Political Polarization and "The Blindfold Effect"

Image courtesy of National Public Radio

Image courtesy of National Public Radio

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. – Donald Trump

The 2016 presidential campaign has been marked by a series of inflammatory, nasty statements. Donald Trump, for example, has become famous for attacking almost everyone. In addition to the statement above about Mexicans, he said this about his rival, Carly Fiorina, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” and this about his fellow Republican, John McCain, “[He’s] not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Here’s another one: “Now, extreme views about women, we expect that from some of the terrorist groups… but it’s a little hard to take from [someone] who wants to be the president of the United States.” That quote isn’t from Trump or another Republican, though; it’s Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s not-so-subtle way of comparing Trump to a terrorist. And Bernie Sanders has said that Trump’s views are “an embarrassment to our country.” So, it’s clear that politically charged, aggressive comments are coming from both Republicans and Democrats.  

This back-and-forth hostility isn’t restricted to politicians: most voters avoid talking about their political views at a dinner party for fear of turning it into a cage match. Why does politics bring out so much hostility in people? More importantly, living in a country that embraces free speech, how do we get people to feel comfortable sharing and listening to different perspectives while keeping an open mind?

My graduate school mentor, Dr. Lee Ross, divided pro-Arab and pro-Israeli people into groups and showed them television footage of a massacre that occurred in Beirut. His research team then asked each group whether they thought the news report was accurate or not, and whether it was biased in favor of either side. Interestingly, participants in both groups thought the footage and commentators were biased in favor of the opposing side. This idea, which Dr. Ross calls the hostile media phenomenon, has become a valuable tool in understanding why conflicts exist between groups and how to help resolve them.

The participants in Dr. Ross’ study felt they were viewing the footage objectively, something he refers to as “naive realism.” Naive realism explains why people with different political views refuse to listen to each other: both sides feel they’re right and that people who don't share their views must be biased, irrational, or stupid.

Arguably, this concept extends to how we consume political commentary. It’s common for liberal media outlets like The Huffington Post to link to and cite other liberal sources, and the same holds true for conservative outlets like the Drudge Report. The coverage of these media giants strengthens the hostile media phenomenon by inciting bias (i.e., people continue to hear the side of the story they already believe). This helps explain why people with different views can become so polarized, and how their discussions can turn ugly so quickly.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to politics. It extends to many areas where people have differing viewpoints, whether it’s sports, religion, or avoiding gluten-free food. I refer to this tendency to refuse to consider other people’s perspectives as “The Blindfold Effect.” This phrase refers to the classic Indian story of a group of blind men who describe an elephant after touching it. The catch is, each of them touches a different part of the animal. One man touches the trunk and describes an elephant as an animal entirely composed of a long scaly trunk, while another man touches the tusk and describes an elephant as being smooth and sharp. Each man’s description of the elephant is right, of course, but it’s also wrong because they have limited information. They refuse to listen to what the other men have to say about the elephant because they are certain that their perspective is correct.

In the same way, people think their political views are correct, even though they primarily are open to views from only one source (e.g., Fox News or MSNBC). Because of people’s blindfolds, they learn to ignore, and sometimes mock or despise, opinions from the other side.

To combat the bias that comes from reading news, watching television programming, and talking with others who share likeminded ideas, remember one simple trick: before making a judgment, put yourself into the shoes of “the other.” This can be as simple as pretending that you’re having a debate where you represent the opposition. Ultimately, your opinion might not change, but you will get some insight into why others support a candidate who might seem dishonest or, well, crazy.

Of course, preventing The Blindfold Effect isn’t as simple as considering the other side’s perspective, but there is an increasing body of research showing that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can reduce conflict and increase positive political discourse. But I’ll save that research for a future post…

Sean Young PhD

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com