Have we become too partisan to be swayed? You might be surprised.
The radical differences in Democratic versus Republican responses to the recent school shooting in Tennessee serve as a stark reminder of the deep political divisions gripping America today. On this and many other issues, it often seems like the partisan divide renders people unwilling or unable to consider arguments against the party line.
As MIT social scientists studying political psychology, we have investigated whether information can change Americans’ political attitudes and beliefs against this backdrop of hyper-partisanship. In particular, with our colleague Adam Berinsky, we recently set out to study whether party cues make people resistant to counter-partisan information.
Surprisingly, we found that Americans are more receptive to information that challenges their party leader’s position than we — and most others — had previously thought.
A common finding from previous research is that partisans tend to follow their party leader: If informed that their leader supports an issue, they will become more supportive themselves, and if their leader opposes the issue, they will become less supportive of it. An influential theory for why this happens is that the party leader’s “cue” activates people’s party identity and loyalty, which in turn hijacks their reasoning capacities and can distort their ability to process other types of (especially counter-partisan) information.
Our study sought to quantify the extent to which people’s reasoning abilities are affected by these party leader cues, preventing them from processing counter-partisan information.
In September 2021, we asked more than 5,000 American partisans — that is, Republicans who voted for Donald Trump and Democrats who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 — to complete a survey that asked for their opinion on 5 of 24 contemporary policy issues.
In the study, respondents indicated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with policy positions on subjects such as affirmative action, assisted suicide, the death penalty, estate tax, foreign aid, tariffs on Chinese imports and restrictions at the U.S. border, among others.
Before giving their opinion, they were shown either a cue about the position of their party leader on the issue; a message with arguments and evidence that went against their leader’s position; both the cue and the message; or neither the cue nor the message.
For instance, some respondents were asked whether the military should be allowed to use techniques such as waterboarding to gain information from a suspected terrorist. And some of these respondents, who had identified themselves as Trump-voting Republicans, read a paragraph that cited a 2014 Senate report that concluded such techniques rarely provided reliable intelligence or got suspects to cooperate.
The message concluded, “The question then becomes: is it worth violating international law by torturing people — who are effectively innocent until proven guilty by a jury — for mainly useless information? The answer is No. America is better than that.”
We expected the respondents to be less receptive to these arguments and evidence when they were confronted with the fact that their party leader, Trump, had previously endorsed the use of techniques such as waterboarding for suspected terrorists.
But that didn’t happen.
While informing respondents that Trump or Biden supported a certain viewpoint did cause them to update their attitudes in the direction of their leader (replicating previous research), it didn’t cause them to ignore or discount the countervailing arguments and evidence.
On the contrary, exposure to the arguments and evidence caused respondents to update their attitudes. They were receptive. And this attitude adjustment happened across the board, to a similar extent, even when respondents knew that their favored party leader took the opposite position. This pattern of results was consistent across a wide range of policy issues, as well as across demographic groups and different types of party leader cues.
In short, we found no evidence that countervailing cues from favored party leaders meaningfully diminished partisans’ receptivity to persuasive arguments and evidence. Instead, partisans treated party cues and persuasive arguments as two separate pieces of evidence, which they integrated to arrive at their final judgment.
These results have implications for American politics. They suggest that the widespread presence and influence of party cues should not deter attempts at counter-party persuasion. Our identities, motivations and values are not (yet) reducible to party loyalty, and arguments and evidence can still change people’s minds — even if only a little bit at a time.
David G. Rand is the Erwin H. Schell Professor and Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; director of the Applied Cooperation Team; and an affiliate of the MIT Institute of Data, Systems and Society and the Initiative on the Digital Economy.
Ben M. Tappin is an early career research fellow studying political psychology, attitude change and research methods. He is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, based at the Centre for the Politics of Feelings / RHUL, and a research affiliate of the Human Cooperation Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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