How much should your government spend on foreign aid? Is the average global temperature truly rising due to human activities? What is your government’s responsibility (if any) to provide welfare/assistance to those who need it?
Just about everyone thinks they hold reasonable beliefs about social or political issues. But how sure can you be that your beliefs are not the result of your political biases, instead of well-grounded reasoning?
This study found, for instance, that both Democrats and Republicans find it much easier to identify mistakes and inconsistencies in the speech of an opposing candidate than in those of their preferred candidate.
Having an unbiased view (especially about controversial political issues) isn't easy.
At the same time, to have intelligent, constructive debates about important political issues that push society forward, we need to be able to work against our biases and think carefully and clearly about alternative views.
Where political biases come from
There are several different psychological mechanisms that may contribute to political bias.
1. Confirmation Bias
Perhaps the most important bias that influences politics is confirmation bias: our tendency to disregard evidence that disconfirms our beliefs while overemphasizing evidence that confirms or supports them.
Confirmation bias has been observed in numerous studies, and some even call it "the mother of all biases" because of its central role in leading people to false conclusions. It is also sometimes seen as a major factor leading to ideological extremism.
2. Wishful Thinking
Another powerful mechanism that contributes to political bias is wishful thinking: our tendency to form beliefs that reflect the way we want the world to be, regardless of the way the world really is. For instance, if we like a certain food and enjoy it on a daily basis, we may have a tendency to come to believe that this food is healthier than it really is.
Wishful thinking also operates in the political sphere. For instance, , if we have a political view that an unregulated economy is best, we may be less likely to conclude that pollution causes climate change (since if it did, that could constitute an argument for regulation). Or, on the opposite side, if we are anti-capitalist, we may be less likely to notice the numerous benefits that capitalism has caused.
3. The Halo Effect
Yet another related mechanism is the halo effect, which is the tendency to believe that because something has one good attribute that means it will have other good attributes as well.
This phenomenon can lead us to think that the people and policies we support have all good aspects rather than a mix of good and bad aspects. On an interpersonal level, the halo effect may also cause us to think that beautiful people we meet are more likely to have desirable personalities, or other positive characteristics.
Note: You can learn to recognize common binary thinking traps, and learn the nuanced thinking techniques to combat them with our nuanced thinking tools.
Another mechanism for political bias is groupthink, where individuals get their opinions and beliefs from their in-group rather than from their own thinking, or from a diversity of sources.
Groupthink contributes to group dogma and to groups taking uniform views on issue after issue. In extreme cases of groupthink, when a belief is very central to a group and also perceived as under attack from outsiders, internal dissenters may be reprimanded or punished and treated as possible defectors to the opposite side.
Other mechanisms belonging to the same family of biases include peer pressure, herd behavior, and the Bandwagon effect.
There are a large number of cognitive biases that have been identified, and quite a few of them can lead to political bias, so the list above should not be considered exhaustive.
If you are interested in reading more about cognitive biases, you can check out our list of common cognitive biases.
How to spot and counteract your political biases
It’s surprisingly difficult to spot your own biases, but one way to explore how politically biased you are is to examine the structure of your beliefs.
If your beliefs have high conformity in the sense that you agree with nearly every argument taken up by those who share your political views, then it is unlikely (though not impossible) that you have arrived at your beliefs in an unbiased, impartial way. Usually, thinking issues through will lead you to different conclusions than your in-group on at least some topics.
Another sign of political bias is that you can't see your own preferred policy or solution as having any drawbacks. Even the best policies will typically have some harms they cause and some unintended consequences - what makes a great policy is not the complete lack of any downsides, but the fact that overall the effects are much more beneficial than they are harmful.
This analysis, of course, flies in the face of the conventional view (especially common in tribal politics), according to which admitting that your own position has some disadvantages is a sign of weakness, whereas not doing so is a sign of strength.
On the contrary, recognizing both the strengths and weaknesses in your own perspective is a sign of careful reflection and reasonableness, whereas failing to acknowledge any faults is a sign of f dogmatism.
If you have some extra 15 minutes today, you can take our Political Bias test, which is designed to help you spot and counteract blind spots you might have by giving you a measure of how politically biased you are in a number of different areas.
Please note that the test is constructed with an American audience in mind. You are not from the U.S. you may find the test interesting as well, but its estimate of your degree of bias may be a a bit less reliable.
At the end of the test, you’ll receive a customized report, including:
Your political knowledge score
Your political bias score
A list of areas where you’re particularly prone to be biased
You will also be given an extensive explanation of the logic behind the bias score, as well as a comprehensive explanation of political bias.
Spotting and counteracting your political bias in order to think clearly is not an easy task, since it requires not only the understanding of how biases influence thinking but also the intellectual honesty to address your own biases.
We sincerely hope the content we shared today helps you in this journey.
"The problem of political irrationality is the greatest social problem humanity faces. It is a greater problem than crime, drug addiction, or even world poverty, because it is a problem that prevents us from solving other problems [...] If our beliefs are guided by the social group we want to fit into, the self-image we want to maintain, the desire to avoid admitting to having been wrong in the past, and so on, then it would be pure accident if enough of us were to actually form correct beliefs to solve the problem."