Conservatives Are More Likely to Believe Falsehoods If Told They Are False… And Why That Might Be Sensible Of Them

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone versed in psychology, but more and more research is supporting the idea that political falsehoods are effective: even if they are later exposed as false. Whether you be Democrat or Republican, the emotional effect of a compelling narrative or juicy smear seems to remain even if its decisively debunked. While we all seem to form knee-jerk attitudes initially because of certain claims, but we don’t base the attitude on the continued veracity claims: the attitude stands on its own with out without the survival of the supporting claims.

But in some cases, it’s even more bizarre than that. As political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discovered, conservatives are especially prone to a sort of backlash effect: being given evidence that a claim is false seems to make them more likely to believe it’s true:

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.

Kevin Drum thinks that this effect may have something to do with the carefully celebrated disdain many conservatives have cultivated for experts and media sources in general, and there may be something to that. Drum also notes that the source of the refutation didn’t seem to help either: conservatives seem more likely to believe a politically convenient falsehood even if it’s FoxNews that’s trying to correct the misinformation.

Liberals will no doubt find this research as yet more evidence that their counterparts are indeed stubborn science-haters who prefer ideology to reality (conservatives may, ironically, respond by denying the science behind this study). But before we go whole-hog down that route, I can think of one major explanation for the results that Drum might have missed, and for obvious partisan reasons.

Simply put, this research might not be evidence of conservative pigheadedness: it could just as easily be taken as evidence of legitimate conservative cockiness in the face of consistently lousy critics. That is, it could be that, in the actual real-world experience of most conservatives over the past few decades, prominent “refutations” of ideologically pro-conservative claims really have turned out to be wrong a lot of the time. Perhaps even so much that encountering strong objections to such claims is itself a good statistical predictor of their veracity.

This isn’t necessarily a rational reaction on a case by case basis; it doesn’t have to be. Like any Pavlovian mechanism, what matters is simply its general effectiveness as an association over time and experience. A knee-jerk “backfire effect” response may not make conservatives look very good in a controlled situation in which the claim is already known to be wrong. But it might be a reaction that’s served conservatives pretty well in everyday political life.

Thus, what may be at work here is simply a difference in actual historical experience. Refutations of claims that liberals like may simply have turned out to be valid more often than the refutations of claims conservatives like. And because each group has had different experiences, they’ve developed different knee-jerk mechanisms for how they process a refutation of a politically convenient claim.

Of course, this explanation would require you to basically accept that, in practice, conservative claims really are right more often than liberal ones. Or, at least, that critics of core conservative claims tend to be a lot sloppier and untrustworthy than critics of liberal claims. As someone that leans towards the liberal side of things myself, my own knee-jerk reaction is to find such possibilities absurd: how could our “reality-based community” be less reliable than… than… them?!

The problem, of course, is that I’m obviously too biased to subjectively sum up such a broad and comprehensive balance sheet of overall trustworthiness. Nor can I think of any immediate way to test a partisan bias in “accuracy” empirically.

But I do know that it’s at least a possible explanation for the highly partisan nature of the “backfire effect” that the researchers observed; it’s one which I can’t, as a good social scientist, immediately discount just because I happen to get all worked up about McCain’s latest campaign ads.

And it is an intriguing thought in any case: that the individually irrational behavior of a certain group towards criticism could itself be evidence that their ideological red meat is generally more accurate in the face of criticism.

15 Responses to Conservatives Are More Likely to Believe Falsehoods If Told They Are False… And Why That Might Be Sensible Of Them

  1. Pat says:

    Someone has clearly been trying much too hard to play devil’s advocate here. “People I usually disagree with based on facts and arguments have been shown to reject facts and arguments – how can I argue that they are justified? Hmm…” Whatever happened to inspiring words like “The Bad Idea Blog is a discussion of lousy thinking, wherever it may be found. It can’t be bargained with. It doesn’t feel pain, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until we aren’t dumb.” ?

  2. Bad says:

    Oh I don’t know that I’m playing devil’s advocate. I’m just pointing out a weakness in how people might interpret the results the study and the strangely partisan nature of that blacklash effect. And isn’t the whole point of finding these studies unsettling that we’re supposed to feel bad about the way our partisan nature biases our judgments of veracity? It wouldn’t do much good if my response to that was to overlook something simply because it doesn’t flatter my political ego.

  3. Barry says:

    I’m not sure I can argue with your hypothesis that the “backlash effect” is more rationally explained by a history of effectiveness; but that’s not because I agree with it. Mainly it’s because, even if the reported results of this study are true, one must acknowledge that causality has not yet been identified. However, you’d have to provide me a great deal of data to sway me toward this hypothesis, which you haven’t done. Now, I understand you’re simply offering an alternative to the knee-jerk conclusions to which us left-learners will most likely jump (kind of ironic, huh?) but, living in an area of the country dominated by conservative ideology (fiscal, social, and otherwise) my own admittedly anecdotally-based hypothesis would be far simpler: conservatives are much more interested in faith and instinct than in data and logic. This isn’t an indictment of conservatism any more than it’s an exaltation of liberalism: I believe instinct has its place in society. I just personally trust verifiability where others seem to trust feeling and intuition. Even so, when someone questions my intuition, I’m not sure it’s unreasonable to say that I’m much more apt to “backlash,” at least initially. In contrast, when someone offers evidence refuting a personal belief I hold based on contradicting evidence, I tend to be much more reasonable in my initial response. I’d be interested to know if the study provides any follow-up. Again, anectodally, I’ve found that there are times when a conservative friend of mine initially bucks an argument I make with considerable fervor only to find out later that they may have softened to the possibility that the evidence points to truth or, at the very least, truthiness.

  4. Terry says:

    Well, as a conservative, I am indeed interested in the questions that were asked.

    I tend also to be very suspicious of demographic studies in general.

  5. nickyscarfo says:

    If you read the whole article, you’ll see the first part where it says liberals showed the same effect.

    This blogger explains:

  6. Tim Wright says:

    I wonder if there is an underlying factor – kinda like ice creams and murders are correlated but that’s because both tend to happen on hot days. Perhaps people who are god believers tend to believe falsehoods and more religious nutters tend to be conservatives!

  7. Bad says:

    nickyscarfo: yes both groups showed the same effect in regards to incomplete snapback after refutation, which is precisely what I said at the start of my post. But only the conservatives showed the backlash effect.

    Note that that blogger essentially had to admit this when challenged.

  8. Terry says:

    Apparently, we conservatives are cowards too according to another psychological study.

  9. Bad says:

    Are you talking about this one? If so, then just like the above one, there are many ways to read the results. In this case, it’s just as plausible to say that conservatives tend to be people that fear bad consequences because they’ve encountered more of them, and are thus more wary. That’s not a measure of cowardice, but rather insight into why how they see various threats and what the appropriate response to them is.

  10. Terry says:

    I’m still inclined to believe that there was some push polling going on, or that the data was interpreted in a way that unduly supports their hypothesis. True, this is partly from my contempt of sociology and psychology as disciplines. I really disagree with the notion that our will is passive and that we are determined solely by unconscious or subconscious societal and biological factors.

  11. Bad says:

    “Push polling” is a poll that’s actually a campaign ad meant to influence someone.

    In this case, the basic methodology questions are always open (were the questions clear, was it well blinded, etc.), and of course the interpretation is always key. But I don’t think social science is necessarily about anyone’s will being passive: it’s getting a sense of just what it is that makes different people react differently to things: what sorts of experiences in their backgrounds, what ways of thinking, etc.

  12. 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

    That’s not true!!



  13. […] believe lie when told it is not true. In 2008 political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that there is a backlash-effect when conservatives are proven wrong, leading to a stronger belief in false statements. Although this was an American study, the effect […]

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  15. sean says:

    “That is, it could be that, in the actual real-world experience of most conservatives over the past few decades, prominent “refutations” of ideologically pro-conservative claims really have turned out to be wrong a lot of the time.”

    You’re entire hypothesis rests on this quote, but you don’t provide any citation. Also, just because someone thinks a “refutation” turned out to be wrong, doesn’t mean it is wrong. Look at Benghazi. Even the House report refutes the various nonsense claims and yet, conservatives still fully believe it’s some kind of cove up and that they could have been saved.

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