When Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election, people were shocked. I was in law school at one of the most liberal law schools in the country at the time, in ultra-liberal Ann Arbor, and the election party I attended went from full-of-energy to concerned, to stunned, to livid, to deflated, all in methodical linear progression as reality set in.
Eventually, emotion gave way to thought, and the media appeared to take a crack at an earnest kind of postmortem. Ignoring blue-collar voters in the rust belt was emphasized a lot, as was the question of whether Hillary Clinton was ever as viable as she was perceived. The juiciest question, not least because it squarely implicated the competence of the media as pundit and prognosticator, was how polling nationwide seemed to have failed so horribly.
The answer the intelligentsia settled on was that respondents had simply lied because the perception that somebody would support Donald Trump was anathema to most people in the 2016 social environment.
Sadly, the media’s attention span soon reached its limits, and the postmortem was abandoned before it was ever finished.
One thing that was never quite clear from the half-answer to the question of bad polling was why anyone would lie about an unpopular opinion in a completely anonymous, low-stakes poll. To tackle that mystery, I thought back to my days as an undergraduate in psychology. You see, the whole field of psychology runs on a system of undergraduate students going into labs and participating in anonymous, low-stakes experiments that are then analyzed and interpreted by graduate students, postdocs, and professors. Somehow, these findings are then extrapolated to the entire U.S. population, or even more impressively, humans generally.
As psychology majors, we were all required to participate in these studies. I worked in two such labs as a research assistant during my last year in school. There are a host of flaws in this system, which taken together should cast serious doubt on the validity or generalizability of pretty much any study you have ever read about. One flaw, however, is particularly relevant here— self-reporting bias.
Self-reporting is riddled with biases. Depending on the questions being asked, people might not actually have great access to the parts of their cognition necessary to answer them. They may be unduly affected by the lab environment or their own personal baggage that they brought into that lab environment. Most critically, these hyper self-conscious college students consistently show a bias toward portraying themselves in a positive social light.
Notably, it is made clear to these subjects that their responses will remain anonymous, just as it is made clear to political poll respondents. There is no legitimate fear that their peers will judge them. Instead, what appears to be happening is that the subjects lie to themselves to be able to maintain their highly positive self-images. The psychological literature contains a host of findings in that regard, which suggests what we already intuitively know—people play up their positives and downplay their negatives in their own minds to inflate their self-images. This happens automatically, we don’t even think about it. And so it appears that respondents to low-stakes, anonymous surveys treat the questions presented like any other internal thought process. In other words, they bullshit themselves.
In this regard, 2016 was the perfect storm. Americans were inundated with the message that anybody who supports Donald Trump is a racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted “deplorable.” In such an environment, a low-stakes, anonymous survey asking about presidential candidate preference transformed into “are you a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad deplorable?” and the desired answer from the perspective of preserving self-image was quite obviously “no.”
Lying (Usually) Can’t Change Reality
After all the untruthful low-stakes, anonymous responses, Trump still won the election on November 8, and he was still sworn into office on January 20, 2016. This is because the lies we tell ourselves to feel better cannot change reality.
I repeat: the lies we tell ourselves to feel better cannot change reality.
When people got into the voting booth, they weren’t thinking about their self-image anymore. This was real; there were stakes. They were thinking about the political reality. College students participating in studies are rarely as thoughtful as they would be in real-world situations with real stakes. Some don’t even want to be there. Their PSYCH 101 professor made them, or their friend was going so they figured they’d go to, or whatever the case may be. A poll respondent may not care about the poll but may feel bad hanging up. They may be late to pick their kid up from soccer practice. It’s just a poll. Whatever else was on their mind a minute ago is infinitely more important than this low-stakes, anonymous survey. They’re not going to sit there thoughtfully and envision what President Hillary Clinton’s America would look like, and then President Donald Trump’s, and then weigh all the variables they can bring to mind.
But in the voting booth they will.
It is important to note that we are all complicit in this problem. The media may have driven home the deplorable narrative day after day after day. The media may have sold us what we wanted to hear because that’s what drives readership and makes a quick buck. But we are the ones that didn’t want to hear the truth. We are the ones who couldn’t handle knowing that other Americans supported Trump without the need to socially shame them into parroting the proper lines.
Don’t Bury Your Head in the Sand
The problem is, if you can’t seek truth and you can’t accept it when it’s barking at your door, then you can’t address it. If the media had kept to its truth-seeking mission and if we hadn’t demanded the truths we wanted to hear, wouldn’t worse poll numbers have prompted more of a grassroots response? Wouldn’t Clinton have campaigned in Wisconsin? Couldn’t we have asked “what is it that the Democratic party is ignoring about blue-collar workers” before the election, rather than after?
As it stands, we are headed toward a repeat of 2016. The media and our individual social discourse have once again reached a fever pitch of social inquisition against pro-Trump sentiment. There is no will to simply gauge the fact of it, to know and understand that truth. Yet, if we can’t move to a more earnest truth-seeking mission, a lot of people are going to be concerned, stunned, livid, and then deflated once again come November.
As for another relevant and timely example, the big news this week is that Trump admitted on record in February that he knew the coronavirus was a big deal, that it was both substantially more transmissible and lethal than the flu, and despite this he chose to deliberately downplay the threat. No doubt President Trump didn’t want to deal with a severe global pandemic knocking at the country’s door. Yet, it is abundantly clear to any outside observer that Trump’s refusal to admit this, that his consistent public histrionics, did nothing to abate the actual pandemic, which has been a mainstay in our reality now for months, seemingly years. Every step of the way, Trump seemed to try and explain away the problem. This is a feature of both the left and the right. The more ideologically charged and insulated we are from other perspectives, the more intellectually dishonest and out-of-touch with reality we become.
This seems to be a pandemic in its own right, and we’re losing to it just about as badly as we are losing to COVID-19. With the modern ubiquity of “activist journalism,” the reign of echo chambers, and the downfall of discourse with those of truly diverse views, we have entered an age where you can verify the truthiness of any belief you hold, simply by asking a friend or reading your preferred news source. And when that false truth meets reality, reality is going to win. Every time.
We have to break free from that mold. For this pandemic, our mask is the act of speaking with people who don’t share our views and seeking to understand them. Our vaccine is reading or watching a variety of news sources and not just the ones that will tell us what we want to hear.
If we succumb to our biases and don’t seek truth, then we deliberately render ourselves ignorant to some aspect of reality. We make ourselves less aware of the landscape and less equipped to handle it.
Don’t bury your head in the sand. Seek truth. Then, and only then, if you don’t like that truth, set out to change it.