Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Partisans Say The Darndest Things

Kids say the darndest things. So do partisans.

Take Vic Toews. The release of 2011 crime statistics this week prompted the public safety minister to say something positively adorable.

"Crime rate down 6 per cent," Toews tweeted. "Shows CPC tough on crime is working."

I cracked up when I heard that one. How delightful.

You see, many of the major Conservative crime policies only became law in March 2012, so it's cute to suggest they had something to do with the crime rate in 2011. And in any event the crime decline in 2011 was only the continuation of a trend that has been underway for decades.

But what really had me rolling on the floor laughing - or ROT-FL, as the kids say - is that in 2011 the homicide rate bucked the long downward trend it has been on since the 1970s and went up. In the past, Stephen Harper has pointed to one-year jumps like that as proof that the justice system is broken. But now? Poof! It just disappears. And the decline in the overall crime rate proves the government's policies are working!

Like I said, adorable.

Now, cynics won't find this nearly as charming as I do. They'll say the minister - or rather, the staffer who wrote the tweet - was simply being as cynical as they are. The minister knows all the facts. He knows how nonsensical his claim is. But he made the claim anyway because that's what cynical politicians do.

That may be. I don't know. But I doubt it because there really wasn't much to gain, aside from the scorn of critics like me. I also doubt it because there is another explanation for why the minister made that claim that is at least as plausible.

He said it because he believes it. Yes, really. He believes it. Even though it's clearly absurd. He believes it.

Think that's impossible? Then you don't know the partisan mind.

For decades, political scientists argued about the role that partisan identification plays in how people perceive facts and form judgments. The view dominant in the 1960s and 1970s was that people identified with a tribe early on in life and this identity became a filter that kept out or distorted information that made the tribe look bad while freely admitting anything that made the tribe look wise and wonderful. The partisan voter thus became "more of a rationalizing voter than a rational one," as one writer put it.

But with the increasing prominence of rational choice theory - which sees people as rational optimizers of whatever it is they value - scholars developed a very different model of how party identification worked.

People aren't so biased, they said. They keep a running tally of what a party promises and what it does and they judge that tally according to their own values and beliefs. If they like what they see, they support the party. If they don't, they don't.

The newer model was much more flattering to our species. But in 2002, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels published an influential paper that suggested it was quite wrong.

"Far from being a mere summary of more specific political opinions," Bartels wrote, "partisanship is a powerful and pervasive influence on perceptions of political events."

Bartels produced a wide array of evidence, but one set was particularly revealing.

As Bartels noted, simply showing that partisans have very different views on issues doesn't mean much because those disparities may simply reflect underlying differences in values. But what about facts?

If partisan identification is simply a "running tally" it shouldn't skew how people perceive facts. Facts are facts. Conservative, Liberal, or New Democrat. Republican or Democrat. They should all agree on the facts.

But they don't. Not even close. The American National Election Studies (ANES) is a series of scholarly voter surveys conducted during and after each presidential election. Bartels found that the 1988 surveys asked a number of factual questions about the 1980 to 1988 period - the Reagan era.

"Would you say that compared to 1980, the level of unemployment in the country has gotten better, stayed about the same, or gotten worse?" read one. "Would you say that compared to 1980, inflation has gotten better, stayed about the same, or gotten worse?" read another.

The correct answers to these questions were unequivocal: In 1980, unemployment and inflation were both high; in 1988, both were much lower. But Americans were far from unanimous in agreeing to these facts, which might simply demonstrate ignorance except for one critical fact: The disagreement broke sharply along partisan lines.

Most self-identified moderate Republicans said unemployment and inflation had declined. Even more strong Republicans agreed.

But only a minority of moderate Democrats agreed that unemployment and inflation were down.

Only a small minority of "strong Democrats" agreed. In fact, roughly half of strong Democrats actually said that unemployment and inflation had gotten worse during the eight years in which a Republican they loathed had been president.

It was a stunning demonstration that partisan identification distorted even the perception of basic facts. And it wasn't the only one.

Bartels found the same partisan divide in the 2000 ANES survey - except this time it was Republicans who denied basic facts that reflected well on an outgoing Democratic president.

For psychologists, it was sweet vindication since Bartels' findings fit perfectly with cognitive dissonance theory - which holds that the stronger someone's commitment to a belief is the greater the mental contortions he will undergo to protect that belief from contrary information. Ignore. Rationalize.

Even turn upside down. The strongly committed person will do whatever it takes - and wind up saying something goofy as a result.

Of course that isn't inevitable. People can and do maintain a critical distance, examine their perceptions and beliefs, ask if they really make sense or not, and even overturn them when necessary. But that's hard mental work under any circumstances. When commitment is extreme - as it is with any fierce partisan - it's exhausting.

It's so much easier to go with the psychological flow and say the darndest things.