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Understanding the Impact: Social Identity, Emotional Reasoning, & Cognitive Biases on Public Opinion

A man holding to signs of the US Political Parties and unsure to vote

Public opinion changes over time through often mysterious forces. But social scientists are beginning to discover a number of influences that change the way we see the world and cast our votes.

Social Identity and Politics

Most people identify with a number of social groups including families, circles of friends, ethnic or religious groups, and more. Membership in these groups gives people support, an important sense of belonging, and self-esteem. It can also influence people’s political decisions.

A research paper by Elizabeth Mitchell and Neil A. O’Brian states that social groups are very influential in terms of voting behavior. Mitchell and O’Brian explained that when people feel aligned with a particular group (i.e. the LGBTQ+ community), they predict which politicians the group may support and vote accordingly.

However, while most people feel strongly about groups they belong to, Mitchell and O’Brian point out they don’t necessarily have to be part of that group to support a particular viewpoint. A person doesn’t have to be LGBTQ+ to support policies benefitting that group.

Of course, in politics two other important groups come into play – Democrat and Republican. Many Americans identify strongly with one party or another, although a 2020 PEW Research Center survey found that a less-often-discussed 34% of respondents identified as Independents.

Certain ethnic or religious groups are often aligned with a particular party. A 2018 PEW Research report found the Democratic party was popular among Black and Hispanic voters, while white Evangelical Christians, Catholics and Mormons supported the Republican party.

In-group Bias

Identifying strongly with a particular group also tends to create in-group bias. This means people within a group have a higher tendency to criticize, discount, or give harsher treatment to those not in the group.

As a result, a firm Democrat may not believe anything a sworn Republican has to say. This can lead to a breakdown in political discourse, debate, and cooperation.

Many Americans are feeling the effects of an increasingly polarized political landscape. In a 2019 PEW Research survey, 85% of participants said the tone of political debate in America has become more negative.

In today’s world, it can often seem like each side is putting its figurative hands over its ears while yelling at the other group.

And it’s not just political debate that has changed. The American House of Representatives has become increasingly divided since the 1980s. Politicians are less likely to reach across the aisle to cooperate with people on the “other team.”

Unfortunately, this is bad for democracy. When people are exposed to different ways of seeing the world, they cooperate more and prejudice is minimized. Too much division means citizens can’t get along and governments can’t get anything done.

Emotional Reasoning

Research shows that humans are most rational when in a relatively neutral mood. Participants put into positive or negative moods under research conditions perform worse on tests of logic.

When people are fearful, angry, and even enthusiastic, their decision-making abilities are affected. These emotions have all been studied by researchers and found to influence people’s political choices and actions.

Emotional Reasoning in Politics

Emotions impact people’s political behavior as follows:

  • Fear can increase trust in the government. One study showed it can make people less likely to vote for the far right politically.

  • Oddly, anxiety can drive people to behave more rationally, and look for good information to inform their viewpoints.

  • Anger often decreases trust in the government. Angry people are also more likely to vote for the far right, support riskier political policies, and vote according to habit.

  • Enthusiasm has been linked to increased political action. Like anger it also prompts support of more daring policies and habitual voting.

Politicians and their advisors are very aware of this, and shape political messaging to inspire all of these emotions. Very emotional people are less likely to behave logically and examine policies closely, after all.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of emotional messaging in politics from campaign advertisements to slogans like “build back better,” or “make America great.”

Some research shows that establishment politicians tend to emphasize fear while populists emphasize anger. This makes sense given that fear makes people more likely to trust the establishment and anger to distrust it.

There are many examples of this in American politics. In 2022, President Biden inspired fear by saying, “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

In a 2021 speech, President Trump stoked anger by saying, “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they're doing.”

Video Thumbnail of the The Power Of Psychographic Marketing, Impact On Elections, And Polarization with Marty Weintraub

Cognitive Biases in Politics

It’s not only emotions that influence people’s decision-making process. Cognitive biases can also be problematic.

Two of these biases in particular have an impact on politics – confirmation bias and the availability heuristic.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias means people tend to believe information that matches their worldview and discount facts that don’t.

This makes people less open to understanding both sides of an issue. It makes views more entrenched, even in the face of contradictory information. It can also lead to increased tension when discussing current affairs with someone holding different views.

Politicians want to be popular with those who support them and tend to affirm beliefs their supporters already hold. Democrats reinforce the efficacy of government spending on social programs while Republicans push for tax cuts. Both sides use statistics that support their own positions and ignore information that would contradict them.

Availability Heuristic

People use the availability heuristic to determine the likelihood of an event. Since most of us don’t have time to gather statistics on everything we do, we use a shortcut and remember examples of recently available information. For example, with so many kidnapping stories in the media, people tend to believe strangers are accountable for most kidnapping cases, when in reality parents are responsible for over 90% of abductions.

Like other people, political leaders use availability heuristics to make policy decisions.

Politicians also use availability heuristics by repeating messages they want people to remember. As a result, when people consider an issue, the politician’s message will come to mind first, making something seem more likely or important than it is.

For example, before the 2022 midterm elections, President Biden repeatedly claimed seniors were getting a large increase on their social security checks because of his policies. In reality, social security amounts did increase but this was because of high inflation, not policy. Since President Biden’s message was more immediate, those hearing it would likely remember what the president said without doing more research.

The Intersection of Social Identity, Emotional Reasoning, and Cognitive Biases

Of course, social identity, emotional reasoning and cognitive biases all work together.

Social identity leads people to criticize and mistrust those across the political aisle. Emotional reasoning makes voting less rational. Confirmation bias and the availability heuristic cause people to see the world very differently from one another. The intersection of these influences leads to a perfect storm of division, mistrust, and the inability to understand one another.

It could be argued that these elements led to the January 6 riot (or protest, depending on who you ask) on the Capitol. Social identity led Republicans to feel threatened by Democrats and justified in fighting for their viewpoint. President Trump played on the availability heuristic and stoked anger when he frequently asserted the election had been stolen. And confirmation bias leads many Republicans to insist there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election and discount any claims to the contrary.

The Takeaway

Although most of these influences are unconscious, as this article goes to show, awareness of them is on the rise. The more people become aware of how they reach their decisions, the more they can make a choice to have an open-minded discussion with someone holding different beliefs, evaluate information when calm, and take the time to research the facts.

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