Partisan biases influence 'the truths we cling to' about Alberta's economy

Poll results show Albertans' partisanship plays a big role in how they feel about the end of the recession — if they even believe it's ended.

Political lenses colour how people view the end of the recession — if they even believe it's ended

Albertans view the economy through personal and political lenses, says data scientist John Santos. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press, Alberta Innovates, McDonald's Canada, Mark Blinch/Reuters)

It's something of a puzzle.

As University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe pointed out recently, Alberta's recession is now "long over" and the economic recovery is underway.

Yet, in a recent poll conducted for CBC News, fewer than half (45 per cent) of Albertans say they feel the economy is starting to recover.

So, why is it that almost half of Albertans doubt an objective, empirical fact?

As Tombe points out, partisanship plays a role.

Among UCP supporters, 32 per cent say they think the economy is starting to recover.

For supporters of either the Alberta Party or the Alberta Liberal Party, it's 47 per cent.

And among NDP supporters, 70 per cent believe in the recovery.

What's at work here?

Is this an example of the so-called post-truth moment in politics, where reality doesn't matter and alternative facts abound?

Not really. This phenomenon is not new. It's been documented over decades of voting behaviour research.

And when you break it down, it tells each of us why we believe — even subconsciously — what we believe.

Let's start with the social science stuff.

All hail the party

In 1960, four political scientists from the University of Michigan published The American Voter. This book set the standard for survey-based voter behaviour research. In fact, some of the questions in CBC News' survey can be traced back to these studies.

One of the key concepts these researchers set out is "party identification."

Think of this as an enduring psychological attachment to a party. So much so, that the individual voter sees their relationship to the party, their bond to it, as part of how they see themselves.

We know from research that this identity is formed early on in one's life.

And it becomes the lens through which we as individuals view the world — the way we see political information.

This can include our attitudes toward public policy issues, economic evaluations and attitudes toward leaders.

Now, this isn't just a simple bias where we personally downplay negative things about "our" party, and play up the negatives of "the other guys."

Alberta's GDP growth led the country in 2017 and Albertans make more money, by far, than Canadians in any other province. So why do so many of us still feel like we're stuck in recession? (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

It's deeper. No. What happens is that because of this party identification we develop, we adopt positions about issues and our world, because our party has adopted those positions.

In other words, it's not just that we join a party because its views match ours. We can end up matching our views to those of our party. In the most extreme cases of this we get so "partisan" we can ignore or discount empirical facts.

As Obi-Wan Kenobi said in Return of the Jedi, "many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."

Important to bear in mind here is that this isn't really a conscious act.

It usually happens without us noticing it. We change without realizing that we've changed. And that changes how we see the world.

Often in politics, we speak of "informed" voters, as though this could somehow change or nuance people's perceptions of particular issues. 

It turns out this is wrong.

Even relatively well informed voters are usually partisan. We get invested in issues, but seen through the lens of our party identification. It's like a refinement, a honing of our perceptions, based on the views of the party.

And so, though we all like to think of ourselves as free-thinking individuals, these other subconscious processes are going on.

Therefore, voters with high levels of information are just as biased as voters with lower levels. Rather counterintuitively, for most of us, more information does not always translate into more accurate assessments.

Even as we take in more information, we are using that lens of "our party's views" to sort out "our" own truths.

And so, how do we use this social science theory to figure out why so many Albertans don't believe the economy is recovering?

Biased evaluations

So, first, let's look at who is most likely to believe the economy is recovering.

No big surprise — it's those who believe their own personal financial situation got better over the past year and those who believe their financial situation will get better over the next year.

This makes some sense. I feel I'm doing better, so I think that it's likely everyone is doing better.

But it turns out party identification also matters. A lot.

Remember, experts say the recession is over.

Now, there are cheap shots that can be taken in writing about politics — like the idea that people with more formal education are more likely to correctly evaluate the state of the economy than people with lower levels of formal education.

As the CBC News poll found, education does make a difference in how people view a lot of things.

But social science isn't about cheap shots. It's about data. And here's something interesting.

Using statistical modelling, we can see that, when it comes to believing Alberta's economy is getting better, it's not levels of formal education that make the difference in who believes what.

Rather, it's our party identification.

On average, NDP partisans with a high school diploma and NDP partisans with a university degree have similarly positive evaluations of Alberta's economy.

And this is true for UCP voters, too. Whether they have a university degree or a high school diploma, they tend to view the economy more pessimistically.

And here's where it gets even more tricky.

Information shortcuts

Remember that stuff about how depending on how your personal finances were doing you were more or less likely to believe the overall provincial economy was doing better or worse?

Well, once you factor in which party someone identifies with, you can see that it also changes their perceptions. We are going to need some numbers here.

First, 66 per cent of Albertans who say their financial situation has improved (past tense) believe the economy is improving. For people who say their situation has gotten worse, only 27 per cent believe the economy is improving.

Similarly, 57 per cent of those who expect their financial situation to improve (future tense) believe the economy is recovering. Only 22 per cent of people who expect their personal situation to get worse think the provincial economy is actually improving.

However, partisan biases interfere with the way people practically sort things out in their mind.

We can run the same statistical analysis but, this time, we'll model how partisan identities affect how people use their personal financial situation to assess the economy.

The results are shown in the following figure below.

Among voters who don't identify with the NDP or UCP, the information shortcut works as it should.

Those whose finances have gotten worse or stayed the same don't believe the economy is recovering and those whose finances have gotten better think the economy is getting better.

But the shortcut falls apart when we look at those who identify with either of the two major parties. Those who identify with the NDP tend to say the economy is getting better, even if their financial situation hasn't improved over the past year.

And those who identify with the UCP don't believe in the recovery, even if they themselves are better off than a year ago. So, on average, NDP partisans will tend to say the economy is recovering and UCP partisans will tend to say the economy is not. But it doesn't mean voters never change their minds.

Before you conclude all hope is lost, let me offer a few encouraging thoughts.

So are we condemned to our biases?

Only half of the Alberta electorate could be classified as partisans.

These are the folks that usually end up in the angry echo chamber of social media.

That's where partisans live, and none of them are likely to change their minds. But this also means that half of the electorate is less susceptible to a partisan bias, meaning they are more likely to be open to information that could change their perceptions of issues.

Like, say, an improving economy.

Election campaigns are as much about winning over these voters as they are about mobilizing a party's own base.

And, of course, we as individuals can think — and change our minds. 

We have the ability to see beyond our own biases.

And we saw in the poll focus groups that folks with ideological identities were able to look past their own biases.

Some of the right-wing participants said NDP Premier Rachel Notley is intelligent and probably deserved more credit.

Some of the left-wing participants acknowledged UCP Leader Jason Kenney is a charismatic communicator and has never lost an election.

This should give us some hope that many Albertans will be able to do the same when the election rolls around.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

The random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 13 to April 5, 2018, by Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age, and gender factors. The margin of error is +/-2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, and larger for subsets.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time or later, or completing it online. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e. residential and personal) was 20.8 per cent.

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John Santos

Data Scientist

John Santos is a data scientist with Janet Brown Opinion Research.


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