Partisan Psychology: Why Do People Choose Political Loyalties Over Facts?

May 9, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 10:32 am

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can't.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president's control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn't an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard.

Nyhan cited the work of political commentator Jonathan Chait, who has drawn a contrast between the upcoming 2012 election between President Obama and the likely Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and the 2004 election between President Bush and John Kerry, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

"Last time it was Republicans who were against a flip-flopping, out-of-touch elitist from Massachusetts, and now it's Democrats," Nyhan said.

Nyhan also contrasted the outrage in 2004 among Democrats who felt that Bush was politicizing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for political gain, and the outrage today among Republicans who feel the Obama re-election campaign is exploiting the killing of Osama bin Laden.

"The whole political landscape has flipped," Nyhan said.

Along with Jason Reifler at Georgia State University, Nyhan said, he's exploring the possibility that partisans reject facts because they produce cognitive dissonance — the psychological experience of having to hold inconsistent ideas in one's head. When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices — the information challenges their dislike of the president.

Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they're against the facts, but because it's painful. That notion suggested a possible solution: If partisans were made to feel better about themselves — if they received a little image and ego boost — could this help them more easily absorb the "blow" of information that threatens their pre-existing views?

Nyhan said that ongoing — and as yet, unpublished — research was showing the technique could be effective. The researchers had voters think of times in their lives when they had done something very positive and found that, fortified by this positive memory, voters were more willing to take in information that challenged their pre-existing views.

"One person talked about taking care of his elderly grandmother — something you wouldn't expect to have any influence on people's factual beliefs about politics," Nyhan said. "But that brings to mind these positive feelings about themselves, which we think will protect them or inoculate them from the threat that unwelcome ideas or unwelcome information might pose to their self-concept."

Shankar Vedantam is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk.

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Gas prices have dropped a bit in recent weeks but remain over $4 per gallon in many parts of the country. That's the reality. What we think about that reality can be something else entirely. Suppose you asked this question: What can the president of the United States do to change gas prices? Turns out your answer may depend on your party affiliation.

Shankar Vedantam joins U.S. regularly to talk about social science research and has some that's relevant here.

Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: OK, what does the research show?

VEDANTAM: Well, if you ask Republicans and Democrats what President Obama can do about high gas prices, two-thirds of Republicans says he can do a lot but isn't doing very much. And two-thirds of Democrats say gas prices are largely outside the president's control. Now, economists in general would say the president doesn't have much control over gas prices. But what's interesting here are not the specific facts, but the psychology of what's going on.

INSKEEP: OK. So you have a party divide here. Republicans are more likely to think the president could do something. Democrats are more likely to write it off.

VEDANTAM: That's right now. But six years ago there was a Republican president in the White House and gas prices were also high and pollsters asked people the same question. And at that time three-quarters of Democrats said the president had lots of control over gas prices, and fewer than half of Republicans thought the president could do anything about it.

INSKEEP: So for millions of people, if these surveys are correct, this is entirely a function of who's in the White House and whether you support him or not.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And you know, there's a lot of research looking at how partisans take in information and how they process information. So I spoke with a political scientist, Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth College, and he says this applies not just to gas prices, but all kinds of other political information.

So if you look at the election this year, President Obama is very likely going to be running against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Eight years ago, President Bush was running against Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. And what Nyhan says is that Democrats today are saying what Republicans said eight years ago, and Republicans today are saying what Democrats said eight years ago. Here he is.

BRENDAN NYHAN: Last time it was Republicans who are against a flip-flopping out of touch elitist from Massachusetts, and now it's Democrats. Last time it was Democrats who were angry about the politicization of foreign policy, now it's Republicans. So the whole political landscape has flipped.

VEDANTAM: The foreign policy reference, of course, is the perceived politicization of 9/11 by the Bush administration and the perceived political exploitation of the Osama bin Laden killing by the Obama campaign.

INSKEEP: OK. What explains, beyond the obvious, why people's views would completely flip like this?

VEDANTAM: So one of the theories that Nyhan and many others are playing with is that this has to do with something called cognitive dissonance, which is that we find it difficult to hold contradictory ideas in our head at the same time. So if you are a Democrat, you like President Obama, and if someone comes along and tells you the president can do something about high gas prices, but isn't, that hurts, because your guy isn't doing something that could help you.

INSKEEP: So I just deny it.

NYHAN: Right. And Republicans on the other hand don't like Obama, so they don't want to see him blameless when it comes to high gas prices. What cognitive dissonance predicts is that given the choice between our emotional ties and the facts, the facts will lose almost every time. So one of the ideas that Nyhan is playing with is that people don't reject facts because they hate the facts. They reject the facts because the facts are painful.

VEDANTAM: And so he's running these experiments where he has people try and feel good about themselves. He tries to boost their self-confidence. And he finds that when he does this, they're able to take in information that challenges their preexisting views much better.

NYHAN: One person talked about taking care of his elderly grandmother - something you wouldn't expect to have any influence on people's factual beliefs about politics. But that brings to mind these positive feelings about themselves, which we think will protect them or inoculate them from the threat that unwelcome information or unwelcome ideas might pose to their self-concept.

VEDANTAM: So Steve, I'm going to teach you how you can inoculate yourself against bias.

INSKEEP: Apparently I'm going to get an inflated ego out of this. Go ahead.


VEDANTAM: So every day before the show starts, here's what I want you to say. I'm a good person. I'm kind to small animals. Sometimes I hold the door open for other people.

INSKEEP: And that will do it. Sometimes I hold the door open.

VEDANTAM: Just to make yourself feel good about yourself.

INSKEEP: And then I could accept more uncomfortable realities, you're saying.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. You'll be good to go.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam, you can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can also follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. Not to mention NPRGreen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.