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Overcoming your own brain’s bias in the Comey/Trump case

June 7th, 2017, 6:21pm by Sam Wang


Our brains have powerful biases that help us maintain a coherent world view. However, sometimes those biases prevent us from integrating new evidence well. Today, the release of former FBI director James Comey provides an example. Most readers on the left and the right see it as powerful evidence that President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, or at a minimum, tried to influence Comey improperly. But some defenders of Trump do not see it that way.

A powerful trick for overcoming biases is to “consider the opposite“: imagine that the story was the same, but reversed in some crucial way. That can lead evidence to look quite different.

In this case, here is how it works. Suppose that you are a Republican voter. Therefore your sympathies might naturally lie with Trump. In that case, imagine that Comey’s statement concerns not Donald Trump, but Barack Obama. In that case, it reads like this:

Ponder that as you work out your response to the evidence.

Tags: Politics · President

14 Comments so far ↓

  • False Equivalency

    the key difference here is that Obama never had a big dark Russian cloud hanging over his administration, as has been the case with Trump since BEFORE the election. Nor did Obama have his family members & executives of his family businesses on record as stating they had tons of financial ties & support to Russia. I don’t know why people never consider context with things like this – on its own, it might be slightly sketchy or disturbing, but not all that incriminating, but when considered with other info we have about Trump and Russia, it becomes much more significant.

  • Dan Smith

    It totally worked for me till the last paragraph. I could see most any president or boss asking whether it was worth continuing in a job that had given me such abuse. And given the nice fatherly (or hopefully soon, motherly) concern expressed in the first paragraph, I thought that Comey’s memory came across as driven by his bias instead of what nice fatherly Trump said. It was only in the last paragraph that Trump’s true nefarious nature came out as clearly unethical. But this is a useful exercise.

  • Matt McIrvin

    I think that if I picture a scene like this during the Bush administration, it’s Dick Cheney doing the talking, not George W.

  • 538 Refugee

    If you want the flip side:
    “But to Trump, many Republicans and a broad constellation of surrogates and conservative media outlets, the takeaway is much different: exoneration.”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-sees-comeys-testimony-as-complete-vindication–and-his-fans-agree/2017/06/10/b3c72bd4-4d2b-11e7-9669-250d0b15f83b_story.html

  • LondonYoung

    I would like to see more posts like this, please.

    I think Prof. Wang is unusually, perhaps uniquely, well positioned to comment on the intersection of politics and the workings of the brain …

  • bks

    And imagine the reaction of the right-wing echo chamber if it were found that Obama was pressuring Comey!

    Favorite headline today:
    Removing Trump Is a Longshot but So Was Electing Trump
    https://politicalwire.com/2017/06/08/removing-trump-longshot-electing-trump/

  • Amitabh Lath

    The readers of this blog most likely think of biases as worse than ebola, something to be fought and rooted out. Heck, there are conference sessions about hidden biases and true Bayesian inference that we line up for.

    I suspect the actors in this drama are well aware of their biases, and have a slightly higher tolerance for this sort of hypocrisy than the average scientist.

    The best face one can put on it is that the Republicans truly believe their agenda is good for the country and even a flawed but working chief executive is better than the circus that would result if they went all righteous.

  • Robert

    Actually it reads worse, all in all, because in Obama’s case there could be no claim, specious as it is in the actual case, of naïveté, ignorance, or rank stupidity. Leave aside the ambiguity of the first paragraph because the subsequent remarks resolve the ambiguity.

  • Jeremiah

    Nope, doesn’t work. Every time I got to a critical part my mind would say “that is not something President Obama would say.” I know President Obama is a constitutional lawyer he wouldn’t operate this way. To convince me and make it believable you would have to find a comparable scenario where Obama did act like this – good luck!

    • Sam Wang

      I agree that for it to work, you have to be someone who believes the worst about Obama.

    • 538 Refugee

      Yeah. It’s hard to do this reversal. I know a lot of people didn’t like Jimmy Carter’s politics but I always thought he was a good person. Obama became the first person since to make me believe the same. I sometimes wonder if Trump’s policy is just to undo Obama’s legacy for spite over the roasting at the press dinner.

    • Lorem

      I think the “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” direct quote rings very false for Obama. He’d be more subtle than that. Substitute something like:

      “These are tough times, and I only ask that you think of what’s best for the country. The whole country.”

      With some extra insinuations about why undermining him just now would cause great harm. (Not that this is a plausible scenario for him either, but the conversation style would be closer to the mark.)

    • Matt McIrvin

      I’d think “The story is false, or something’s happened to Barack Obama, or else his whole public persona is some kind of elaborate facade and I’ve been horribly deceived.”

      Definitely not “this is innocent behavior that has been scurrilously misconstrued”.

    • Chris N

      Agree overall, but imagine you are a conservative or alt-righter who absolutely despises Obama. They largely already believe this was the way he acted with the Operation Fast and Furious scandal, the Bengazi coverup, the IRS scandal that targeted conservative groups over liberal groups, the Betrayal of Open borders to the Illegals, the giveaway to Obama’s Banker Pals who helped him steal the election with the 2008 crisis, etc…

      Asking someone to imagine Obama might actually be a better exercise for Trump supporters over those on this website (I doubt there are many but could be wrong), haha… Good to understand though that many conservatives believe that President Obama did do all of these things in some fashion or another (and just to be clear but I think thinking the above is crazy).

      Another exercise might be to imagine the name states President Bush, and realize how much different President Trump is over even earlier Republicans. I disagree with many of President Bush’s policies but I don’t believe he ever would have done these things. If you can imagine president Bush having done so then that might be a good example of Liberal Bias.

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