Confirmation Bias and Vote Leave’s Crimes

The differing opinions over whether the fact that Vote Leave broke electoral law had any impact on the result of the Brexit Referendum offer one of the clearest examples of confirmation bias in recent history.

In the absence of confirmation bias, opinions should be uncorrelated. The crime wasn’t discovered (or even suspected) until well after the vote, so there’s no way one’s views on the impact could have affected an individual’s votes. And while many other political issues are correlated with voting Leave or Remain, ‘attitudes towards electoral wrongdoing’ is not, notably. I’m very confident that I could sit down with any of my Remain-voting friends to discuss a hypothetical case of electoral fraud in the nation of Elbonia and we’d reach very similar views, without political ideologies coming into it.

Indeed, on the objective case of ‘did they break the law’, almost everyone I know agrees – they did break the law, they deserved to be punished, and potentially they should have faced greater penalties (incidentally, this is your regular reminder that the Remain campaign and the Lib Dems also broke electoral law). But on the more subjective case of whether it had an impact on the result, views cleave almost perfectly along Remain vs Leave lines, with both sides highly confident, and able to give extensive reasons, as to why it did or didn’t change the result.

Now, you might think that more intelligent, or more educated people, might be less susceptible to confirmation bias. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like this. In fact, it may even make it worse.

In experiments done by Perkins, it was found that education made little difference at all and that, while intelligence did correlate with coming up with more arguments surrounding an issue, it only came up with more arguments on the favoured side of the argument, not the opposing side – potentially increasing the weight of ‘evidence’ in support even further! This, incidentally, explains why (from my experience) academics, collectively a group of highly educated and intelligent people[citation needed], appear to be just as, if not more, prone to group think and confirmation bias as any other sector or set of stakeholders I’ve worked with (even on issues as clear cut to anyone outside the sector as ‘is grade inflation happening’).

So what to do? Confirmation bias is with us and we can’t get away from it – as Haidt describes it, it’s the difference between ‘Must I believe this?’ and ‘Can I believe this?’ – and the answers are almost always ‘no’ and ‘yes’, respectively. Engagement with others can help, certainly, as can being aware of the issue – but as we can see on the Vote Leave issue, it’s no guarantee of success, as even those of us who’ve had plentiful discussions with others still cleave along partisan lines. And in groups without thought diversity, engagement with others can simply worsen the issue, creating group-thing that reinforces confirmation bias still further.

There’s no easy solution. On the titular issue, I’ve not changed my mind about whether the illegality impacted the result and nor, good reader, do I imagine that you will either – after all, we’ve each arrived at our view after careful consideration and for very good reasons! But perhaps, on this and many other issues, we could all do with being a little less confident in how certain we are.

This is a post about cognitive bias and its implications for us and for society. This is not a post on which to discuss whether or not Vote Leave breaking the law had an impact on the result of the referendum. Any comments seeking to discuss the latter will be deleted without warning. Exception: if you’re one of the rare people whose belief on that matter does cross the partisan lines, do feel free to share it!