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

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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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