Politics, Social Science, US Election

Were Trump Voters Irrational?

In September 2016, in collaboration with my colleagues Richard West and Maggie Toplak, I published a book titled The Rationality Quotient. In it, we described our attempt to create the first comprehensive test of rational thinking. The book is very much an academic volume, full of statistics and technical details. We had expected our academic peers to engage with the statistics and technical details, and they did begin to do just that after its publication.

But then the November 8, 2016 United States presidential election intervened.

The nature of my email suddenly changed. I began to receive many communications containing gallows humor, like “Wow, you’ll sure have a lot to study now” or “We sure need your test now, don’t we?” Many of these emails had the implication that I now had the perfect group to study—Trump voters—who were obviously irrational in the eyes of my email correspondents.

Subsequent to the election, I also received many invitations to speak. Several of these invitations came with the subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) implication that I surely would want to comment—after first giving my technical talk, of course—on the flawed rational thinking of the voters who had done this terrible thing to the nation. One European conference that solicited my participation had as its theme trying to understand the obviously defective thinking not only of Trump voters, but of Brexit voters as well. The wordy conference prospectus clearly presumed that every educated person would view any opposition to increased globalization as obviously irrational. I—the author of a rational thinking test—was seen as the ideal candidate to give the imprimatur of science to this conclusion. No less insistent have been friends and relatives who assume that I am the perfect person to affirm their view that a substantial number of people who cast ballots for Trump were irrational in their thinking.

Rather than reply to these emails, or give all the talks requested, or affirm all of the leading questions addressed to me, I thought it would be more efficient to write this single essay and disappoint all of my progressive correspondents at once. I am very sorry, progressives, to have to tell you that the Trump voters were, in fact, not irrational—or at least no less rational than the Clinton voters. Several kinds of analyses in cognitive science support this conclusion.

Rationality in Cognitive Science

Rationality is a tortured term in intellectual discourse because it has a multitude of definitions. The term is claimed by many disciplines—philosophy, economics, decision theory, psychology—and defined slightly differently by each. In The Rationality Quotient, we grounded our test of rational thinking in definitions from the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science.

Cognitive scientists recognize two types of rationality: instrumental and epistemic. Instrumental rationality is achieved when we act with optimal efficiency to achieve our goals. Epistemic rationality concerns how well beliefs map onto the actual structure of the world—that is, whether our beliefs are accurate, or true. A quick and memorable way to differentiate the two is to say that they concern what to do (instrumental rationality) and what is true (epistemic rationality). Of course, the two are related. In order to take actions that fulfill our goals, we need to base those actions on beliefs that are properly calibrated to the world. In order to understand the rationality (or irrationality) of the Trump voters, I will focus first on instrumental rationality and then turn to epistemic rationality.

Utility is not only about hedonism and pleasure, but also desirability and worth

Instrumental rationality—the optimization of the individual’s goal fulfillment–means behaving in the world so that you get what you most want, given the resources (physical and mental) available to you. More technically, the model of rational judgment used by decision scientists is one in which a person chooses options based on which option has the largest expected utility. The term utility is a slippery word, however, and it is actually used by decision scientists in ways that do not map exactly onto anything in general discourse. The term as used in cognitive science does not refer to its primary dictionary definition of “usefulness.” Instead, in decision theory, utility means something closer to “goodness.” It is important to realize that utility is not the same as pleasure. Instead, utility refers to the good that accrues when people achieve their goals—and a person’s goal is not always to maximize pleasure. Utility is thus more closely related to the notions of worth or desirability than it is to pleasure or hedonism.

More important for discussions of voter rationality, however, is that utility does not just mean monetary value. The value of winning a kayaking trip in a raffle is measured in its consumption utility, not its monetary value. For someone who has water phobias, its utility might be less than zero. Utility can be assigned to things even less concrete than a kayaking trip. For instance, people gain utility from holding and expressing specific beliefs and values. Failing to realize this is the source of much misunderstanding about voting behavior.

When what a person acts, wants, and desires are expressed as preferences. Decision theory is actually neutral on what a want or desire can be. It is the public, not economists, who tend to emphasize money or material wealth. Decision theorists are perfectly happy to call the non-material goal of seeking social prestige a desire with a utility value. Utility theory also does not dictate that every goal has to reflect strict self-interest in a narrow sense. We can have as our goal that other people achieve their goals and that can have utility value for us. Thus, neither material goals nor self-interested goals are necessary according to utility theory. Many goals that motivate people are neither self-interested nor material, such as preserving the environment for posterity.

Failure to appreciate these nuances in rational choice theory is behind the charge that the Trump voters were irrational. A common complaint about them among Democratic critics is that they were voting against their own interests. A decade ago, this was the theme of Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas? and it has recurred frequently since. The idea is that lower income people who vote Republican (not necessarily for Trump—most of these critiques predate the 2016 election) are voting against their interests because they would receive more government benefits if they voted Democratic. Many of these critiques contain the presumptions that, to be rational, preferences must be self-interested and that people’s primary desires are monetary. I have just discussed how rational choice theory contains no such presumptions, so on that basis alone the claim that such voters are irrational is unfounded.

In addition to being misplaced, leftists never seem to see how insulting this critique of Republican voters is. Their failure to see the insult illustrates precisely what they get wrong in evaluating the rationality of the Trump voters. Consider that these What’s the Matter with Kansas? critiques are written by highly educated left-wing pundits, professors, and advocates. Perhaps we should ask one of them whether their own vote is purely self-interested and for their own monetary benefit. They will say no, of course. And they will deny as well that their vote is irrational. Progressives will say that they often vote against their own monetary interests in order to do good for other people. Or they will say that their vote reflects their values and worldview—that they are concerned about the larger issues that are encompassed by that worldview (abortion legislation or climate change or gun restriction). Leftists seem unable to see that Republican voters—even lower income ones—may be just as attached to their own values and worldviews. The stance of the educated progressive making the What’s the Matter with Kansas? argument seems to be that: “no one else should vote against their monetary interests, but it’s not irrational for me to do so, because I am enlightened.”

The implicit insult in the Kansas argument often goes unrecognized, and, if I may use some cognitive science jargon here, it is a form of ‘myside’ bias. For example, leftists who work for nonprofit organizations are often choosing their values over monetary reward. And likewise, conservatives joining the military are often also choosing their values over monetary reward. The What’s the Matter with Kansas? argument seems to ignore or deny this symmetry. Many Republican voters with modest incomes cast a vote to help others rather than for their own monetary interests—precisely as do the progressive Democrats who find such Republican behavior puzzling. So no, neither the Kansas voters in Frank’s book, nor the Trump voters are voting against their interests, broadly—and correctly—defined. Even if part of the Kansas critique is correct (they are voting against their purely economic interests), these voters are not necessarily irrational because they may be sacrificing monetary gain in order to express their values or worldview.

But what about temperament, character, and fitness for office? Surely it was irrational to vote for Trump if temperament is relevant, Democrats might say. But this argument is not a slam-dunk from the standpoint of rationality. It is simply not self-evident how people should trade off temperament versus worldview in their voting choices. This is especially true in the 2016 presidential election, where the candidates were unusually differentiated in their worldviews. In that election, Clinton represented what I will term the Global and Groups perspective (GG) and Trump represented the Country and Citizen perspective (CC). Clinton signalled to the electorate that she represented the GG perspective by emphasizing global concerns (climate change and global climate agreements; increasing US refugee intake; rights and protections for noncitizens) and continually addressing groups in her speeches (the groups of Democratic identity politics: LGBT, African-Americans, Hispanics, etc.). Trump signalled to the electorate that he represented the CC perspective by continually emphasizing country in his speeches (“make America great again”) and addressing his audiences as citizens with nation-level interests rather than group interests (trade deals that disadvantaged American workers; securing the country’s borders; etc.).

Hillary Clinton during the third and final presidential debate

These two candidates (Clinton and Trump) more sharply differentiated these worldviews than any other combination of candidates in 2016. Bernie Sanders would have watered down the GG perspective, because his criticism of some trade deals made him less of a globalist than Clinton, and Sanders placed less emphasis on the Democratic identity groups. Similarly, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio as Republican candidates would have watered down the CC perspective by being sympathetic to global trade deals and pursuing voters as groups in the manner that Democrats do (Hispanic voters in particular). Clinton and Trump represented the GG and CC worldviews in much purer form. The issue for a Republican voter or an independent voter with a CC worldview was thus how to weight the temperament issue against worldview (for simplicity, we will stipulate here that the temperament issue resides with Trump). Because there is no way to ascertain what weighting of these factors (temperament versus worldview) is optimal for a given person, it cannot be said that a voter who chooses worldview over temperament is irrational.

To my Democratic friends who demur from my conclusion here, I pose a thought experiment. Imagine that the candidates for a presidential election were Ted Cruz on the Republican side and Al Sharpton on the Democratic side. Now it is the candidate with the GG worldview who has the character and fitness-for-office issues. Who would you vote for?

When I am successful in forcing Democrats to give a response to this imaginary election, a substantial number admit that they would vote for Sharpton. They justify their choice by citing things that are very rational, given their worldview: they worry about appointments to the Supreme Court, abortion, and gun legislation. The Democrats justify their choice in much the same way as the Trump voters did when they eschewed disqualifying him on the basis of temperament. The Trump voters worried about open borders and encouraging cities to defy federal immigration law, etc.—they worried about threats to their CC worldview in the same manner that the hypothetical Sharpton voters worry about threats to their GG worldview. The calculus of decision theory is not precise enough to dictate a particular weighting of temperament and worldview in something as abstract and multidimensional as a presidential voting choice. After choosing Sharpton over Cruz, few Democrats would consider themselves irrational. Cognitive science would agree with them. But, in the same manner, when those with the opposite worldview vote for Trump over Clinton, they are being no less rational. On instrumental grounds, neither the voters choosing Sharpton over Cruz nor the voters choosing Trump over Clinton can be deemed irrational.

The Epistemic Rationality of the Trump Voters

If you are particularly ill-disposed toward Trump voters, at this point you may still be feeling that, deep down, there is something else wrong with the Trump supporters that was not covered in my discussion of instrumental rationality. You might feel that something in the domain of knowledge is wrong with the Trump voters: they don’t know enough, or they seem to be misinformed, or they don’t seem to listen to evidence. You would be right that there is something else that is worth assessing—another aspect of rationality that covers these additional concerns: epistemic rationality.

Concern with Trump voters in the epistemic domain is, however, not unique because this is a charge (the charge of epistemic irrationality) that Democrats have made about Republicans for some time now. Liberal Democrats have become accustomed, as we all have, to media presentations that are critical of conservative Republicans who do not accept the conclusions of climate science, or of evolutionary biology. These media presentations are correct, of course. The role of human activity in climate change is established science, and evolution is a biological fact. Thus, the denial of climate science or of evolutionary science clearly has a negative connotation, and rightly so.

However, there is a trap lying in wait for progressives here. It is very tempting for them to say: Well, the Democrats get climate science right, and Republicans get it wrong; the Democrats get evolution right, and conservative Republicans get it wrong; so therefore we liberal Democrats are getting everything factually right about all of the other charged topics that figure in political disputes—crime, immigration, poverty, parenting, sexuality, and so on. Such an argument is essentially the claim that Democrats are epistemically more rational than Republicans.

This type of thinking is what some years ago prompted the Democratic Party to declare itself the “party of science” and to label the Republican Party as the science deniers. That stance spawned a series of books with titles like Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (2005). As a political strategy, this “party of science” labelling might be effective, but epistemic superiority cannot simply be declared on the basis of a few examples. A cognitive scientist is forced to be pedantic here and rain on the progressive parade. In fact, any trained social scientist would be quick to point out the obvious selection effects that are operating. The issues in question (climate science and creationism/evolution) are cherry-picked for reasons of politics and media interest. In order to correctly call one party the party of science and the other the party of science deniers, one would of course have to have a representative sampling of scientific issues to see whether members of one party are more likely to accept scientific consensus.

In fact, it is not difficult at all to find scientific issues on which it is liberal Democrats who fail to accept the scientific consensus. Leftists become the “science deniers” in these cases. In fact, and ironically, there are enough examples to produce a book parallel to the Mooney volume cited above titled Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left (2012). To mention an example from my own field, psychology: liberals tend to deny the overwhelming consensus in psychological science that intelligence is moderately heritable.

This isn’t the only instance of left-wing science denial, though. In the area of economics, progressives are very reluctant to accept the consensus view that when proper controls for occupational choice and work history are made, women do not make more than 20 per cent less than men for doing the same work.

Progressives tend to deny or obfuscate (just as conservatives obfuscate the research on global warming) the data indicating that single-parent households lead to more behavioral problems among children. Overwhelmingly progressive university schools of education deny the strong scientific consensus that phonics-based reading instruction facilitates most readers, especially those struggling the most. Many progressives find it hard to believe that there is no bias at all in the initial hiring of women for tenure-track university positions in STEM disciplines. Progressives tend to deny the consensus view that genetically modified organisms are safe to consume. Gender feminists routinely deny biological facts about sex differences. Largely Democratic cities and university towns are at the forefront of the anti-vaccine movement which denies a scientific consensus. In the same cities and towns, people find it hard to believe that there is a strong consensus among economists that rent control causes housing shortages and a diminution in the quality of housing. [Research citations for all the above are available from the author here.]

I will stop here because the point is made. There is plenty of science denial on the Democratic side to balance the anti-scientific attitudes of Republicans toward climate change and evolutionary theory. Neither political party is the party of science, and neither party exclusively contains the science deniers. Each side of the ideological divide accepts or denies scientific consensus depending upon the issue in question. Each side finds it hard to accept scientific evidence that undermines its own ideological beliefs and policies.

More formal studies have indicated that there are few differences in factual knowledge of the world between Republicans and Democrats. The Pew Research Center reported one of its News IQ surveys in 2015 (What the Public Knows, April 28, 2015) and found very few partisan differences. People in the sample answered 12 questions about current events (identifying the route of the Keystone XL pipeline; knowledge of how many Supreme Court justices are women; etc.) and the Republicans outperformed the Democrats on 7 of the 12 items. Democrats outperformed the Republicans on 5 of the items. On average, the Republicans in the sample answered 8.3 items correctly, the Democrats answered 7.9 items correctly, and the independents answered 8.0 items correctly.

The 2013 News IQ survey from the Pew Center (What the Public Knows, September 5, 2013) showed the same thing. People in the sample answered 13 questions about world events (identifying Egypt on a map of the Middle East, etc.). The Republicans outperformed the Democrats on 5 items, the Democrats outperformed the Republicans on 7 of the items, and there was no difference on one item. On average, the Republicans in the sample answered 6.5 items correctly, the Democrats answered 6.4 items correctly, and the independents answered 6.6 items correctly. In summary, the Pew surveys find few partisan differences in current events knowledge. Even if the Trump voters had come disproportionately from independent voters compared with previous Republican nominees, there would not have been a knowledge deficit among Trump voters.

Similar findings are obtained in specific areas of knowledge related to voting such as economics. George Mason University economist Daniel Klein and colleague Zeljka Buturovic (Econ Journal Watch, May 2011, 157-173) gave a 17-item questionnaire on knowledge of economics to over 2000 online respondents. They found that individuals labeling themselves libertarian or very conservative scored higher than individuals labeling themselves as liberal or progressive. Importantly, their major conclusion was not that conservatives were more economically knowledgeable than leftists. Instead, they stressed as one of their major findings how such surveys are tilted by the selection of questions. For example, the item “rent-control laws lead to housing shortages” (correct answer: true) is more difficult for progressives because it challenges their ideology; whereas the item “a dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person” (correct answer: true) is more difficult for conservatives because it challenges their ideology.

Measures of so-called “knowledge” in such a domain are easily skewed in a partisan manner by selection effects. This is a version of the “party of science” problem discussed previously. Whether the Democrats or the Republicans are the “party of science” depends entirely on how the issue in question is selected. The 17-item measure used by Klein was relatively balanced (8 items biased against leftists and 9 items biased against conservatives). With all the caveats in place about the difficulty of item matching, the weak conclusion that can be drawn is that existing research provides no evidence for the view that conservatives are deficient in the domain of economic knowledge—a domain critical for rational voting behavior.

Trump supporter

Similar sampling problems plague studies of conspiracy beliefs. These are important to study because perhaps the problem with the Trump voters is not that they have acquired too little knowledge but that they have acquired too much misinformation. The early research literature on the relation between ideology and conspiracy belief seemed to suggest that conspiratorial thinking was, in fact, more strongly associated with the political right. However, more recent research has suggested that this finding was simply a function of the distribution of specific conspiracy beliefs that were studied. Research using more balanced items has suggested that conspiracy beliefs are equally prevalent on the political right and left. We have confirmed this latter trend in the research literature in our own studies of our rational thinking measure, the Comprehensive Assessment of Rational Thinking (CART), which contains a subtest measuring the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.

Our subtest covered a wide range of conspiratorial beliefs. Most importantly, our measure includes both right-wing and left-wing conspiracy items as well as a good number of items that spanned the political divide. Unlike some previous measures, it was not just a proxy for right-wing political attitudes. Some of the commonly studied conspiracies that we assessed were: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the 9/11 attacks, fluoridation, the moon landing, pharmaceutical industry plots, the spread of AIDS, oil industry plots, and Federal Reserve conspiracies. The results from our study were consistent with the more recent work on this issue. There was not a significant correlation between political ideology and the score on the conspiracy beliefs subtest of the CART. Overall then, there is no evidence from social science that Trump voters (overwhelmingly Republicans and independents) are epistemically less rational because they are less knowledgeable, or because they have acquired more misinformation.

Although there is no strong evidence that there are differences in the amount of knowledge that progressive and conservative voters have accumulated, it might be that the problem with conservatives (and Trump voters) is in the process of knowledge accumulation (in belief forming mechanisms). There are right and wrong ways to acquire knowledge. A person can acquire a true fact in the wrong manner. One problematic process in knowledge acquisition was mentioned above and has been extensively studied by cognitive psychologists—myside bias. If a person acquired a true political fact by a process of searching exclusively for things that support their political position, they may well be acquiring knowledge in the technical sense, but the knowledge base will be skewed and selective. It will have been acquired in the wrong way.

What then is the evidence that either Trump voters in particular, or Republicans, or conservatives in general, are more likely to display myside bias? The evidence, to the contrary, is that there is little relation between political beliefs and myside bias. Psychologists have a variety of paradigms for studying myside bias, but they all have the following general logic. Subjects might read an essay, or evaluate a purported experiment, or be presented with actual numerical data from an experiment (the results vary little across these different stimulus presentations). Sometimes the arguments and/or data are presented as supporting their political position (myside supporting) and other times it is presented as opposing (otherside supporting) their political position. Whether rating an essay or evaluating the quality of an experiment, subjects reliably rate myside supporting evidence higher than otherside supporting evidence. This is a manifestation of myside bias. Likewise, when evaluating actual numerical data, subjects view it as more convincing data when it is myside supporting than when it is otherside supporting.

Myside bias is ubiquitous, and it has been known for some time that it is displayed across the political spectrum, so the extreme argument that Republicans are characterized by myside bias and that Democrats are unbiased in how they view evidence was falsified years and years ago. But a weaker form of the hypothesis has remained in psychology and in general discourse for some time—that Republicans are more mysided in their thinking than Democrats (another, related, way of making the old “party of science” argument).

Recently, psychologist Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine and colleagues have greatly clarified the evidence on this weaker form of the argument. They meta-analyzed 41 experimental studies of partisan differences in myside bias that involved over 12,000 subjects. After amalgamating all of these studies and comparing an overall metric of myside bias, Ditto and colleagues concluded that the degree of partisan bias in these studies was quite similar for progressives and conservatives.

Thus, the lack of partisan differences found in actual acquired knowledge discussed previously is mirrored by a lack of partisan differences in the biasing process of myside thinking. These findings have not stopped the overwhelmingly liberal psychology world (see the writings of Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim and others on ideological bias in psychology) from seeking other process differences. In fact, there is a whole subspecialty area in social psychology devoted to showing that negative traits such as prejudice and stereotyping and unfairness are associated with the conservative temperament. There is even a theory—the “intrinsic thesis”—that hypothesizes that the increasing political polarization surrounding scientific issues is due to the “psychological deficiencies among conservatives as compared to liberals” (p. 36, Nisbet et al., Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2015). Recently, there has been a flurry of psychological studies purporting to prove that conservatives are more prejudiced, less open-minded, and indeed less intelligent than liberals. The problem is that many of these studies have not been replicable, were poorly designed, or were designed and interpreted in a biased manner. [For additional research citations, see here.]

There’s Got to be Something Else Wrong Then: Promethean Claims of Broad Rationality Advocates

In summary, both in terms of the knowledge acquisition process and knowledge content, there is no strong evidence that the Trump voters were more epistemically irrational than the Clinton voters. In terms of both components of rationality—instrumental and epistemic—there is no support in the empirical literature for attributing a unique problem of rationality to Trump voters. Those who do not find this conclusion palatable might feel prone to object that the analysis so far seems somehow too narrow—that it leaves out some larger factors like, for instance, which overall goals and worldviews it is rational to have. Such skepticism would be right, in a sense. I have in fact adopted, deliberately, a somewhat narrow view of rationality because it is the view that is most easily tested, and most easily related to data that social scientists can produce. There are indeed broader versions of rationality, but they bring with them a host of problems—not the least of which is that they render claims that “X is irrational” untestable. Thus they provide no solace to the “Trump voters were irrational” sentiment because they hold out no hope of proving that the claim might be true.

In fact, with the Ted Cruz/Al Sharpton thought experiment, I was trying to illustrate the difficulty of evaluating goals and/or worldviews. The thought experiment, from the standpoint of a person with the GG world view, was a choice between a candidate with their worldview but temperamentally poorly suited to the presidency (Sharpton) and a candidate with an unpalatable worldview but much better suited to the presidency (Cruz). The point—to someone with the GG worldview—was not to show that one or the other choice was correct, but simply to illustrate the difficulty of this type of tradeoff and to provoke some associated recognition of the fact that the CC voter was presented with a similarly difficult tradeoff when faced with Trump/Clinton choice. It was to show that a Democrat feeling the attraction of Sharpton over Cruz should similarly understand the attraction of Trump over Clinton for Republicans. Even a Democrat feeling that they would actually pull the lever for Cruz on the basis of temperament/fitness for office would certainly understand the decision of a fellow Democrat to vote for Sharpton and would never call a fellow Democrat irrational for this choice.

Democrats who choose Sharpton in the thought experiment and who think that the Trump voters were irrational are showing a strong myside bias. They are signalling that they think they can do what philosophers cannot—discern which goals are irrational to have. Similarly, Republicans who voted for Trump and who think that the Democrats who pick Sharpton in the thought experiment are irrational are also showing a strong myside bias. They are signalling that they think they can do what philosophers cannot—discern which goals are irrational to have. Both groups are essentially saying that they are absolute arbiters of the correct worldview.

Needless to say, cognitive science does not endorse either of these myside responses. Both myside responders claiming irrationality on the other side are actually showing an extreme form of irrationality themselves. So claims that the Trump voters are irrational on this basis actually impeach the reasoning of the person making the claim. Or—another way to put it—it is itself a form of irrationality to think that one can discern that one’s own worldview is inherently superior to others (at least within the restricted set of viable Western political philosophies).

Critiques of Expressive Rationality Don’t Work Either (As Strategies for Calling the Trump Voters Irrational)

The GG and CC worldviews might be said to be carriers of utility values. The policies and actions they lead to have concrete effects on the country, resulting in economic and civic changes that people experience directly. But like many religious worldviews, people might be drawn to the GG and CC worldviews (and to voting for them), not because of the consumption utility they bring directly, but simply to express something about their values. Here we have entered the domain of some slightly different concepts of rationality that cognitive scientists have explored.

Psychologists and philosophers have both emphasized how a person’s decisions do more than convey utility to themselves but also send meaningful signals to other actors and symbolically reinforce the self-concept of the decision maker. The late philosopher Robert Nozick has discussed how symbolic actions that help maintain a valued concept of personhood are not irrational despite their lack of a causal connection to experienced utility. For many of us, the act of voting serves just this symbolic function. Many of us are aware that the direct utility we derive from the influence of our vote on the political system (a weight of one millionth or one hundred thousandth depending on the election) is less than the effort that it takes to vote, yet all the same we would never miss an election!

Voting has symbolic utility for us. It represents who we are. We are “the type of person” who takes voting seriously. We are expressing a value by voting. Nozick notes that we are apt to view a concern for symbolic utility as irrational. This is especially the case when the lack of a causal link between the symbolic action and the actual outcome has become manifestly obvious yet the symbolic action continues to be performed. Nozick mentions various anti-drug measures as possibly falling in this category. In some cases, evidence has accumulated to indicate that an anti-drug program does not have the causal effect of reducing actual drug use, but the program is continued because it has become the symbol of our concern for stopping drug use.

Although it would be easy to classify many instances of acts carried out because of symbolic utility as irrational because of a lack of causal connection to the outcome actually bearing the utility, Nozick warns that we need to be cautious and selective in removing symbolic actions from our lives. No one wants to live a life without any symbolic meaning. Nozick’s notion of symbolic utility has affinities with many similar concepts in social science. Political economist Shaun Hargreaves Heap argues for distinguishing what he terms expressive rationality from instrumental rationality. When engaged in expressively rational actions, people are not optimizing anything but are instead attempting to articulate and explore their values. Yale political scientist Dan Kahan has written extensively about identity-protective cognition, whereby people process information not to ascertain the truth or to maximize consumption, but to protect one’s status in an affinity group or to maintain a cultural identification.

Choices based on such values may actually lower the personal welfare (in terms of direct consumption utility) of the individual, as when we vote for a political candidate who will act against our material interests but who will express other societal values that we treasure. The concept of ethical preferences in economics has the same function of severing the link between observed choice and consumption utility. The boycott of nonunion grapes in the 1970s, the boycott of South African products in the 1980s, and the interest in fair-trade products that emerged in the 1990s are examples of ethical preferences affecting people’s choices.

These expressive choices, symbolic choices, and ethical preferences—are they rational? It is rarely easy to say. For example, it is easy to see how expressive choices can run amok in the escalating and reverberating circuits of “meaning making” in the modern world. As Nozick noted years ago:

[C]onflicts may quickly come to involve symbolic meanings that, by escalating the importance of the issues, induce violence. The dangers to be specially avoided concern situations where the causal consequences of an action are extremely negative yet the positive symbolic meaning is so great that the action is done nevertheless.

This quote is from a 1993 book. In the wake of 9/11, Nozick’s warning is chilling. But calling to mind 9/11 is stacking the deck. It is rarely so easy to label a symbolic act dysfunctional. And the difficulty of evaluating an expressive action is just my point, because voting is highly symbolic. It is expressive of one’s identity and cultural commitments. And in the eyes of many voters, it is an act with ethical implications—not just voting itself, but voting a particular way. At the level of elections, there is no rational way of assessing the tradeoff between the worth of an expressive signal and its negative consequences. Voting for Trump to signal opposition to the agenda of the Democrats even if a voter did not like Trump cannot be labelled rational or irrational. In fact, it cannot even be labelled any less rational than voting for Clinton to signal opposition to the agenda of the Republicans even if a voter did not like Clinton. In fact, I would go further. Thinking that one can evaluate the rationality of someone else’s expressive act is itself a form of irrationality. Actually, it probably reflects a famous effect studied by psychologists: the bias blind spot.

The bias blind spot is the label for the finding that it is relatively easy for people to recognize bias in the decisions of others, but it is difficult to detect bias in their own judgments. This is probably just what is happening in the political domain when people feel that they can judge exactly when having expressive goals is rational. The reason is that judgments of another partisan’s seeking of symbolic utility or expressive rationality are invariably saturated with myside bias. Why your own side would choose to signal a value at a utility cost seems perfectly obvious, yet when your political opponents do it, it seems utterly irrational. Republicans can clearly see the irrationality of Democratic city councils divesting city funds in corporations disliked on the left (often at a cost in real return on city-invested dollars). Democrats likewise denigrate the enthusiasm of Republicans for “just say no” campaigns surrounding drugs and sex and point out the irrationality of the Republicans not caring if the programs work or not. Such judgments are overwhelmingly determined by myside bias. The other side is judged deeply irrational when they abandon cost-benefit analysis to signal a value choice, but when my own side sacrifices utility, money, or outcome goals in order to signal a value, that is OK because our values are right (seems to be the reasoning!).

The Bottom Line

I am afraid that my Democratic friends are just going to have to reconcile themselves to the conclusion that the cognitive science of rationality does not support their judgment of the Trump voters. You can say whatever you want about the rationality or irrationality of Trump himself, but cognitive science does not support the claim that his voters were irrational—or, more specifically, that they were any less rational than the Clinton voters. Politics is not the place to look for objective rightness or wrongness—and that is what judgments about the rationality of voting entail. Our judgments in this domain are uniquely susceptible to myside bias.

Many of our most contentious political issues hinge on values and culture rather than facts. That may be a good thing. It could be signalling that our society has already handled the easiest issues—those that can be solved by educating everyone to accept the same facts and then implementing the obvious solution that follows from these facts. We may have achieved a social structure that is so optimized that the remaining disputes revolve largely around values and cultural choices. Rather than calling the Trump voters irrational, it might be a better idea to engage with their Country and Citizen cultural concerns and treat them as equally valid and rational as the Global and Groups cultural concerns that largely drove the Clinton voters.


  1. Randy McGregor says

    Absolutely fabulous, especially the insight about the condescension inherent in the “What’s the matter with Kansas?” gambit. I hate that argument, but couldn’t explain why. You did, very effectively.

    • lol Dems think Kansas votes against their own interest ACCIDENTLY because they are ignorant. I have never voted against my own interest due to ignorance.
      How is that lost on deplorables such as you seem to be?

      • How do you know you never voted against your own interest out of ignorance? Ignorance is a lack of information. How can you be sure that there isn’t information out there that would have swayed your vote on some matter? Unless you are saying that you omniscient, you really can’t claim to have NEVER voted against your own interests out of ignorance. None of us can.

  2. Santoculto says

    ”A quick and memorable way to differentiate the two is to say that they concern what to do (instrumental rationality) and what is true (epistemic rationality)”

    Mohammed lord!!!

    I’m veri gudi on epistemic/theoretical rationality but when i try to ACT/to be rational … i use my factual understanding/epistemic ratio and in the tribalistic world, i as a individual, f…k my-self….


  3. Very educational. Thanks, Keith. I often find myself shaking my head/scratching my head at irrationality of both sides (irrational to me, layman’s term) even on the same topic thread. I think part of the problem as it applies to your section on methods of learning just comes down to word selection. I’ll give 2 examples:

    You point out the science on human impact on climate. The word selection problem is “climate change” is not the same as saying “human generation of CO2.” If you ask the question: do humans have an effect on climate? You get a logical yes from just about everyone — everything has an effect. If you alternatively ask is man-made CO2 the primary driver of climate change/global warming/global cooling you get a higher number of no or don’t know responses. Some of us have been saying the models are wrong because they overmodel CO2 and (because they are models) are omitting something important (and lets not forget that H2O had the incorrect sign in the early models) — they are labeled deniers/skeptics/irrational non-science believers as you point out.

    A second example i’ll give is Black Lives Matter. One is labeled racist/white supremacist/white nationalist/nazi if you say “no, All Lives Matter.” But the problem isn’t a devaluation or disrespect to the grievance (at least in all instances as it is implied) — it’s the selection of the name. In the climate change example above, the name/statement is overly broad and then the counter argument, pointing out the broadness, is disparaged. In the BLM case, the name is overly narrow and the counter argument is equally disparaged. I’ve gotten into some heated discussions with Black/All/Blue lives matters all in a group and I posed a simple question: If the movement had started as “Police Accountability Matters” with the exact same issue to be resolved, would they react different — and all 3 opposing views suddenly agreed, everyone suddenly stopped the name calling and “arguing” and started discussing the pros & cons of ideas on how to solve the problem. They were all getting too hung up on the word selection and arguing about the rationality of each other based upon different interpretation of what the label meant.

    I do have a reason for writing all of that, i’m getting to it! 😛

    One of my old areas of study is in selection of communications mediums and the effect of information transfer. Perhaps that’s why my view of the “irrational” debate you outline skews toward a view on sides talking past each other versus to or with each other. Word selection matters and your outlining of the studies controlling for that (like your conspiracies example) was very insightful. Perhaps the core issue in this mis-labeling as irrational the beliefs of the opposing political spectrum lies in low/high contextual thinking? I’m referring to Hofstede’s culture labels and how they tie into communication. For GG and CC, I wonder how far apart the populations are in that cultural dimension.

    • If you ask scientists who have the expertise to study and publish peer-reviewed papers on whether humans have a major impact on climate change, you will find an overwhelming majority answering yes – based upon science. To disregard this consensus is the height of epistemic irrationality.

      • Bill says

        And read what I said. If you ask scientists who have expertise to study and publish peer-reviewed papers on whether canines have an impact they will say yes. That has never been the dispute. The problem arises when you ask is human-generated CO2 a major impact and that’s when the “don’t know” and “no” columns start to populate. The 97% consensus value has been debunked numerous times as flaws in method and replication. Even those who were in agreement with the models and the CO2 theory one year ago have recently taken up a new position in light of new evidence that the models are consistently running “hot” and that the science is, in fact, not settled because the models are missing the desired fidelity. One example I wrote about in a later post is how recent, peer-reviewed papers by scientists with expertise have pointed out that ocean surface warming is a side effect of human’s reductiion in HFC pollution in the 1980s — remember back when we were facing “global cooling” and an ice age? That HFC pollution and ozone hole problem resulted in policies that reduced nasty stuff like acid rain and as a result of the ecosystem recovering there was a change in the light reaching the ocean surface (aka, resulting in greater ocean surface warming).

        But that’s ok, continue your “oh, scientists with expertise…you’re a denier!” label. It’s precisely this article’s author’s point about declarations of irrationality.

        • Goalposts have been moved, and will be moved again.
          But that’s ok, continue your “I can do what I want because none of it matters.”

      • Kurt says

        RE “you will find an overwhelming majority answering yes – based upon science”

        Sure. Whatever. The problem for your position is that skeptics are capable of seeing he much bigger picture. The details of the science is debatable. The complexity and uncertainty of the system is undeniable.

        The indisputable fact is that global warming alarmist are modern doomspday prophets. For many – Mann, Hansen – it is obvious to any observer that they are driven not at all by scientific facts of any sort, but rather with all the emotional satisfaction that comes with being on their own myside.

        The fact that all the solutions they come up bear a remarkable resemblance to the left wing bromodes pushed before the events of1989 shamed the left wing project is hard to miss. Their data fudging, and the fact that all their temp adjustments always seem to support their previous conclusons is just a little suspicious, as well, no?

        Thought experiment: do you think Michael Mann is a man capable of changing his mind ever on this topic should the data indicate he should? No, me neither.

        You could charge that the same thing applies to me and my ilk. The difference is that I am not the dopmsday prophet. Mann is. I was minding my own business before the left adopted its post 1989 reclaimation project and landed on climate hystetia as the way back. Extrordinary claims require extrordinary proof, which they can’t produce because it just isn’t possible to do. It’s been getting warmer and things are melting ! For the last 10,000 years. Yawn. So funny that the proposed solution is giving the alarmist the money and power the have been demanding since before they came up with global warming. Who would have ever seen that coming?

        The next doomsday prophet to analyse all the facts, leave nothing out, and properly predict the apocalypse will be the first. All the previous ones were exposed as fools and cranks on due tome. I say the modern clerics are emotionally and idiologically driven and will suffer the same shame as all of their forebearers that saw the end coming a bit too soon. I like my position better than theirs. Let’s see if the earth exists as a livable place in 40 or 50 years.

      • yandoodan says

        This is a good example of rationality based on facts — that is, perception of oneself as rational, based on what one accepts as facts.

        Let’s start with a fact: The Pew Trust surveyed the members of the AAAS with a 26% response rate. This showed that 87% of the polled members agreed that “climate change is mostly due to human activity.” http://pewrsr.ch/18CveGc As I said, this is a fact: Pew actually did this survey, it was really confined to AAAS members, and the poll returned the result that 87% of the polled AAAS members agreed with the statement.

        Two additional facts can be derived from this poll.

        1. The formulation, “Climate change is mostly due to human activity” does not establish as fact that the polled members think policy action is required. We both have opinions on what this fact would have been had it been established, but that and two bucks will buy you a cup of coffee.

        2. It is also a fact that one-eighth of the polled AAAS members do not believe that “climate change is mostly due to human activity”. How big a consensus is this when one-eighth of the AAAS members disagree? Is it a consensus at all? How about eating GM foods, or using animals in research? Both of these have seven-eighths agreement and one-eighth dissent.

        Irrationality based on facts dissolves into fog. Best to avoid the pointless self-aggrandizing irrationality accusation, and concentrate on the fact part.

      • Sure, but if you tell the same scientists ‘prove it’ they would run into difficulty. Climate change is in a different category from gravity, refraction of light or ohms law in that it can’t be proven in a repeatable experiment. For the record, I do believe it exists, but I think an honest discussion would have to include some disclaimers that predictions and estimates are subject to variability and disagreement. Those who are climate change believers don’t want to talk about this because it complicates the narrative – it’s much easier to simply say ‘x our of y scientists agree on this’.

    • This was a great article. Your insightful comment was icing on the cake. Thanks Bill. I enjoyed your comment almost as much as this article!

  4. Santoculto says

    Trumpists are or act in rational ways when they vote for Trump because massive, uncontrolable immigration and based on ideological factoids is just wrong, dangerous, potentially problematic for society and this will, is affecting their lives in direct way [deal in first person with increasing of criminality, with cultural differences/conflicts, real feeling of replacement, increase of visible hostility against white people by ”non-white’ people];
    They act in irrational ways when they can’t separate real social justice causes from stupid and/or well-paid professional agitators. If ”social justice worrios” are stupid and hate them, so… ALL or most things they [pretend to] defend/support is plain wrong [they think].
    But leftists are very right when low income republicans vote for political candidates who support reduction of social benefits, that will affect them directly. BUT in places as USA and current UK, low income WHITE rightists are against generous distribution of social benefits because this benefits will mostly for non-white underclasses, national [gypsies in Hungary or blacks in USA] or imported, and this seems works to increase fertility rates of this people, with disproportionate rates of chronically dysfunctional ones.
    I believe controlled/LIMITED immigration may not cause so many alarm among them.
    If immigration, even big ones, were really rational, we are trying to incentive people in places as Bangladesh, super-demographic density, to live in places with less demographic density as well similar climate.
    Based on macro-evolutionary and/or practical philosophical perspective, rationality is above ”food chain” or what i like to call ”logic”, act in logic/calculistic way. Instead act only in selfish way start to act in ideal way, because there are ideal ways to think and to act for every existent task or phenomena we can reach.
    I call rationality, proxy to wisdom, as ”the maximization or constancy of intelligence’s use”, i mean, for every action, for every thinking, try to do their best.

    • Carl Grover says

      I feel like you missed the “best interest” intent that can be assigned to poor whites. You imply the poor can’t possibly understand global economics and anything mirroring “trickle-down” economics. They could assert the same about the left 1%. Why do they not give volunteer the taxes they claim to support? I know why, and so do you, I presume. Conversely, in the same “logic”, why would the poor, who support free-market economics, give up what the government provides, when they aren’t able to realize the benefits of the economic policies they espouse?

  5. Santoculto says

    AND always to balance, because the balance is one of this fundamental truth of existence, without balance, for example, life would be impossible.

    So, balance is the fundamental function and goal of every intelligent system, and all living beings try to conquer their own balance. Humans have the largest capacity to reach [as well to…] their balance.

    Other way to understand rationality and logic differences is the rule or dominance of instinct. Self awareness is also self-consciousness about our own instincts.

    Animais and other living beings are super- self-confident/instinctives, while humans are the least self-confident, if compared with them.

  6. Santoculto says

    Surprisingly almost people don’t try to do their best in their thinking lines for every intellectual challenge in everyday, from the most simple to the most complex. Seems, instinctive impetus works as a natural blocker, for example, we have a great writer but he is against ”nonhuman living beings rights” as well ultra-open-borders. When instinct blind the natural path of truth, the natural path to the balance, ratio.

  7. There’s a case to be made that conservatives and liberals are equally science queasy on climate change. People are at the most simplified presented with the choice between believing warming is almost certainly a civilization scale danger or literally not happening. If the truest consensus is that warming is likely to be 2-3 degrees (we’re currently at 1 I believe) and that the level of warming that becomes overall negative is 2 degrees (probably more controversial) then which of the basic choices is farther off? I would have to go with equally. The zero warming effect people are probably closer nominally to the real consensus than certain catastrophe people while they lose points for categorically disbelieving the CO2 effect.

    An even stronger point is raising the question of whether zero warmers or the catastrophe group would enact a more effective climate policy if they were given the job. Biomass and ethanol for example appear to actually work against the goal of slowing warming aside from their direct costs. Carbon taxes are one of the most effective current policies and they basically aren’t. I am fairly sure that a lukewarmer groups climate policy (almost all research at this point on the order of several hundred billion per year) would be the most effective out of the various groups. It’s possible that actual CO2 warming disbelievers would favour more effective policies than even those in the central consensus assuming they are basically the ones handling current policies, since the “deniers” may still favour energy research and aren’t distracted by goals of signalling.

    • To your point about favoring further research, a study came out recently (I apologize I didn’t save a link) where one of the conclusions is that part of the reason for ocean surface warming is actually the REDUCTION in pollution in the 70s/80s. Back then we had the threat of “global cooling” because of lighter chemicals like freon and other HFCs going up and damaging the ozone layer/etc. The colloquially described “smog” reduced sunlight through the atmosphere and hence the threat of global cooling and a coming ice age due to humankind’s actions. What did we do? We cleaned that up. End result? More sunlight coming through and warming up the ocean’s surfaces. But now, we have models blaming 100% on CO2 (virtually 100%) and ignoring, for example, this other scientifically examined and explained theory. This alternative explanation, of course, gets one branded a denier even though it doesn’t dispute the flavor of the month “man-caused climate change” — it actually 100% agrees with that moniker, only it disagrees with man-made CO2 caused climate change as the driver. An hypothesis offered is actually that a reduction in pollution and resulting recovery of the ozone layer might actually explain “the pause” and that those historical pollutants that we have started cleaning up were the main drivers and not CO2 but it would challenge the narrative that the science is settled.

  8. Nathan S. says

    Brilliant piece. Thanks for providing citations rather than opinion blurbs.

  9. Is it rational to use this thread to debate climate change or immigration policy?
    Is “What’s Wrong With Kansas?” about Republican voters or poor Republican voters? Poor and working class voters didn’t elect Trump, en mass. Trump voters were wealthier than Clinton voters although the difference wasn’t as great as it usually is in favor of richer voters voting republican. The upper middle class Clinton voters should ask why their upper middle class neighbors voted for Trump. Poor and working class voters know that the Ds dumped them thirty years ago for the upper middle class and Tech sector workers. I love the idea that Clinton voters can be demonstrably shown to be irrational. You described me, the Clinton voter who didn’t support her likely actions if elected.
    Peace, A.

    • neoritter says

      Those specific policy questions are moot and are only used to illustrate the point. The logic applied in whether voters are being rational or not, doesn’t change when given a new policy difference.

  10. Yes, Stanovich rings true on the major point that neither Trump nor Clinton supporters were or are irrational in their choices. But the conclusion seems to be that they represent two distinct and hostile cultures living in the same nation state. That suggests the possibility of a civil war in the future.

    • John A says

      … Superb essay. Thanks. And I’m a (Trump loathing) liberal. I felt the need to add that qualification, since I suspect there will be those who read such a comment as coming from right leaning bias. As such it would be their left leaning bias.

      • neoritter says

        It’s a sad testament to our political climate that you have to do that.

  11. Brent Meeker says

    A thought provoking essay. But one of the thoughts it provokes is,”What is Stanovich really measuring? Is “rationality” supposed to be the same as “good judgement” or is it just “having reasons”. I wonder if the same analysis would have shown that those who voted for Hitler were just as rational as those who voted against?

    • Carl Grover says

      I don’t thik it’s that simple, Brent, but I get your point. In the post, there are pieces describing how some views of opposition were actually reasoned. So, to your point, if one could have a rationale (say they thought Jews were out to get them, even if incorrect, yet there was some evidence to support the claim) you’d be correct. The assertion is that you should not make blanket assumptions about one’s reasoning, as a consideration outside of the supposed “irrationality” can outweigh. Rauch notes a lot of this dilemma in “Kindly Inquisitors”.

  12. TimRules says

    Interesting, but I couldn’t help but notice the incongruity of the questions from the Klein study: that rent control leads to housing shortages is objectively provable (or falsifiable): what a dollar “means” to poor vs rich is entirely subjective (and situationally-dependent … indeed, some people become rich because a dollar “means” relatively more to them (they derive greater utility from the marginal dollar)). That the latter is also deemed to be “true” confirms the biases of the authors rather than the knowledge of the respondents.

    Also, the idea that “the party of science” denies the reality of gender (as defined by basic biology and as imprinted in DNA) is laughable.

    • Carl Grover says

      TimRules, I don’t want to refute anything you wrote, less the dollar comment (although most of what you write seems contrived). How do you not equate the dollar (void of international value) to anything but the market? A dollar is valued at a dollar, and goods and services cost what they cost. Now, YOUR personal value/worth of the dollar may change, but if exchanged, now or in the future, is a dollar, or it’s equivalent. I think you should call it “worth” of the dollar (solely subjective), for clarity. As far as “relativity” of the dollars value, just say “inflation” and get it out there. Does that nullify, or not, the value gained from the seller in this hypothetical transaction? If you assume every “dollar” spent, is also saved, then you may be on to something.

      • TimRules says

        ” the item “a dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person” (correct answer: true) is more difficult for conservatives because it challenges their ideology.”

        … is straight from the text – of course the “value” of a dollar is objective, otherwise it would not serve as a medium of exchange. The text nonetheless states that what it “means” (or is “worth,” if you prefer to use that terminology) is perfectly inversely correlated with wealth. That seems to me to be an ideological assumption in itself.

        The question of anything’s “meaning to” anyone is inherently subjective – the suggestion that there is a correct answer is ideological in itself.

        • TimRules says

          Or to be technical, the value of a dollar is the total of the subjective valuation of each of the individuals who make up the market.

          • Carl Grover says

            I missed this!! I am closer to understanding your meaning now. I just posted a reply, that you may have answered with the “subjective valuation” comment. Man, I love this site. Abundant knowledge.

        • Carl Grover says

          Sure, if you want to burn it to start a fire, that could be an inconvenience (higher cost) to using a less costly sheet of paper, or, if that fire can save your life, the “value” (we’ll stick with that), is much higher. I would imagine your professional education outweighs mine, so I’m curious, what this all means. If, typically, we’re procuring comparable goods and services, wouldn’t there be enough relative value to correlate? I always thought that, while the value of the dollar changes based on the market, the value we “place” on a good or service is based on supply vs. demand (and will also naturally fluctuate), which would raise or lower it’s cost, based on the dollar value, COMBINED with the limit or abundance of supply of the product or service. Hopefully, I’m not asking you to explain something that is elementary, or widely accepted. So, thanks in advance, should you choose to respond.

          As far as rent control, I’d like to learn more on what you mean. Seems obvious to me that (realizing I can be biased, as I espouse more libertarian economics), the moment “control” is injected, economic choice depletes, and perhaps on both buyer and seller side. Uber vs. taxi, as an example. Lower cost, from what I’ve seen typically, and higher quality. Are you agreeing with rent control, or simply saying it doesn’t diminish supply? In as little as I know, it seems on the surface to attempt to reach equitable outcomes under the guise of equal opportunity, but I will investigate further. Thanks for any clarity, Tim.

    • I would assume a dollar being “worth more” to poor people has been studied. That doesn’t mean every poor person values it more than every rich person, or that it’s worth more to a poor person in every scenario (it’s not worth much to a poor person who happens to be facing a group of angry gangsters with machine guns who demand the repayment of a $500 loan immediately, for example, while it’s worth a lot to a rich person who can roll it up in a certain way, pick a lock with it, and thus escape from kidnappers). In general, it matters more to a poor person, though… I grew up poor and attended a rather famous (as such things go, anyway) private high school on a scholarship for 9th grade (hated it, didn’t fit in and convinced my parents to let me go back to public school for grades 10-12). Anyway, while there I remember hanging out with a group of classmates when one of them commented that he wouldn’t want to teach high school unless teacher salaries were increased substantially, because teachers only made about $45,000 per year and he said that you couldn’t even really live on that these days. My family’s annual income at the time (the mid-90s) was right around half that much. Being 14, I rather guilelessly remarked that, sure 45K per year wouldn’t make you rich, but I’d be delighted to make that much and could really enjoy life on that salary. Everyone looked at me like I was absolutely insane. A few kids tried to convince me, quite earnestly, that I’d end up living in a one-room apartment in the worst part of town and taking the bus everywhere if I tried to live on that salary. I still thought it sounded awesome to make 45K per year. Doesn’t mean I would have been more responsible per dollar (like most kids from my economic background, I had no idea how to handle money, so probably not), but it was definitely WORTH MORE per dollar to me. Sure that’s just an anecdote, but think about it. How is that not the majority situation re: worth of a dollar to “poor” people vs “rich” people. When my family had a sudden, unexpected infusion of a few grand once, it was f-ing mega-Christmas. Many of my classmates’ parents literally made a few grand every day (kids of celebrities, politicians and even some billionaires went to this school). As an adult, I played poker professionally for a while, and I’ve seen high-stakes poker players flip coins for thousands of dollars and not give a fk. I’ve had a 21-year-old poker pro get really annoyed I wouldn’t play a game of chance with him for $100 per hand while we were hanging out at a party and drinking (he’d brought a deck of cards). I’ve seen poker dealers and drink servers given massive tips by guys like that ($1000+)… the dealers and servers care about the tip amount. The Scandinavian poker pro who just won a $200K hand really doesn’t care about the tip amount. There are many other examples like this in life. It’s not an absolute, but it’s still a valid statement. The rent control thing seems obvious to me, too, by the way, but I don’t think I have an especially useful or unusual POV on that one (I did grow up in a rent-controlled apartment, but I had/have no idea whatsoever how that impacted housing in my actual neighborhood). It seems to me that rent control = lower rents = more people able to rent = less available apartments = more housing shortages. I’m in favor of rent control (not everywhere or in every circumstance, but I don’t want it abolished), by the way, and I’m not sure if it causes housing shortages often enough to be some major issue… but it has to cause housing shortages MORE OFTEN than not having rent control, right?

  13. If human behaviour could be understood as a science then we would have solved a lot of “problems” long before now. Human behaviuoir is complicated not complex.

  14. Pingback: Why Trump voters weren’t irrational « Why Evolution Is True

  15. By this definition of rationality, what would be an example of irrational behavior? It would seem that any behavior whatsoever could be justified as rational. If that’s the case, then I would argue this definition of rationality is so broad as to be useless.

    • Carl Grover says

      That wasn’t what I took from it. It seemed obvious to me that the thesis is focused on not applying one’s views to the opposition, based on a sole fact that you feel so passionate about, where their decision was based on something that you do not know, and they place higher value on. As an example, a Republican may claim Hillary as a feminist and socialist. If a Republican claims that as a supporter of her, you are indeed a socialist too. With that, the voter may simply prefer single payer health care. And that outweighs giving the vote to Trump. Conversely, a Democrat may claim Trump is a Nazi (which is funny, since Nazi’s were socialist, but a different topic) and if you vote for him, you hate, basically everyone. Pardon the tone, as I fit in this latter group, but I respext the opposing stance. What’s important to me, is not objective. In this case, one may despise Trump, and find him to be a horrible communicator of ideas, like me, but support him, based solely on economic policy. Those may forgo going down the social path in support of Capitalism, weighing that the opposite is far more damaging in total, to some bad press, or foreign teade policies you disagree with (me too – ha ha). Well, that’s my opinion on the piece, for what it’s worth.

      • That’s fair. Everyone has their own sense of values and priorities. I obviously don’t know yours, and you don’t know mine. My point, though, wasn’t that it’s difficult to consider things from others’ point of view, my point is that by this definition of rationality nothing can be considered irrational. If you hate Trump’s economic and social policies, but voted for him anyway because you love that he claimed he can grab women by the pussy, then this definition would still say you are rational. You just prioritize misogyny highly. Conversely, if you hated Clinton’s foreign policy, but voted for her anyway because you love in-Home email servers, you are still rational. I simply think this definition of rationality is too broad to be of any use.

        • Carl Grover says

          I get your point, but feel it misses the mark on the thesis of this. What I gleaned, is that the “rationality” is subjective, and based on the Clinton-voter view of him as wholly abhorrent. With that, the premise is that his total is so horrid, that a notion of support is unfathomable. I don’t see the writer claiming to have scientifically defined rationality. The writer seems to support this by inserting a hypothetical election involving Ted Cruz and Al Sharpton. Pretty clever tactic, which to me, would likely produce the same polarizing effect.

          • Instrumental rationality is achieved when we act with optimal efficiency to achieve our goals. Epistemic rationality concerns how well beliefs map onto the actual structure of the world—that is, whether our beliefs are accurate, or true.

            That’s from the fourth or fifth paragraph. The rest of the piece goes into fitting Trump voters vues into those definitions. That’s fine. Exploring other people’s points of view is a worthy way to spend your time. But these definitions are so broad that I don’t think they’re helpful. Any given behavior can be defined as rational by simply saying it reached a personal goal. There’s no criteria for the goal itself. And any set of beliefs can fit this as well, as you can always say that a persons view of the world is accurate based on their understanding. Again, no objective criteria. I’ve always understood the word rational to at least be related to something that can be objectively proven. To my understanding that’s missing from this piece.

            I wholeheartedly agree that Trump voters voted for the person they felt best represents their interests. And there are a number of ways to find out exactly what those interests are. But using this definition of rationality just isn’t helpful. By this definition Jill Stein voters are rational. But that isn’t helpful. It doesn’t tell us anything.

          • The Sharpton – Trump equivocation is dubious unless Sharpton speaks incoherently and frequently exhibits behaviors reasonably labeled as malignant narcissism. Sharpton and Cruz are both nutty, but at least Sharpton comes down on the right side of more issues than Cruz does.

  16. Jim Clark says

    The error in this article is the assumption that Trump supporters were all irrational in the same way. As noted by Stanovich, there are different forms of irrationality and perhaps these operated for different supporters of Trump. With respect to the “acting against one’s interests,” for example, some supporters voted Trump because he was going to bring back jobs to America and make their lives better, not because of some higher principle. Given automation, other sources of energy that have supplanted coal, and the like, many jobs will simply disappear. And loss of government jobs and healthcare will hit many of these people where it hurts.

    With respect to attitudes toward science, the examples Stanovich has given (e.g., heritability) are simply not as well known as issues of climate change and evolution. And much social science research is simply not as definitive as in the natural sciences. Nor would one find that 98% of relevant scholars (unless very narrowly defined) would espouse the same view, although again in some cases because of the ideological differences Stanovich mentions. More broadly, surveys of trust in science generally have shown a decrease among Republicans, although no group is overly confident about science it seems. See here:


    So, might it be the case that given the diverse motives for voting for Trump many of his supporters were indeed irrational, although in different ways?

  17. Carl Sageman says

    This is a superb article.

    I have another comment which hasn’t been raised, although it applies to this last election specifically. I’m a swinging voter and i’m less inclined to side with a single party. I am swayed by policy and prejudice of the candidate.

    In the last election, the media spent a lot of time personally attacking Trump and defending Clinton, making Trump look like an underdog. Compare terms like psychopath/moron/idiot/lunatic against both candidates to see a broad media comparison of the extremely lopsided trend. These attacks came at the expense of a focus on policy. They also reminded people of who had the media’s ear, which is not where journalists should position themselves on a candidate. The curation of articles by Clinton’s team was especially alarming.

    Comparing the candidates on a populist policy, Trump was against Muslim immigration and Mexican immigration. Clinton was anti-male (eg. Her gender card stunt, or, purposely ignoring little boys in her speeches, “And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and to achieve your own dreams.”). Neither political perspective was one I respected.

    My preference ultimately came down to who would do less harm in the US and the broader world. Hillary was likely to discriminate against one specific half of all US Citizens, Trump was likely to discriminate against specific groups of foreigners. It seems that time has reenforced both candidates’ positions.

    While my preference didn’t boil down to one issue, this illustrates how I saw Clinton as a more damaging candidate. My preference ultimately wasn’t about who should be voted in, but who should be kept out.

    Hillary’s recent book was a telling reminder that she wasn’t the right candidate. Trump’s gaffes, when not made up by the media, are frequent; showing he’s a clumsy candidate who talks before he thinks. Neither candidate was ideal, one was simply more harmful than the other.

    • Bill says

      Carl, have you read about the NYU social experiment/play where they had actors reverse gender roles while mimic’ing behavior and debate language? They had a male actor accurately mimic Ms. Clinton’s responses and behaviors with a female actor mimic President Trump. The researchers and the audience were shocked by the outcome.

  18. Rich W says

    Keith Stanovich’s excellent essay is especially timely, because it brings to discussions on the rationality of political leaders and voters a highly relevant scientific literature. Stanovich points out that the cognitive science literature recognizes the importance of both instrumental (what to do) and epistemic rationality (what is true), and it is the latter that is often especially problematic in discussions about the rationality of voters in the recent presidential election. For these discussions to be rational, rather than merely a venting of our biases and emotions, the growing relevant empirical is highly relevant.

  19. It seems pretty clear that the incorrect beliefs of American liberals are “mostly harmless” compared to the deadly and disturbing beliefs of GOP / Trump-supporters. I don’t find the word “Evangelical” in this piece, for instance.

    ” fully eight-in-ten self-identified white, born-again/evangelical Christians say they voted for Trump, while just 16% voted for Clinton. Trump’s 65-percentage-point margin of victory among voters in this group – which includes self-described Protestants, as well as Catholics, Mormons and others – matched or exceeded the victory margins of George W. Bush in 2004, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.”

  20. Continuing:

    “predictions about whether Jesus Christ will return to earth in the next 40 years divide along religious lines. Fully 58% of white evangelical Christians say Jesus Christ will definitely or probably return to earth in this period, by far the highest percentage in any religious group. Only about a third of Catholics (32%), and even fewer white mainline Protestants (27%) and the religiously unaffiliated (20%) predict Jesus Christ’s return to earth. ”

    • Carl Grover says

      Have you made a point? Not trying to be snarky, but pointing to religion as it relates to cinservatism, is nothing new. Do you think it’s a threat? If so, to what? So, destroying capitalism is tantamount to faith driving people towards conservatism? Pretty dismal view, but I’m willing to listen …

    • Intersectional Playboi says

      Have you shown how their beliefs are more “deadly and disturbing” than the beliefs of their opposition? I don’t see where your argument is. Or where your engagement with the author’s essay is. No offense.

      • Carl Grover says

        Is this directed at my response to liberal views are “mostly harmless”, or in response to that? Can’t tell, but it can work either way, based on how you posed it.

          • Bill says

            The only thing I could think 1977 was trying to insinuate is that voters for Trump include a higher percentage of religious and that belief in religion is deadly and disturbing (? I think?) A very strange argument from the liberal view side when the political Left fully supports Islam (aka, screaming the Islamophobic! label) while criticizing Christianity. Ties to an earlier article discussing hypocracy in belief.

  21. Ron Wolf says

    For sure, without somehow finding mutual respect, there ain’t gonna be no conversation. Can I mention Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant” in that regard? Helped me both understand myself & the other side, humbling in a good way! Encouraging too as I now see that both points of view have admirable foundations. The urban/rural divide that has been talked about a lot lately also comes into this. Interested in comments that either of these references brings up.

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  24. What’s worse – right-wing disbelieving that climate change is real and caused by careless industrial pollution, and anyways Jesus will return soon, and that rising economic inequality is a celebration of freedom, and guns are a good way to defend yourself against Uncle Sam’s missiles and Tanks?

    Or “leftist” thinking like women don’t make enough (even when their choices re: field of study and work/life balance are behind much of the difference.) ?

    I’ve asked this before: Everybody who thinks there needs to be more “conservative” thought in universities – does that mean pro-inequality “fiscal conservatism” or toss-out-the gays “social conservatism” ? What *outcomes* are you going for?

    • RobH says

      I believe if you put James Damore in charge of Google’s diversity strategy in hiring the proportion of women hired would go up. Whether or not he was right or mostly right he was thinking clearly and with depth about potential reasons and fixes for the lower levels of women in software engineering type jobs than in other fields.

      A very similar point could be made about inequality as Charles Murray and others have investigated the actual results of Great Society programs aimed at reducing poverty and inequality. They have probably made it worse. It’s interesting to see basic income which I believe was largely born as a right/libertarian alternative to welfare gain currency on the left as it seems conservative politicians aren’t interested in following conservative intellectuals there.

      Here’s a troubling question that seems like it takes a conservative’s viewpoint to consider. Have climate change policies already killed more people than climate change will by 2050? I’ve heard from 2 degrees to 1 degree of warming and lower to be the point where warming becomes overall negative. We are at 1 degree, which suggests that maybe at this point warming is tipping bad. If it’s 2 degrees it may happen around 2080. In 2005 the WHO estimated ethanol subsidies at their level then would cost 200,000 people’s lives per year. It’s considered that estimate was too high. I recently heard of another estimate made in 2010 that also got 200,000 people a year at that point. Ethanol subsidies may have killed a million people now. On a smaller scale even in Greece deaths from cold weather outweigh heat deaths, and many climate policies push people into fuel poverty.

      Outcome oriented thinking is probably the best things conservatives could bring to campus.

      • “Have climate change policies already killed more people than climate change will by 2050? ” An irrationally short-sighted question. If we knew that Jesus would come back and take everyone in a shining UFO up to heaven in 2050 then it would be a *great* question.

      • Marshall Gill says

        The numbers of dead from the effective ban on DDT are in the millions, mostly children. Your belief that the Left does not hate human life is not in evidence.

  25. Liberals like to be intellectually challenged and to learn. What books by conservatives would liberals learn the most from?

    • Marshall Gill says

      Any book by Thomas Sowell. “A vision of the Anointed” or “Basic Economics” or even “Race and Culture”.

      “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman or possibly “The Road to Serfdom” by Fredrick Hayek. You shouldn’t consider yourself educated until you have read “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith or “The Law” by Fredric Bastiat.

      • On immigration in the US and Europe:
        George Borjas, We Wanted Workers and Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe

    • Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. Shelby Steele’s Shame and his White Guilt.

  26. renbutler says

    Sadly, the people who need to read this most probably won’t — or they’ll approach it without the requisite open mind to accept it.

    People tend to mistake feelings for knowledge. If they FEEL like Trump voters were irrational, then they believe they KNOW they were irrational.

    BTW, I wasn’t a Trump voter myself, just for the record.

  27. Mike W. says

    Few studies have asked Trump voters why they voted for Trump. I’m sure many more voted against Clinton than for Trump. In what is effectively only a two party choice, that resulted in a Trump victory.

    Perhaps we need an election followed by a runoff between the top two choices of many. That would break the tyranny of Dem/Republican only choice.

  28. This analysis presumes that that each candidate had an equal shot. This presumption is contrary to reason, even if it is rational. The perenially successful political slogan is “It’s time for a change.” After 8 years of Democrats, it’s time for Republicans. Any of the Republican governor candidates would have trounced Hillary. And I think the analysis forgot to bring in Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing media, who are role models for our present President. And then there’s the fact that common folks are generally angry at having been enslaved over the past 30 years.

  29. Maroon says

    And what was rational about millions of women protesting a free and fair election donning pink vagina hats and parading around as if that would change an election? Doesn’t that show a massive irrational delusion. Hey you lost, quit crying! What about the rise of antifa violence against conservatives, just because conservatives are winning elections from sea to sea across the US. It is leftists who display immaturity, violent temper tantrums just because they lost. Maybe there are a lot more rational voters who look at the left as more dangerous than “climate change” Tm. Most people are rationally against massive taxation and massive changes to our basic infrastructure that depends greatly on oil. Just to reduce 2 degree s temperature, unproven of course.

  30. DougC says

    I’ve never argued that they’re irrational, just foolish. Time has already proven that correct.

    • renbutler says

      Wait, you can prove an opinion? That’s new.

      There are many Trump voters who got exactly what they wanted. I guarantee they don’t feel foolish.

      • Thoma Valiant says

        This, if anything I’m only disappointed he’s been so damn slow and ineffectual in mass deportations… too many Rep Congresscritters on the “GG” side of the culture divide unwilling to do what must be done and repeal Hart-Celler and replace with RAISE or the like.

  31. GregS says

    Much of the opposition to evolution, climate change, vaccinations and the genetic modification of foods is based on values, not science.

    When Williams Jennings Bryant opposed evolution, it was not out of an unsophisticated adherence to the bible as fact but rather a profoundly sophisticated perception of what Darwinism had wrought in terms of modernism, social Darwinism, Marxism and perhaps Fascism.

    Those who have opposed the juggernaut of climate change understand that while the basic physics may be sound, the hype is not and that much of the climate debate is merely a proxy for the decades old battle between consumerism and environmentalism. They understand that academics, the media and scientists have become activists rather than honest brokers of information.

    The anti-vaccination movement is more a reaction to big medicine, big government and “the individual exists at the convenience of greater forces” than it is about science of vaccination.

    The GMO debate is more about the industrialization of food production which extends beyond the laboratory to “factory farms”, agri-business and the ethic that food is designed to be produced and distributed – rather than eaten and enjoyed.

    I am not endorsing any of these positions – but it is rational to fight the greater fight on the ground of emotion. This was best articulated by the late environmentalist Stephen Schneider who wrote:

    On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both

    So, in short, when the other guys “offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts” – it is because they are being irrational. 🙂

  32. I think it is interesting that the author didn’t even try to make the case that Hillary voters we’re acting rationally.

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  34. kgbgb says

    Excellent essay.

    The main thing that somewhat undermined its credibility (for me) was the idea that anyone might take seriously — let alone grant as given for the sake of argument — that “character and fitness-for-office” was a positive for Clinton rather than Trump. Setting aside her proven breaking of laws concerning the handling of top-secret information, has the author never seen the infamous “We came; we saw; he died! (Evil cackle)” video? If so, I find his concession incomprehensible. If not, it shows how completely the mainstream media was in the bag for Clinton, and helps explain how anyone who had managed to find their way to more honest alternative media (whether Left or Right) was likely to rebel against the media’s manipulation and vote for Trump, dismissing Clinton-voters as woefully uninformed.

    Another worry is the idea that belief in “conspiracy theories” is, ipso facto, a sign of irrationality. Any plausible account of history involves conspiracies, in the sense of joint actions by restricted groups whose plans need to be kept secret from others in order to succeed. (For instance, the officially-approved story of 9-11 is a theory about a conspiracy of a group of people based in some caves in Afghanistan.) The disparaging term “Conspiracy Theory” was invented to discredit those who doubted the officially-approved “lone gunman with a magic bullet” theory of the murder of JFK, and is only applied to hypotheses that the powers-that-be wish you to dismiss without rational examination. No doubt most “Conspiracy Theories” are false, but it is hard to take seriously the assumption that none are true.

  35. Thoma Valiant says

    I wager you’d see less right wing climate skepticism if acceptance of AGW/climate change/what have you weren’t sold with a bill of internationalist “GG” policies as a requirement to accept.

    Would Democrats be more skeptical of climate if the preferred policy prescriptions were from the CC camp? Isolation and wall-building to keep out future climate refugees and preserve our agricultural base, or the like? I wager they’d be more likely to deny if my ideal remedies/ameliorations were those being sold.

    The pairing of accepting a particular point of science with a single approved reaction to said science is the issue, the alternative CC-based remedies would be unthinkable to the GG crowd.

    • There is a study showing exactly what is proposed here. Conservative voters more willing to accept climate change and ameliorating measures if they are presented within a CC framework.

  36. John says

    I felt that the author did not allow for the possibility that some people are more rational than others. Give me the evidence, and make a compelling case with appropriate scientific and/or mathematical reasoning, and I will believe it.

  37. Singmaster says

    Rather than a Cruz v Sharpton, what about Kasich v Sharpton?
    How would potential voters respond to that?
    Cruz is extreme right. Kasich is moderately right. HRC is – whether you like it or not – moderately left.

  38. Is it rational to vote simply to ‘upset the apple cart’? Sure, if you believe the system has failed you and will continue to fail you.

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