New poll illustrates confirmation bias, Trump less popular than lice

Posted on May 10, 2016

A just-released Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey found that Donald Trump supporters inhabit an alternate reality. They believe in obvious falsehoods. Why is that and what does it mean for political discourse?

The poll, released on May 10, found that Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by a margin of 47 to 41 percent in a head-to-head matchup. That’s just a snapshot and not a very interesting one.

But PPP went further. It found that only 34 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. Among that group:

  • 65 percent believe that President Obama is a Muslim and only 13 percent think he’s a Christian, 22 percent are unsure.
  • 59 percent believe President Obama was not born in the United States and only 23 percent think that he was, 18 percent are unsure.
  • 24 percent believe Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered while 42 percent think he died naturally, another 34 percent are unsure.

Millions of Americans are living in a political fantasyland. But that’s nothing new. In 2012, fully 63 percent of Republicans still believed that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” when the United States invaded in 2003. In a 2013 PPP poll, 58 percent of Republicans believed “global warming is a hoax,” 33 percent of Republicans were still convinced that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attack, and 20 percent of Republicans said they “believe Obama is the Anti-Christ.”

Not all poll respondents are necessarily speaking literally. Perhaps some don’t even know what “Muslim” means. But the overall reaction is a function of “confirmation bias.” And we cannot do an effective job of political persuasion without understanding confirmation bias.

Generally, people are not searching for truth. Instead, everyone carries in their heads a long list of preexisting beliefs, stereotypes and biases. Democrats, Republicans and Independents hold on to those beliefs despite self-interest and in the face of facts. People consciously and unconsciously seek out information that conforms to their pre-existing beliefs and ignore or summarily refute information that goes against them. It is a selective use of evidence in which people reinforce to themselves what they already think. Put another way: When you’re talking to someone and their beliefs conflict with your solid facts, people will almost always reject the facts.

If you want to know more, read the scholarly article “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon In Many Guises.”

Here are three rules/lessons to help overcome confirmation bias:

#1  Never say (or strongly imply) “you’re wrong.”

Quite simply, if you say “you’re wrong” your listener will stop listening. You need to engage the part of his or her brain that will reflect on your argument, not react to it. Similarly, never let your own emotions do the talking. When you are about to speak in anger, take a deep breath and shake it off. Voicing your emotions will make you feel good—you’ll get a shot of dopamine in your brain—but it won’t help you persuade.

#2  Begin any argument in agreement with your listener(s).

Find a point of agreement; give your audience a bridge from their preconceptions to your solutions. The goal is not to change people’s minds, it is to show them that they agree with you already. Begin by expressing empathy and shared values. Demonstrate that you understand their problems and concerns. Voters quite reasonably conclude that you can’t fix their problems if you can’t understand them. Read much more about starting in agreement in our book Voicing Our Values: a message guide for candidates and lawmakers.

#3  Avoid factual arguments that voters flatly disbelieve.

This is a hard one for most progressives. Unfortunately, sometimes a truthful statement can be a negative trigger. Listeners will instantly engage their emotions instead of their intellects and you’ve utterly failed to persuade. For example, you just can’t move voters to our side by saying that widespread voter fraud is a myth, even though it is. Use other language (here) to argue against voter ID. If you need to walk your listener away from false information, your best shot is to ask them to explain why they hold a particular opinion. Sometimes “[t]hey will come to realize the limitations of their own understanding” notes psychologist Frank Keil.

So what about the lice in this blog’s title?

There was another portion of the same just-released PPP poll. It asked American voters: Do you have a higher opinion of Donald Trump or:

Trump 46% — Cockroaches 42%
Trump 45% — Hemorrhoids 39%
Trump 41% — Used Car Salesmen 47%
Trump 40% — Traffic Jams 47%
Trump 40% — DMV 50%
Trump 38% — Hipsters 45%
Trump 38% — Root Canals 49%
Trump 35% — Jury Duty 57%
Trump 34% — Nickelback 39%
Trump 28% — Lice 54%

So there you have it. Donald Trump is a bit more popular than cockroaches but far less popular than lice.