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2017

As is plain to see, Americans are living in a politically polarized era. “Partisan animus is at an all-time high,” reports Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar. Nearly 6 in 10 Republicans and Democrats have “very unfavorable” opinions of the other party, and most engaged party adherents feel “angry” about the other party. “Partisans discriminate against opposing partisans, doing so to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race,” conclude Iyengar and Sean Westwood from their study of “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines.” If you are American, do you find yourself disdaining those with opposing political views more than those in any other social category (including race, gender, and sexual orientation)? Would you want your child to marry someone aligned with the other party?

 

Americans on both sides also tend to see the other side (compared to their own) as more extreme in its ideology. It’s hard not to agree that those in the other party seem more extreme and biased.

 

But are they? Multiple research teams—at Tillburg University, the University of Florida, the College of New Jersey, and the University of California, Irvine—have found similar bias and willingness to discriminate among both conservatives and liberals. At the latter university, a forthcoming meta-analysis of 41 studies by Peter Ditto and his colleagues “found clear evidence of partisan bias in both liberals and conservatives, and at virtually identical levels.” When evidence supports our views, we find it cogent; when the same evidence contradicts our views, we fault it.

 

We can see equal opportunity bias in opinion polls. Last December, 67 percent of Trump supporters said that unemployment had increased during the progressive Obama years. (It actually declined from 8 to less than 5 percent.) And at the end of the conservative Reagan presidency, more than half of self-identified strong Democrats believed inflation had risen under Reagan. Only 8 percent thought it had substantially dropped—as it did, from 13 to 4 percent.

 

Peter Ditto’s conclusion: “Bias is bipartisan.” This humbling finding is a reminder to us all of how easy it is (paraphrasing Jesus) to “see the speck in your neighbor’s eye” while not noticing the sometimes bigger speck in our own.

In an earlier blog post, I reported on an analysis of 34,000+ Americans’ health interviews with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To my astonishment, Megan Traffanstedt, Sheila Mehta, and Steven LoBello found no evidence that depression rises in wintertime, or that wintertime depression is greater in higher latitudes, in cloudy rather than sunny communities, or on cloudy days. Moreover, they reported, even the wintertime “dark period” in northern Norway and Iceland is unaccompanied by increased depression.

 

Given the effectiveness of light therapy and the acceptance of major depressive disorder “with seasonal pattern” (DSM-5), I suspected that we have not heard the last word on this. Indeed, criticism (here and here) and rebuttals (here and here) have already appeared.

 

Reading Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s wonderful new book on big data mining inspired me to wonder if Google depression-related searches increase during wintertime. (To replicate the CDC result, I focused on the United States, though further replications with Canada and the UK yielded the same results.)

 

First, I needed to confirm that Google Trends does reveal seasonally-related interests. Would searches for “basketball” surge in winter and peak during March Madness? Indeed, they do:

We know that Google searches also reveal seasonal trends in physical illnesses. And sure enough, “flu” searches increase during the winter months.

 

So, do searches for “depression” (mood-related) and “sad” similarly surge during wintertime? Nope, after a summer dip, they remain steady from mid-September through May:

 

Ditto for Google entries for “I am depressed” and “I am sad.”

 

 

My surprise at the disconfirmation of what I have taught—that wintertime depression is widespread—is like that experienced by my favorite detective, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: “It wasn’t what I expected. But facts are facts, and if one is proved to be wrong, one must just be humble about it and start again.”

 

[Note to teachers: you can generate these data in class, in real time, via Trends.Google.com.]