Think fast: In your opinion, what group of people is the most dishonest and ignorant?
And you can't just say "politicians."
Just from the demographics of our readership, a whole bunch of you said, "Tea Party members" or "Southern conservatives." And that's fine; they say the same about you. Polls consistently show that we think those who disagree with us politically are simply bad people, on a personal level.
And if you just read Atlas Shrugged, you now think that about everyone but you.
Now take a look at this study, which compared a person's average political knowledge with their primary source of news. The results were surprising: The most knowledgeable groups were viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Hot on their heels? Fans of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.
Never mind the fact that it's a pretty bad sign when the most politically educated people in the country are relying on either comedy shows or political pundits for their news. The key is that these outlets are primarily about ruthlessly mocking and dismissing the other side. Yet they attract more knowledgeable voters, not less.
"We're scientists, and we don't trust any pundit who doesn't scream 80 percent of his dialogue."
So there appears to be a horrible process that works like this:
A. In order to want to learn more about political issues, you must be enthusiastic about politics;
B. Enthusiasm about politics means you are more likely to be emotionally invested in the issues;
C. Emotional investment in the issues means a more negative attitude toward anyone who disagrees;
D. A negative attitude toward someone means being more dismissive of his point of view and being less open to changing your mind based on anything he says.
In the world of psychology, they call this attitude polarization; the more times the average person spends thinking about a subject, the more extreme his position becomes -- even if he doesn't run across any new information. Simply repeating your beliefs to yourself makes those beliefs stronger.
No, really? Who could have guessed that?
And it gets even worse when we wind up in a group -- say, on an Internet message board full of people who agree with us, where we can all congratulate each other on being right. Researchers call that group polarization (in public -- in private, they call it a "circle jerk").
Of course, once you get to the point where you're rooting so hard for one side of an issue that you're just short of painting your chest in team colors, then all that time spent reading up on the issues stops being about becoming an informed citizen and becomes more about accumulating ammunition for the next argument.
"If I just Google hard enough, I can make the facts go away!"
All of which seems downright crazy when you consider ...
Ever since the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords by a clearly crazy gunman, it has become distasteful to talk about the political opposition using murder metaphors. It's turning out to be an incredibly hard habit to break -- after all, things had gotten to the point that a politician couldn't discuss filling a pothole without referring to it as a new Holocaust. To listen to everyone from candidates to pundits to the guy at the counter of the 7-Eleven, the whole Western world is on the verge of bloody revolution.
"We're not sure what we're so pissed about, but something is bound to come up eventually."
Yet for two groups of people who are supposed to be so ideologically opposed that nothing short of the extermination of the other side will fix it, they sure have a lot in common.
For example, a study asked Americans of various demographics and political stances about the ideal way they feel wealth should be distributed across the country. Young or old, male or female, Republican or Democrat, the answers they provided were almost identical. Despite all of the talk of the radical left about overturning a corrupt system, despite all of the "screw the poor, only the producers should thrive" Ayn Rand philosophy of those on the opposite end, virtually all want to see wealth evenly spread across income groups (or at least way more evenly than it is now).
That's just one issue. We could list many more, like how Republicans and Democrats have similar attitudes toward how the deficit should be reduced, or the need for alternative sources of energy. Economy, energy and budget -- probably the three biggest domestic issues any industrialized nation is facing. And we pretty much agree on them.
"But they're right for the wrong reasons!"
Not that they know or admit it. For instance, the same voters who say they want cuts in government spending oppose cuts when presented with specifics. They report that they are in favor of cutting the size of government, but they object to cuts in Medicare, Social Security, the military or anything having to do with security (also known as basically the whole budget).
Don't get us wrong; it's not that there are no disagreements, it's just that we vastly overestimate the degree to which we disagree, because the differences are all we focus on.
A big reason has to be that it really is the only thing that keeps the news interesting for us. Without conflict, there is no drama. Without drama, we get bored. We don't want the news to just give us information -- we want a story, and every story needs a villain, a battle between good and evil. So as soon as we hear about some complex legislation or crisis, Step 1 is to figure out who the villains are and start blindly hating them. If we can't find anyone, then the story is boring, and we stop watching it.
"Ain't no moral ambiguity on The A-Team."
Knowing this, the news media decades ago started covering politics like a war, or a sport (in the biz, they call it "horse race coverage") where the reporting is entirely about which side is winning -- at the expense of figuring out the actual impact the resulting election or legislation will have on you as a human being. We tune in for "Us vs. Them," so that's what they give us.
Knowing that, it's kind of hard to draw any other conclusion: Democracy is screwed up because while agreement and compromise make the world better, bitter rivalry is just more fun.
For more mysteries explained by science, check out 6 Things That Annoy You Every Day (Explained by Science) and 6 Sex Myths as Explained by Science.
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