Your Political Beliefs Make Math Harder

Your Political Beliefs Make Math Harder

K. Thor Jensen

We all know politics can ruin a family dinner, but this?!

One of the greatest lies we tell ourselves is that we’re in charge. It’s a common misconception that we ask our brains to do something — like calculate the tip on a meal, estimate the distance to parallel park or judge the force to toss a crumpled TPS report into the trash — and it’ll spit back an accurate answer.

In reality, our brain is more than a passenger. Its folds and crevices hide a vast ecosystem of chemical reactions that often compete against each other for your body’s services. Our conscious mind has tasks to accomplish, but it’s battling unconscious desires for personal gratification.

Scientists are learning that this inner conflict has real-world repercussions beyond eating that second Twinkie. A 2013 study from Yale delved into cognition with one very fascinating question: Can strongly-held political beliefs actually make you less capable of thinking clearly?

In particular, Yale Law professor Dan Kahan wanted to figure out why political debates are so frustrating. It seems like no matter how good your facts are, it’s nearly impossible to convince someone on the other side of the spectrum. Is there something about politics that short-circuits the brain?

Kahan and his team devised an experiment. They recruited a sample group of 1,000 people from across the political spectrum. Each participant was given a math problem — the kind that is commonly used to evaluate simple arithmetic.

The context of the problem was simple — it involved a skin cream that improved rashes in some subjects but worsened it in others. The answer wasn’t obvious, but anybody with a high school education could do the basic math required to figure it out. What it was testing wasn’t mathematical acuity, but instead the ability to slow down and evaluate the problem.

Most of the test subjects answered incorrectly, which wasn’t surprising. However, the second question posed to the group resulted in a very different outcome.

Unlike the first problem, which dealt with a politically neutral situation (skin cream), the context of the second was charged: Based on the data provided, does concealed carry of handguns help reduce crime rates?

The basic mathematics were exactly the same as the previous problem, so you’d expect the results to be fairly similar. But what Kahan’s team discovered shocked them. The group that had successfully answered the first question did significantly worse when the correct answer contradicted their personal beliefs.

So, if the “correct” answer was in favor of gun control, the test-takers on the right of the political spectrum got it wrong. The panel members on the left had the opposite result. And this extended even to the people who had proven they were good at math — the more advanced group was 45% more likely to choose the correct answer if it was in line with their personal ideology.

More information isn’t the answer, either. A previous study found that the more science literate conservatives were, the less they believed that humanity was a significant contributor to global warming, despite significant real-world evidence.

For me, this is a terrifying conclusion. The fact that doing math — a discipline in which there should be very little ambiguity — can be colored by my emotions and values calls the whole structure of the rational universe into question. But it also helps me to understand people on the other side of the spectrum a little better.

One of the biggest cultural stories of the century is our return to tribalism. Humans are uniting in groups around racial, social and cultural bonds and actively opposing other groups that don’t share them. One click on Twitter and you can see this in action. It’s possible that there’s some deep-seated evolutionary reason for this. Our predecessors were bound into tightly-knit social groups, isolated by geography and not commonly challenged by a variety of perspectives.

Today’s infinitely connected world has blown that apart, and it makes sense that our brains — when bombarded by endless information — are retreating into the comfort of familiar viewpoints.

So, when you’re going back and forth with a climate change denier who just can’t accept the science, it’s not because they’re any less rational than you are. It’s because their brain is unconsciously pushing their reasoning to a conclusion that’s not challenging.

On a positive note, a recent study by Kahan’s team illustrates a way out of this conundrum. They found that curiosity is the biggest predictor of whether an individual’s political views are polarized or not. It’s possible that the next generation — one born into a culture of exploration and discovery — will be able to handle their disobedient brains a little better.