Political Ignorance Is Bliss

Could paying less attention to politics be better for you, your relationships, and society?


Here's something dumb I do every year. At some point during October in Virginia, the weather cools down enough that I switch the thermostat from air conditioning to heating. But inevitably we run into a spell of hot weather that lasts a few days. How do I respond? I literally get mad at the weather. I stare at the thermostat and fume at the prospect of flipping it back to air conditioning. In other words, I resent having to move my finger an inch because I feel as though I have been wronged by the weather—it's unfair that it would be hot in October. (I told you it was dumb.)

Why am I mentioning this? Because it illustrates the irrationality of getting angry over something you can't change. I can't change the weather. However, I can adjust my own behavior in response to the weather. It makes no sense to seethe at the heat spell—I should switch on the A.C. and move on with my life.

You should do the same with politics. You and I cannot change the country's political situation. (For instance, the odds of your vote changing the result of the presidential election are between one in 10 million and one in a billion, depending on your state.) However, we can adjust our own behavior in response to a political situation. It's pointless to rage at politicians and pundits because you think they're wrong about how to alleviate poverty. Maybe they are wrong, but there's nothing you can do about it. Instead, you should focus on what you can control; you could, for instance, do your part to alleviate poverty by working overtime and donating your extra earnings to an effective charity.

There's a robust debate over whether a moral obligation to participate in politics exists. I'd argue that there is no such obligation, largely because we can meet our obligation to promote justice and the common good in wholly nonpolitical ways, such as contributing to organizations that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and enrich the poor. But the argument is to some degree separate from what follows, which is a discussion of the therapeutic and philanthropic benefits of ignoring politics: It's good for you, your relationships, and society as a whole.

Politics Makes Us Miserable

The philosopher John Rawls writes of the typical citizen in a just society: "The time and thought that he devotes to forming his [political] views is not governed by the likely material reward of political influence. Rather it is an activity enjoyable in itself that leads to a larger conception of society and to the development of his intellectual and moral faculties." Whatever the merits of Rawls' description of citizens in an ideal society, it doesn't seem to apply to citizens of our own society. Politics tends to make us miserable rather than being "enjoyable in itself."

One reason staying politically informed can lower our happiness is that both news outlets and news consumers tend to focus on bad news instead of good news. Ninety-five percent of American adults report regularly following the news—82 percent check it every day—and over half of them say that it's a source of stress.

I've always found it strange that people will dedicate hours of their day to watching and discussing the news, only to be infuriated by it. Imagine if 95 percent of Americans reported regularly eating mushroom pizza—82 percent eating it at least once a day—but over half of them didn't like mushroom pizza. After working through your initial puzzlement at their behavior, I presume your advice to them would be simple: Stop eating mushroom pizza. To quote my 5-year-old son, "Why does Grandpa watch the news if he doesn't like the news?" (In the interest of transparency: No, I don't always follow my own advice here. I'd say that's an indictment of me rather than my advice, though.)

Consider also that the psychological harm of "losing" in politics is greater than the psychological benefit of "winning." A 2019 working paper by Sergio Pinto, Panka Bencsik, Tuugi Chuluun, and Carol Graham finds that the loss of well-being experienced by partisans when their party loses is significantly larger than any well-being gain experienced by the winners. And seeing one's side lose an election can have surprisingly devastating results. Immediately after their candidate lost the 2016 presidential election, the decline in life satisfaction experienced by Democrats was greater than the adverse effects of losing a job—a life event that has some of the worst documented effects on people's well-being. Estimates based on recent survey data suggest that roughly 94 million Americans believe that politics has caused them stress, 44 million believe that it has cost them sleep, and 28 million believe that it has harmed their physical health.

I suggest looking to the advice offered by the ancient Stoics for coping with fate. "When a dog is tied to a cart," philosophers Zeno and Chrysippus analogized, "if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not want to follow it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: Even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined."

Electoral outcomes are, for all practical purposes, a matter of fate over which we as individuals have no control. We can either accept them and adjust our behavior accordingly or we can pointlessly obsess over them to the detriment of our own well-being.

Politics Swallows Everything

Here's something that worries me more than the stress of politics: Our partisan commitments are beginning to swallow up the rest of our identities. University of Maryland, College Park, political scientist Lilliana Mason writes in her 2018 book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, "A single vote can now indicate a person's partisan preference as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and favorite grocery store. This is no longer a single social identity. Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity, with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies." According to a 2015 paper in the American Journal of Political Science by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, "The sense of partisan identification is all encompassing and affects behavior in both political and nonpolitical contexts." You can use someone's vote to make a decent guess about her opinion of NASCAR, Whole Foods, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

More significantly, we can even use someone's vote to make a decent guess about her opinion of the severity of, and appropriate response to, a pandemic. Republicans are far less concerned about the spread of COVID-19 than Democrats. Unsurprisingly, they're also more comfortable going to restaurants and parties and less likely to say that masks should be worn in public. Democrats are more likely to support online schooling in the fall. Even if you're untroubled by the politicization of grocery stores, you should worry that epidemiology has become a partisan battleground.

Furthermore, the monopolization of our identity by our politics homogenizes our social circles. "At a dinner party today, talking about politics is increasingly also talking about religion and race. They are wrapped together in a new way," Mason writes. "Ironically, politics and religion may be increasingly acceptable topics at a dinner party today, because most of our dinner parties include mainly socially and politically similar people."

This kind of sorting is increasing a sense of distance and competition between the opposing political sides. When people's other social identities align with their partisan identities, the members of one party drift further apart from members of the other party, and political conflict becomes more heated. By contrast, people with "cross-cutting" identities—that is, people whose partisan identities do not align with their other social identities in the standard pattern (picture a Prius-driving, Unitarian Republican who regularly attends vegan cooking classes)—are less hostile to out-party members and less likely to get angry about politics. But as these "cross-cutters" grow scarce, politics gets bloodier.

So if your social identities are all over the road, don't despair. Perhaps, like me, you find that your television preferences lean left (apparently conservatives don't appreciate Brooklyn Nine-Nine), but your grocery store preferences lean right (I'm not sure that I've ever set foot in a Whole Foods). Being jumbled up in this way has a calming effect on your politics. Now, it also makes you less enthusiastic about politics, but I consider this another plus rather than a minus.

To make matters worse, research by University of Memphis political scientist Eric Groenendyk indicates that "partisans' identities are increasingly anchored to hatred of the outparty rather than affection for their inparty." We hate the other team more than we like our team. Why? We need to ramp up our animosity to the out-party to rationalize our continued dedication to our own party despite its obvious shortcomings. ("I know my party can be spineless and ineffective, but I've got to stick with it because the other side is downright evil.") In brief, hatred of the out-party is becoming increasingly central to our political identities, just as politics is becoming increasingly central to our identities as such. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not be defined by stuff I hate—I don't want my life to revolve around inner-ear infections and the Dallas Cowboys.

Politics Is Bad for Your Relationships

The philosopher John Stuart Mill said that "it is from political discussion, and collective political action, that one whose daily occupations concentrate his interests in a small circle round himself, learns to feel for and with his fellow-citizens, and becomes consciously a member of a great community." Politics, on this view, expands our social circle and brings the community closer together. Unfortunately, evidence suggests the reverse: Politics has the effect of tearing people apart. As Georgetown University ethicist Jason Brennan writes in his 2016 book Against Democracy, "Politics tends to make us hate each other, even when it shouldn't….We tend to view political debate not as reasonable disputes about how to best achieve our shared aims but rather as a battle between the forces of light and darkness."

In the most recent presidential election—according to polling data from CNN, Pew, Reuters, and other sources—13 percent of Americans blocked friends on their social media accounts due to political disagreements. Sixteen percent stopped talking to a friend or family member because of politics; 13 percent ended a relationship with a friend or family member. Over a quarter of Americans limited their "interactions with certain friends or family members" as a result of politics. Nearly 30 percent of Americans consider it important to live where most people share their political opinions.

Politics is now infiltrating our attitudes toward dating and marriage. People prefer to date co-partisans. More than 60 percent of partisans want their children to marry within their own party (compared to about 30 percent in the late 1950s). About half of Republicans and one-third of Democrats reported being "somewhat or very unhappy at the prospect of inter-party marriage." Not only does it seem exhausting to police your relationships by politics, it can drive you away from friends and family (not to mention prospective friends and family).

Things look even worse when we move from personal relationships to the country as a whole. In the United States, it is becoming more common for partisans to see the other side as morally bad and worthy of blame and loathing. Roughly half of Republicans believe that Democrats are "ignorant" and "spiteful," and similar numbers of Democrats think the same of Republicans. About 40 percent of Democrats and Republicans believe that members of the other party "are not just worse for politics—they are downright evil." Twenty percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans agreed that "we'd be better off as a country if large numbers of" the opposing party "just died." Think about that: Politics is driving people to think that out-party deaths are a good thing.

When politics becomes partisan warfare, social trust and cohesion suffer. In experimental settings, people are less trusting of out-party members and less generous toward them. Employers are less likely to pursue job applicants whose résumés signal a partisan affiliation contrary to their own. People are less likely to award a scholarship to an out-party member. Consumers are more likely to buy from a politically like-minded seller. As Iyengar and his colleagues summarize, "Partisanship has bled into the non-political sphere, driving ordinary citizens to reward co-partisans and penalize opposing partisans."

Perhaps most troubling of all is partisans' willingness to dehumanize those on the other side. A study by Vanderbilt University's James Martherus and others found that more than half of partisans rated members of the opposing party as less evolved than members of their own party—they located out-party members farther away from an image of a modern human on a scale showing the stages of human evolution. Martherus and his colleagues also presented partisans with a fake report, accompanied by a photo of broken chairs, about a cookout where a fight had broken out, causing a rush to the exit and a number of injuries. When the event was affiliated with the Republican Party, Democratic subjects were more likely to agree that the eventgoers were "like animals"; a similar result was found when Republicans were told the gathering was Democratic. A different study yielded a similar finding: About 20 percent of respondents believe that many members of the opposing party "lack the traits to be considered fully human—they behave like animals."

Dehumanization is a grave social problem: It can lead to discrimination, increased punitiveness, and violence. Indeed, 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans "feel violence would be justified" if the other party wins the 2020 presidential election.

Although I've focused on the ways in which politics can make us unhappy and antisocial, it's worth noting that these findings also weaken the case for a moral duty to participate in politics. Suppose there were a television show that made its viewers less generous, less sympathetic, and more violent toward those who think differently. It's safe to say that you'd have a moral obligation to avoid that show unless you had a very powerful reason to watch it. Generally speaking, we have a moral obligation to avoid doing things that worsen our moral character. And politics tends to do just that.

Why Not Disown the Other Side?

Only about a third of partisans think that members of the opposing party "have their heart in the right place but just come to different conclusions about what is best," according to a 2019 working paper by Mason in collaboration with Louisiana State University's Nathan Kalmoe. So you might think maybe we should disown out-party members, because their politics expose their manifestly horrible character. You wouldn't keep Stalin on your Christmas card list, would you?

In reply, I'll first mention that our beliefs about people on the other side of the political aisle tend to be uninformed (a finding that should be unsurprising in light of the increasing social distance between the parties). Although people are misinformed about their own party, their misperceptions of the other side are worse. For instance, Republicans estimate that over one-third of Democrats are atheist or agnostic, but the right number is under one-tenth. Democrats think that 44 percent of Republicans earn at least $250,000 per year. The right number is 2.2 percent.

On policy matters, we think that there are enormous differences between our views and the views of the other side. It turns out that the gap is smaller than we think. On issues such as taxes and immigration, the perceived divide between Democrats and Republicans is larger than the actual divide. You should at least have accurate beliefs about members of the other party before you disown them.

But what about those out-party members who do, in fact, endorse policies that you find morally objectionable? Surely they are ignorant, spiteful, or perhaps even evil people. How else could they err so badly?

This line of thought might be persuasive if the correct policy positions were obvious. In that case, people who hold incorrect views must be ignorant or evil. But it is simply not obvious what ought to be done about abortion, immigration, gun control, foreign aid, capital punishment, international trade, taxation, environmental regulation, criminal justice, military intervention, and many other policy matters. These are extremely complicated issues. Honest, well-meaning people can reach different conclusions about politics.

I'd also suggest that the ease with which we ascribe ignorance or evil to out-party members is much more a reflection of our own psychology than of their moral character. Politically motivated reasoning causes us to selectively accept information that flatters our side and condemns the opposition. No wonder, then, that our side seems clearly right and the other side seems clearly wrong. Moreover, as noted earlier, we justify our continued allegiance to our own side by amplifying the flaws of the other side, a tendency that could easily lead us to believe that members of the out-party are malicious or stupid.

As a general point, we think we are more moral and less biased than others. So it is natural (although not justified) that we would believe, in the words of Emily Pronin, Carolyn Puccio, and Lee Ross in Heuristics and Biases (Cambridge University Press), that our own "perspective is the one that affords the greatest accuracy," causing us to "feel frustrated or even angry with those who dispute the authenticity and special insight" of our views.

To be clear: I'm not endorsing the view that all political opinions have equal merit. There are opinions that are beyond the boundaries of what is reasonable or decent. (Don't be friends with Stalin.) But we have grounds for thinking that many, if not most, of our political opponents are not downright evil. There are downright evil people in this world, but we should use caution when we apply this label. Someone can disagree with your politics and still be worthy of your business, your friendship, and your respect.

In Defense of Apolitical Politics

Ironically, if politics weren't so central to our social identities, we'd probably get better politics. As the New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt told Reason in 2018, "The more passionately we feel about something, the more likely it is that our reasoning is warped and unreliable." When our partisan anger is stoked, we're less responsive to information and more prone to minimize risks. Anger can also prompt "defense of convictions, solidarity with allies, and opposition to accommodation," plus more politically motivated reasoning. In brief, as politics absorbs more of our identity, political participants get more partisan, more hostile, and less willing to compromise.

Debates over whether to increase or decrease immigration restrictions, for example, would be more productive if they were more like debates over whether to use plastic or copper pipes and less like a holy war. We don't feel as though our sense of self is under attack when someone challenges our plumbing choices. Plumbing is not at the core of (most of) our identities.

Of course, expecting people to bring the same clinical detachment to political decisions that they bring to plumbing decisions is a pipe dream. And that's understandable: There are weighty moral issues at stake in politics that aren't at stake in plumbing. But a world in which political debates were more clinical would be an improvement over the status quo. As things stand, partisans exert an outsized influence on our national politics. Those with the strongest political identities and strongest hostility to the other side are the most politically active. We can do better. Politics need not be a Frankenstein's monster of religious zeal and sports fanaticism.

How could we move ourselves in that direction? One option is to take opportunities to work with out-party members in nonpolitical settings—maybe you could adopt a highway or volunteer with Habitat for Humanity together. Indeed, even observing cooperative interactions that reach across the aisle may help reduce polarization.

It also might be worth trying to tie your social identity to nonpolitical affiliations. (If these are cross-cutting identities, all the better.) Psychologists Jay Van Bavel and Andrea Pereira noted in a 2018 article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences that "when people are hungry for belonging, then they are more likely to adopt party beliefs unless they can find alternative means to satiate that goal." You could start following your city's National Basketball Association team and cheer for basketball instead of politics. Better yet, quit your political party and join a local effective altruism group in your newly spared time. If you insist on disregarding my advice to ignore politics, at least divorce your social identity from your politics. Your political participation will be better for it.

This article is adapted by permission from the author's recent book Why It's OK To Ignore Politics (Routledge).