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Politics really do alter your perception of reality

According to Harvard economists, Democrats and Republicans both perceive reality very wrong.

ST. PAUL, MN - SEPTEMBER 04: A woman celebrates at the end of day four of the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center on September 4, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will accept the GOP nomination for U.S. President Thursday night.

  • A working paper by Harvard economists shows how political perceptions deform our understanding of otherwise verifiable facts.
  • Both Democrat and Republicans overestimate social mobility, underestimate the top tax bracket, and have no clue what's happening with foreign-born citizens.
  • The researchers hope their findings will help us understand how to intervene in the cycle of misinformation.

    • There are certain debates we may never reach a consensus on. In philosophy, those perennial problems circle around questions of free will, the birth of consciousness, and the nature of mathematical objects. In politics, they focus on the size of government, how to establish a functional immigration system, and how to best promote equitable social mobility.

      Unlike philosophy—which is arguably an a priori "armchair" discipline—political arguments can often be fact-checked against verifiable data. If the other side of the aisle bothered to test their beliefs against that information, we imagine, then surely their policy views would shift and the intractable problems of our partisan times could be resolved.

      Obviously, it won't be that easy. According to a working paper by Harvard economists, political beliefs don't just shape our convictions; they shape our perception of objective reality.

      Different views, equally wrong

      The paper is being written by Stefanie Stantcheva, a professor of economics at Harvard University, and Armando Miano, a doctoral candidate. Famed economist Albert Alesina also worked on the paper until his tragic death earlier this year.

      According to Stantcheva, the impetus for the research was to get into people's heads to see what really drives their policy views. As she told the Harvard Gazette:

      "One thing that we've been doing a lot is to study what we can observe...like what people actually do, what people learn, and what people decide. What we really have not known until now so much is: What's going on in the background? How do people think about their decisions? How do they decide which policies to support or not? How do they reason about these?"

      To answer those questions, the researchers sent detailed surveys to thousands of respondents. The surveys covered topics such as social mobility, tax policy, social inequality, and immigration.

      To the surprise of no one, Republicans and Democrats sported different views. The difference proved even wider when comparing respondents who did or did not vote for President Donald Trump. But which group had a more distorted view of reality?

      As Stantcheva summed it up, "One group is not necessarily more wrong than the other. Everybody's quite wrong."

      Signals lost in political white noise

      A graph showing Democrat and Republican perceptions of politically-charged facts against the reality of those facts.

      (Photo: Alberto Alesina, Armando Miano, and Stefanie Stantcheva/ Harvard Gazette))

      For their survey on social mobility, the researchers asked respondents how likely children born in the bottom quintile could rise to the top income bracket. Republicans believed the probability to be 12 percent, while Democrats thought it was 10.5 percent. The true probability is 7.8 percent.

      While neither average was too far off, the results show that Americans as a whole overestimate social mobility in their country, and respondents from places were social mobility is lowest, such as the South and Southwest, overestimated the American Dream the most. Conversely, European respondents proved much more pessimistic of social mobility, helping to explain their widespread support of progressive social programs.

      To establish causality, the researchers provided a randomly-selected group of respondents with information about social mobility. For example, they may prime respondents with data showing the high probability that rich families stay rich, while poor children struggle to even reach the middle class. The controls received no such information.

      Seeing such information made the experimental respondents more pessimistic of social mobility; however, only Democrats became more supportive of progressive social programs. Republicans tended to view the government as the problem, showing that the same factual information "translate[d] into political preferences in different ways based on their other existing perceptions."

      "How much you're going to change your belief as a function of that information is going to depend on the weight you put on it, and that weight will depend on what you already think," Stantcheva told the Gazette. "Without interruption, it's just a cycle that will reinforce itself."

      The researchers found a similar pattern with their tax policy survey. For example, Republicans and Democrats both underestimated the top income tax rate to be 31 percent and 25 percent respectively. It's 37 percent.

      But the starkest disconnect from reality was on immigration. On average, respondents believed immigrants comprised 36 percent of the U.S. population. In fact, foreign-born peoples account for only around 13.5 percent of the U.S. population, a figure that counts both naturalized citizens and undocumented immigrants.

      The survey also showed that Democrats and Republicans overestimated the share of Muslim immigrants, underestimated the share of immigrants that graduated high school, and completely missed the mark on the share of immigrants who were unemployed.

      Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2019 only 3.1 percent of foreign-born workers were unemployed—less than the 3.8 percentage of native-born workers.

      The persistence of misperception

      How do misperceptions persist despite verifiable facts being a mere Google search away?

      One reason, the researchers note, is that such issues are permeated by political narratives. Even if a signal cuts through that noise, we're operating on different frequencies. As shown in the social mobility survey, our perceptions will lead us to weigh its value based on its narrative use, not its empirical merit.

      They also note that the demand for accurate information is politically charged, too. In one experiment, respondents were allowed to pay a randomized amount to receive accurate information about immigration in the United States. Care to guess who was least likely to pony up?

      "The people who most need the information are going to be the least likely to seek out that information. It seems that either they don't realize that they're wrong, or they're just very entrenched in their beliefs, and do not want their beliefs to be changed," Stantcheva told the Gazette.

      But Stantcheva and her fellow researchers aren't entirely pessimistic about the future. By understanding the political thought process and how we create our own reality barriers, we may be able to intervene in that process and let a more accurate picture of reality seep through.

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      Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

      Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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      • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
      • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
      • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

      Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

      Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

      But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

      A mixed response to technology

      children using desktop computer

      Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

      (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

      This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

      According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

      To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

      But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

      Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

      Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

      For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

      Screens, parents, and pandemics

      Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

      The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

      But are these concerns overblown?

      As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

      Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

      "We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

      This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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