Jason Brennan on Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan‘s recent book The Ethics of Voting challenges the common assumption that everyone who can vote, should vote, arguing instead that uninformed voters are to blame for everything from bad laws, to wars and disastrous economic policies. In an ongoing series of popular posts for Election 101, (check here, and here, and here), Brennan takes the view that it’s no wonder things are in the state they’re in when the average voter heads to the polls armed with more personal biases than real information, and no ability to tell the difference. With so much at stake, why aren’t we all a bit smarter when it comes to politics? Are we indulging our irrational beliefs at the risk of our own futures? Where does the turf war end and real assessment begin, and why is it so hard for any of us to actually get to that point? Read his new post here:

Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan


Smart Doesn’t Pay

            You cross the street only when you think it’s clear. If you’re wrong, you die. So, you have every incentive to form beliefs about whether the street is clear in a rational way.

Now suppose you are about to vote. What happens if you make a mistake? Alas—not much.
Suppose Obama credibly promises me $10 million from the treasury if he is re-elected. If so, then from a selfish standpoint, having Obama win is worth $10 million more to me than having Romney win. However, that doesn’t yet show it’s worth my time to vote for Obama. My vote is just one of many. I have a better chance of winning Powerball than changing the outcome of the election.

People are fairly rational about checking for street traffic—and they’re not perfect about that—because irrationality is punished. They are irrational about politics because rationality does not pay and irrationality goes unpunished.           

When you go to a new restaurant, you probably spend some time looking over the menu. Maybe you ask the waiter which dishes are best. Maybe you deliberate about pasta or pizza. You put in the effort because you get what you choose.

Imagine a restaurant with a hundred million customers. Each customer places an order. However, customers don’t automatically get the meal they order. Instead, everyone gets the same meal—the most popular item on the menu. In this restaurant, if you order pizza, this has almost no chance of helping you get pizza. You are more likely to win Powerball than to place a tie-breaking order for pizza. In a restaurant like that, you might not even bother to look at the menu. You might not even bother place an order. Putting in effort to make a good choice seems pointless.

Now you know why so many citizens are ignorant and irrational about politics. Regardless of whether we care about others or just ourselves, most of us don’t invest in political knowledge because political knowledge doesn’t pay. We are ignorant because we lack the incentive to be well-informed. We are irrational because we lack the incentive to correct our biases.

Dumb Pays

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, ”Reasoning was not designed to pursue truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” Robert Wright concurs that the human brain evolved to be “a machine for winning arguments,” that is, for seeking victory, not truth.

Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs a person finds pleasing. According to the theory of motivated reasoning, we have preferences over beliefs. We enjoy some beliefs. We tend to believe what we prefer to be true. Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs that maximize good feelings and minimize bad feelings. Our beliefs are determined by emotions, not evidence. For example, I might prefer to think I am smart, I might prefer to think Democrats are good and Republicans are selfish, or I might prefer to think God created the earth 6,000 years ago.

Psychologist Drew Westen performed a famous experiment in which he scanned committed Democrats’ and Republicans’ brains as they engaged in motivated reasoning. One scary finding: As the partisans denied and evaded evidence right in front of their faces, pleasure centers in their brains lit up. Our brains reward us for intellectual vice.

In politics, dumb is fun. It’s fun to think my coalition is made up of all the good guys. It’s fun to feel superior to the other side—to imagine they are all ignorant and corrupt. It’s fun to allow our political beliefs to form an essential part of our identities. It’s fun to treat the Democrat-Republican rivalry like the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry.

We can afford to indulge pleasurable but grossly irrational political beliefs. And, so, most of us do.

The News Once Again Indicates I Was Right All Along

When we first begin thinking about politics, we don’t start as agnostics. That is, we don’t start with the attitude, “Oh, I don’t know anything, so I will withhold judgment until I first study a whole bunch.”

Few of us form our original political beliefs after first weighing the evidence. Instead, when we first start thinking about politics, we come to the table with groundless political beliefs. We begin with bents to believe some things and disbelieve others. For no good reason, each of us starts off left or right, libertarian or authoritarian, market-friendly or anti-market, and so on.

Our political beliefs are at least moderately hereditable. You genes dispose us to vote one way rather than another. Early childhood experiences also push you one way rather than another. By sheer accident, you might come to associate the Democrats with compassion or the Republicans with responsibility. For you, for the rest of your life, the word “Democrat” will automatically conjure up positive emotions. For the rest of your life, you’ll have a bent—based on no evidence at all—to vote one way rather than another.

When people first start thinking about politics, they come to the table with (often strongly held) pre-existing beliefs. That’s already a worry. Yet if we were really good at assessing evidence and changing our beliefs in light of evidence, then our non-rational bents would not be so bad. Sure, we’d start with groundless, baseless beliefs, but we’d end up with well-grounded beliefs. Young people would start as hacks, but end up as sages.

Alas, we are bad at assessing evidence. Most of us stay hacks.

In politics—but not only in politics—we exhibit strong confirmation bias. This means we tend to pay strong attention to and accept evidence in favor of beliefs we already hold, and tend to ignore, reject, or be bored by evidence against beliefs we hold. We tend to be impressed by evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We tend to ignore or be suspicious of evidence that this confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We are bored by evidence that tends to confirm views we reject. We cannot even be bothered to evaluate it. We give every benefit of the doubt to arguments and to people who support our views. We are quick to dismiss arguments and people who reject our views.

Confirmation bias means we don’t act like good scientists when thinking about politics. Instead, it means we act like highly corrupt scientists. We don’t care about the truth. We care about defending our turf.

Confirmation bias explains how we consume news. Thanks to the Internet, information is cheaper and easier to get than ever before. Why isn’t everyone much better informed and much less biased, then? Here’s the problem: People seek out news sources that identify and promote their own points of view. Libertarians read libertarian blogs. Left-liberals read left-liberal newspapers, such as the New York Times. Republicans flock to Fox News. People who consume news want to be informed—they want to be informed that they were right all along.

Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.


  1. Steven Miller says:

    Just a typo comment: fourth paragraph from the bottom states “Most of stay hacks.”

    Guessing that an “us” fits between “of” and “stay”?

  2. This was very interesting and has given me a lot to process. I have certainly experienced a tendency for people in politics to stick to their beliefs, focus on whatever confirms their beliefs and dismiss anything even vaguely opposing. I’m glad you’ve summed it up so well. Thank you.