The Forrest Gump Fallacy

Back in July, I took my first crack at making up my own logical fallacy. I enjoyed the process, so today I’m going to try it again. With election season hanging over us, I’ve seen a lot of Facebook-status-turned-thinkpieces, and I’ve seen this fallacy pop up more and more frequently. I’m calling it “The Forrest Gump Fallacy”. Yup, like this guy:

For those of you not prone to watching movies or too young to have watched this one, here’s some background: Forrest Gump is a movie from 1994 about a slow-witted but lovable character who manages to get involved in a huge number of political and culturally defining moments over the course of his life from 1944 to 1982. Over the course of the film he meets almost every US president for that time period, causes Watergate, serves in Vietnam and speaks at anti-war rallies, and starts the smiley face craze.  It has heaps of nostalgia and an awesome soundtrack.

So how does this relate to Facebook and politics? Well, as I’ve been watching people attempt to explain their own political leanings recently, I’ve been noticing that many of them seem to assume that the trajectory of their own life and beliefs mirrors the trajectory of the country as a whole. To put it more technically:

Forrest Gump Fallacy: the belief that your own personal cultural and political development and experiences are generalizable to the country as a whole.

There are a lot of subsets of this obviously….particularly things like “this debate around this issue didn’t start until I was old enough to understand it” and “my immediate surroundings are nationally representative”. Fundamentally this is sort of a hasty generalization fallacy, where you draw conclusions from a very limited sample size. Want an example? Okay, let me throw myself under the bus.

If you had asked me a few years ago to describe how conservative vs liberal the US was in various decades that I’d lived through, I probably would have told you the following: the 1980s were pretty conservative, the 1990s also had a strong conservative influence, mostly pushing back against Clinton. Things really liberalized more around the year 2000, when people started pushing back against George W Bush. I was pretty sure this was true, and I was also not particularly right. Here is party affiliation data from that time:

Republican affiliation actually dropped during the 90s and rose again after 2000. Now, I could make some arguments about underdogs and the strength of cultural pushback, but here’s what really happened: I went to a conservative private Baptist school up through 1999, then went to a large secular university for college in the early 2000s. The country didn’t  liberalize in the year 2000, my surroundings did.  This change wasn’t horribly profound, after all engineering profs are not particularly known for their liberalism, but it still shifted the needle. I could come up with all the justifications in the world for my biased knee jerk reaction, but I’d just be self justifying. In superimposing the change in my surroundings and personal development over the US as a whole, I committed the Forrest Gump Fallacy.

So why did I do this? Why do others do this? I think there’s a few reasons:

  1. We really are affected by the events that surround us Most fallacies start with a grain of truth, and this one does too. In many ways, we are affected by watching the events that surround us, and we do really observe the country change around us. For example, most people can quite accurately describe how their own feelings and the feelings of the country changed after September 11th, 2001. I don’t think this fallacy arises around big events, but rather when we’re discussing subtle shifts on more divisive issues.
  2. Good cultural metrics are hard to come by A few paragraphs ago, I used party affiliation as a proxy for “how liberal” or “how conservative” the country was during certain decades. While I don’t think that metric is half bad, it’s not perfect. Specifically, it tells us very little about what’s going on with that “independent” group…and they tend to have the largest numbers. Additionally, it’s totally possible that the meaning of “conservative” or “liberal” will change over time and on certain issues. Positions on social issues don’t always move in lock step with positions on fiscal issues and vice versa. Liberalizing on one social issue doesn’t mean you liberalize on all of them either. In my lifetime, many people have changed their opinion on gay marriage but not on abortion. When it’s complicated to get a good picture of public opinion, we rely on our own perceptions more heavily. This sets us up for bias.
  3. Opinions are not evenly spread around This is perhaps the biggest driver of this fallacy, and it’s no one’s fault really. As divided as things can get, the specifics of the divisions can vary widely in your personal life, your city and your state. While the New Hampshire I grew up in generally leaned conservative, it was still a swing state. My school however was strongly conservative and almost everyone was a Republican, and certainly almost all of the staff. Even with only 25% of people identifying themselves as Republican there are certainly many places where someone could be the only Democrat and vice versa. Ann Althouse (a law professor blogger who voted for Obama in 2008) frequently notes that her law professor colleagues consider her “the conservative faculty member”. She’s not conservative compared to the rest of the country, but compared to her coworkers she very much is. If you don’t keep a good handle on the influence of your environment, you could walk away with a pretty confused perception of “normal”.

So what do we do about something like this? I’m not really sure. The obvious answer is to try to mix with people who don’t think like you, aren’t your age and have a different perspective from you, but that’s easier said than done. There’s some evidence that conservatives and liberals legitimately enjoy living in different types of places and that the polarization of our daily lives is getting worse. Sad news. On the other hand, the internet does make it easier than ever to seek out opinions different from your own and to get feedback on what you might be missing. Will any of it help? Not sure. That’s why I’m sticking with just giving it a name.