Heuristics and How We Think

In his recent article “A Challenge to Millennials: Click Less, Read More,” Jeremy Taylor commented on a quote by his graduate professor: “My job is no longer to give knowledge, it is to help you understand what to do with it.” This statement, as well as Taylor’s article, reminded me of a topic my own college professor belabored on a weekly basis: heuristics. According to public opinion scholars Rosalee A. Clawson and Zoe M. Oxley, heuristics are ideological shortcuts that everyday Americans use to form their political opinions and inform their voting habits. Put more simply, most Americans form opinions on political issues of the day based on an ideology: liberal, conservative, or independent. Clawson and Oxley define ideology in the following manner: “an interrelated set of attitudes and values about the goals of society and how they should be achieved."

As we know, there are two dominant political ideologies in the United States: conservative and liberal. Clawson and Oxley disclose an astonishing fact about this ideological binary: 80 percent of the American public self-identify as either liberal or conservative.

Public opinion scholar Philip Converse argues that in our political world, the political elite—congressman, journalists, and academics, to name a few—are most likely to posses ideologically constrained belief systems. The deep-seated ideological predispositions of the political elite cause them to form reactionary and ideologically driven opinions, and in turn, the average American relies on the opinions of the elite to form their own.

I was reminded of Converse’s findings a few weeks ago when US Senator Marsha Blackburn directly rejected all geo-political concerns about climate change. Despite the evidence produced by top scientists and environmentalists attesting to the contrary, Blackburn—a conservative Republican who has openly stated her commitment to reversing Obama’s cuts on greenhouse gas emissions—insists that the earth has actually cooled one degree Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, Blackburn chose not to cite her sources for her position. When asked what could convince her to reconsider the seriousness of carbon emissions and climate change, Blackburn commented, “I don’t think you will see me being persuaded.”

Similarly, Congressman Paul Goser, also a self-identified conservative, blatantly rejected the Pope’s concerns for the climate, accusing him of “guilt[ing] people into leftist politics.” Goser stated: “…when the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.”

And in the Democratic debates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that the congressional investigation of her use of private e-mail for professional communication was a Republican attack on her polls, a “partisan vehicle”. She also told Anderson Cooper that her most prided enemy was the “Republicans."

We are all ideologically entrenched, and to combat this we must interact with those who think differently from ourselves.

It may seem clear to average Americans how divided political elites are along ideological lines. We can easily observe the extreme and sometimes harsh nature of politics as seen in Blackburn and Goser’s statements, but what we cannot see quite so well is how the extreme ideological climate infiltrates our lives as well. Everyday Americans—with our lives full of soccer matches, piano lessons, business meetings, and conference calls—do not have time to read detailed reports about government spending or articles about the ramifications of the growing rates of immigration. We too often take our political cues from members of the political elite whom we identify with based on ideology; we take shortcuts, which are called heuristics. To borrow Taylor’s professor’s words, in today’s world the political elite do not give us knowledge, they “help us understand what to do with it,” and what we average American citizens “do” is recycle the information put forth by political elites—such as Blackburn or Clinton—into our own issue opinions.

Implicit in Clawson and Oxley’s findings is the fact that Americans are blissfully unaware of the short cuts we take. Unbeknownst to us, our own hidden ideological identifications also contribute to the ideological binary system in America. Due to the way we form our opinions––the shortcuts we take––without realizing it, we are often complicit in a system that is characterized by divisions, argumentation, and sharp-tongued disagreements.

The question arises: How should Christians form their political opinions? I want to pause and make something clear: I do not believe heuristics and ideological convictions are intrinsically faulty. However, it is the use of these mechanisms that I find problematic.

Citizens often allow the ideologically polarized elite to shape our issue opinions, causing us to move further and further into ideologically driven decision-making routines. As a Christian, I want to highlight this reality and challenge other Christians to wrestle with the lack of charitable interaction across ideological lines—both among the political elite and among everyday Christians. As Christians, humility and charity should shape our beings, both in the political sphere and in the Church. We are not called to be politically entrenched ideologues with dogmatic opinions. We are called to converse with those who are different from ourselves, and this applies even to our political opinions.

But in order to move toward those who are different from ourselves, we must first realize how deeply we rely on heuristics. Public opinion scholars have made it clear that heuristics are nearly unavoidable. So the next time you turn on the TV and listen to a conservative senator denounce the legitimacy of Obamacare or read about liberal opposition to the death penalty: examine yourself, and ask why you are soundly in support of or vehemently opposed to the opinions that are presented. Is it because you truly disagree with the opposing opinion on moral or factual grounds, or is it simply because you find yourself on the other side of the ideological fence?

Lastly, in order to move towards others, Christians, myself included, must form our opinions slowly. Heuristics only provide us with short sound bites of information. By nature, they make us form our opinions in an instant. So how do we form opinions slowly? As Taylor challenged millennials, we should read full articles—at least two to three on any political issue. And we should also read articles from differing ideological perspectives. Choose different publications each month and listen to different talk shows. The more we read those who agree with us, the more isolated our opinions become. After reading, we should discuss the issue with friends, coworkers, and family, allowing others' opinions to challenge our own. We are all ideologically entrenched, and to combat this we must interact with those who think differently from ourselves. We must carefully do the work of educating ourselves, challenging ourselves with opposing voices. So be patient, read much, and practice word care, for our opinions matter to God. 

-Mary Lynn is a recent graduate of Covenant College where she studied English literature and political studies. She is currently a freelance copyeditor and lives in Durham, NC, with her husband, who is attending Duke Divinity.