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The Worst Problem in US Politics? Irrationality

Unfortunately, this election cycle shows how effective it can be to appeal to human irrationality.

Like many Americans, I was left with a heavy heart after the election. While the outcome was shocking, much of the heaviness came from observing the whole election cycle. The outcome was just the icing on the cake of the most irrational presidential race in recent history. This election convinced me that we need to focus our efforts on dealing with the worst problem in US politics — irrationality.

Rationality refers to the ability to assess reality accurately and thereby make wise decisions to reach one’s goals. This election has been a testament to the current inability of many voters to make correct assessments of reality, leading them to make bad political decisions.

We make such irrational assessments because of thinking errors in how the human mind is wired. Politicians skilled in the psychology of persuasion can take advantage of our thinking errors to manipulate us.

As an example, most voters on the eve of the election perceived Donald Trump as more trustworthy than Hillary Clinton, despite nonpartisan fact-checkers such as PolitiFact showing that Trump lies much more often than Clinton. This false perception came from the Trump campaign successfully manipulating many voters into believing that Clinton is less honest, in spite of theevidence that she is much more honest than Trump. The Trump campaign did so through the illusory truth effect, a thinking error in our minds that happens when false statements are repeated many times and we begin to see them as true.

Proposing a ban on all Muslims coming to the US is another example of Trump playing to our thinking errors. Concern about terrorism is one of the biggest worries for the US population. Yet it has been over a decade since any Americans died from attacks in the US committed by terrorists who were not either US citizens or legal permanent residents. This makes Trump’s policy proposal irrational in the sense that it does not respond to a realistic assessment of the threat of terrorism. Instead, it appeals to the horns effect, a thinking error where negative emotions about a tiny subset of Muslims gets spread to all Muslims, regardless of the irrationality of such thinking.

The Clinton campaign exploited human irrationality as well. Consider the comment by Clinton that half of Trump’s supporters belong in the “basket of deplorables” and are “irredeemable” through being sexist, racist and homophobic. Such commentary appeals to the horns effect by associating “deplorable” with a large proportion of the US population. Yet consider someone who was convinced by Trump’s rhetoric that Muslims are to be feared. This person has developed irrational racist beliefs, yet does this make the person inherently deplorable or irredeemable?

Fortunately, we are not doomed to this fate of irrationality. Recent scholarship has shown that people can grow more rational. Doing so requires learning about typical thinking errors; noticing when they are potentially impacting us and resisting this influence; and calling out and penalizing politicians who appeal to such thinking errors, regardless of whether we support their political positions. Every one of us has the power to do so.

Many will see this as unrealistic, and claim that US citizens are inherently irrational in their politics. I beg to disagree.

Over the last few months, I have published many articles in prominent venues, and appeared on a number of TV and radio programs, to talk about how to make politics more rational. People from all sides of the political spectrum have emailed and called me to express gratitude for helping them see how politicians try to manipulate them, and asking how they can most effectively learn how to make rational political assessments.

What they all had in common was caring about the truth first and foremost. Making politics less irrational by helping people make accurate assessments of reality is a bipartisan issue. Everyone wins by having more rational citizens, except those politicians who rely on misleading and manipulative rhetoric to sway voters.

Unfortunately, this election cycle shows how effective it can be to appeal to human irrationality. The future is dark if we do not focus our efforts on addressing this problem in our political system, which is core to all other problems. Despite the polarization of US politics, we do have shared goals as a society, including economic prosperity, peaceful coexistence and security. Our only hope of coming together to bridge our divided nation and collaborate to achieve these goals is addressing the problem of irrationality in politics.

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