Big Sort

In Politics, It’s Not What They Say; It’s What You Hear

All the back and forth about the truth or untruth of the latest campaign ad misses what’s really happening. It’s not what people say that matters in today’s politics. It’s what people hear.

Voters go out of their way not to hear what upsets their existing beliefs. Fewer and fewer Republicans listened to the State of the Union addresses during the Clinton years. With Bush in office, Democrats have avoided the annual rite.

We listen selectively so that we hear what we want to hear. University of Kansas professor Diana Carlin has studied how Americans watch presidential debates. She found we rarely listen to help us make up our minds. We gather with like-minded others, and we listen to confirm our pre-existing beliefs. We don’t look for enlightenment, only for confirmation.

This isn’t exactly a new discovery. Francis Bacon wrote in Novum Organum (1620) that the “human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.” When Paul Lazarsfeld studied Erie County, Ohio, during the 1940 presidential election, he found that voters “somehow contrive to select out of the passing stream of stimuli those by which they are more inclined to be persuaded. … So it is that the more they read and listen, the more convinced they become of the rightness of their own position.”

This has nothing to do with ideology. Politics isn’t about ideology. It’s about joining a team, and we judge fairness as partisans. In 1951, Princeton and Dartmouth students watched a film of a football game and were asked to take note of foul play. Princeton stalwarts saw all the penalties that should have been called on the Dartmouth players. Dartmouth students were convinced the refs missed clips and offsides committed by the Princeton players.

We judge politics the same way—as team members, not truth-seekers. Last week the Washington Post reported on a slew of experiments showing that political misinformation feeds people’s pre-existing beliefs. In one study, in fact, contrary information served to reinforce existing beliefs, not shake them. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler gave Bush supporters a report showing that Iraq did not have WMDs at the time of the invasion. This information only increased Republicans’ belief that Iraq had hidden or destroyed the weapons just before the attacks began. Hearing contrary information tends to reinforce existing beliefs, not shake them. (Their full paper is here .)

Paul Lazarsfeld in 1940 observed that Americans were preoccupied with the need for free and open avenues of discussion. A restricted flow of information wasn’t democracy’s most serious threat, Lazarsfeld wrote. A bigger impediment to democratic debate was having too many citizens who had already decided how they would vote. Because, Lazarsfeld noted, “we find that consumers of ideas, if they have made a decision on the issue, themselves erect high tariff walls against alien notions.” What was the point of a presidential campaign if nobody was listening—if few people were able to hear what the other side was saying?

The political scientist was disturbed that half of Erie County’s residents had picked their candidate soon after the parties’ summer conventions. He felt that such a large number already committed to a candidate threatened to make a campaign pointless. That was 1940. In 2008, 90 percent of voters say they have already decided how they’ll vote in November.