You agree with this column

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already decided to agree with it. Here’s the curious thing about curiosity: we tend to seek out information that tells us what we already believe. If your politics veer to the left, you’ll conveniently ignore facts that back the right and avoid places that’ll tell you about them. And vice versa.

Throw a quick glance under the nearest article on the Daily Mail website. Dissenting comments nearly always get “rated down”, even if fairly innocuous, or true. Daily Mail readers, it seems, are instantly repelled by information that doesn’t chime with their beliefs. But then, as a liberal, I’m more than happy to believe this – in fact, I only look at the Mail to confirm my prejudices. Here’s why.

Our brains are programmed to construct a robust model of how the world works and then fine-tune it. As we learn, some circuits get hardened and reinforced and some wither away. The hardened circuits are our short cuts. This means that when we’re standing in Starbucks and see a cylindrical, liquid-filled shape on the counter, we don’t have to spend too long working out what it is. One of these short cuts will tell us it’s a cup of coffee.

Deconstructing this edifice too many times takes a huge amount of resources. We’re not designed for endless self-questioning – which is probably why Alain de Botton has, at the time of writing, almost no hair left. Instead, we look for information that builds on the model we have.

While our fact-filtering brains are great for working out where the nearest Americano is, they don’t make for very good political debate. Once people have aligned themselves with a particular party, there’s very little you can do to change their opinion. They’ll simply “select out” your most compelling arguments and merrily continue believing what they believe. We love putting opposing political pundits together in TV debates but when was the last time you saw them reach a consensus?

The mighty Bush

A study published in the journal Political Behaviour shows just how reluctant people are to engage with facts that don’t support their world-view. In the experiment, conducted in 2005, participants were given fake news stories. These news stories were embedded with false facts: that tax cuts under the Bush administration increased government revenues, that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq and that Bush had banned stem-cell research (he only limited some government funding). After each statement, the researchers put in an unambiguous correction – and then tested the participants to see if they picked this up.

They didn’t. Participants who identified themselves as liberal ignored the correction on stem-cell regulations and continued to believe Bush had issued a total ban. Conservatives not only ignored the corrections on Iraq and the tax cuts but clung even more tenaciously to the false information.

If you’re interested in the truth, it turns out the worst thing to do is to assign yourself a “stance” on an issue. The more you care about your cause, the harder it is to properly engage with the arguments of your opponent. In fact, only one thing will improve political debate – we need to stop being passionate about politics.

Neurons. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.