Confirmation bias is an inescapable part of politics

Sunday , February 04, 2018 - 4:00 AM

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

Let’s try a thought experiment. Pretend you're a Utah legislator. I know it is hard, but suspend your disbelief and try and step into the psyche of an elected representative. OK, good. Now, what are you thinking about? When I did this experiment, I found myself thinking about votes. Votes in elections. Votes on the House or Senate floor. Votes in committees. Votes, votes, votes.

So, if my main focus is votes, what would be my next step? Ah, yes, get people to like me, or perhaps simply make sure they recognize my name. I'd want to introduce legislation, so I'd need support in order to get my legislation through. Therefore, I need approval from as many groups and interests as possible. As a legislator, the best way to get lots of approval would be to propose a legislative bill that everyone loves. This approval is the political equivalent of "street cred."

Now let's take the next step. We must devise a piece of legislation that will not only get votes in the Legislature, but will win us new voters (in the next election), while simultaneously tickling the hearts and fancies of our loyal constituency. Now, this is where our "empathy experiment" gets tricky. For example, there are things we must know about ourselves as fictional legislators, such as: who do we hang out with? What are our values, and how do we make sure they match up with our constituencies' values? What TV stations do we watch and what newspapers do we read? Who would we offend if we brought a piece of legislation to the floor that might benefit one group, yet create a disadvantage for another?

Simply asking those questions, we become subject to one of humanity's biggest blind spots: confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our tendency to see the world through the prism of our pre-existing beliefs. We all do it. And if you follow politics at all, the biggest Coke-bottle glasses of pre-existing beliefs impacting a legislative vision belong to political parties. Even our president, when seen through the appropriate political glasses, seems presidential. Confirmation bias is a great filter for to simply erase conflicting data and feel as though we are right.

Pick a party, any party. If you are a raging libertarian, try on a "moderate Republican" suit. If you voted for Bernie Sanders, let's don a "MAGA" hat. Card-carrying Dems and Repubs? I want you all to swap places. Don't be afraid. I know it's a little disconcerting. Try not to be too cynical, either. Now, what legislation will you chose to introduce? Remember, you want legislation that everyone will love. Ah, but here's the tricky part: your confirmation bias will tell you that everyone thinks and believes just like you.

Once you’ve picked the bill you're going to propose, what are you thinking about? That’s right, go back to the top paragraph: votes. How are you going to get this out of committee? How are you going to get other legislators behind your efforts? Which special interest groups would support your legislation? Which would lobby against it? How will the public feel about this bill? Will the public even care or notice? Will the bill make things better or worse for your constituency?

Now ask yourself: What confirmation biases do the voters have, and how will that impact the next election? Are all the people calling and writing your about the bill really representative of the voters in your districts? How can you use the passage of this legislation in the next election to your benefit?

Are you getting the hang of it? Are you thinking and feeling like a real legislator might think and feel?

Good. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Through this entire stream of legislative consciousness, I realized that the most pressing questions about any new legislation for a citizen barley flits across the legislative mind, i.e, “Will this new law make my life, my family’s life, and my community better, or worse?”

And this is where the new laws being passed leave the land of confirmation bias and enter the world of reality. Once legislation is codified into law, it will impact most of us in one way or another. Unlike the clarity of partisanship, laws divide and impact us, for better or worse. The lowered blood alcohol content law from the last legislative session springs to mind.

Last year, I wrote about the proposed law and all the opposition it had from House Speaker Greg Hughes, based on the fear it would negatively impact tourism. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving opposed the bill, saying lowering BAC wouldn't necessarily accomplish what the bill set out to do. As a former defense attorney, I took my confirmation bias and saw it as a law enforcement coup that would lead to increased arrests. But when the law goes into effect Dec. 30, we will get to see the real-world impact it has, for good or ill. Will tourism dollars change? Will arrests go up? Will lives be saved?

Most places in Europe are at a .05 BAC, so maybe we should spend our tourism dollars in Europe for Utah's Oktoberfest with slogans like, “Come to Utah and Drink and Drive Just Like the Germans!” If DUI fatalities drop by the same percentage as they did in the 1990s, when Utah went from .10 to .08, a couple of lives will be saved in 2019 and years to come. Families will continue to live happily, not knowing the law actually spared the life of a loved one — just that there was a 12 percent drop in DUI fatalities.

I think that's the most frightening and exhilarating thing about the laws that come out of the confirmation-biased minds of our representatives: the laws passed might save you, or someone you love. But you may never really know.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

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