Selective Listening and Political Intelligence

There is compelling evidence that human beings are becoming smarter on average. The “Flynn Effect” refers to the empirical phenomenon of rising fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores that have increased in a linear fashion since about 1930 in many parts of the world. However, in terms of how it receives political information, the American electorate does not seem to reflect this supposed rise in human intelligence.Media

In some forms of news media, an oft-maligned trend is the tendency to push narratives that sort complex issues, policies, and positions into absurd dichotomies such as “good or bad,” right or wrong, strong or weak. If we accept the notion that the populace on average is getting smarter with each passing generation, why does this oversimplification happen at some of the most powerful news organizations?

Is the environment of poor political discourse the product of lazy journalistic practices that dumb down the public’s understanding of complex political issues? The answer might not be so simple. In an internet age with unprecedentedly low barriers to enter into news journalism, part of the problem is also that strictly partisan or binary discussions are more popular and emotionally satisfying to consume than less biased or nuanced reporting.

For instance, there is the popularity of the conservatively biased FOX News Network or MSNBC’s liberally biased programming. They afford their viewers the opportunity to listen to opinions that confirm or are similar to their own without being confronted by challenging viewpoints. It is possible that the demand for unbiased news is shrinking, and more information is flowing through an ideological lens before ever reaching audiences. Without a common factual ground to stand on, dialogue becomes fractious and difficult. If that is the case, the poor journalistic standards often bemoaned by political commentators or conscientious citizens are merely a reaction to the consumers’ demand.

This transition towards more ideological bias in the transmission of information is troublesome. It not only causes difficulties in dialogue, but it also could account for some of the ideological polarization in this year’s presidential election. An extremist-pandering Donald Trump and evangelical conservative Ted Cruz collectively have won most Republican primaries, and Hillary Clinton, once the surefire nominee, is facing surprisingly strong opposition from the “democratic socialist,” Bernie Sanders. Each of these storylines, in which the outsiders challenge the party establishment, have been exhaustively covered, but perhaps the root cause has not been discussed enough.

Emotional reasoning and opinion confirmation has become a problematic characteristic of American democracy. For example, Donald Trump was able to convince his supporters that he witnessed thousands of Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Despite sources from the Jersey City police department and mayor’s office firmly discrediting Trump’s statement, what mattered more for people who believed him was whether it was consistent with their preexisting opinions.

In the NPR Politics Podcast’s Nov. 24 weekly update, political editor Domenico Montanaro explained, “Depending on your point of view and your perspective, you’re going in looking to reaffirm what you believe rather than being open to having your mind changed.” This occurrence is just one of many instances in the Trump campaign in particular in which the truth of a situation was less important than how the message resonated emotionally with the electorate. Validity was drawn from the reinforcement of already-held opinions, not from fact-based or rational reasoning.

Intellectual laziness may be the driving force behind political polarization. It underlies emotional reasoning as well as the trend of seeking out media news that supports one’s own views. Simply put, American apathy towards confronting difficult issues in a nuanced way can account for some of the erosion in news media quality and the rise of popular fringe candidates. Rather than blaming institutions like the media or specific people such as Donald Trump for the problems in American society, we should instead reflect more on our own shortcomings and make sure we don’t contribute to the same problems we bemoan so easily and often.

Jack Coletto