How to Overcome Political Irrationality About Facts

Some Trump supporters are willing to lie about his inauguration attendance to preserve their ideological identities. A new study explains how curiosity can help resist reflexive partisanship.

A combination of photos shows the crowds attending the inauguration ceremonies for President Donald Trump and President Barack Obama in 2009. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters / Stelios Varias)

We may have reached peak polarization. The researchers Brian Schaffner, of the University of Massachusetts and Samantha Luks, managing director of scientific research at YouGov, showed people the two photos below, of President Donald Trump’s inauguration on the left and former President Barack Obama’s on the right:

Trump voters were overwhelmingly more likely than Clinton voters to say Obama’s photo was actually Trump’s. What’s more, 15 percent of Trump voters told the researchers there are actually more people in the photo from Trump’s inauguration—the one with big, bare white patches that are clearly be-peopled in Obama’s photo.

“Some Trump supporters in our sample decided to use this question to express their support for Trump rather than to answer the survey question factually,” they wrote in The Washington Post recently.

It’s not just Republicans; studies show both Democrats and Republicans like the same policy better when they’re told it’s supported by their own party.

This is a concept known as politically motivated reasoning, or individuals’ tendency to meld new information into their existing beliefs, thereby supporting their political identities. As Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues explain in a new study published in Advances in Political Psychology, people who score high on this kind of reasoning tend to be very partisan. They absorb information that supports their beliefs, and they dismiss the rest.

Kahan and his collaborators wanted to see whether this very human tendency to seek out facts that conform with our reasoning and identities—staying glued to our red and blue feeds—can ever be tamped down.

They found that it could, as long as you possess an odd trait called “science curiosity.” This is not, it turns out, the same as merely being good at science, or understanding it. Science curiosity, as Kahan measured it, describes people who are intrigued by surprising information and scientific discoveries. In the study, the science-curious spent longer watching a science documentary and were more interested in reading science news. Meanwhile, those who simply understood science weren’t as engaged with the videos. They weren’t into “self-motivated consumption of science information for its own sake,” they write.

Science-curious subjects were more interested in nature documentaries than a celebrity show.

Typically, being confronted with evidence only makes people cling more firmly to their beliefs on controversial topics like gun control, climate change, or vaccine safety. Similarly, in this study, Kahan found that science-literate conservatives were more likely to dispute humans’ role in global warming, while science-literate liberals were much more likely to acknowledge it. (People who didn’t know much about science were equally likely to agree and disagree, regardless of party.)

“We always observed this depressing pattern: The members of the public most able to make sense of scientific evidence are in fact the most polarized," Kahan said in a statement.

But, surprisingly, the science-curious among them didn’t harbor the same knee-jerk biases. They were more likely than the non-curious to read a news story that clashed with their political affiliation. The liberals, for example, opted to read a newspaper article headlined, “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Ice Increasing in Antarctic, Not Currently Contributing To Sea-Level Rise.” They craved novelty, even when they knew they wouldn’t agree with it.

“For them, surprising pieces of evidence are bright, shiny objects—they can't help but grab at them,” Kahan said.

And though the conservative, science-curious participants still thought global warming and fracking were less of a big deal than their liberal counterparts, the more science-curious they were, the more of a risk they considered it. The two party lines ran in parallel, rather than toward opposite poles:

‘How much risk does it pose to humanity?’
Advances in Political Psychology

In other words, curiosity seems to be the pin that bursts our partisan bubbles, allowing new and sometimes uncomfortable information to trickle in. Nothing else works like curiosity does, the authors point out—not being reflective, or good at math, or even well-educated.

Instead, they write, it’s “individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected … [who] expose themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations.”

The study authors conclude that their findings are very preliminary—they were meant to help boost interest in science documentaries, not end political polarization—but promising.

Kahan proposes that, if his results hold up, curiosity could be considered “essential to good civic character,” and cultivated actively “among the citizens of the Liberal Republic of Science.” (We’re probably going to need to workshop the name of this metaphorical “republic.”)

“This is easier said than done, however,” they conclude wistfully. “Indeed, much, much easier.”