Tribal bias often trumps facts in ed choice debates

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Every legislative session the debates surrounding education choice remind me how our perceptions of reality are influenced by our cognitive biases, and why teaching students (and adults) about these biases is so important.

Opponents of education choice regularly attack these programs for, among other things, taking money away from district schools, promoting racial segregation, only serving high-performing students, lacking accountability, generating profits for wealthy investors, and inappropriately using government funds to promote religion. Education choice supporters rebut these attacks with information showing they are false. But after almost three decades of this back and forth, the two sides are farther apart than ever.

Ironically, facts are contributing to this growing divide. Psychology journals are full of research showing that people’s beliefs are often strengthened when presented with contrary facts. Contrary facts often trigger people’s defense mechanisms. They go into fight or flight mode and reinforcing their commitment to their beliefs is how they protect themselves. I heard an interview a few years ago with a man who believed former President Obama was born in Kenya. When the reporter presented him with a copy of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate he saw this as evidence confirming his belief.  “That they went to all this trouble to forge a birth certificate is proof of a coverup,” he said.

Assertions that the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings never happened continue to haunt parents whose children were killed.  Conspiracy theorists see testimony from these parents about their dead children as proof the shooting never occurred.

I wish fact-resistant beliefs and conspiracy theories were confined to a small group of people. They aren’t. These tendencies are hardwired into our genome.

The March 2019 edition of the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science includes an article entitled “Logical Reasoning: Ideology Impairs Sound Reasoning.”

The researchers found that both liberals and conservatives evaluated entire arguments based on the believability of the arguments’ conclusions, which led to “predictable patterns of logical errors.” Each side was better at identifying flaws in their opponents’ arguments than they were in their own, which illustrated how political beliefs “distort people’s abilities to reason about political topics soundly.”

The existence of cognitive biases that impede rational thought is common knowledge throughout cognitive and social psychology and behavioral economics.

National Public Radio journalist Hannah Rosen, on her podcast “Invisibilia,” recently added an interesting twist to this phenomena when she explored how empathy can reinforce and perpetuate cognitive biases. She found that people, especially young people, avoid empathizing with people they disagree with because they don’t want empathy to lessen their opposition. Rosen concludes that empathy is starting to appear “more like tribalism, a way to keep reinforcing your own point of view and blocking out any others.”

Consistent with Rosen’s reporting, I’ve noticed that education choice opponents often resist meeting and spending time with low-income and minority families using scholarships and vouchers to attend non-district schools. I’ve always suspected that they’re afraid they might empathize with these families and this empathy would undermine their determination to oppose education choice. It’s easier to deny low-income and minority families access to more education options if they’re just statistics.

Despite our ubiquitous tribalism, group think, and various cognitive biases, I remain optimistic that we can learn to get along in a fact-based world. Education is the key. Specifically, teaching young people to be more self-aware of these biological and cultural traits and how to manage them effectively. I spent over a decade teaching high school students how to develop and maintain good critical thinking skills. It can be done. Admittedly, it’s more difficult convincing highly partisan adults to use these skills when emotions are running high.

Public education would benefit if education choice opponents and supporters spent time talking to each other instead of yelling at each other. I spent over a decade as a teacher union leader, and now I’m president of the country’s largest education choice organization. I’ve been on both sides, and I know that we agree far more than we disagree. We all share a passion for expanding excellence and equity in public education. That’s where we should be focusing our collective energy.

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