Last week, the Assistant Village Idiot posed a short but profound question on his blog:
Okay, let us consider the possibility that it really is the conservatives who are ignorant, aren’t listening, and reflexively reject other points of view.
How are we going to measure whether that is true? Something that would stand up when presented to a man from Mars.
I liked this question because it calls for empirical evidence on a topic where both sides believe their superiority is breathtakingly obvious. I gave my answer in the comments there, but I wanted to take a few minutes here to review how I think you would measure this, and pull together some of my favorite studies on politically motivated bias as a general reference.
Before we start on that, I should mention that the first three parts of my answer to the original question covered how you would actually define your target demographic. Defining ahead of time who is a conservative and who is a liberal, and/or what types of conservatives or liberals you care about is critical. As we’ve seen in the primaries this year, both conservatives and liberals can struggle to establish who the “true” members of their parties are. With 42% of voters now refusing to identify with a particular political party, this is no small matter. Additionally, we would have to define what types of people we were looking at. Are we surveying your average Joe or Jane, or are we looking at elected leaders? Journalists? Academics? Activists? It’s entirely plausible that visible subgroups of either party could be less thoughtful/more ignorant/etc than the average party member.
On more thing: there’s a really interesting part in Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” where he talks about how conservatives are better at explaining liberal arguments than liberals are at explaining conservative ones. As far as I can tell, he did not actually publish this study, so it’s not included here. If you want to read about it though, this is a good summary. Alright, with those caveats, let’s look at some studies!
- Overall Recognition of Bias: The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others This one is not politically specific, but does speak to our overall perception of bias. This series of studies asked people (first college students, then random people at an airport) to rate how biased they were in comparison to others. They were also asked to rate themselves on other negative traits such as procrastination and poor planning. Most people were happy to admit they procrastinate even MORE than the average person, but when it came to bias almost everyone was convinced they were better than average. Even after being told bias would likely compel them to overrate themselves, people didn’t really change their opinion. That’s the problem with figuring out who is more biased. The first thing bias does is blind you to it’s existence. It would be rather interesting to see if political affiliation influenced these results though. In the meantime, try the Clearer Thinking political bias test to see where you score.
- Biased Interpretations of Objective Facts: Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government Okay, I bring this study up a lot. I wrote about it both here and for another site here. In this study people were presented with one of four math problems, all containing the same numbers and all requiring the same calculations. The only thing that changed in each version of the problem was the words that set up the math. In two versions, it was a neutral question about whether or not a skin cream worked as advertised. In the other two versions, it was a question about gun control. The researchers then recorded whether or not your political beliefs influenced your ability to do math correctly if doing so would give you an answer you didn’t like. The answer was a strong YES. People who were otherwise great at math did terribly on this question if they didn’t like what the math was telling them. This effect was seen in both parties. The effect was actually worse the better at math you were. The effects size was equal (on average) for both parties.
- Dogmatism and Complex Thinking: Are Conservatives Really More Simple-Minded than Liberals? The Domain Specificity of Complex Thinking I posted about this one back in February when I did a sketchnote of the study structure. This study took a look at dogmatic beliefs and the complexity of the reasoning people used to justify their beliefs. The study was done because the typical “dogmatism scale” used to study political beliefs had almost always showed that conservatives were less thoughtful and more dogmatic about their beliefs than liberals were. The study authors suspected that finding was because the test was specifically designed to test conservatives on things they were, well, more dogmatic about. They ran several tests, and each showed that dogmatism and simplistic thinking were actually topic specific, not party specific. For example, conservatives tended to be dogmatic about religion, while liberals tended to be more dogmatic about the environment. This study actually looked at both everyday people AND transcripts from presidential debates for their rankings. The stronger the belief, the more dogmatic people were.
- Asking People Directly: Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology While we generally assume people won’t admit to bias, sometimes they actually view it as the rational choice. In this paper, two self-described liberal researchers asked other social psychologists what their political affiliation was and if they would discriminate on . They found that social psychology was quite liberal, though most people within the field actually overestimated this. Additionally, many people reported that they would discriminate against a conservative in hiring practices, wouldn’t give them grants, and would reject their papers on the basis of political affiliation. I think this study is a good subset of the dogmatism one….depending on the topic some groups may be more than happy to admit they don’t want to hear the other side. Not everyone considers dismissing those with opposing viewpoints a bad thing. I’m picking on liberals here, but given the dogmatism study above, I would be cautious about thinking this is a phenomena only one party is capable of. Regardless, asking people directly how much they thought they should listen to the other side might yeild some intriguing results.
- Voting Pattern Changes: Unequal Incomes, Ideology and Gridlock: How Rising Inequality Increases Political Polarization When confronted with the results of that last study, one social psychologist ended up stating that social psychology hadn’t gotten more liberal, but rather that conservatives had gotten more conservative. It’s an interesting charge, and one that should be examined a bit. The paper above took a look at this on the state level, and found that in many states the values of conservative and liberal elected leaders have changed. Basically, in states with high income inequality, liberal voters vote out moderate liberals and nominate more extreme liberals. Then, in the general election, the more moderate candidate tends to be Republican, so the unaffiliated voters go there. This means that fewer liberals get elected, but the ones who do get in are more extreme. The Republicans on the other hand now get a majority, meaning the legislatures as a whole skew more conservative. These conservatives are both ideologically farther apart from the remaining liberals AND less incentivized to work with them. So in this case, a liberal looking at their state government could accurately state “things have shifted to the right” and be completely correct. Likewise, a conservative could look at the liberal members of the legislature and say “they seem further to the left than the guys they replaced” and ALSO be correct. So everyone can be right and end up believing the best course is to double down.
Overall, I don’t know where this election is going or what the state of the political parties will be after it’s done. However, I do know that our biases probably aren’t helping.