Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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How to Reason With a Conservative: Don’t

with 4 comments

No, it’s not the subject line of an email forward that kid you knew in college who joined the Peace Corps. It’s—more or less—the conclusion of a new study conducted by Yale University political scientist John Bullock.

Looking at “political misinformation” (you know, all those email forwards you do get from your former hippie friend or your bible cousin or your sexist Italian grandpa—ahem, purely archetypes, mind you), Bullock found that correcting the misinformation doesn’t seem to help erase the negative perceptions formed based on that original misinformation when a subject was already predisposed to feel negatively about the subject.

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.”

… 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 He also told the volunteers that the advocacy group had withdrawn the ad.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.

Even more interesting, though, were Bullock’s findings when the situations were reversed: conservatives who received misinformation with which they were prone to agree believed the information even more strongly after hearing a refutation.

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.

It would be easy to make some snarky comment about what this says about conservatives vs. liberals general intelligence here. I’ll refrain, because I think the information supports something a lot more interesting than that. I have always wondered why the more conservative someone seems to be, the more defensive they are as well. There are, of course, many explanations for this; one easy one being that, too often, conservative intellectuals and pundits have been trained and coddled in an environment that encourages victimhood, where any slight against their ideas can be chalked up not to good faith intellectual concerns but rather the bullying whims of some nefarious liberal elite (you can tell if you’re dealing with a reasonable and intellectually honest conservative by their willingness to decry this attitude).

But it’s also been argued (and I can’t remember where the best place I read this was—Pinker? Westen?) that the same genes that lead someone to be socially conservative also produce personality traits such as being more defensive, hostile and quick to believe others are out to get them. Which ties in with Nyhan and Reifler’s ‘argue back’ explanation for the disconnect between conservatives receiving the updated information and clinging more strongly to the misinformation.

What the hell does this mean campaigns seeking to correct misinformation are supposed to do, though?


Written by Elizabeth

September 15, 2008 at 6:46 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I’m not one to defend conservatives, but I’m still not sure what to make of this study. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly fair comparison of “liberal” and “conservative” misinformation, at least as described in that WaPo article.

    The chosen example of “liberal” misinformation — the false ad about John Roberts — seems to have been patently false, and even kind of crazy (especially the idea that Roberts “supported” a clinic-bomber). Plus, the ad was apparently withdrawn by the very group that put it out. So — liberal or conservative — it seems like a person would have to be REALLY stubborn (borderline retarded) to continue believing this sort of claim after its correction.

    But the chosen example of conservative “misinformation” — the claim that tax cuts increase tax revenue — is quite a bit more complicated. It requires a certain deal of economic sophistication to comprehend. Plus, it’s sometimes true. (The tax revenue-maximizing tax rate in any economy is always going to be higher than 0% and lower than 100%. If the current tax rate in any given economy is higher than the revenue-maximizing rate, a tax cut actually will increase revenue. So . . . if the participants in that study were asked to agree with the general statement that “tax cuts increase federal revenue” . . . well . . . there’s no generally true answer to that question. It depends on what the current tax rate is.) (Oh, and plus, federal tax revenue did increase after the 2003 tax cuts, though it had previously fallen after the 2001 cuts.)

    I would want to know more about how the tax cut question was asked, but it seems quite a bit more complicated and subject to interpretation than the Roberts thing.


    September 16, 2008 at 12:44 am

  2. These weren’t the only two scenarios used. Comparing the John Roberts and tax cut examples does seem off (one is more outright misinformation, one seems more open to interpretation), but the article gives several other examples of misinformation given; I’m assuming there were both sorts of misinformation given to both groups.

    [As for the John Roberts thing being patently ridiculous, I think you’re just saying that because it seems more ridiculous to you. I remember that rumor, or something similar, and I remember a lot of generally well-reasoned liberal bloggers sort of believing it].


    September 17, 2008 at 6:45 pm

  3. Yeah, the Post gives two other examples, but I think they’re equally sketchy. (The other ‘liberal’ misinfo example — about a Koran being flushed down the toilet — was again retracted by the very source that put it out. Few people will continue believing a story after learning that it’s been retracted.)

    I googled around and I think I found at least part of the research here: http://www.duke.edu/~bjn3/nyhan-reifler.pdf The so-called refutations of conservative misinfo almost seem designed to bait the participant into arguing back (esp w/ regard to the tax cut thing). Plus the statistical work isn’t very impressive — it seems unlikely they were able to control for ideology. Plus, it looks like they kind of ignored some contradictory data they collected (see page 17 onward — looks like they even changed the experiment post hoc in order to handle inconvenient results).

    As for Roberts, I don’t really care for him much as a justice (so I don’t think I’m biased), but the clinic-bomber claim was borderline slander. But my only point was that it would be ridiculous to believe the claim after its correction (not necessarily before, which is presumably when those bloggers were talking about it).


    September 19, 2008 at 6:33 pm

  4. The difference is one set of claims are researched and refuted by the media (Obama is a Muslim) and the other is reported on as fact (Palin joined a separatist party and wanted to ban books) before being discredited. And, as you know, the original story gets a lot more attention than the correction.

    The fact of the matter is there are lunatic assholes on both extremes seeking to spread lies, one just has a megaphone and the other an email list. They’re all douchebags. But to claim that one side is more rational in their eventual acceptance of fact is simply wrong. Next time you talk to a liberal, a hard-core liberal, disagree with them on a big issue, whether you believe it or not. (Try the war.) Hold firm and don’t let on if you don’t believe what you’re saying. See which comes first, them “agreeing to disagree” or a word like fascist. I bet a round of drinks it’s the latter.


    September 20, 2008 at 1:59 pm

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