Factions & Fallacies


In general, human beings readily commit to factions and then engage in very predictable behavior: they regard their own factions as right, good and truthful while casting opposing factions as wrong, evil and deceitful. While the best known factions tend to be political or religious, people can form factions around almost anything, ranging from sports teams to video game consoles.

While there can be rational reasons to form and support a faction, factionalism tends to be fed and watered by cognitive biases and fallacies. The core cognitive bias of factionalism is what is commonly known as in group bias. This is the psychology tendency to easily form negative views of those outside of the faction. For example, Democrats often regard Republicans in negative terms, casting them as uncaring, sexist, racist and fixated on money. In turn, Republicans typically look at Democrats in negative terms and regard them as fixated on abortion, obsessed with race, eager to take from the rich, and desiring to punish success. This obviously occurs outside of politics as well, with competing religious groups regarding each other as heretics or infidels. It even extends to games and sports, as the battle of #gamergate serving as a nice illustration.

The flip side of this bias is that members of a faction regard their fellows and themselves in a positive light and are thus inclined to attribute to themselves positive qualities. For example, Democrats see themselves as caring about the environment and being concerned about social good. As another example, Tea Party folks cast themselves as true Americans who get what the founding fathers really meant.

This bias is often expressed in terms of and fuelled by stereotypes. For example, critics of the sexist aspects of gaming will make use of the worst stereotypes of male gamers (dateless, pale misogynists who spew their rage around a mouthful of Cheetos). As another example, Democrats will sometimes cast the rich as being uncaring and out of touch plutocrats. These stereotypes are sometimes taken the extreme of demonizing: presenting the other faction members as not merely wrong or bad but evil to the extreme.

Such stereotypes are easy to accept and many are based on another bias, known as a fundamental attribution error. This is a psychological tendency to fail to realize that the behavior of other people is as much limited by circumstances as our behavior would be if we were in their shoes. For example, a person who was born into a well off family and enjoyed many advantages in life might fail to realize the challenges faced by people who were not so lucky in their birth. Because of this, she might demonize those who are unsuccessful and attribute their failure to pure laziness.

Factionalism is also strengthened by various common fallacies. The most obvious of these is the appeal to group identity. This fallacy occurs when a person accepts her pride in being in a group as evidence that a claim is true. Roughly put, a person believes it because her faction accepts it as true. The claim might actually be true, the mistake is that the basis of the belief is not rational. For example, a devoted environmentalist might believe in climate change because of her membership in that faction rather than on the basis of evidence (which actually does show that climate change is occurring). This method of belief “protects” group members from evidence and arguments because such beliefs are based on group identity rather than evidence and arguments. While a person can overcome this fallacy, faction-based beliefs tend to only change when the faction changes or if the person leaves the faction.

The above-mentioned biases also tend to lean people towards fallacious reasoning. The negative biases tend to motivate people to accept straw man reasoning, which is when a when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. Politicians routinely make straw men out of the views they oppose and their faction members typically embrace these. The negative biases also make ad hominem fallacies common. An ad homimen is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). For example, opponents of a feminist critic of gaming might reject her claims by claiming that she is only engaged in the criticism so as to become famous and make money. While it might be true that she is doing just that, this does not disprove her claims. The guilt by association fallacy, in which a person rejects a claim simply because it is pointed out that people she dislikes accept the claim, both arises from and contributes to factionalism.

The negative views and stereotypes are also often fed by fallacies that involve poor generalizations. One is misleading vividness, a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. For example, a person in a faction holding that gamers are violent misogynists might point to the recent death threats against a famous critic of sexism in games as evidence that most gamers are violent misogynists. Misleading vividness is, of course, closely related to hasty generalization, a fallacy in which a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough to justify that conclusion. For example, a Democrat might believe that all corporations are bad based on the behavior of BP and Wal-Mart. Biased generalizations also occur, which is a fallacy that is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is biased or prejudiced in some manner. This tends to be fed by the confirmation bias—the tendency people have to seek and accept evidence for their view while avoiding or ignoring evidence against their view. For example, a person might hold that his view that the poor want free stuff for nothing from visits to web sites that feature Youtube videos selected to show poor people expressing that view.

The positive biases also contribute to fallacious reasoning, often taking the form of a positive ad hominem. A positive ad hominem occurs when a claim is accepted on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author or person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, something positive (but irrelevant) about the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made. Second, this is taken to be evidence for the claim in question. For example, a Democrat might accept what Bill Clinton says as being true, just because he really likes Bill.

Nor surprisingly, factionalism is also supported by faction variations on appeals to belief (it is true/right because my faction believes it is so), appeal to common practice (it is right because my faction does it), and appeal to tradition (it is right because my faction has “always done this”).

Factionalism is both fed by and contributes to such biases and poor reasoning. This is not to say that group membership is a bad thing, just that it is wise to be on guard against the corrupting influence of factionalism.

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  1. Mike,

    In the 2nd paragraphy you say that “Republicans typically look at Republicans in negative terms”.

    Maybe there’s a lot of self-hatred among Republicans, but I suspect that you meant to say that “Democrats typically….”

  2. Mike, I like the way you think and write. I have read several of your articles and find them all to be well thought out and good.

    I do have several questions/thoughts. Do you think that the level of education in the US will ever lead the majority to be able to think like you? What role do you think IQ plays in the ability to think clearly? Given the national average IQ are we already at a peak? Can people learn to think more clearly, do they want to?

    I think most social issues, are systemic. You can’t correct one unless you fix them all at the same time, else you just cause a failure somewhere else in the system. Has competition between citizens reached a point where it can go no further? Can government achieve an equitable balance in society for all people?

    Well, I let it go at that. I like your work and will be anxious to read you future comments and letters.


  3. s.wallerstein,

    Thanks. 🙂

  4. Paul,

    Back in the Enlightenment there was great hope among thinkers that humanity would become enlightened and follow reason. But, Aristotle argued that the many are immune to reason and are ruled by pleasure and pain.

    Since I am not anyone exceptional, I would say that almost anyone can learn reasoning and, more importantly, develop a degree of control over the emotions, biases and prejudices. This is analogous to fitness: while people do vary in ability, effort always pays off.

    I’m not sure about IQ. When I was tested in high school, my IQ was 120 (slightly above average). Based on my own experience and some research, I would say that the IQ test only captures a certain skill set. But, thanks to years of gaming I do buy into the idea of an Intelligence stat. 🙂

    I don’t think we are at the peak-training can allow people to improve and some folks claim that we’ll be augmenting our abilities mechanically and biologically.

    I am confident that people can learn to think more clearly. The foundational skills are quite basic. The real challenge is developing the character traits needed to use them properly-in many ways, this is rather like becoming virtuous in Aristotle’s sense of the term.

    I suspect we’ll always have struggles in society: some will want “undue gain” while other will want to be more equitable. But it is within our capacity to have an equitable society. And it is in our interest-unbalanced societies seem to inevitably go into rather bad death spirals.

  5. Mike,

    You’re welcome.

    Anyway, you compare political factionalism to sports fans, but there is a big difference.

    Politics is often about values and often one political faction is more ethically convincing than the other.

    For example, in your paragraph about fundamental attribution error (thanks for introducing me to this concept) you speak of a rich person who sees all the poor as lazy. A political party which represents that point of view can do a lot of damage and make society more unequal and unjust, even if their mentality is just as much the product of structural factors as poverty is.

    To take an extreme case, a racist is undoubtedly the product of structural factors, but we condemn them anyway.

    I agree that we can use the fallacies and errors in reasoning that you outline above to understand better our own political attitudes, those of the “other side” and the political situation in general, but I just want to emphasize (as you well know) that there are real ethical values at stake in political life.

  6. 3000 years ago.

    Group 1- Look, another group of humans. I believe they are our equals. Let’s approach them with respect. Spears down.

    Group 2- Look, another group of humans. I believe they are below us. Look at the way they walk. Kill them.

    Group 1 dies, therefore group 2 passes on genetic information to us.

  7. Okay, poor reasoning is not the end of the story. Are situations and social relationships, all a matter of processing information, for better for worse. The biases and fallacies leading to poor reasoning, and if removed we’d all lead noble lives.

    Is the problem of evil a problem of reasoning, or does reason not answer a question like is it better to be good and live uncomfortably, than to be evil and live in comfort.

    People chose to be evil. And those who feel burdened by this choice; often college educated, created well reasoned narratives to absolve their guilt.

    Are the republicans racist and evil; yes they are. Are the democrats racists and evil; yes they are too. I’ve had funny discussions with Latino Republicans, and what they invariable say is that yes the Republicans are racist SoBs, but that with the Democrats the racism is more latent; hence more insidious. There is more nuance and complexity in the relationship. A Republican like Jeb Bush, may marry a Mexican, a Democrat, may talk a good talk, but might be very uncomfortable about a Latino family moving in somewhere on their street. I saw a video clip of Jeb Bush, speaking on behalf of a candidate in the upcoming elections. He spoke in Spanish, from what I could make out, he appeared to be saying that the candidate saw Latinos as good hard working people. While in English the Republicans pander to the racists.

    Evil is not for lack of reason.

  8. Or
    Group 1- Look, another group of humans. I believe they are our equals. Let’s approach them with respect. Spears down.

    Group 2- Look, another group of humans. I believe they are our equals. Let’s approach them with respect. Spears down.

    Group 1 + 2 form group 3. With larger numbers and cooperation, they thrive and give rise to civilization.

  9. s.wallerstein,

    In the United States, sports is about values, too. The Yankees, for example, are clearly evil. 🙂 But, good points.

  10. Hmm. I’ve considered this issue at some depth – and in fact have been trying to put some thoughts down on paper.

    I approached it from the angle of asking whether bias and prejudice was a good or a bad thing, and whether it was inherent to society or not.

    The latter point I believe is covered by the statement that humans, as a species, are not capable of reducing every minutia to first principles and coming up with a balanced and fair judgement on it. It simply takes too long, therefore ‘Is this case of type A or type B’? becomes ‘is this an example of a general case of type A or type B, to which I have a stock prepared response?’

    That is, we proceed on the basis of innate prejudice (of which the subject under discussion is an example) and make sub-optimal, but efficient, value judgements.

    That makes prejudice efficient and useful. In te case where the situation is more or less stable and widely understood. All tigers may not be dangerous, but some certainly are, and deciding which one is, may get you eaten…

    The downside is of course that this may in fact be unfair to the odd tiger who is only trying to be friendly.

    And the loss of innately enriching and diverse man-tiger relationships.

    Prejudice acts to stabilise society in predictable and known responses: It does nothing but get in the way of the development of new and better responses to changing circumstances.

    And indeed a bias against ‘prejudice’ itself is a stock response of a bigot of a sort!!!

    My conclusion? We should not be so quick to condemn prejudice and bigotry. In an ideal world, they have no place, but this is not an ideal world.

    We need them to make our responses efficient, when efficiency is more relevant than accuracy.

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