I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Inherent Bias of Facts

Again, via Digby - some bad news regarding the upcoming "toolkit debate":
Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. 
This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.
I think most people instructively understand this, but rarely act upon it (how's that for a meta-conclusion?). But if we teachers - and all public workers - are going to survive the next three years, we'd better get a grasp on this now, and we'd better demand our union leaders plot their strategies based on this precept:
One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.
We educators have done a miserable job in getting the public the take pride in our schools - to feel that they are contributing to the success of NJ's standing of having the best educational system in the country.
There are also some cases where directness works. Kuklinski’s welfare study suggested that people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. He asked one group of participants what percentage of its budget they believed the federal government spent on welfare, and what percentage they believed the government should spend. Another group was given the same questions, but the second group was immediately told the correct percentage the government spends on welfare (1 percent). They were then asked, with that in mind, what the government should spend. Regardless of how wrong they had been before receiving the information, the second group indeed adjusted their answer to reflect the correct fact.  
Kuklinski’s study, however, involved people getting information directly from researchers in a highly interactive way. When Nyhan attempted to deliver the correction in a more real-world fashion, via a news article, it backfired.... 
This suggests to me that our union leaders need to stop having rallies where they preach to the converted and start engaging Christie one-on-one in open forums - and call him out on it if he refuses.

If I were Barbara Kesheshian, I'd be calling up NJ 101.5 on the air daily asking to appear with the governor next time he does his radio show. If he refuses, he looks like a wimp; if he accepts, and he once again says NJ has the highest taxes in NJ, or implies that teachers are over paid, he can be hit hard with the facts.

He'll always have the pulpit, so he'll always have the advantage - at least until the next election. But we don't have to roll over an die. We need to be finding every opportunity to engage him directly. However:
....Even if people do accept the new information, it might not stick over the long term, or it may just have no effect on their opinions. In 2007 John Sides of George Washington University and Jack Citrin of the University of California at Berkeley studied whether providing misled people with correct information about the proportion of immigrants in the US population would affect their views on immigration. It did not.
So, do you play to people's incorrect preconceptions, or try to change them? In the end, I believe giving in to mendacity is not only ethically wrong, it's a bad political strategy. People respond to the force and passion of an argument as much as its logic. If we shrug our shoulders and say. "Well, people believe what they want to believe," it disempowers those who are on our side, and it sends a message that we don't think this important.

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