intolerance of uncertainty does predict a worse course of depression as well as rendering an individual prone to depression onset (Flannelly, Koenig, Galek, & Ellison, 2007 ; Berenbaum, Bredemeier, & Thompson, 2008). Need for cognitive closure also may be related to irrational or deluded thinking — as researchers found individuals with a history of persecutory delusions display a higher need for closure and a more extreme “jumping to conclusions bias” than healthy control participants (Colbert, & Peters, 2002). Researchers have also found a relationship between a high need for closure and difficulty in coping with stressful situations, such as organizational change and job insecurity (Kruglanski et al., 2007).

An additional recent interesting study examined political party affiliation, political ideology, and associations with lifespan mortality (Pabayo, Kawachi, & Muennig, 2015). It was found that people who identified as holding a more conservative ideology were 6 percent more likely to die during the study period, compared with people who identified with liberal or progressive ideologies. It was also noted that independents were less likely to die during the study period than either group. Although this is merely one study and it would be hard to generalize the results of this one study — further studies should examine what psychological variables in thinking and beliefs systems may be related to health outcomes. Existing research seems to trend towards the idea that System 1 thinking, while serving a short term benefit, may be less than optimal for overall health outcome. Political thinking is likely an expression of underlying processes and needs, and there is likely a complex relationship between our beliefs (even political ones) and our behavior and even our health.

Overall, we must be rational about our irrationality, especially when it concerns politics. Unfortunately, this seems easier said than done, but the only certainty is that we must try.

Like what you read? Give Jonathan Appel, Ph.D. a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.