6 Cognitive Biases That Make Politics Irrational

04/14/2013 11:16 EDT | Updated 06/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Politics are messy and erratic. People are volatile and illogical.

Perhaps there may be a correlation here?

Sexism, war, corruption, racism, torture, slavery, and inequality seem to be chronic societal problems -- democratic freedoms are sharply declining, the global economy is limping along, the environment is inching ever closer to that point of irreversible decay, and to top it off, we have a fickle dictatorship threatening nuclear war.

Yet our current worldwide political, economic, environmental, and nuclear troubles are not entirely our own doing -- well at least not consciously that is.

Critical psychological analyses have observed time and again that we humans are somewhat of a predictably irrational species -- repeatedly engaging in a multitude of nonsensical behaviours -- evolutionary hand-me-downs from a forlorn period of human tribal interaction that scientists have come to refer to as cognitive biases.

In turn, these seemingly irrational flaws in judgement can lead to perpetual distortion, inaccurate judgement, and illogical interpretation -- all of which are key ingredients in the widening of cultural rifts, the deepening of global disparity gaps, and the general intensifying of political upheavals.

The good news is that just by being aware of how cognitive biases alter our thinking and decision-making, we may be less likely to fall victim to them in the first place -- paving the way for a more globally conscious international citizenry to arrive at more politically, socially, economically, and environmentally cognisant conclusions.

1) Confirmation bias -- We tend to agree with people who agree with us, forming culturally cohesive social circles based upon similar viewpoints, and unconsciously referencing only those perspectives which reaffirm our deeply entrenched beliefs -- as I've written before, the Internet can in part be attributed to the increasing prevalence of this bias.

At the same time, we overly-scrutinize, dismiss, and outright ignore opinions, figures, or evaluations -- no matter how comprehensive -- that challenge our self-constructed worldviews. This contributes to overconfidence in one's personal beliefs, leading to lopsided decision-making in political and economic contexts.

2) Ingroup bias -- Similarly to confirmation bias, due to our species innate tribal desire to be socially accepted, we tend to favour the thoughts, ideals, and sentiments of those with whom we racially, culturally, and ethnocentrically identify with most.

Unsurprisingly, this means we are inadvertently -- and at times advertently -- suspicious, fearful, and even disdainful of the preferences, wants, needs, and values of groups that we struggle to identify with. Racial profiling, Islamophobia, and the predominant culture of fearing "the other" all characterise such ingroup biases.

3) Status-quo bias -- Due to our unproven assumption that fresh alternatives are inferior to our current state of affairs, we are apprehensive of change. Thus people's preferences tend to be motivated by a desire to keep things as familiar as possible.

The repercussions of this bias confines us to the same routines, political parties, and economic strategies -- i.e. America's perpetual inability to enact healthcare reform -- and overall, this nostalgic longing for an antiquated and illusory status quo serves as the driving force behind many of the unfounded ideologies of modern conservatism.

4) Negativity bias -- People seem to give more weight to negative experiences -- not just because we're morbid, but because given the choice, our cognitive selective attention processes identify negative news as inherently important or profound.

There are plenty of theories why we emphasise pessimism -- suspicion, boredom, the fact that evolutionarily, heeding bad news could be more advantageous than disregarding good news, but nonetheless, violence, crime, and other injustices are steadily declining -- yet most people still believe the world to be getting worse.

5) False-consensus bias -- As we are limited in understanding circumstances outside of our own consciousness, we tend to believe that most other people think just like we do -- although there may be no justification for such an assumption.

Especially rampant in group settings, false consensus biases can make us accept that the opinions, preferences, and values of our own group match those of the larger population -- since group members reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everyone thinks that way. This is the sort of groupthink that convinces religious and political radicals they have greater support.

6) Temporal bias -- A psychological tragedy of the commons, we have much difficulty imagining ourselves and our global commons in the future, and thus we struggle at altering our behaviours in order to safeguard said imagined future.

This lack of self-control, where most of us would rather exchange serious pains in the not-to-distant future for menial pleasures in the moment, personifies the impulsive decision-making that has led to the financial meltdown, urban saturation, political corruption, and general slighting of imminent environmental cataclysms.

With all this narcissism, egotism, prejudice, conformity, pessimism, and impulsiveness, it's a wonder that we've made it this far -- yet here we stand, alive and kicking, just as irrationally as ever.

But if there's something positive to draw from these realisations, it's that the content and direction of cognitive biases are not arbitrary -- once exposed, these psychological deficiencies can be successfully mitigated and controlled.

So while the majority of us may be prone to these errors in rational judgement, we can also be more aware of them. And who knows, if we can manage to re-rationalise how we think, act, and treat one another, perhaps our politics will follow suit.