Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias, Decision Making > Why Students of Politics Should Leave The Colby Hill: The Confirmation Bias

Why Students of Politics Should Leave The Colby Hill: The Confirmation Bias

On Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Although his supporters were excited and triumphant, many students at Colby College and other campuses across America were left shell-shocked. Students at Ivy League colleges – and those at Ivy League wannabees – seemed especially devastated and stunned. The website The College Fix reported numerous scenarios that suggested that students had expected a completely different outcome. Students at Columbia “came running, screaming, and crying to College Walk at 1 a.m.”, and insisted that exams be postponed so they could recover from the ordeal of Trump’s win. Over at Cornell, a completely bewildered student wandered around campus mid-election screaming, “How the f*** is he winning? What the f***?” At Yale, campus organizers actually organized a post-election group primal scream so students could “express their frustration productively.” Even at Penn, Trump’s alma mater, as it appeared likely that Trump would win the election, a student described a “miserable and most depressing scene.” How could some of the supposedly smartest students in America, schooled on the most elite of college campuses be so befuddled? What happened? Were they really so stupid, or had they perhaps been dumbed-down by their rarefied environment and media predictions based on misleading polls? To read more about misleading polls, click here. The answer can be found in a better understanding of the way the brain selects information from the environment, assesses it for accuracy, and reconciles it with pre-existing beliefs.

The psychological phenomenon called the confirmation bias is particularly helpful in explaining the shocked reactions on college campuses. The confirmation bias causes us to only consider information that supports what we already believe in. (Nickerson, 1998). In other words, students were only seeking out information that helped justify what they already believed would happen. They were blindsided by the election because the media they paid attention to and the people whose opinions they valued continuously reinforced their own bias – the idea that Trump was not presidential material and couldn’t possibly win. In addition the primacy effect, that our first inclinations are the strongest and most relevant, (Lingle & Ostrom, 1981) further reinforces the confirmation bias. When Trump first announced his candidacy, the vast majority of individuals at institutions like Colby College decided early on that Trump’s candidacy was a farce. On Ivy League college campuses like Harvard and Yale, over 80 percent of students supported Clinton, and fewer than five percent backed Trump. To read more about how universities across the country responded to the election you can click here. The initial prejudices of Colby College students against Trump, further fueled by reports in the mainstream media they paid attention to, were then ingrained by their college environment’s relative isolation from middle America. Literally, the students were stuck in an echo chamber.


Colby students were also politically dumbed-down by the attentional bias, which is the act of focusing your attention on one thing while ignoring other simultaneously occurring irrelevant or relevant information (McBride and Cutting, 2016). To read another blog post which provides greater detail on the attentional bias click here Students likely zeroed in on information that provided evidence to support their belief that Trump was unelectable, while tuning out competing information that suggested that a sizable percentage of Americans considered him a viable candidate. College students paid attention to Trump’s racist and inappropriate behavior, that they considered unacceptable and repulsive, while ignoring his obvious success in addressing popular topics like jobs, trade, and immigration. Many Americans, who felt left behind and certainly weren’t part of the sorts of groups that tend to gather on elite college campuses, were desperate for a leader to recognize their stress, empathize with their situation, and provide viable solutions. To many people, Trump’s idea of making America great again really translated to making their lives and communities great again. Just guessing, I would think that the majority of Colby’s students already have relatively good lives. Trump’s message just couldn’t resonate with them.

The confirmation bias and the primacy effect combined in order to convince people that Trump stood no shot of winning. Although as the election went on and it became more and more likely that Trump might actually win the presidency, many people still maintained their original stance. The likely reason that they weren’t able to shift their viewpoint is due to a cognitive phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance, which is the mental agitation resulting from simultaneously experiencing conflicting beliefs (Kurtzleben, 1998). Cognitive dissonance helps explain the dramatic displays on college campuses on election night. Students at Colby and other elite institutions just weren’t able to process how Trump, who seemed so vapid and made such ridiculous statements – “I will build a great, great wall…. and make Mexico pay for that wall” – had just been elected president of the United States. After all, given everything students knew and thought to be true, who would possibly vote for Donald Trump? Cognitive dissonance created mass confusion on elite campuses on election night, worsened by own-judgment evaluation. The own-judgment evaluation is where individuals overestimate the accuracy of their own judgments (Einhorn & Hogarth, 1978). Most students felt so strongly that Trump couldn’t, wouldn’t, and shouldn’t win, that his victory left them suspended in an alternate universe.

From a distance and given everything psychology can help teach us about how we judge our reality, it becomes easy to understand how students couldn’t understand Trump’s victory. We all make these mistakes on a daily basis and sometimes in ways that profoundly affect our life. For example, if you think your psychology class is ridiculously hard, then you might selectively befriend people who also aren’t doing well in the class. You might ignore warning signs that your study habits aren’t as effective as your classmates, and you might have trouble believing that you are wrong. So what does this mean to students at elite institutions like Colby College that really want to understand the current political environment in the United States? Unless you are really paying close attention to psychology and cognitive miscalculations, and are also keenly aware of the inherent problems of surrounding yourself with those who think just like you, then you may remain stranded in that state of cognitive dissonance where you just can’t understand why sometime like Trump could be president. Of course, not all college campuses are so elitist as to make it difficult to understand and reenter mainstream society. Colby is a special place, and maybe there is an argument for being above the fray, the light on the hill. However, if you don’t want to find yourself in a surreal political universe – leave “The Hill”, at least occasionally.

 

 

References

Einhorn, H. J., & Hogarth, R. M. (1978). Confidence in judgment: Persistence of the illusion of validity. Psychological Review85, 395–416. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.85.5.395

Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific America, vol 207(4). Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican1062-93

Huber, D. (2016, November 9). College newspapers, students freak out over Trump election victory. Retrieved from https://www.thecollegefix.com/post/29853/

 

Kurtzleben, D. (2016, November 14). 4 Possible reasons the polls got it so wrong this year. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2016/11/14/502014643/4-possible-reasons-the-polls-got-it-so-wrong-this-year

Lingle, J. H., & Ostrom, T. M. (1981). Principles of memory and cognition in attitude formation. In R. E. Petty, T. M. Ostrom, & T.

McBride, D. M., & Cutting, J. C. (2016). Cognitive psychology: theory, process, and methodology. Los Angeles: Sage

Nickerson, Raymond S. (June 1998). “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises”. Review of General Psychology2 (2): 175–220. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.2.2.175

Svurluga, Susan. ( 2016, November 9). Mobs of tearful, angry students protesting Trump victory swarm college campuses. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/11/09/mobs-of-tearful-angry-students-protesting-trump-victory-swarm-campuses/?utm_term=.b001f4882ee2

Visual References

Yun Soo Kim. (2016, November 9). Devastated Cornellians mourn the election of Donald Trump at cry in. The Cornell Daily Sun. Retrieved from http://cornellsun.com/2016/11/09/devastated-cornellians-mourn-election-of-donald-trump-at-cry-in/

Calder, A. (2016, December 1). Colby College students march against hate, Trump immigration plans. Kennebec Journal. Retrieved from http://www.centralmaine.com/2016/12/01/colby-college-students-march-against-hate-trump-immigration-plans/

Paradise_50. (2015, July 23). Trump Corn Silk. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/64766527@N08/19937032551/in/photostream/

Worch, R. (2015, February 5). Worch Capital. Retrieved from http://worchcapital.blogspot.com/2015/02/psychology-of-markets-confirmation.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. April 30th, 2017 at 15:33 | #1

    I agree that it is easier to receive and share news in an echo chamber than it is to appreciate opposing viewpoints – and this holds true for both liberals and conservatives. (However, I would be careful in stating that students at elite colleges were shocked at the outcome because of our sheltered lives; I think most people in America, certainly from all across the political spectrum, were surprised given polling that strongly suggested a different outcome).

    Psychological research has shown that confirmation bias impacts our memory. One study by Frost and colleagues (2015) demonstrated that we have better recognition memory for statements that are in concert with our personal views. Moreover, Frost et al. (2015) cite other psychological research that demonstrates that schema-consistent information is remembered better than schema-inconsistent information, even in incidental learning scenarios (Pezdek et al., 1981). Thus, if a Trump supporter believed that illegal Mexican immigrants were the cause of his or her economic struggles and then heard Trump say something like this: “[Mexicans are] taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us” (Politi, Jul 12 2015), that person’s viewpoint is reinforced. In order for it to be considered confirmation bias, the supporter would also have to fail to seek out other viewpoints, or denigrate opposing viewpoints when exposed to them. Indeed, Trump led by example: He chose the tactic of denigrating whomever disagreed with him on a personal level (“Crooked Hillary”), rather than on a policy or ideas level, such that their viewpoints on immigration and economic growth were likely not seriously considered by his supporters. The cycle of confirmation bias continues if Trump’s supporters only receive their news from Fox News and do not seek out other sources of information. According to the aforementioned psychological research, these methods of incidental encoding – hearing Trump’s words at a rally or on TV, and watching Fox News – of schema-consistent information strengthens their memory for that information.

    Overall, I’m not surprised how often Trump has come up in these blog posts. He certainly provides plenty of fodder for psychologists!

    Frost, P., Casey, B., Griffin, K., Raymundo, L., Farrell, C., & Carrigan, R. (2015). The influence of confirmation bias on memory and source monitoring. Journal of General Psychology, 142(4), 238-252. doi:10.1080/00221309.2015.1084987

    Pezdek, K., Whetstone, T., Reynolds, K., Askari, N., & Dourghtery, T. (1989). Memory
    for real-world scenes: The role of consistency with schema expectation. Journal of
    Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 15, 587–595.

    Politi, D. (Jul 12 2015). Donald Trump in Phoenix: Mexicans are ‘taking our jobs’ and ‘killing us’. Slate Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/07/12/donald_trump_in_phoenix_mexicans_are_taking_our_jobs_and_killing_us.html

  2. May 4th, 2017 at 12:08 | #2

    I really enjoyed this post and thought that it spoke to me the most. Your post was very refreshing, and I feel as though both your discussion and application to psychological mechanisms are needed in today’s political world. As a student studying both Government and Psychology, I have shared these same feelings and beliefs. The Government department at Colby is a body of privileged students, taught by professors preaching the messages that we long to hear. Our opinions are, as you put it and your bias puts it, confirmed. I also enjoyed your inclusion of the topic of attention with your bias. It is obvious that Colby students (and professors) were “inattentionally blind” (Mack and Rock 1998) to Trump’s qualifications, popularity, and true political power as a Presidential candidate. All we saw was his image; the nation saw his message. This is indeed why Colby professors and students like myself were shocked by his victory in the end. To people not in the snow globe of high education and liberal arts, the message spoke louder than the image. Once again, this post does a great job of threading out unbiased political science using a psychological mechanism.

  3. ssanchez
    May 11th, 2017 at 19:23 | #3

    This was a very interesting post that touched on so many different components of cognitive psychology. The topic you chose was controversial and extremely relevant to current events- two things to keep any readers attention. The part that very much resonated me was the mention of the own-judgement evaluation. Initially, I was intrigued because it somewhat reminded me of my cognitive biases- Murphy’s Law that states “if something can go wrong, it will”. I wondered what connections there were between overestimating the accuracy of our judgments and expecting something good but getting the worst thing possible. So I went ahead to read the paper you cited and found some very interesting connections to my biases. Murphy’s law questions why we still trust our intuition so much, if every time we are proven wrong. Similarly, this paper touches up on the difficulty people have with thinking outside of what they believe is true or should occur. Specifically, I enjoyed reading about Wason (1960) experiment that demonstrated that difficulty of disconfirming, often times, erroneous ideas. When doing research for my blog I found myself trying to find direct connections between Murphy’s Law and cognitive psychology but after reading this I became somewhat more convinced that decision making and our willingness to stand by what we believe will happen can directly connect to my topic.

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