When what we don’t see starts to matter
Why were so many people so shocked when Donald Trump got elected?
Did you ever, as a child, imagine that the part of the world behind you, outside your field of vision, the bit you couldn’t see, ceased to exist (and somehow magically rematerialized as soon as you turned around, or if you cheated with a mirror)? I certainly did. And while I now know better (or at least I believe I know better), I can still recall the spooky feeling of mystery that, actually, maybe all there is is what you can see, and that what you don’t see is perhaps not really there at all.
In a way my experience was a peculiar form of the illusion that Daniel Kahneman has called What You See Is All There Is, or WYSIATI. This cognitive bias is essential for our normal functioning. If we consciously took into account everything that we know all the time, even if we cannot see it (and so presumably it is not affecting us) we’d go completely bonkers. But we sometimes misuse that capacity to be selectively blind. We may well know things are there, but we choose not to see them, because we are more comfortable if they are out of sight. Unfortunately that then means we may miss what their significance is.
When the media and the social media were bulging with expressions of horror the day after the US presidential elections, I was reminded of my childhood fantasy of the invisible world behind me. Many people with a moderate, liberal world view were confronted with a reality that, until then, had been clearly unseen. As it became clear that clear Donald Trump had been elected the 45thUS president, the shock was pretty dramatic, as this tweet illustrates:
Media and pollsters were getting the blame for misinforming everyone. Some generously plead guilty — Rob Ford, an academic at Manchester University, tweeted an honest mea culpa — but they were just saying out loud what many people were thinking to themselves.
Clearly many people had been missing something. They had been underestimating a movement so sizeable that it had managed overnight to prick the cosy, comfortable bubble in which they had been living for at least a generation.
Some bubbles are fine, but some are not so fine
Such bubbles are as inevitable as our use of WYSIATI: they are constructs of our preferences. Maybe you’re an opera lover — you read publications that cover performances and recordings, you go to see enactments of La Traviata or Wozzeck, and you mingle with like-minded opera buffs. Chances are you are vaguely aware of the existence of heavy metal rock music, but that you have no idea how many fans of the genre there are. Possibly you don’t understand how anyone could enjoy the speed metal of Motörhead.
This is all perfectly OK. In a very insightful column reacting to Trump’s election, Dave Trott talks about core users and core non-users of products or services. Most opera fans are core non-heavy metal fans, and vice versa. This is important for anyone marketing either of the two music genres: it is pointless to try to get core non-users to come to a concert or buy records, but both groups of music lovers coexist without a problem.
But if liberal-minded people are ignorant of the number of “core non-users” of their moderate, liberal values, and of what makes them tick, then they are surely in for a shock. Whatever your convictions, the illusion that they are shared by the vast majority of those around you is dead easy to entertain when you live in a Filter Bubble in which your Twitter timeline, your friends on Facebook, the blogs and media you consult all conform with what you think.
And if the political power, the economic system and the culture in the mainstream media all resonate with your world view, how could doubt that what you see is not just be representative of the world, but of how everyone else sees the world? Other bubbles exist, of course. Occasionally someone posts a picture of an awful Daily Mail front page, or quotes a xenophobic tweet, but they merely serve to be the exception that proves the rule — just like Gillian Duffy did to then labour leader Gordon Brown, when he famously described her as a “bigoted woman” during the 2010 election campaign in the UK.
The illusion of being right
But the biggest problem is not underestimating the size of the other bubbles, or dismissing them as irrelevant. The biggest problem is not just believing to be part of a majority, it is believing to be right.
The arrogant assumption that one is right, more even than the WYSIATI bias, distorts perception. How can anyone possibly vote for Donald Trump, a racist, a sexist, a tax avoider — the polar opposite of a moderate liberal? If you believe you are a standard bearer for an objective ideal that is greater than yourself, it’s very hard to accept that other people simply have desires and preferences that are different from yours — not irrational, but just different.
Believing to be right means believing those who think differently are wrong. That fuels the wishful thinking that Michael Moore describes in a piece from July:
‘You need to exit that bubble right now. You need to stop living in denial and face the truth which you know deep down is very, very real. Trying to soothe yourself with the facts — “77% of the electorate are women, people of color, young adults under 35 and Trump can’t win a majority of any of them!” — or logic — “people aren’t going to vote for a buffoon or against their own best interests!” — is your brain’s way of trying to protect you from trauma.’
What you feel is all there is
Many analyses have framed the shock as the result of misreading of the emotional perspective of a section of the electorate, as opposed to the supposed rational perspective adopted by the moderate liberals. I am not so sure. There is as much emotion on one side as on the other: the emotional reactions on the losing side are ample evidence. What happens is that the same facts trigger different emotions. Some people don’t feel threatened at all by immigration: their jobs are safe, they have private health insurance and live in expensive areas with good schools, and they enjoy the economic benefits it brings. But others see immigrants taking their jobs and clogging up access to healthcare and education, and they see their incomes stagnate — so of course they feel threatened.
The illusion of being right rests on the so-called just world phenomenon: the world is fair, and everyone gets what they deserve, so why shouldn’t everyone share this liberal perspective on the world? But some people don’t see the world as just. Their experience is very different. What they feel is very different.
So, perhaps even more than WYSIATI, what we see is the cognitive illusion that what you feel is all there is. Any woman, any Latino, any educated person will of course share the feeling of disgust with Trump. But that deep disgust may well be the result of the halo effect (or in this case, the horn effect). Someone who already has a profound dislike of Donald Trump will of course interpret anything he says in such a way that it reinforces that view. But to people who see Trump as the guy who stands up for them against the elite and the establishment, it’s easy to forgive outrageous statements or dismiss them as locker room talk — especially if similar stuff is not all that unusual in your day-to-day environment.
What (not) to do?
It’s tempting to project one’s own beliefs on the world, and when one believes to be right the temptation is even bigger. That leads to confirmation bias, as in this tweet:
It leads to generalization, as in this one:
As a liberal-thinking person, one could do worse than open up to critique of one’s world view — for example in David Goodheart’s The British Dream:
‘Modern liberalism […] too often regards society as a more or less arbitrary collection of individuals without any particular ties or allegiances to each other. […] Liberalism’s likes the idea of community in theory, but does not see that a meaningful one excludes as well as includes. To this kind of liberalism, people are rational, self-interested individualists existing apart from group attachments or loyalties. […] if you accept the liberal premises then any defence of tradition or community is likely to appear irrational or, in the case of immigration, racist.’
It is also worth shifting the focus from the person of Trump to the 48% of the voters who supported him. As Scott Alexander says in a razor sharp analysis (written the day before the election) — we shouldn’t be shocked that Trump got elected. The narrative underlying his popularity would have been exactly the same had Clinton been elected. Undoubtedly, that would have appeased the worried mind of many a liberal. It would also have created a wholly wrong perception that everything was all right again.
Most importantly, as David Wong writes on Cracked: ‘But you might as well take time to try to understand [the people who voted for Trump], because I’m telling you, they’ll still be around long after Trump is gone.’ Another tweet captures this well:
Finally, if you like your insights pictorially, this cartoon from Zach Weinersmith is worth checking out.
When we are shocked by the reality, the problem is with us, not with the reality.
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Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on November 14, 2016.