According to a new study, daycare will increase your child’s health, intelligence and social development. But do you think the study is scientifically rigorous enough to justify this conclusion?
Okay, I made up the story about the new study. But nevertheless, your answer to that question—about the scientific rigor of the hypothetical study—may hold the key to your long term reaction to Obamacare, should the Supreme Court uphold the constitutionality of the individual mandate. Bear with me while I explain the connection between daycare and Obamacare.
My story starts with one of the best established and, frankly, most profound truths of modern psychology: the existence within all of us of very strong “confirmation biases”—psychological forces that cause us to look at the world and see what we already believe we will see.
Stanford psychologist Lee Ross has been a leader in studying this topic. In a classic study, he and his colleagues showed that a person who believes that capital punishment deters crime will evaluate new research on this topic in the light of what she already believes about the topic. A new scientific study critical of capital punishment—showing that it fails as a deterrent? She will find every possible flaw in the study—bad outcome measures, small sample size, etc. Show her a study that confirms her belief, however, and the study will strike her as brilliantly designed, even if the outcome measures and sample size are no better than the first study. Show her both studies, and she will be an even bigger fan of capital punishment than she was at the outset.
Lee Ross uncovered such confirmation biases several decades ago. I could list hundreds of examples of how these biases influence our judgments. Indeed, Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell, has done a masterful job of this in his book How We Know What Isn’t So.
In its classic form, the confirmation bias looks something like this:
(1) Believe X
(2) See evidence for X → accept evidence
(3) See evidence against X → reject evidence
(4) See (2) and (3) --> Believe X more strongly than ever
Suppose I believe daycare is bad for kids--that what kids need are stay at home parents or, at least, loving and attentive nannies. According to the old view of confirmation bias, that belief should color my reaction to evidence for or against daycare.
But now a new study has upended Ross’ long held view. And that research was conducted by none other than Ross himself.
To understand this new research, imagine that I think daycare is generally bad for kids but, unfortunately, I have no choice but to enroll my own child in such a program. Maybe I am a single working parent who cannot find a nanny. I still believe that daycare is bad for my kid. But I would love to be proven wrong.
Now along comes a new study, purporting to show that daycare is good for my children’s emotional and intellectual development. Based on my beliefs about daycare, I should reject this study. I believe daycare is bad, so this study must be flawed. But deep down now I want to believe that daycare is good. And Ross’ new study shows that my wanting is going to win over my believing.
Now for the connection between daycare and Obamacare.
Suppose the Supreme Court upholds the individual mandate. Suppose also that Obama gets reelected. The American public will now realize that they are stuck with the law. Many people will still believe that the mandate is a bad idea. But they will want to be happy with the state of America. So they are likely to look for, and embrace, evidence that the law isn’t so bad after all. Their wants will overcome their beliefs.
It won’t be hard to come up with such evidence. Most people already have insurance, so the mandate won’t affect them. Many will change jobs and not realize that wherever they go, to whatever new city or new job, they will still be able to get health insurance.
Worried that Obamacare will doom the country they will realize, over time, that the country is still standing.
At least, that is my prediction. I hope evidence doesn’t force me to revise my opinion.