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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Donald Trump tweets he is “saddened” – but not about the earthquake in Mexico

Barack Obama and Jeremy Corbyn sent messages of sympathy to Mexico. 

A devastating earthquake in Mexico has killed at least 217 people, with rescue efforts still going on. School children are among the dead.

Around the world, politicians have been quick to offer their sympathy, not least Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose wife hails from Mexico. He tweeted: "My thoughts are with all those affected by today's earthquake in Mexico. Pensando en todos los afectados por el terremoto en México hoy" in the early hours of the morning, UK time.

Barack Obama may no longer be an elected politician, but he too offered a heartfelt message to those suffering, and like Corbyn, he wrote some of it in Spanish. "Thinking about our neighbors in Mexico and all our Mexican-American friends tonight. Cuidense mucho y un fuerte abrazo para todos," he tweeted. 

But what about the man now installed in the White House, Donald Trump? The Wall Builder-in-Chief was not idle on Tuesday night - in fact, he shared a message to the world via Twitter an hour after Obama. He too was "saddened" by what he had heard on Tuesday evening, news that he dubbed "the worst ever".

Yes, that's right. The Emmys viewing figures.

"I was saddened to see how bad the ratings were on the Emmys last night - the worst ever," he tweeted. "Smartest people of them all are the "DEPLORABLES."

No doubt Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto will get round to offering the United States his commiserations soon. 

I'm a mole, innit.