By Jesse Singal
A heated political story in the United States last weekend perfectly illustrates how tribal politics can supercharge a human weakness that psychologists have been studying for some time – our deep-seated tendency to accept evidence that supports our existing beliefs, and to ignore evidence that contradicts them.
It involved a conflict near the Lincoln Memorial featuring a handful of Black Israelites (a radical black nationalist group), a large group of mostly White American high-schoolers, some in Donald Trump hats, who were in town for an anti-abortion march, and a small group of Native American protesters, one of whom found himself in the midst of the high-schoolers.
Following the initial reports of what happened, and spurred along by a short video and dramatic photos, suggesting that the teens had encircled and confronted the Native American protester in an apparent act of intimidation, there was widespread condemnation of the teenagers, calls for them to be suspended or expelled from school, doxxed, and so on. But what’s telling is that when new details emerged, most notably the emergence of a longer video showing it was the protester who had waded into the sea of teens (because, he said later, he wanted to break up the conflict between them and the Black Israelites), and which complicated other aspects of the narrative as well, still many commentators continued to interpret events in line with their own political leanings. In fact the cacophonous online argument about what happened only seemed to explode in volume when the longer video was released — more information didn’t resolve things. At all.
As the Georgetown University professor Jonathan Ladd put it so well on Twitter: “Regarding the incident at the Lincoln Memorial,” he wrote, “it’s fascinating to see motivated reasoning play out in real time over a 24 hr period … Despite lots of video, all interpretations now match people’s partisanship.”
These politically motivated cognitive gymnastics are the subject of an important new paper lead-authored by Anup Gampa and Sean P. Wojcik that’s just been made available as a preprint (and due to be published in Social Psychological and Personality Science). Specifically, Gampa and Wojcik, working with a team that includes the open-science advocate Brian Nosek, decided to test the effects of politically motivated reasoning using logical syllogisms, a type of logical argument in which premises are assumed to be true, and arguments proceed from there.