AJPS Author Summary: How Getting the Facts Right Can Fuel Partisan Motivated Reasoning

AJPS Author Summary of “How Getting the Facts Right Can Fuel Partisan Motivated Reasoning” by Martin Bisgaard

Are citizens able to get the facts right? Ideally, we want them to. If citizens are to punish or reward incumbent politicians for how real-world conditions have changed, citizens need to know whether these conditions have changed for better or for worse. If economic growth stalls, crime rates plummet or unemployment soars, citizens should take due notice and change their perceptions of reality accordingly. But are citizens able—or willing—to do so?

Considerable scholarly discussion revolves around this question. Decades of research suggest that citizens often bend the same facts in ways that are favorable to their own party. In one of the most discussed examples, citizens identifying with the incumbent party tend to view economic conditions much more favorably than citizens identifying with the opposition do. However, more recent work suggests that citizens are not always oblivious to a changing reality. Across both experimental and observational work, researchers have found that partisans sometimes react “in a similar way to changes in the real economy” (De Vries, Hobolt and Tilley 2017, 115); that they “learn slowly toward common truth” (Hill 2017, 1404); and that they “heed the facts, even when doing so forces them to separate from their ideological attachments” (Wood and Porter 2016, 3). Sometimes, even committed partisans can get the facts right.

In my article, however, I develop and test an argument that is overlooked in current discussion. Although citizens of different partisan groups may sometimes accept the same facts, they may just find other ways of making reality fit with what they want to believe. One such way, I demonstrate, is through the selective allocation of credit and blame. 

I conducted four randomized experiments in the United States and Denmark, exposing participants to either negative or positive news about economic growth. Across these experiments, I found that while partisans updated their perceptions of the national economy in the same way, they attributed responsibility in a highly selective fashion, crediting their own party for success and blaming other actors for failure. Furthermore, I exposed citizens to credible arguments about why (not) the incumbent was responsible, yet it did little to temper partisan motivated reasoning. Rather, respondents dramatically shifted how they viewed the persuasiveness of the same arguments depending on whether macroeconomic circumstances were portrayed as good or bad. Lastly and using open-ended questions where respondents were not explicitly prompted to consider the responsibility of the President or government, I found that citizens spontaneously mustered up attributional arguments that fit their preferred conclusion. These findings have important implications for the current discussion on fake news and misinformation: Correcting people’s factual beliefs may just lead them to find other ways of rationalizing reality.

About the Author: Martin Bisgaard is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University. Bisgaard’s research “How Getting the Facts Right Can Fuel Partisan Motivated Reasoning (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12432) is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Works cited:

De Vries, Catherine E., Sara B. Hobolt, and James Tilley. 2017. “Facing up to the facts.”

Electoral Studies 51: 115–22.

Hill, Seth J. 2017. “Learning Together Slowly.” Journal of Politics 79(4): 1403–18.

Wood, Thomas, and Ethan Porter. Forthcoming. “The Elusive Backfire Effect.” Political Behavior.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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