Whose bias do we seek?

There is no question that the Belizean electorate is made up of intelligent people, who are able to analyze facts, and are not afraid of the engaging in the hard work necessary to achieve a goal that they believe in.

Belize City Mayor Darrell Bradley reminded us of this fact in his speech at the Tenth of September official ceremony last Monday. Bradley, backed by empirical and historical data, said no real change or positive revolution could be forged where there is disunity.

As intelligent Belizeans, we know this. Nevertheless, some disuniting factors continue to infiltrate and divide our people, and by extension it divides the country’s intellectual capital – a fact that was evidenced  in the United Democratic Party (UDP)’s exclusion of the People’s United Party (PUP) in the current “Super bond” renegotiations.

It is obvious that the culture of political polarization in Belize is one of those disuniting factors.

It is not a unique phenomenon to Belize, and its results are generally the same in any democracy. It creates a sharp difference in beliefs along the left-right political spectrum as it relates to political, economic and even social views.

But why do so many go to such lengths to be so biased to the point of rejecting even proven facts when it opposes their partisan affiliation?

Polarization and the “Clarion Call”

Psychologists have sought to answer that same question, but to get to their findings, let’s first revisit an odd incident that occurred in the 1950s, which was chronicled in the book “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schacter (Festinger et. Al).

Festinger and his associates wrote the story of a U.S.-based UFO cult known then as The Seekers. The group was founded and led by Mrs. Dorothy Martin, a Chicago housewife who supposedly received an extraterrestrial warning of an apocalyptic flood. The message came from a so-called planet called Clarion.

She and her followers believed that only they would survive because the advanced warning also provided a prescription on how they were to handle the situation.

On December 20, 1954, the cult’s members – who had quit jobs, left school and even parted with money and other earthly possessions – gathered at the pre-ordained location, and waited for the spacecraft that was to take them to safety. Needless to say, they waited in vain. Their prophecy had failed.

Now you would think that the failed prediction would have caused the members to abandon their beliefs, but the group shifted their energies into a new “message”. The earth had been given a second chance because of their “devout efforts.”

The followers became even more dedicated, and the group – functioning under a different name – is still reportedly active today, even after Martin’s death in 1992.

This study formed the foundation of Festinger’s social psychological theory of cognitive dissonance.

The modern psychology theory suggests that when someone receives information that conflicts with their pre-existing ideas, beliefs, values, etcetera, it creates disharmony (dissonance) in the person’s psyche that is expressed through feelings of surprise, guilt, embarrassment, or even anger.

Festinger’s work suggests that individuals have an instinctive motivation to try and reduce the emotional and mental disharmony (which he called “dissonance reduction”) in one of three ways: reducing the importance of the fact that caused the disharmony (the dissonant elements), creating a new belief (adding a consonant element) that engenders a new and consistent belief system, or simply changing one of the dissonant factors by altering exiting beliefs.

The Seekers – obviously faced with myriads of negative and conflicting facts – added a consonant element to essentially silence the disharmony brought on by the failed prophecy. They held their beliefs even though the facts said otherwise.

Doesn’t it sound somewhat similar (of course this was an extreme case) to what goes on in the realm of political polarization, where individuals choose to stick to their guns even when faced with facts?

“Opening the Political Mind”

In 2011, a research led by political scientist and media critic Brendan Nyhan took Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance and dissonance reduction and applied them to the political arena, showing that polarization is a matter of the irrational heart than of the rational mind.

Nyhan wrote: “Acknowledging a fact that contradicts one’s opinion or partisan affiliation on a salient issue can threaten an individual’s worldview and thereby motivate them to hold and defend false or unsupported belief. … [Therefore] Buttressing people’s self-worth may lower the psychic cost of accepting inconvenient facts they are otherwise unwilling to acknowledge.”

Nyhan’s study on the correlation between the administered self-affirmation treatment and the decreased levels of resistance to information that would have normally created the cognitive dissonance also made a startling discovery.

He reported that many respondents, who received only the affirmation treatment, performed better at objectively answering factual questions across the three political issues raised, even though they were not given any corrective information.

“This result suggest that many of these respondents know the correct answers but were unwilling or unable to acknowledge that fact if they were not affirmed. In other words, self-affirmation may be important not because it makes people more open to new information, but because it allows them to accept dissonant information they already possess but would otherwise reject.”

Bringing it closer

 to home

Nyphan’s work and others like it present an interesting answer to the origins of an age-old question of why so many people keep partisan affiliations even when the evidence suggests that their opponents’ point of view are either as good or better.

In Belize, for example, many individuals would complain that the two major political parties are “cut from the same cloth” and are equally guilty of failing the country to varying degrees; but  not many folks venture off into the realms of the Third-Party alternative.

Could it be that accepting the idea that the alternatives may be onto something is too challenging to pre-existing worldviews and ideas of self-worth; therefore, it leads to the motivation to lower the importance of a third opinion (dissonance reduction by lowering the importance of the dissonant factor)?

Or let’s take the PUP administration that engaged in activities that led to the $547 million “super bond.” Even their own former leader, Hon. John Briceño, blasted the party’s upper ranks on Positive Vibes radio:

“First of all I agree with the former party leader where he said that we can’t continue to use the issue about money as an excuse, but I want to ask where are those millionaires, those people that made millions of dollars over the 10 years when we were in government?

Where are those people that benefited and made millions? … They  need to write out cheques; they need to bring money back to the PUP! … That money does not belong in foreign bank accounts!”

Nevertheless, amidst internal strife, accusations of corruption, and more, the party managed to regain 14 out of the 31 seats in the House of Representatives in this year’s election.

In different ways, many persons have also taken issue with the incumbent government’s report card; however, that has not changed their support base that much.

As stated before, Belizeans are intelligent people. We must be able to keep an open mind and put country first. We must remind ourselves that policy decisions made today affect all Belizeans, both in the present and future.

We also must remember that challenging the status quo is important because the challenges that our country face today cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them.

This is the core concept of innovation: doing things in a new and better way that is based on empirical evidence and objective facts.

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