Today’s political polarization isn’t just annoying, it’s damaging important cultural and family institutions. And tensions won’t de-escalate until people figure out the root of the problem. University of Toronto psychologist Keith Stanovich has a compelling theory about those roots in his book The Bias that Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking. Surprisingly, it is only partially related to the myside thinking in his subtitle.
First, a bit of advice for readers: skip the first three chapters and go right to chapter four, which begins on page 75. The first three chapters are dense mash of definitions of terms and hair-splitting distinctions that are unimportant to Stanovich’s main argument. They also contain something of a literature review on biases, to which Stanovich and his colleagues are important and prolific contributors. This is useful to undergraduate and graduate students, but mostly useless to the lay reader. In these early chapters, Stanovich also spends more time explaining what myside bias isn’t than what it is. It would have been better to organize it the other way around.
So Stanovich is no prose stylist, and his book is poorly organized. Yet it is on my best books of the year list. Why? Because chapter four gave me the type of eureka moment I have experienced only a handful of times in my career. Stanovich’s thesis is essential for understanding the current political moment, and will also likely help shed light on future political changes. This is a book that should have a long shelf life.
Instead of asking why people hold certain beliefs, Stanovich flips the question around. What if people don’t acquire beliefs, but beliefs acquire people? Stanovich argues that beliefs are subject to the same evolutionary forces as living organisms. The idea is similar to Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene hypothesis.
Genes are what get replicated, not individuals. So genes care more about traits that help them replicate more than about traits that benefit individual gene carriers. This is one reason why parents will sacrifice themselves to save their children, and why people care more about close relatives than strangers. Protecting the people close to you protects your genes.
As with genes, so with beliefs. Beliefs that stick around and become popular get that way because they tend to be very good at replicating themselves—whether or not the beliefs have any basis in reality, or are useful to the people that adopt them. Beliefs that exploit human psychological quirks, such as myside bias, are more likely to “succeed” in this sense, even if they are false or harmful. Those with less meme-like qualities die out or remain rare.
Myside bias is just such a replicating tool that successful beliefs use. It is both an attack and a defense. It is form of motivated reasoning related to confirmation bias, though not quite the same thing. Where confirmation bias is just a neutral tendency that humans evolved to save cognitive effort, myside bias is purpose-driven. It is rooted in defending one set of beliefs, and attacking competing beliefs. In a way, political partisans are unknowing participants in the natural selection of ideas, and not in a good way.
Republicans and Democrats both tend to highlight evidence supporting their position on an issue, and downplay or ignore contrary evidence—and both parties do this to the same degree. One is not better than the other. Much of the literature Stanovich reviews shows little to no difference between progressives and conservatives in their susceptibility to myside bias, and little difference in other personality traits like openness, agreeableness, and so on. Classical liberals show some psychological distinctiveness from conservatives and progressives, but not very much, and consistent liberals are also relatively rare.
Stanovich mostly sticks to how his “selfish beliefs” thesis affects politics. But it has wider applications. For example, it can help explain why some religions spread, why others endure despite having few adherents, and why others never get off the ground. Religions that have an ethos of proselytizing tend to spread more widely than those that don’t—which is an obvious point, if one thinks about it. But there is a reason why most people belong in the first place to religions interested in converting people. It’s a belief-replicating strategy that works.
Other religions are less interested in spreading, yet they can still endure for millennia. This is because they have strategies of their own. One of them is to have a high cost of joining—people who work hard to gain entry tend to prize it highly, and are unlikely to give up membership (this is also why college fraternities have hazing rituals). Though this doesn’t gain many new convert, it is a potent defense for existing members against competing religions. This is also why proselytizing religions typically have low barriers to entry, and non-proselytizing religions have higher barriers.
Another strategy is to set the group apart from the rest of society through distinctive dietary requirements, appearances, language, and other cultural markers. Life in such an out-group can be tough for individuals. But leaving is also extremely costly, because society at large will likely never fully accept the defector, so relatively few people do. Bad for the person, but good for the belief.
The selfish belief thesis, and its expression through myside bias, has lots of fertile ground for researchers to explore, both in and out of politics.
Stanovich’s concluding chapter, which is also his longest, focuses on what to do about myside bias. The obvious solution to today’s political polarization is to not have a rooting interest. Praise where due, criticism where due. Do support principles; don’t support parties or politicians. The problem is that the this won’t work. Most people’s brains don’t work that way, thanks to our hunter-gatherer legacy of instinctive ingroup-outgroup thinking. Partisanship, and partisan media, are here to stay. Reformers have to fight their battle in the real world if they want to make any improvements.
One such defense mechanism Stanovich suggests is simple awareness. Just being aware that you, as a human being, suffer from myside bias, can help you look for it and do a little something to fight against it. It isn’t a perfect solution—and, spoiler alert, there isn’t one—but it’s a start.
Another defense comes from Stanovich’s insight on page 85 that “There is no general tendency for a person to have high or low myside bias.” It instead comes with certain ideas, because myside bias allows those ideas to successfully persist and spread. This is why seemingly unrelated political stances tend to cluster together.
For example, to take two hot-button issues on which CEI takes no position, odds are that if you know a person’s position on abortion, you probably also know their position on the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. Those issues have nothing to do with each other, yet people’s stances on them cluster far more tightly than chance would predict. When you see unrelated issue stances cluster together like that, those issues are likely prone to strong myside-style thinking. Treat those issues with caution.
It also helps to realize that merits often do not matter to people when they take sides on an issue. This is a difficult lesson for think tankers like myself to learn, since we make our living arguing on the merits. But as Stanovich writes on page 142, “Based on the findings of a wide range of studies, most American voters can’t articulate a principle behind their stance on a particular issue and often don’t know their stance on many issues until they hear the stance supported by their own partisan group.” Regarding a study on attitudes toward welfare policy, “It was as if the subjects did not know their position on the issue until they were told which party was supporting it.”
Another rule of thumb is that the most myside-prone issues tend to be lack a clear right or wrong. People tend not to argue about the law of gravity; they do tend to argue about outrage-of-the-moment culture war news stories, where both sides usually have something resembling a good point. The outrage comes not from the merits of the issue, which are often ambiguous, but from people using them (or are being used by their beliefs) to express their identity. Defend the in-group, attack the out-group. Again, bad for the person, but good for the belief’s replicability.
Which leads to Stanovich’s most heartfelt recommendation: the need to reject identity politics. Here he argues with a passion not seen in the earlier chapters. Most of his focus is on the insular academic world he inhabits. But it is no secret that myside beliefs have harmed the quality of research in psychology, Stanovich’s field. Various grievance studies departments survive not on the quality of their research, which tends to be poor, but by preying on peoples’ ingroup-outgroup thinking, where myside bias thrives. Rather than foster cooperation, they try to get people to compete in a zero-sum game of social status by dividing people in groups and encouraging them them to duke it out based on those group identities. This strategy does little to fight racism or pursue other worthy social goals. But as a replication strategy for myside-prone beliefs, it is brilliant.
I’ve long thought, based on personal experience, that most people are twits when they are college age and then slowly grow out of it as they get older. So I tend to roll my eyes, rather than get outraged, when campus political correctness veers into cartoon territory. It’s mostly social signaling, not serious policy proposals. I also believe that well-intentioned efforts to be inclusive should be applauded, even if they are sometimes clumsy. They are a conscious effort to broaden people’s circle of concern beyond their in-groups, which is something everyone from Adam Smith to Stanovich himself favors.
But Stanovich has a point when he argues that campuses saturated with myside thinking can have a long-run effect on students as they move into the real world. This may be one reason why politics has become so polarized in the last decade or so—the first generation of students who grew up in stifling myside-biased campus environments is now old enough to play leading roles in business, politics, and media.
The best solution is also long-run—reshape universities to reject identity politics and to instead encourage open, civil discussion of ideas. Discovery and growth are rarely comfortable, but they’re worth it. Getting there will be difficult and will require structural changes. These include requiring grievance studies departments to meet the same academic standards as real departments in the humanities and social sciences; depoliticizing mission statements and administrative jobs; changes to funding, hiring, and admissions practices; and, most importantly, shifting social norms in favor of civil engagement, rather than righteous shouting down. These are unlikely to come to pass anytime soon. But even small changes at the margin can have significant long-term effects.
Readers interested in further exploring similar themes would also like two other books also published in 2021. Julia Galef’s highly readable The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t draws a contrast between the scout mindset and the soldier mindset. Scouts search for correct information, as though they are trying to draw an accurate map. A soldier’s job is to defend something, right or wrong. Everyone is part soldier in this sense. And strong partisans are mostly soldier. Galef offers advice on how to keep the soldier mindset in its place and embrace our inner scout.
Galef’s best recommendation is regular practice. Take the time to engage opposing ideas without anger or passion. You can dance with an idea without marrying it. Try asking tough questions about your own beliefs. If a news story plays into your ideological priors, assume it’s too good to be true unless you investigate more closely. These are learned skills that take effort, which is why most people won’t bother. But they pay off.
University College London professor Brian Klaas’ similarly readable Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us is also a good complement to Stanovich. Where Stanovich uses an evolutionary approach to understand ordinary people, Klaas uses an evolutionary approach to understand the powerful. He is interested in the types of people who seek power, and are successful in obtaining it. As it turns out, there is a natural selection process that favors people with undesirable personality traits in the pursuit of power. Hayek was right; the worst really do get on top.
Klaas also offers suggestions for how to contain ambition. He correctly focuses mostly on the institutional level; for different results, we need different rules. The rules of the political game need to weed out people right at the start who want power for the wrong reasons. They need to keep a close eye on even good people in power, because power tends to corrupt. And they need to limit the damage that any one individual can do.
If time and space allow, I’ll give those books their due. They certainly belong with Stanovich’s The Bias that Divides Us on the list of best books of the year.