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Monday, June 13, 2016

Our First Instincts Make Bad Permanent Policies

While We Grieve, We Must Wait to Act

Sunday’s horrible mass shooting (and likely terrorist attack) at a gay night club in Orlando naturally generates strong emotional reactions. It is entirely understandable for us to feel anger, fear, and sorrow. But it is also important to remember that such emotions are a poor guide to public policy.

Strong emotional reactions to dramatic events exacerbate the effects of two already serious flaws in our political discourse. First, much of the public is ignorant about public policy issues, and forms opinions without serious consideration of the evidence. Such ignorance is not necessarily a sign of stupidity or bad moral character, but is usually just a result of rational behavior by individual citizens. Nonetheless, if you know very little about terrorism, gun control, radical Islamism, and so on, your immediate emotional reactions to a terrorist attack are unlikely to be a good guide to policy. Anger and sorrow are not substitutes for knowledge.

Unfortunately, however, in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy, there is an even stronger instinct than usual to just “do something” that feels good in reaction to the event instead of carefully considering our options, or at least acknowledging the limitations of our insight. At such times, politicians have incentives to cater to angry, but poorly-informed public opinion, often with harmful results.

Second, most people have a strong tendency to evaluate political events in a highly biased manner. Instead of acting as truth-seekers and weighing new evidence objectively, we often react to events as “political fans,” overvaluing any new information that seems to reinforce our preexisting views, while ignoring or dismissing anything that cuts the other way. Often people reinterpret inconvenient evidence in ways that support their views, even if it actually does not, a process known to experts as “confirmation bias.” Such bias is particularly strong in an era of high political polarization, where we also have strong partisan bias in favor of our own party’s ideas, and against those associated with the opposition.

Not surprisingly, strong emotional reactions to a recent tragedy exacerbate these and other biases, and make us even less objective in our thinking than we would be otherwise. If your reaction to the Orlando attack is a strong emotional feeling that it reinforces whatever you previously believed about terrorism, radical Islamism, gun control, or immigration, there is a strong chance that you are engaging in confirmation bias rather than objectively considering the evidence. That does not mean your reaction is automatically wrong. But it does mean you should not have too much confidence in its reliability as a guide to policy.

There is a long history of dubious and counterproductive policies enacted as a consequence of knee-jerk emotional reactions to high-profile tragedies. Examples include such cases as Megan’s Law (enacted in the aftermath of public outrage against high-profile cases of sexual predation against children) and the “zero tolerance” policies adopted in many schools in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shootings, which have done little to reduce crime, and much to harm school children. High-profile terrorist attacks also often generate counterproductive knee-jerk reactions that harm innocent people without doing much to prevent future terrorism.

We would be wise to learn from these errors. It is right and understandable that we feel strong emotions at a time like this. But we should do all we can to prevent them from clouding our judgment. That will not by itself tell us what, if any, new policies we should adopt. But it could improve the process by which we decide.

This article first appeared at the Volokh Conspiracy.

  • ILYA SOMIN is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy.