What follows is a guest blog post, written by Carly M. Jacobs, a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her research interests include group identity, political psychology, biology and politics, and political behavior.
Accusations of hypocrisy are standard ammunition for liberals and conservatives alike. After all, what could be more damning than pointing out that support for any particular policy hinges solely on the partisan affiliation of the sitting president? From a purely political standpoint, this sort of changeability can be maddening and more than a bit disheartening, as expressed by Greenwald and Kohen. But, if we take a step back and look at the situation in the context of basic human predispositions, I would argue that this irksome hypocrisy is simply a byproduct of ordinary psychology.
In an ideal world, progressives, for example, would be able to look at the policies of the Obama administration, evaluate their content, recognize that those policies are incongruent with their preferences (just like they were when implemented by George W. Bush), and oppose them accordingly. More generally, humans would be what social scientists call “Bayesian updaters,” adjusting our attitudes and beliefs in accordance with the credibility of each piece of incoming information. As usual, however, the reality falls far short of normative perfection. Our brains simply don’t work that way.
A considerable body of research in both psychology and political science supports the notion that we are not neutral receivers of information. Our standing attitudes and predispositions exert a considerable amount of influence on how we grapple with and process input from the political environment. For example, political scientists are now finding compelling evidence that factors as fundamental as our genetics and physiology (e.g. non-conscious bodily reactions to environmental stimuli) produce marked variation in the way we encounter, and interact with, the world. At a base level, we find that conservatives tend to be more attentive and responsive to things that have aversive or negative content while liberals tend to focus on more appetitive or positive stimuli. These tendencies underlie the consistent ideological differences in political attitudes and preferences we see and may explain why those differences often seem irreconcilable.
Looking at the discussion between Kohen and Greenwald, it appears to be an example of cognitive information-processing issues examined thoroughly by Taber and Lodge, among other political psychologists: confirmation and disconfirmation biases. When confronted with information that matches up with our pre-existing attitudes and beliefs, we accept it without much extra thought or criticism. When we encounter information that is incongruent, however, we spend a good deal more time and effort arguing against it or may reject it out-of-hand. We also know that source matters a great deal—who or where the information is coming from serves as a cue for whether we should to accept, reject, or spend time thinking about what it is that they’re saying, regardless of the actual content.,
Roll these biases together and you come up with something that may look a lot like hypocrisy. Progressives receive a lot of ideologically congruent information from the Obama administration and are therefore inclined to give it an easy pass right out of the gate. They are also likely to view the administration as a reliable source of accurate information and are far more likely to give Obama the benefit of the doubt than his predecessor, even if the information coming in is the same.
Importantly, vulnerability to this uneven treatment of information is widespread—it is not exclusive to liberals or conservatives. As such, it is absolutely unsurprising to see finger-pointing, on both sides of the ideological spectrum, at inconsistencies akin to the ones Greenwald discusses.
Ultimately, whether we’re dealing with hypocrisy or heuristic, the larger concern we have to contend with is the effect of this widespread information-processing bias on our democratic processes. It undoubtedly has some fairly profound implications. We already have evidence that people reliably seek out news and information from sources that align with their personal political beliefs, rejecting information from sources they perceive to be ideologically opposed to their point of view. Taber and Lodge find a connection between these biases and political polarization. A promising new research endeavor by Wagner, Theiss-Morse, and Mitchell focuses on the fact that our political discourse has far exceeded disagreement and escalated to the full-fledged vilification of the “other side.”
Kohen is right on the money when he notes that we’re dealing with “ordinary Americans who are faced with unfolding events and who are balancing some things they believe against other things they believe, sometimes more and sometimes less successfully.” Perhaps this is wishful thinking but, if we can be aware that what looks like “repulsive hypocrisy” is actually built into human nature, we can approach political disagreements with a bit more perspective and recognize when our own positions are more a product of basic brain behavior than critical thinking.