What Can We Do About Political Polarization?

Research reveals one way to overcome confirmation bias.

Posted Jul 06, 2019

Mariam El AICHAOUI. Comite. [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons
Source: Mariam El AICHAOUI. Comite. [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons

We are experiencing a world out of imbalance—personally, politically, economically, and environmentally. Falling into political polarization, Americans have been reacting defensively, attacking “the other side” instead of working together to solve our problems.

One reason for this polarization is what psychologists call the “confirmation bias,” in which our beliefs and emotions cloud our perception, making us interpret information to match our expectations (Evans, 2016; Nickerson, 1998). We too often see what we want to see, what we fear to see, or what we hope to see instead of what’s really there.

The confirmation bias undermines our relationships, our effectiveness at work, and our ability to solve problems both personally and politically.

As far back as the 17th century, Francis Bacon (1620) recognized this tendency, calling our biases “The Four Idols.” He identified them as the Idols of the Cave (bias based on personal experience), the Tribe (bias based on limits of human senses and emotional reactions), the Theatre (bias based on our belief systems), and the Marketplace (bias based on responses to words and symbols).

For years, studies of the confirmation bias have shown how our underlying expectations shape our perception of reality (Nickerson, 1998). For example, people have attributed intelligence and academic success to children based on their parents’ socioeconomic status (Darley & Gross, 1983). And today, getting our news from a single cable TV channel inevitably shapes our perception of current events.

The confirmation bias raises a serious question: If we are seeing our world through lenses colored by our expectations, how can we possibly understand and solve the complex problems of our time?

One answer comes from two studies at the University of Illinois. Researchers Ivan Hernandez and Jesse Lee Preston (2013) asked study participants to read political and legal texts in either Times New Roman or a hard-to-read, dysfluent version (in an unfamiliar font or a faintly legible version, degraded by successive photocopying). They found that the effort required to read the material in the dysfluent text made the participants slow down, producing a more careful, thoughtful consideration of the material. Instead of responding with confirmation bias, participants engaged more of their higher-level cognitive ability.

According to the researchers, the “results suggest that changing the style of an argument’s presentation can lead to attitude change, by promoting more comprehensive consideration of opposing views” (Hernandez & Preston, 2013, p. 178).

Further studies could offer additional insight, revealing the different brain areas involved. But from this study, we can see that slowing down to focus can help us overcome confirmation bias.

Perhaps the next time you find yourself confronting a heated political issue or facing someone with opposing views, you could try slowing down to focus and engage your higher-level cognitive resources.


Photo:  Mariam El AICHAOUI. Comite. [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Comit%C3%A9.jpg

Bacon, F. (1620). Novum Organum. London. Accessed from Constitution Society https://www.constitution.org/bacon/nov_org.htm.

Darley, J.M., & Gross, P. H. (1983). A hypothesis confirming bias in labeling effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 20-33.

Evans, J.T.S.B. (2016) Reasoning, biases and dual processes: The lasting impact of Wason (1960),The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69, 2076-2092.

Hernandez, I., & Preston, J. L. (2013). Disfluency disrupts the confirmation bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 49(1), 178-182.

 Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175–220.