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Consistency Bias: Chasing the Mechanical Bunny, Obamacare

October 25, 2013, 12:00 AM

We all like to think that we are honest. Therefore, when we get the icky feeling that results from being of two minds about something, our consistency bias kicks in. This may be able to explain, in part, what is so deeply dysfunctional about our politics. Let's look at one example:

Obamacare passes. The Supreme Court upholds it. Obama is re-elected. Obamacare takes effect. The government shuts down. The government re-opens. The website Healthcare.gov rolls out, and it turns out it has serious kinks. 

That is the narrative of Obamacare up until this point. Or is it? 

We will certainly be debating both the wisdom of this law, as well as the implementation of this law, for many years to come. We will also no doubt be debating whose idea the whole thing was. In the video below, former White House special advisor Van Jones tracks what he sees as the tortured logic behind Republican opposition to Obamacare, a policy that is based on a Republican idea. 

Jones's point, however, is larger than Obamacare. He notes that other ideas, such as cap and trade, were born as Republican ideas. Like health insurance exchanges and the individual mandate - the crux of Obamacare - these ideas tend to be free market solutions to problems. However, once Democrats have adopted these ideas, Jones notes, Republicans have come to disown them. 

Why is that? According to Jones, this is about cynical politicking, not pragmatic policymaking. He says:

It’s like chasing a bunny on the old dog track...I think those dogs probably think someday they’re going to catch that bunny. They’re never going to catch that bunny because the bunny keeps moving.

Watch the video below - but then don't go anywhere, because we are going to discuss whether Democrats are guilty of this same mechanical bunny bias as well. And we will also dig deeper and put a fancier name to this bias as well. 

Watch here:

What's the Big Idea?

Speaking to Big Think in 2007, former Massachusetts Governor and aspiring presidential candidate Mitt Romney said this:

And you know I think I’m the only governor in America – frankly the only politician in America, along with my friends here in Massachusetts that found a way to bring down the cost of health insurance – the premiums of health insurance – to get everybody insured with free market insurance. Those that haven’t been insured now get free market insurance. And finally to do so without raising taxes or having the government take over health care. So what I did has begun a bit of a national revolution relating to health care. 

Indeed it was a national revolution, Democrats like Van Jones say, as Romney's plan in Massachusetts - which included the individual mandate - served as the blueprint for Obamacare.

We have seen the progress of this idea play out on this very site. Fast forward to 2010. Speaking to Big Think on the subject of health care, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said this:

We would accept the libertarian argument that if you don’t want to buy health insurance, you could be allowed to post a bond or in some other way to be financially responsible...

Was that an endorsement of the individual mandate? Decide for yourself. But let's get back to the larger idea, which is of parents (politicians) disowning their children (ideas) based not on conviction but politics. Granted, this is nothing new. And yet, let's compare the Republicans' shifting position on Obamacare - which is deeply hypocritical if you buy Van Jones's argument - and the failure of many Democrats to stand up to Obama for moving the goal post on the national security versus civil liberties debate. It appears that partisan politics completely trumps fundamental ideals. 

But we are all like these politicians, no matter what mechanical bunny rabbit we are chasing. We all have what is called consistency bias.  

"Consistency bias is part of your overall desire to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance," David McRaney writes in You Are Not So Smart, "the emotions you feel when noticing you are of two minds on one issue." 

Like a greyhound race, politics is a competition. And as the rabbit keeps moving ahead, the greyhounds are incentivized to keep chasing. Consistency bias is simply the failure to admit that's what we're doing. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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