Northern Review: ‘What’s Your Bias?’

It’s easy to lose track of how many times it’s been said, but the world of politics certainly seems to be unpredictable at the moment. Brexit wasn’t supposed to happen. Donald Trump wasn’t supposed to get elected. Theresa May wasn’t supposed to return to Number 10 in charge of a minority government.

Yet all of these things happened. Is the contemporary political context simply too volatile to understand, or are there clues from academic research that can help us make sense of it all?

Lee De-Wit argues that we need to grapple with the psychology of politics. In particular, in an era increasingly defined by political schisms, he makes the case that we need to understand the nature (and existence) of our many biases.

So, where do we even begin? De-Wit starts with our moral outlook, particularly our understanding of fairness. This, in turn, is shaped by the way we think.

Some people think in absolutist terms, whereby something is inherently right or wrong. They tend to be politically conservative, see people as individually responsible for their actions, defer to authority, and value loyalty to one’s group.

Others, on the other hand, think more in contextual terms. They tend to be politically liberal and more willing to consider the broader circumstances that might influence someone’s behaviour. They are less concerned with tradition and hierarchy and are more likely to think beyond one’s immediate group.

With these psychological traits, you can see how nationalism can be powerfully attractive as well as powerfully repulsive: “If the idea of putting your country first speaks to you – or, conversely, leaves you cold – the reason could lie in your moral values.” ‘America First’ and ‘Take Back Control’ were never going to appeal to staunch liberals; they were effective, targeted slogans rooted in political psychology.

Beyond holding different understandings of fairness, conservatives and liberals tend to have different perceptions of threats. De-Wit cites a study that measured people’s skin responses and eye movements to various positive and negative stimuli. There is a remarkable relationship between people’s responses to the stimuli and their political ideology. Conservatives focus on the negatives and are generally more sensitive to threats. Liberals, in contrast, tend to be more sensitive to positive stimuli, reacting less strongly to threats.

This seems consistent with recent events, notably the Brexit referendum. Many Brexiteers have since described 23 June 2016 as a ‘revolution’, but surely conservatives are supposed to hate revolutions? Surely leaving the EU represents a huge risk, precipitating uncertainty and instability? To many, however, the EU itself represented a threat and a source of instability; for them, European integration was a revolution that they didn’t support.

This interpretation is, of course, up for debate. Understanding where people might be coming from, however, might make for better debates:

Psychology can’t tell us if a bias is right or wrong, but it might help us to understand why people hold particular views, sometimes so different to our own. That doesn’t mean we all have to agree, but we can at least have a little more appreciation of each other’s perspective – and perhaps a little more harmony around the dinner table at the next family gathering.

A serious obstacle to high quality discourse is, of course, our source of information. De-Wit points out the many flaws of the news media, as well as our own limitations in processing its output.

He acknowledges that, often, the media can be biased – just as Donald Trump alleges (against him). However, it’s not always just how a story is framed that is important for influencing people. It’s also, significantly, about whether or not a story (or person) is covered at all. This is the ‘mere exposure effect’, and this form of bias helped Trump:

Trump’s 2016 campaign functioned like no other to control the news agenda. With a single provocative tweet, he could put his issues, his name and his brand at the top of the news cycle. The coverage was as widespread as it was negative. And it certainly was negative. One estimate suggested that of all the times Trump was mentioned in the media, 96 per cent of the articles expressed a negative opinion.


However, Trump focused on making simple, memorable messages available. Build a wall. Bring jobs back to America. ‘Crooked Hillary’. ‘Make America great again’. And a large proportion of the US electorate was not influenced by the media’s negative coverage – they weren’t told what to think – but they certainly felt they knew what was important, what everyone was talking about … and that was Trump.

So who do we trust? If news coverage is inherently biased, either through its framing or its selection, and if social media provides fertile ground for ‘fake news’ to go viral, how do we get accurate information about the world around us?

Therein lies the real weakness, but also the real strength of the book’s argument. News outlets, various institutions and social media organisations have a collective responsibility to vastly up their games, but ultimately, if we are to still meaningfully protect free speech, we have to be better consumers of information from all its potential sources: “it isn’t enough to teach people how to exercise their democratic right; we must also teach them about the biases that might affect their decisions.”

This conclusion won’t feel adequate to many readers. It doesn’t have a neat, on-the-shelf solution to ‘solve’ biases. But that’s not really the goal of the book. What’s Your Bias? is more a diagnosis, less a prescription. It’s a very timely release that condenses a lot of relevant academic work into an accessible, lively volume. It helps us to appreciate the nature of own political thoughts better as well as those of others.

At least, that’s my (biased) take on it.

What’s Your Bias? The Surprising Science of Why We Vote the Way We Do (2017) is published by Elliott and Thompson Ltd. It is scheduled for release on 14 September.

About Jamie Pow

Jamie is Deputy Editor of Northern Slant and a PhD student at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast. His interests include elections, peace building, and making democracy work better. All views expressed are his own, not those of the University.

Also published on Medium.