How Politically Biased Are You? Try This Quick Test!

Our level of ingroup bias runs deep. Here's a test to detect it in yourself.

Posted Sep 18, 2020

The Divided State of America.
Source: Delpixart/iStock

Note: This is the sixth blog in a series about how our views of truth and reality contribute to some of the problems we experience as individuals and as a society. I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world! Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive these problems in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

Let's Face the Truth: We Are All Biased 

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman.

Here is the "truth": We are all biased. Yes, some are biased more than others, but none of us can escape its influence entirely. If we think others' judgments are influenced by biases but we are not, well, that's a bias too known as the bias blind spot. We inherently experience life subjectively. Every perception, sensation, thought, and behavior is influenced by countless variables—from our evolutionary heritage, to genetics, culture, temperament, personality, social, situational, and environmental variables. It is as if the "lens" through which we view "reality" always distorts the manner in which we experience the world to some degree. This is because we didn't evolve to see—we evolved to survive. Thus, our fitness (survival) is more important than reality

This isn't to say that we can't reason or think rationally. We didn’t land humans on the moon, create antibiotics, and build skyscrapers thanks to dumb luck. It also isn't to say that we don't have some degree of free will. However, it means that we should have a huge dose of humility when it comes to thinking we are right about anything because truth is elusive. One "truth" we know is this: We all think that we are right because, if we thought we were wrong, we'd change our views!

Our tribalism, which is rooted in our ancestral history, causes us to distort reality in ways that allow us to maintain our allegiance to our respective tribes. This is also known as ingroup bias or ingroup favoritism. Sometimes we can really feel and see those tribal biases come into play. When running for president, Donald Trump famously said, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters."

As it happens, he was basically correct! Trump was bold enough to highlight the level of tribal (ingroup) bias from which he benefited. However, as polarizing a figure as Trump is, he does not uniquely benefit from ingroup bias (Sorry, Donald!). Many Republicans are equally dumbfounded at how any rational person could ever support Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Joseph Biden, or President Barack Obama. Thus, the right views the left as hopelessly biased and blindly following incompetent or corrupt leaders (Who can forget the "Lock her up!" chant about Hillary Clinton?). Each side, in effect, looks at the other, scratches their heads, and thinks, "They are such idiots! What is wrong with those people?"

Facts and data have very little sway over our political affiliations for most of us. Can any of us truthfully claim that we have examined any complicated, controversial issue in great depth, carefully weighing the various pros and cons, and arrived at our position in an objective, dispassionate fashion? If we are being honest, we generally vote in the direction of our tribe. We use reasoning and data after the fact to support what we have decided is true, which is our confirmation bias at work. What is "true" is what our tribe believes or supports.

"What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” —Warren Buffett

Democrats make a mistake when they think this level of tribal bias applies to Republicans but not to them. Sorry, Democrats, but you are biased in the same way as Republicans. Part of the ingroup bias is to believe that our group is superior to the other group. In fact, that's related to a bias known as illusory superiority.

Our social identity, our very sense of self, becomes so intertwined with that of our respective tribe that we will often defend our position (i.e., our tribe) as if our very lives were dependent upon it. Our ingroup favoritism is a human issue, not a Republican or Democrat issue. We must remember that tribes existed long before our current political parties. Historically, our tribe was always the "right" tribe, because it was the only one that we were ever in!

A Quick Test to Detect Your Level of Tribal Allegiance

Just how committed to our tribe are we? Let's do a little test to detect our ingroup bias. Note that this, of course, is not a scientific test, but more of a thought exercise to shift your thinking a bit. Are you ready?

If you are Democrat/Biden supporter: What would Joe Biden have to do that would cause you to vote for Donald Trump over him in the upcoming election?

If you are a Republican/Trump supporter: What would Donald Trump have to do that would cause you to vote for Joe Biden over him in the upcoming election?

This is an equally difficult question for both sides. In fact, you might be thinking, "Um, can I choose to vote for a third-party candidate, like Kanye, instead?" Our minds struggle to name anything that would cause us to cast a vote for the other tribe. Moreover, the stronger we support either Trump or Biden, the more difficult it will be for us to name anything that would cause us to switch allegiances. For most of us, we are voting for our tribe, not a particular candidate. Our political leaders, especially our presidential candidates, are figureheads for our tribe. Moreover, the more committed we are to our tribe, the more our view of our candidate will be biased to maintain our tribal allegiance.

The Takeaway?

Our tribal (or ingroup) biases run deep. If we can start to accept the reality that we don't see truly see reality, perhaps we can be a little more tolerant of those who hold different views than ourselves. Actually, it might be better to conceptualize our allegiance to our tribe as loyalty to our favorite sports team. I'll cover this in my next blog, so please join me!