Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why Partisans Reject Facts

How can so many people believe Barack Obama is a Muslim for instance? A key concern of this blog - What Do I Know? - is understanding how people determine what is true.   Television broadcasters can say outright lies and not worry about their listeners finding out.  Why? 

It has become clear to me that we are often dealing with emotional issues and unless we get to the heart of those, the rational discussion cannot take place.  The emotional issues, whether  fear or anger or some other powerful emotion, need to be addressed first.  Until the emotional response is lowered, all the logic in the world will fail.  (I long ago learned to not discuss a student's bad grade right after they got the paper back, if he had a strong emotional reaction.  I'd ask him to read my comments carefully, get a night's sleep, read them again, and then I'd be happy to discuss it.)

Well, a few days ago  Wickersham's Conscience had a post which liberally cited Eric Hoffer's 1950s book, True Believer, addressing this issue of fact-proof beliefs.  Here's one quote:
All mass movements strive to impose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. And, that faith becomes the things the fanatic declines to see. He avers how startling it is to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible, and that faith manifests itself not in moving mountains, but in not seeing mountains move. In the context of mass movements faith should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity, or truth, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from himself and the world as it is.
And this morning on NPR, I heard WBUR's impressive Here and Now,  as scholars Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discussed a recent paper showing that not only does presentation of facts sometimes NOT change people's beliefs, it can even strengthen them.    I strongly recommend listening to this discussion here.

I found the discussion riveting.  And again recommend you listen.  (I couldn't see a way to embed it here so you have to go to the link.)  I don't have much time today, but I did want to note this important discussion and line of research.  

Here are some key points excerpted from the conclusions of their paper, When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.  Remember, this is less than a page worth of their 46 page paper. (Well, only 22 is text, the rest is bibliography and charts.)  It's only to whet your curiosity.  And the paper answers some questions I had which weren't addressed in the interview - such as whether respondents didn't believe the facts or the sources of the facts.  I think you'll find the conclusions consistent with the Hoffer quote above. 
We find that responses to corrections in mock news articles differ significantly according to subjects’ ideological views. As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases. Additional results suggest that these conclusions are not specific to the Iraq war; not related to the salience of death; and not a reaction to the source of the correction.
(The audio discussion is MUCH easier to listen to than this is to read.)

Specific findings were:

  • First, we provide a direct test of corrections on factual beliefs about politics and show that responses to corrections about controversial political issues vary systematically by ideology. 
  • Second, we show that corrective information in news reports may fail to reduce misperceptions and can sometimes increase them for the ideological group most likely to hold those misperceptions. 
  • Finally, we establish these findings in the context of contemporary political issues that are salient to ordinary voters.

They acknowledge that this is preliminary work in a field that hasn't often asked these questions and suggest directions for future research:

Future work should seek to use experiments to determine the conditions under which corrections reduce misperceptions from those under which they fail or backfire.  Many citizens seem or unwilling to revise their beliefs in the face of corrective information, and attempts to correct those mistaken beliefs may only make matters worse. Determining the best way to provide corrective information will advance understanding of how citizens process information and help to strengthen democratic debate and public understanding of the political process.


  1. I have been thinking about this study since seeing this
    but had not made the time to track down the actual study. Thank you for doing that.
    The Boston Globe story cites other studies with related findings .
    Alaska Pi

  2. Television broadcasters can say outright lies and not worry about their listeners finding out. Why?

    Do you think that they're lying to their viewers outright, or are they just incompetent ?

    How do you spell Merkowski again ?

  3. You need to take into account the Dunning-Kruger Effect, as well:

    /Wickersham's Conscience


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