The election last night of Donald Trump has unleashed a wave of second-guessing on the part of the media and Clinton supporters alike. How was it that Trump could possibly win? Bookmaker PaddyPower in the UK had already paid out on pro-Hillary bets.
As J.D. Vance author of A Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis writes in the NYTimes:
I didn’t overestimate Mrs. Clinton’s chances because the information didn’t exist, but because my social network and geography made it easier to ignore countervailing information. I followed the herd, and my herd was wrong.
For anyone involved in the financial markets this idea of following a wrong-headed herd should sound quite familiar. Investment herds have been around for centuries, think the Tulip bubble, South Sea bubble etc. What is different today is that while we have access to a nearly unlimited amount of data and information, we are simultaneously beset with all manner of commentary that use facts not as a means of elucidating the truth but as a weapon.
Julia Galef in the above TED talk calls this “motivated reasoning.” Galef says this is “trying to make some ideas win and others lose. The drive to attack or defend ideas.” Motivated reasoning can help us offset cognitive dissonance and is related to the idea of confirmation bias. As Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg View wrote in response to the election results:
Confirmation bias: Everyone reads what confirms their prior beliefs. Everyone. Not just read, but specifically seek it out, retain it and ignore everything else. This is why the internet is so balkanized, and why fact-checking hardly matters. Confirmation bias is hard to shake and often impervious to reality.
It’s crazy to think that more information is making us less informed. But that seems to be the path we’re on. And I suspect the reason for this is that the truth is not what people are seeking out. After all, it’s easier to confirm what you think you already know than it is to learn and accept something you don’t already know. And given the abundance of sources on the internet people have tended to find their news and information where it most conveniently confirms what they think they already know.
In addition to our own biases the Internet is in a very real way working against us. Farhad Manjoo at the NYTimes writes:
Because if you study the dynamics of how information moves online today, pretty much everything conspires against truth.
The ironic thing is that the very abundance of source that make the Internet a vital place also make it the perfect breeding ground for lies and conspiracy theories. Maybe the only way to combat is to have as Galef says is to have a ‘scout mindset‘:
It’s the drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but just to see what’s really there as honestly and accurately as you can, even if it’s not pretty or convenient or pleasant….
I claim, if we really want to improve our judgment as individuals and as societies, what we need most is not more instruction in logic or rhetoric or probability or economics, even though those things are quite valuable. But what we most need to use those principles well is scout mindset. We need to change the way we feel. We need to learn how to feel proud instead of ashamed when we notice we might have been wrong about something. We need to learn how to feel intrigued instead of defensive when we encounter some information that contradicts our beliefs.
This is easier said than done. In all likelihood the potential lessons that can be learned from this election will fade. Pundits, politicians and the public are subject to ‘bias blindness‘ in that we acknowledge cognitive biases in others but not in ourselves. As with most issues in life taking a look inward, like having a scout mindset will set you apart from the masses.
Nothing that hasn’t already happened is 100% in this world. Even awhile after an event takes place it is still difficult to comprehend that it has actually occurred.