Brexit, Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte are just the latest examples of people not just voting against their best interests, but against all reasonable logic. Many—even over here—have wondered whether it’s just the general populace being too stupid to make ‘correct’ decisions.
It’s probably why the ‘heartlands’—that mythical chunk of every country that is often blamed for giving power to the ‘wrong’ side, or helping them to keep that power—is called that; it quite distastefully evokes a bunch of illiterate yokels voting with their hearts instead of their heads.
But according to André Spicer of the City University of London, this cannot possibly be the case. Education and literacy levels around the world are the highest they’ve ever been, and never before has information been so accessible to so many.
Even if the quality of education in certain places is seen to be on the decline—like it is said to be over here—the number of those who receive enough basic education to possess the raw cognitive skills to process facts are still getting higher with every generation.
So what causes people to ‘vote dumb’? You guessed it, it’s confirmation bias which is defined as the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories.
Spicer claims that this cognitive bias is inbuilt in all of us. We make decisions about complex issues within milliseconds of first encountering it, based on “past beliefs or even chance associations.” But instead of letting new facts seep in and allow us to change our views, which would be the logical thing to do, we seek out other information that confirms our initial knee-jerk reactions.
But surely this is self-defeating? Why would anyone choose to further marginalise their already marginalised communities or members of their class, or live out their days in animosity towards ‘others’ based on skin colour, sexual orientation, or religious and political views?
Because it makes sense on the micro-levels of the individual and the immediate. Encountering logical information about why everything you’ve ever believed in is wrong is uncomfortable. And if you’ve expressed those views in public, they would require “humiliating climbdowns.” Which many find too hard to bear.
Spicer also says that this bias works best (worst?) when people encounter the views of economists. Economists’ views are often ignored, much to the chagrin of those who believe that political divides should be based on issues of regulation vs. deregulation alone.
But with so many heads talking at the same time, it has also never been easier to find information that can denounce expert opinion, even if the source of that information is dubious. See old folk getting their ‘ZIKA IS A HOAX!’ news from WhatsApp and forwarded emails in bold red font.
The tendency for economists to form an echo chamber paradoxically adds to this effect. As Spicer claims, economists are wont to draw ideas from their other economists, rather than other branches of social sciences. And when there is unison among the majority of economists on particular issue, that is exactly when people opposed to said issue find other sources of information to discredit those opinions, so they can continue believing in what they believed in the first place.
Spicer also claims that this is calcified further when political leaders are more divided about a particular issue. Then, even seemingly logical people succumb to ad hominem fallacies, because the information is coming from the ‘wrong’ people.
So it’s not that there is one group of sheeple sat in the ‘heartlands’ with their fingers in their ears shouting “La la la.” We’re probably all doing it, and the ‘heartland’ is here.