The Frontal Cortex

Why the Facts Don’t Matter in Politics

I think this experiment helps explains a rather disturbing amount of our political discourse. What it neatly demonstrates is that the main reason so many campaigns traffic in dishonest allegations and pseudofacts is that, when it comes to voters, the facts don’t really matter. Most of us are just partisan hacks:

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

The Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels analyzed survey data from the 1990′s to prove the same point. During the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What’s interesting about this data is that so-called “high-information” voters – these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress – weren’t better informed than “low-information” voters. (The sole exception was Republicans who are ranked in the top 10 percent in terms of political information. As Bartels notes, it’s only among these people that “the pull of objective reality begins to become apparent.”) These citizens According to Bartels, the reason knowing more about politics doesn’t erase partisan bias is that voters tend to only assimilate those facts that confirm what they already believe. If a piece of information doesn’t follow Republican talking points – and Clinton’s deficit reduction didn’t fit the “tax and spend liberal” stereotype – then the information is conveniently ignored. “Voters think that they’re thinking,” Bartels says, “but what they’re really doing is inventing facts or ignoring facts so that they can rationalize decisions they’ve already made.” Once we identify with a political party, the world is edited so that it fits with our ideology.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    September 15, 2008

    Excellent post – thanks. I think…

    Unfortunately, though I now understand better why there are idiots that will vote for McCain, it doesn’t help me with overcoming their resistance to facts.

    Maybe some magic like a Chicken In Every Pot?

  2. #2 skyotter
    September 15, 2008

    like Morton’s Demon, only a political variant. do we call this one Bartels’ Demon?

  3. #3 Coturnix
    September 15, 2008

    ‘High-information’ is a quantitative statement: how “much” information they posses. It is not a qualitative statement: is that information worth the paper it’s written on. Thus, there is a difference between being ‘high-information’ (which can also be badly misinformed) and ‘educated’ voters.

    But the fact that conservative base believes lies MORE if they are refuted, is the basis of current GOP strategy to blatantly lie and provoke the press to call them on it. Remember that McCain still stands poorly with the base. He needs every hard-core conservative to donate money, GOTV and vote. More the press calls them out on their preposterous statements, more the base will believe those same statements.

    The problem for McCain is that his base may not be big enough to win in the key states. The independents, who used to like him, do respond to the media accounts of lies positively and will go away from McCain.

  4. #4 Becca
    September 15, 2008

    That is… depressing. Interesting, but depressing. I don’t believe liberals are inherantly more open-minded on everything (maybe liberals had fewer preconcieved notions about the stem-cell thing than conservatives about WMDs). But in some arguments, I’ve definitely come up against the “inability to assimilate new data” issue.

    It reinforces my belief liberal Democrats need to be especially willing to continue to come up with novel ideas and change the debate. Go on record and refute something, if you must, but then distract the people. There’s no shame in shifting a debate away from a lie, and no profit in arguing with an oncoming bus that just as too much momentum to consider stopping.

  5. #5 kevin
    September 15, 2008

    Once we identify with a political party, the world is edited so that it fits with our ideology.

    This conclusion is unsupported. At best:
    Once we identify with the Republican Party, the world is edited so that it fits with our conservative ideology.

  6. #6 Scott
    September 15, 2008

    This just sounds incredible. It would be interesting to see the actual questions used. How a question is asked can have a dramatic effect on the responses. If they asked the same questions before and after the refutations, then I would believe the results more. If they asked slightly different questions of the “refuted” group, I would tend to give less credence to their results.

    Very sad.

    If true, this might also suggest another reason why Creationist claims are so resistent to debunking.

  7. #7 Mike
    September 15, 2008

    I am not sure why some posters think that liberals are immune to the all to human response of tribalism (in this case tribalism becomes partisanship).

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/14/AR2008091402375.html

    “In experiments conducted by political scientist John Bullock at Yale University, volunteers were given various items of political misinformation from real life. One group of volunteers was shown a transcript of an ad created by NARAL Pro-Choice America that accused John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court at the time, of “supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber.”

    A variety of psychological experiments have shown that political misinformation primarily works by feeding into people’s preexisting views. People who did not like Roberts to begin with, then, ought to have been most receptive to the damaging allegation, and this is exactly what Bullock found. Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to disapprove of Roberts after hearing the allegation.

    Bullock then showed volunteers a refutation of the ad by abortion-rights supporters. He also told the volunteers that the advocacy group had withdrawn the ad. Although 56 percent of Democrats had originally disapproved of Roberts before hearing the misinformation, 80 percent of Democrats disapproved of the Supreme Court nominee afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic disapproval of Roberts dropped only to 72 percent.

    Republican disapproval of Roberts rose after hearing the misinformation but vanished upon hearing the correct information. The damaging charge, in other words, continued to have an effect even after it was debunked among precisely those people predisposed to buy the bad information in the first place.

    Bullock found a similar effect when it came to misinformation about abuses at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Volunteers were shown a Newsweek report that suggested a Koran had been flushed down a toilet, followed by a retraction by the magazine. Where 56 percent of Democrats had disapproved of detainee treatment before they were misinformed about the Koran incident, 78 percent disapproved afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic disapproval dropped back only to 68 percent — showing that misinformation continued to affect the attitudes of Democrats even after they knew the information was false. “

  8. #8 Marjie Adams
    September 15, 2008

    Sad, but true.

  9. #9 Jennifer Ouellette
    September 15, 2008

    Carol Tavris outlined this tendency beautifully in MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME). There are reasons the human brain works this way, but there are also strategies for combatting our own hard-wiring — pre-eminent being a solid foundation in science and critical thinking. (There’s a shocker.)

    I have one question, though, about the “high information” voters in the study: where were they getting their information? Because we also tend to only read those news sources that conform to our existing beliefs; when they do venture to opposing viewpoints, the cognitive dissonance gets so bad, they quickly leave or reject the new input outright, while convincing themselves they’re being open-minded and considering “all the facts.” Someone who loves Fox News and Rush Limbaugh will break out in hives if exposed to Keith Olbermann or The Daily Show. :)

    Also: did the study ONLY focus on conservatives? If so, why? Because Liberals/Democrats and every other group on the political spectrum does the exact same thing…

  10. #10 Dr X
    September 15, 2008

    Mike,

    You lost me. In the studies you cite, refutation softens the effect of misinformation as we might intuitively expect. In the studies Jonah cites, refutation has the unexpected effect of intensifying or hardening belief in misinformation.

  11. #11 db
    September 15, 2008

    I wonder how exactly they worded the refutation. If the Obama campaign, e.g., ran an ad saying Palin hauled in tons of pork and then lied about it, would that have a different effect than if they repeated her false statement about the bridge to nowhere and then pointed out that it was a lie?

    The first example doesn’t repeat the false information, so maybe it wouldn’t reinforce it.

  12. #12 Mike
    September 15, 2008

    DrX,
    But in the article I cited, while the refutation did soften the effect of the misinformation, there was a subset of Democrats who ignored the refutation. It seems that extreme partisans on both sides react the same way to news and information that they do not like.

  13. #13 bigTom
    September 15, 2008

    DrX.
    At least the refutations for liberals has a partial corrective effect. Also I’m not sure if they were testing for the facts: consider the question about Gitmo. seeing a false (but published report) that is inflammatory and then seeing it exposed as false, still increases my opposition. Not because I believe the false report, but because I am more aware of the potential harm that false reports can cause, i.e. my estimate of the potential damage Gitmo can do to my country. If the test wasn’t careful to discriminate between my understanding of the facts, versus my understanding of the risk that false allegations pose, it isn’t very well designed.

    All in all though, as Jennifer points out, it underscores the need for serious effort at educating people on how to think in a relatively nonbiased way. The consequences of our collective inability to reason could be very serious.

  14. #14 EEE
    September 16, 2008

    The phenomena of how people decide where to stand on issues is one that I have observed often in my many years. Some times so bizarre it is stunning. I’m thinking, at this point, that the source of the information matters more than anything else. I have several relatives or friends whose church, union or friends tells them who is trust worthy. From then on they don’t have to worry about the facts.

  15. #15 Reginald
    September 16, 2008

    I think they did an exepriment about this with the MythBusters actually. Most people who watch something get busted actually believe that the myth is still true afterwards. We are creatures of comfort that’s for sure.

  16. #16 Aaron Durst
    September 16, 2008

    Until the study is actually published, it is hard to assess the validity of the results. It is a shame that the Washington Post choose to run an article before the study was even published. It is also a shame that people would choose to validate the results of the study before they have even had a chance to make sure that the study is scientifically sound.

  17. #17 Timothy
    September 16, 2008

    “. . . conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals”–? What planet are these guys living on?

    The idea that liberals are more tolerant, more open-minded, more reasonable, or more willing to discuss and consider alternatives to their preconceived, pre-set ideas is just absolute nonsense.

    This, alone, invalidates their study. It reveals their own bias, which they allowed to unacceptably contaminate the interpretation of their results.

  18. #18 Dayton
    September 17, 2008

    I agree with Aaron that it is hard to assess the validity of the results until the study is published.

    Although it would require substantial evidence based on a series of experiments (not just this one) to convince me of a difference between liberals and conservatives but I would not automatically reject the hypothesis that there is a difference.

    Timothy’s statements are actually very ironic. He believes that any study showing that liberals are more open-minded than conservatives must of necessity be invalid.

    Is Timothy a conservative? Do I infer this because he does not seem to be at all open-minded? The irony is that his argument suggests the truth of that which he argues against. What he says would be akin to a liberal asserting that any study failing to find that liberals were more open-minded had to be obviously invalid and that anyone not thinking so must have immigrated from another planet.

  19. #19 Norman Doering
    September 18, 2008

    Dayton wrote:

    Timothy’s statements are actually very ironic. He believes that any study showing that liberals are more open-minded than conservatives must of necessity be invalid.

    Is Timothy a conservative? Do I infer this because he does not seem to be at all open-minded? The irony is that his argument suggests the truth of that which he argues against.

    Yes, Timothy’s statements were so ironic I suspect they were meant as satire. It would work as a comedy bit on Stephen Colbert’s show.

    However, there are studies (in this political science of the future) that indicate that liberal brains have, on average, more active amygdalas than conservative ones. It matches some stereotypes about liberal values: an aversion to human suffering, an unwillingness to rationalize capital punishment and military force, a fondness for candidates who like to feel our pain.

    Read more here:
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9805E7D9113FF931A1575BC0A9629C8B63

    There is evidence of a neurological difference between liberal and conservative brains.

  20. #20 Mar
    September 19, 2008

    I think this is true of both Liberals and Conservatives out there. The only difference is that I’ve come across more extremist close-minded Conservatives than I have extremist close-minded Liberals. Which is scary, since I live in California where there are VERY few Conservatives. Extremist Liberals piss me off even more than extremist Conservatives because I feel like they’re hypocritical, whereas I think that Conservatives are just doing what they’re expected to do.

  21. #21 Adam Bend OR
    July 13, 2010

    I would say that conspiracy theorists have the same issues when it comes to acceptance of facts. I would argue that a MRI would reveal a distinct difference in the brains of Democrats and Republicans but would show a simmilarity in Republicans and theorists.

    This is dangerous to a stable democracy in my mind as well. I beleive that since Republicans tend to believe fiction more often than fact, they are “unknowingly” causing massive problems. I observe many proudly republican families having 4-6 children which as we know adds to a growing over population problem that they will not acknowledge.They also tend to shop at big box stores, while complaining about jobs going over seas. Then they complain about crumbling infrastructure and bad schools while they complain about paying too many taxes. They are walking talking contradictions.

    I am affraid that our planet is headed for disaster if they continue to reproduce.

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    January 6, 2011

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