Every morning US-president Donald Trump watches Fox and Friends, the early morning show on Fox News. He gave 92 percent of his interviews to Fox News or its subsidiary Fox News Business. At the same time, Fox News is among the most important TV channels in the US, reaching on average 2.5 million people per day. Therefore, it could be a great medium to reach the overall US-American population. However, as so often these days, Donald Trump addresses mainly his own voters. In the 2016 election campaign, 40 percent of Trump voters mentioned Fox News as the main source of information. For the Clinton supporters it was less than 5 percent. An enormous gap which gives us a hint of how far Republican and Democratic worlds have fallen apart from each other.
Nobel prize winning economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee illustrate in their book “Good economics for hard times” various examples of the growing segmentation between Republicans and Democrats. A study of Iyengar et al. (2012) underlines that the gap between the two parties becomes increasingly insurmountable: In the 1960s, around 5 percent of the Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats would be “somewhat ‘displeased’ if their child married outside their political party.” In 2010, more than 30 percent of Democrats and almost 50 percent of Republicans were uncomfortable with marriage outside their party. Recent other studies confirm the ongoing polarization between the parties lately, such as a study by Matthew Gentzkow (2016) from Stanford University.
At the very latest since the Cambridge Analytica scandal – the data analysis company which influenced successfully the Brexit vote or US-election 2016 – it has become common currency that media plays a major role in influencing political opinion-forming.
Even though most people would probably claim that they form their political opinion completely independently from newspapers and TV channels, behavioral economics can provide some enlightening insights on the alarming influence of media on the public debate.
First of all, people are not rational. For some of our readers, this might not be a new information. However, this finding is crucial in behavioral economics since it implies that we are not able to analyze all available information like a rational actor. Instead, we rely on mental shortcuts – so-called heuristics. These help us simplifying our decision making by finding quick and satisfying solutions. Something which is quite useful in a somewhat uncertain and quickly changing world.
Examples of heuristics are rules of thumb, intuitiveness, stereotyping or common sense. When using these heuristics, we rely on our so-called automatic system. This term goes back to research of Kahneman and Tsverkyfrom in 2000. It alludes to the fact that the human brain makes use of dual-system thinking. In order to survive, irrelevant and relevant information is categorized and an assessment on how to deal with a certain situation is provided. In consequence, many decisions that we make in our everyday live are immediately processed by the automatic system, also called system 1. The counterpart, the deliberate system or system 2, does not even realize that all of this is happening. The deliberate system is rather slow and requires a lot more willpower to be used. Take for example solving mathematical problems or resisting the cravings for your favorite sweets.
In addition, this automatic system thinking has a significant impact on how people process information. Whenever people are unconsciously relying on automatic system thinking, they are prone to heuristic-based information processing. This means that in consequence, information might not be processed correctly but rather be assessed based for example on emotions.
What does all of this have to do with Fox News?
When people watch Fox News or any other TV channel, they rely on their automatic system. Christopher Whiley, a whistleblower and former employee of Cambridge Analytica, argues that this makes them more likely to process information based on heuristics: In the case of Fox News, the channel gives people the information what an ‘ordinary American’ thinks about a certain political idea. Over time, this contributes to creating a feeling of community, an imagined ‘We’ for the American audience. People who hear this over and over again become primed for identity-motivated reasoning.
The term refers to the fact that humans evaluate information based on how it builds or threatens their group identity. Consequently, this can result in biased decision-making.
In contrast, the rational content of the information becomes less important. Instead, the perceived influence on the group identity becomes decisive for accepting or rejecting an information.
This connection was already shown in an experiment by Hastorf and Cantril in 1950. The psychologists showed students from two colleges a film with questionable officiating calls made during a football game of the two teams of their colleges. Not surprisingly, students either agreed if it was in favor of their school’s team and disagreed if it was favoring the other team. More recently, Arieli et al. (2019) have shown that identity-motivated reasoning is reflected in people’s political orientation and how people evaluate politicians. In fact, politicians from the ingroup were perceived more favorable than politicians from the other party.
This brings us to the practical implication of this behavioral research.Whiley argues that Fox News creates a certain identity for its audience. As a result, political debates are not evaluated based on content but rather on the influences on this group identity. He claims that the viewers interpret opposing positions as attacks on their own identity. This leads to the problem that opposing political ideas – even if they are fact based – can strengthen a less fact based and perhaps distorted personal feeling of identity because people feel their identity threatened.
Consequently, public debate is becoming counterproductive. The more Democrats criticize Fox News, the more entrenched the Fox News viewer become in their own opinions.
This simple but surprising fact can explain to some extent why the gap between the political parties in the US is continuously growing. However, it also implies that just factual correctness and objective discussion might not be suitable anymore to encourage public debate, consensus and most importantly societal peace. Instead, it has become essential to develop alternative approaches to bring voters again closer. Recent research in political storytelling could point in a promising direction. Behavioral economics is a starting point for that and can provide useful concepts to actually bring people together.
So that in the future, Republicans and Democrats can hopefully have a real dialogue again – and perhaps even become Fox and Friends.
Duflo, Ester and Banerjee, Abijit (2019): Good Economics for Hard Times. New York, 2019, PublicAffairs.
Kahneman, Daniel., & Tversky, Amos (Eds.). (2000). Choices, values, and frames. Cambridge University Press.
Kahneman, Daniel. 2011.Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin Books, London.
Iyengar, Shanto & Sood, Gaurav & Lelkes, Yphtach (2012): Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly.
Wylie, Christopher (2018): Mindf*ck – Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World. Random House.