Choosing To Believe

In the mid-1990s, after publication of my first book (What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?), I was a guest on a call-in radio show in South Carolina. My publisher had asked for my travel schedule, and booked me on the show–while failing to tell me that it followed three hours of Rush Limbaugh…

It was rough.

One caller shared a “quote” by James Madison to the effect that the Founders gave the Bill of Rights to people who lived by the Ten Commandments. I responded by saying that, not only had that “quote” been debunked by Madison scholars, it was contrary to everything we know Madison did say. The caller yelled, “Well, I choose to believe it!” and hung up.

Today, echoes of that conversation are everywhere. The phenomenon even has a name: belief polarization.

Belief polarization has been the subject of substantial scholarly research, as Thomas Edsall recently reported in an essay for the New York Times.

In a paper that came out in June, “Explanations for Inequality and Partisan Polarization in the U.S., 1980 — 2020,” Elizabeth Suhay and Mark Tenenbaum, political scientists at American University, and Austin Bartola, of Quadrant Strategies, provide insight into why so much discord permeates American politics:

Scholars who research polarization have almost exclusively focused on the relationship between Americans’ policy opinions and their partisanship. In this article, we discuss a different type of partisan polarization underappreciated by scholars: “belief polarization,” or disagreements over what people perceive to be true.

In a finding that is especially disheartening to naive people who (like yours truly) harp on the importance of credible evidence, scholars have found that two people with opposing prior beliefs often “both strengthen their beliefs after observing the same data.”

In a 2021 paper, researchers found

“ample evidence that people sustain different beliefs even when faced with the same information, and they interpret that information differently.” They also note that “stark differences in beliefs can arise and endure due to human limitations in interpreting complex information.”

Edsall quotes an explanation of belief polarization authored by professors of philosophy at Vanderbilt.

Part of what makes belief polarization so disconcerting is its ubiquity. It has been extensively studied for more than 50 years and found to be operative within groups of all kinds, formal and informal. Furthermore, belief polarization does not discriminate between different kinds of belief. Like-minded groups polarize regardless of whether they are discussing banal matters of fact, matters of personal taste, or questions about value. What’s more, the phenomenon operates regardless of the explicit point of the group’s discussion. Like-minded groups polarize when they are trying to decide an action that the group will take, and they polarize also when there is no specific decision to be reached. Finally, the phenomenon is prevalent regardless of group members’ nationality, race, gender, religion, economic status, and level of education.

Short version: humans of all kinds are irrational.

The most recent examples of belief polarization, of course, involve Trump: in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, MAGA supporters remain convinced by the “Big Lie” that the election was stolen; Democrats and independents are equally certain it wasn’t. And more recently, Right-wingers (and of course, Fox News) are calling the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago a corrupt politicization of federal investigative authority. The rest of us counter that the raid is consistent with the rule of law, a reassuring demonstration that no one, no matter how powerful, is above the law.

Edsall explores Americans’ polarized beliefs about the economy, poverty,  climate change, and gender identity. Then he delivers a profoundly depressing statement: “There is further evidence that even people who are knowledgeable about complex issues are sharply polarized along partisan lines.”

He quotes from a paper titled “More Accurate, but No Less Polarized: Comparing the Factual Beliefs of Government Officials and the Public,” demonstrating that even though “political elites are consistently more accurately informed than the public,” that increased accuracy doesn’t translate into reduced belief polarization”. The study challenged the assumption that we will disagree less about the facts if we know more.

And most depressing, albeit unsurprising: it turns out that racism plays a central part in America’s polarization Researchers have found that–while political campaigns don’t change levels of prejudice–” they can prime these attitudes, or make them more or less salient and therefore more or less politically relevant.”

As one set of researchers found,

Trump not only attracted whites with more conservative views on race; he also made his white supporters more likely to espouse increasingly extreme views on issues related to immigration and on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and police killings of African Americans.

In other words, political rhetoric can sharpen racial attitudes–and (like my long-ago caller) reinforce and legitimize what we choose to believe.


  1. What a depressing way to start a Monday, sheesh.
    I hope tomorrow’s post is upbeat because I see millions of women registering to vote lately which gives me hope. Thanks Professor.


    Of course; that is what I believe.

    My good friend Rick in Florida, a gay, Catholic, Republican, suddenly began sending me E-mails claiming my support for elected officials I had never heard of and upholding issues I was totally unaware of. My continued denials and claims of not knowing who or what he was talking about resulted in his decision to call a “hiatus” to our friendship…that was in 2006. I learned we were in different political parties when, while helping me dig out a dead palm tree, he said he didn’t know I was a leftist till my comment that I support the death penalty in some cases. We had talked social problems and the lack of infrastructure maintenance from the same side but never mentioned political issues or candidates. He probably still believes his views about my views but I will never know…his “hiatus” continues today.

    Lindsey Graham is on a public rant that “there will be riots if Trump is convicted”. My question is, will there be more riots if Trump is convicted of anything than there were while Trump was president? I don’t believe so!

  3. Everyone should attend a seminar of scientists some time. EVERY paper and scholarly work is attacked mercilessly if the testing regime is inaccurate or the conclusions go beyond what that experiment/test discovered, found or verified. My point is that the scientific method must be used when examining topics.

    Yes, there are those who think fossil fuels are infinite and that our economies MUST keep growing. All B.S. It ain’t gonna happen.

    Ask a racist true believer who is going to pick their fruit and vegetables, bus their tables, wash their dishes, nanny their kids, launder their hotel linens, etc. Ask them if their blue-eyed daughters or sons are going to take on those jobs to pay for their next iPhone. Ask them if those beloved, hard-working children will go to the fields to earn college tuition money. Don’t wait for a rational answer. Their biases, prejudices and hate will silence their tongues.

    Hypocrisy is the great undoing of truth.

  4. Fascinating but (cue Pollyanna) how do you effectively cut through belief polarization for productive change and understanding!?

  5. The fact that political elites are not immune from this kind of polarization should not be surprising. Their jobs depend on them believing whatever nonsense the people above them in the metaphorical ladder say.

  6. I wonder if studies find that belief polarization can be mitigated when people interact across lines in a way that focuses on building relationships rather than on looking at data and facts? Isn’t that how LGBTQ+ people shifted the landscape for them to be less hostile?

  7. I’ve said for a long time that closely held beliefs are impervious to facts. Since I live in sunny southwest Florida, that thought has been hammered home regularly. Governor DeMented and his friends have proven to us that even a Yale/Harvard man can be a knuckle dragging bully. His crowd responds with laughter and applause. While watching this phenomena, I often wonder what he really believes about anything, or if he has any beliefs at all, except that his followers love that sort of “mean girl” mentality.

    Are they really semi-fascists, or are they just plain old regular fascists?

  8. There is a neurological explanation for why we “Choose to Believe” whatever we want to believe. The simplest (perhaps oversimplified) explanation for this is in Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight.” I am paraphrasing here but she says that when any piece of sensory information (sights, sound, smells, touch and other body sense information) reaches the limbic system in the brain, the amygdala stamps it safe, UNSAFE, or not sure. This system which evolved to keep us safe from danger still runs the show. It takes a tiny fraction of a second for the brain to ‘sense’ something is unsafe and send fight/flight or freeze/faint information to every organ in the body. It also takes a fraction of a second for the thinking brain to ‘process’ this sensory information and come to a conclusion based on a balance between what we perceive through the senses and all the things we have learned since arriving on the planet. That second fraction of a second, unfortunately, is a much bigger fraction so the thinking brain is, in a way, always playing catch up to the more primitive, but essential limbic system. There are many other influences on how we respond but it starts here with neurology. When we hit the send button on an angry email and immediately regret it, this scenario is playing out. The prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) finally makes an assessment that the impulse provided by the limbic system to send, is not a good idea. This might also explain number forty five’s lawyers dread it when he says he wants to testify in court.

  9. “The study challenged the assumption that we will disagree less about the facts if we know more.”

    So, how do we bring people back to reality? Too many people say, “It can’t be done.” Yet, many other studies say, “Yes, it can.”

    Start here: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” – David Hume

    Here’s the best book I’ve read about the subject: “No One Understands You And What To Do About It,” by Heidi Grant Halvorson.

    By coincidence, my blog post today, “Don’t seek to be seen as wise: Cultivate wisdom in others.”


  10. Interesting article. And, as I have pleaded before in this response column, what solutions are there? It is good to point out problems, but that is only half of it; the other half is to point to possible solutions.
    The common German in the 1930’s believed in Hitler with the same fury that the current MAGA crown believes in Trump. The “solution”, of course, was the horrors of a world at war, but they eventually came around and dropped their belief in him. Is that what it will take to loosen the bonds of the MAGA fascists today? Hopefully there will be something less drastic that will wake up the GOP to the dangers we face.

  11. Christian Nationalism is a very polarized belief identity sector of a far broader evangelical right. It is unfair and unjust to caste the extreme views of a smaller belief ‘system’ upon the larger group simply because you do not share their beliefs either. Hope for reconciliation rests on a deeper dive into the argument Sheila has posted for today’s reflection. What are the demographics of Christian Nationalists? Calling them idiots and ignorant may be a reflection more about you than them and those people. Consider this common definition of a Christian Nationalist, for example:

    Part of the belief of Christian Nationalist is support for disestablishmentarianism. The “deep state” must be destroyed to resurrect the “risen state”. Attacking notions of the “risen state” feeds right into their mantra. It is a trap.

    Focus on what is right and not what you are against.

  12. As Norris so simply stated; “Focus on what is right and not what you are against.”

    Christian Nationalism is completely polarized from the words of Christ. Like Pinoccio’s nose growing with each of his lies, Trump’s “Big Lie” grows bigger with their lying rants and rambling but we must not lose our fear of the outcome of their polarization which seems to be unrecognizable by those claiming to be Christians. Beyond here there be dragons and they will drag us over the edge of their flat earth society beliefs. And Chicken Little was right; the sky is falling.

  13. Sheila summarizes “ humans of all kinds are irrational.”. Paul says almost the same thing, that all human perceptions are processed though imprecise biological functions.

    It takes effort to come to rational conclusions. We are not computers. But, we are also very lazy, so I think very few people take any effort. The whole process of rationalization is a short cut system to avoid having to deal with conflicts in your own belief system.

    How do you ever get better at anything? Practice and training. Some people would call this education. I am sure there a lot of people that believe their rational thought training ended with high school or college. If your lucky, by now, you have realized that there is more you don’t know than you really know.

    All of us are lazy in some way and take short cuts in thinking, otherwise day to day life would be exhausting. It takes an effort bypass the built in shortcuts when presented with new information and it seems that there are too many people willing or even able to recognize when they are taking those shortcuts.

  14. No one can be reasoned out of a belief they did not reason themselves into. ~ Jonathan Swift

  15. in conversation with the new guy in a asphault plant,60, left job due his boss retired,he had 15 years with that company. seems his wages didnt meet his goals in life,its all the democrates fault, as he stated time after time. when i bought up the subject of living wages,seems didnt have a clue. like it was whatever they paid. he didnt save much in his last employment. as we talked, the conversation always went back to those demos. then i dropped on him i was a progressive liberal, he stared at me,huh? like a Bernie i said. he came unglued.. i damn near started laughing,but save the crap, i had work outside to do. this is a common affect when talking with white bread NoDak.
    seems its only repeated as they need to bond with thier maggot friends. taking a cue to listen,then dropping a bomb on him probabaly wasnt the nicest thing,he hates demos,period. even though through our conversation,i had put a reality check on him as who gets the profits,and who doesnt..seems that didnt matter, he hates demos.. now the plant super is cool, ill buy lunch,(arbys double roast beef with everything. this is out of my pocket,those who know me while making my rounds,will find a day ill buy lunch for up to 10 hungry working people..the super here on this site isnt aware of that conversation, ill have him drop it on the,,er, parrot…

  16. “Maga” Republicans resemble the Whigs, a party from which the Republican Party began in 1854, splitting with the Whigs on the issue of slavery. There was much energy for the then new Republican Party. This new party elected a president only six years later, a guy named Lincoln, who would today be a Democrat. Voters then, like those today, were and are susceptible to hardened and intractable views of right and wrong policies, and once so instilled can find ample justifications for dogmatic adherence to such views. In the case of magas, take “but her emails,” for instance. The same can be said for their opposition.

    It’s unfortunate that all of us can’t just scrub our brains of such scruff and start all over again with a clean slate, but as Paul points out today, that’s not the way we are constructed north of the neck. So what to do? Fairly, honestly and realistically problem solve. Give, take, compromise, but adhere to basic principles. Can’t be done? How do we know since we (in all honesty) haven’t tried it yet? Impossible? Negative. With Murdoch’s increasing criticism of Trump, anything’s possible. Let’s persevere, ’cause like it or not, we are all in this together.

  17. “‘Then he delivers a profoundly depressing statement: ‘There is further evidence that even people who are knowledgeable about
    complex issues are sharply polarized along partisan lines.'”
    Given people’s differing perspectives/personalities, which presumably play a role in their choice of party, in the first place, those
    abiding in the different parties are bound to interpret evidence differently. Or, see different things as evidence, in the first place, viz.
    my goose stepping cousin who accepted the presence of a snowy owl in Tennessee, one winter, as “evidence” of global cooling!

    “Belief polarization” is a new idea to me, and is scary. I expect that confirmation bias plays a large role in this.
    I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” and was blown away, last night, to find her stating that the
    Boers were unable to recognize that the natives in southern Africa were fellow humans, nor that their killing of them amounted
    to murder, because of this perspective. She states that it ‘…was not at all the color of their skin but the fact that they behaved like a
    part of nature, that they treated nature as their undisputed master….” The Boers had, apparently, not sought evidence regarding
    the natives’ humanity, and we do not know how they might have interpreted what evidence they might have found, in the first place.
    Consider this in the light of Trump’s MAGA crowd looking to kill Pence and Pelosi!

  18. Personal opinion:

    It’s well established that doers, like athletes for example, have to “get out of their heads” to perform well. That means they need to stop thinking consciously and let their subconscious processes rule their behaviors because that is what they have built for years though practice and repetition. There is a reason that most top athletes are not top thinkers, and if they are, they understand how to “get in the zone,” which really means turning off the frontal lobe.

    In life one learns that there are times reason is required and times reason can be a hindrance. Some people spend most of their lives reasoning, and some spend most of their lives behaving without taxing thought. Whether or not heredity has an influence in this, the more a person receives positive feedback for lack of conscious thought, they more they “trust their gut.” We know that the “gut” in question is just a series of neuronal connections, or a brain wired for behavioral responses to certain stimuli.

    Is it any wonder that those who live the lives of doers, not thinkers, are prone to belief over reason? Furthermore society takes those people, Trump’s “poorly educated,” the laborers, the soldiers, the “blue collar,” and culturally conditions them to choose Kardashians over books, country over classical, and church over university.

    We take the well understood cognitive failings of the human brain and exploit them in response to perceived scarcity. That is, in essence, what a capitalist economy is and what a confidence game is. This is who Trump is. What we fail to see is that Trump is simply an exaggerated version of us. We are “Choosing To Believe” because we have trained most of our country to be this way. We do this to ourselves.

  19. PS to my comment above:

    P.S.: I expect one can draw a very straight line between Trump’s Malignant Narcissism, his perspective that people are, are not fellow
    humans but just “tools” to be used in the pursuit of his goals, and the MAGA crowds’ totally buying into his ravings.

  20. “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

    The earliest pertinent evidence of this quote, according to Quote Investigator, appeared in a 1945 article titled “Don’t Confuse Me With Facts!” by Roy S. Durstine in the periodical Advertising & Selling. Durstine was a prominent specialist in advertising, and his article described a meeting between an ad agency and a client:

    A group from the agency had just finished its presentation of a market survey. The findings were conclusive—clearly showing that the policies being followed by the client could lead only to disappointment and perhaps disaster.
    Despite the facts given in the presentation the client had no desire to change the strategy that had been previously selected.
    “I still think we’ll go along as we have been doing.”
    “But how can you say that in the face of this evidence?” protested the agency man.
    The client stared at the presentation, deep in thought. At last he reached for a cigarette and said softly:
    “Don’t confuse me with facts!”

    I guess it’s been around for awhile.

  21. Those who have read my previous posts know I am and unabashed liberal. My brother however is a dyed in the wool reactionary Southern Baptist CULT “preacher” who purchased a doctorate. In my case I did it the hard way by earning it from Oklahoma State. We were both brought up in the First Brethren Church that taught it is against the Christ’s teachings to participate in war. I served in Vietnam and he did not. I returned much more liberal than when I left.

    So here we are not speaking to each other as I believe he has committed blasphemy, sacrilege, and heresy. Where is the middle ground? It doesn’t exist.

    I have departed the US as I firmly believe the next election will result in another fascist taking over as POTUS. Yes I believe 45 is a fascist. I’m returning next June for a ship’s reunion in Tahoe and plan on never again returning.

  22. If you vote Democrat, then this is what you are for:

    Protecting Americans and recovering from the COVID 19 pandemic

    Building a stronger fairer economy

    Achieving universal, affordable, quality healthcare

    Protecting communities and building trust by reforming our criminal justice system

    Healing the soul of America

    Combating the climate crisis and pursuing environmental justice

    Restoring and strengthening our democracy

    Creating a 21st Century immigration system

    Providing a world class education in every Zip Code

    Renewing American leadership

    Go to the link above for more detail. Lot’s to choose from what you are for.

  23. As I have stated before, I HATE the term “polarization”. It implies that two sides, one on the north pole and one on the south pole are both declaring that it is hot. In reality, one side is on the pole and the other on the equator, where it really is hot.

    The term hides the truth that the Republican Party has been sliding towards extreme White Nationalism (anti-democratic) while the Democrats have been slightly pulled back towards FDR after their embrace of Reagan.

    If both sides are extreme, well, nothing helps, so let the slide to the right continue. That was a failing of pundits and party regulars (both parties).

    Kudos to Stephen Colbert for Truthiness (although as Kathy points out, it is just a new name for an old problem).

    Vernon makes me laugh, bringing back memories. One former lab chief had almost a blood feud with a member of my dissertation committee, as he had publicly and strongly (and possibly nastily) disagreed with her presentation. Hear husband, also a scientist, hated my former lab chief with a passion.

    Now, all of the evidence (easier in the “natural sciences” than the “social sciences”) should eventually lead to single conclusion, but there are always dissenters. As Dan points out, training, a slow process is one solution.

    As a post-doctoral fellow, our lab chief used to assign articles for peer review. He would then give us his version. Very often, it included large chunks of what I had written. Once, however, he gave me a very stern reproach because I had let a scientific prejudice of mine take over my review. He told me what I had gotten wrong and why. I never made that mistake again. I always stopped and reread my review after a break. That is still my habit in writing, and if possible in speech. Sometimes, but not always, a sharp rebuke from a respected mentor is effective.

    Carol points out another possible remedy – exposure. I have read some research suggesting that this may work.

    Any remediation will be slow. What does need to happen though, is for both political parties to denounce extremes and not legitimize them. We need not only defeat MAGA candidates, but also their enabler/legitimizers. Barry Goldwater, hardly a liberal, denounced the John Birch Society. Trump embraced White Nationalists. The Republicans have to at least go back to Barry’s outlook or create a new opposition party.

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