Red and blue voters: misunderstandings arising from a second-order availability bias

I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him. — mistakenly attributed to Pauline Kael, 1972

It evidently irritates many liberals to point out that their party gets heavy support from superaffluent “people of fashion” and does not run very well among “the common people.” — Michael Barone, 2005

Both these quotes correspond to political misunderstandings which I thiink can be attributed to a well-known cognitive bias.

First-order and second-order availability biases

Psychologists have studied the “availability bias”–the phenomenon that people tend to overweight their own experiences when making decisions or judging rates or probabilities. I was thinking about this, in regard to political commentators who are trying to understand who’s voting for whom in presidential elections.

In this case, we could speak of first-order and second-order availability biases. A national survey of journalists found that about twice as many are Democrats as Republicans. Presumably their friends and acquaintances are also more likely to support the Democrats, and a first-order availability bias would lead a journalist to overestimate the Democrats’ support in the population–as in the above quote that had been attributed to Pauline Kael.

However, political journalists are well aware of the latest polls and election forecasts and are unlikely to make such an elementary mistake. However, they can well make the second-order error of assuming that the correlations they see of income and voting are representative of the population. Weaver et al. (2003) found that 90% of journalists are college graduates and have moderately high incomes–so it is natural for them to think that they and their friends represent Democrats as a whole. Michael Barone, for example, although no liberal himself, probably knows many affluent liberal Democrats and then, from a second-order availability bias, imputes an incorrect correlation of income and Democratic voting to the general population. (Just to be clear on this point: richer voters tend to support the Republicans. Barone, should know better but was, I believe, faked out by a second-order availability bias. These cognitive biases can fake out the best of us–they come from inside our head and avoid our usual barriers of skepticism.)

When considering income and voting, the second-order availability bias is exacerbated by geographic patterns

Another form of availability bias is that the centers of national journalistic activity are relatively rich states including New York, California, Maryland, and Virginia. Once again, the journalists–and, for that matter, academics–avoid the first-order availability bias: unlike “Pauline Kael” (in the mistakenly-attributed quote), they are not surprised that the country as a whole votes differently from the residents of big cities. But they make the second-order error of too quickly generalizing from the correlations in their states. It turns out (as we show in our forthcoming paper) that richer counties tend to support the Democrats within the “media center” states but not, in general, elsewhere. And richer voters support the Republicans just about everywhere, but this pattern is much weaker–and thus easier to miss–within these states.

Much has been written in the national press about the perils of ignoring “red America” but these second-order availability biases have done just that, in a more subtle way.

2 thoughts on “Red and blue voters: misunderstandings arising from a second-order availability bias

  1. Since you went to the trouble of linking to my blog comments on the faux-Kael quote, you might have gone to the trouble of actually reading them. Throwing in the word "attributed" doesn't solve the problem … by the time you get to your penultimate paragraph, where you connect Pauline Kael to the surprise associated with the availability bias, you have accepted the incorrect notion that Kael ever said the infamous quote in the first place.

    Misunderstandings arise in many ways. Putting words in the mouth of someone has started many such misunderstandings. Perpetuating the misunderstanding by treating it as fact, which Republicans have done with the faux-Kael quote for many years, compounds the problem. Using that convenient lie to illustrate an important point about availability bias does not do justice to your argument, and adds the luster of social science to the usual screeds against something Pauline Kael never said.

  2. Steven,

    I did read your blog entry, and I'm glad you wrote it! I had thought that "attributed to" covered it, but in case there is any confusion, I'll change this to "mistakenly attributed to". Later on in my post, you caught me in a slip-up–I had originally written the entry thinking that Kael had actually made that statement, and it was only at the last minute that I did the google search and found your article. Then I went back to fix the blog entry but I missed that one reference.

    Thanks for pointing it out. Actually, the fact that Kael never really said that quote makes my argument stronger, since it emphasizes that, in this election context, few people would make the first-order availability bias. Having avoided it, they don't then think about the second-order bias.

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