Correcting bias is difficult. Even impeachment trials are not immune.
Posted Jan 22, 2020
Four Democratic senators have a conflict of interest in the trial of President Donald Trump. As if the impeachment of President Trump by the U. S. House of Representatives wasn’t enough of a high-stakes exercise in cognitive bias, we now have the subsequent impeachment trial in the Senate. Let’s ignore all of our own biases of how the deck was stacked in the House and how it is stacked in the Senate. Let’s ignore our own stands of what we think did or didn’t actually happen, and whether or not it was important. Let’s focus on a few key players and their psychological conflicts of interest that render them biased.
To oversimplify: the president is accused of asking a foreign leader on a phone call to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, for corruption, with the release of promised military aid contingent on the outcome.
The impeachment trial is held in the Senate, producing an interesting entanglement among multiple presidential candidates. Democratic Senators Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren will each vote on the removal of President Trump from office based on a potential corruption investigation of former Vice President Biden and his family. Presumably, if Biden were not a presidential candidate, this would not have been as noteworthy. This prejudice may operate for the Senate “jurors” as well. The senators who are Presidential candidates would be well-advised to declare a conflict of interest.
People declare conflicts of interest when they recognize that other people don’t trust them to make an objective decision because they have some personal stake in the outcome. Bias correction is difficult, and it requires a person to know that they could be biased, to know how much bias they have, to know the direction of their bias, and be able to control their own thoughts (Wilson & Brekke, 1994).
One technique of thought control is thought suppression, a notoriously unreliable and difficult strategy, often producing exactly the wrong results (Reich & Mather, 2008; Wegner, 1994; 1997). Because we as humans recognize that bias correction is difficult, we don’t trust other people to do it. Of course, we believe we do it just fine, which is a self-serving attribution.
Additionally, how certain a person is of their attitude toward something is a determinant of how flexible their attitude is (Tormala, 2016; Tormala & Petty, 2002). Given the senators’ campaign rhetoric about President Trump, it would appear that they each hold a very negative attitude toward the president.
The impeachment trial illustrates the group polarization that has occurred among both Democrats and Republicans (Mather, 2016). The trial will further solidify the attitudes and attitude certainty of voters. On its surface, the trial is all about the context surrounding the request by the president. It can also be viewed at its heart as about extreme dislike for the president. In the attribution process, we automatically identify a behavior and attribute the cause of the behavior to the person (Gilbert, 1995; Mather & Romo, 2007). If we have time and the motivation to do so, we correct based on the situation. Through their biased lens of cognition, according to this argument, the president’s opponents identified what they believe to be a bad behavior, and attributed the bad behavior to the president, all of which was consistent with their final attribution that the president is a bad person. His politically motivated opponents may not have the motivation to correct their biases based on the situational context of the phone call. That is, they will likely see what they want to see and their minds won’t change. This is called the fundamental attribution error (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2005; Mather & Romo, 2007).
Let’s remove the names and just use titles, and make the whole thing a hypothetical: The president is accused of withholding military aid unless a foreign leader investigates the potential crimes or misconduct of an opposing presidential candidate and his family. The president has been impeached by the House of Representatives for this being an abuse of his power. The Senate will judge his innocence or guilt and determine whether he is removed from office. Among those voting senators will be four presidential candidates who have been outspoken and critical of the president, publicly discussing their eager role in the upcoming trial. If they vote guilty, that would be an abuse of power that serves their own interests, exactly what they accuse the president of doing.
In the biased minds of the American people on both sides, the four senators do not have a way to appear unbiased. Their best bet would be to remove themselves from the trial, just as the rest of us are best served by removing ourselves from conflict of interest situations. Unfortunately, the House and Senate are both political entities made of people, and those people form coalitions, hold biases, and calculate how their moves appeal to their voters. I don’t expect any of the senators to sit out this impeachment trial.
As humans, we are all tainted by an array of biases that influence our judgments. Despite the fact that the biases can be automated, the solution can also be automated. By devoutly practicing goals to be fair and objective, we can automate the corrective mechanisms and become as objective as possible (Moskowitz et al., 1999). But the other humans won’t trust us anyway, so then we are back to square one.
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Gilbert, D. T. (1995). Attribution and interpersonal perception. In A. Tesser (Ed.) Advanced social psychology (pp. 99-147). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Mather, R. D., & Romo, A. (2007). Automaticity and cognitive control in social behavior. Southlake, TX: Fountainhead.
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