Cass R. Sunstein: Well-informed people can be close-minded

04/27/2013 12:00 AM

04/26/2013 5:11 PM

How do people form political beliefs? When will they change their minds? When will actual facts matter? A recent study, conducted by political scientist Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and two co-authors, offers some clues.

One group of participants was provided with a 2009 news article in which Sarah Palin claimed that the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act created death panels and that these panels included bureaucrats authorized to decide whether seniors were “worthy of health care.” A separate group was given the same news story, but with an appended correction saying that “nonpartisan health care experts have concluded that Palin is wrong.”

The study’s big question: Would the correction have any effect? Would people who saw the correction be less likely to believe that the Affordable Care Act calls for death panels?

Not surprisingly, the correction was more likely to convince people who viewed Palin unfavorably than those who had a high opinion of her. Notably, the correction also tended to sway the participants who liked Palin but who didn’t have a lot of political knowledge.

Here’s the most interesting finding in the study. Those who viewed Palin favorably, and who also had a lot of political knowledge, were not persuaded by the correction. On the contrary, it made them more likely to believe Palin was right.

How come?

There are two explanations, and they tell us a lot about current political controversies – and about why the United States and other nations remain so badly polarized.

The first is that if you know a lot about politics, you are more likely to be emotionally invested in what you believe. Efforts to undermine or dislodge those beliefs might well upset you and therefore backfire.

The second explanation is that if you have a lot of political knowledge, you are more likely to think you know what is really true.

It is important to distinguish between two kinds of political “validators”: the expected and the surprising. When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., argues that climate change is a serious problem, or when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, contends that increases in the minimum wage will reduce employment, their messages are expected and to that extent uninformative. Skeptics are more likely to yawn than to shift their own views.

But if Boehner suddenly announced that climate change is an urgent problem that needed to be addressed, or if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that increases in the minimum wage are a terrible idea because they would reduce employment, skeptics might well stop and notice, even if they are well-informed.

There is a clear implication here for those who provide information. Balanced presentations may divide people even more sharply than before, and factual corrections may backfire. When people begin with clear convictions, efforts to correct their errors may have the perverse effect of entrenching them – at least if the messengers aren’t seen as credible.

The most important lesson may be for those who receive political information. Sure, it is important to consider the source, but the content matters as well. Our favorite messengers are sometimes wrong, and our least favorite messengers are sometimes right. It’s sometimes worthwhile to pay a lot more attention to what is being said and a lot less to the identity of the person who is saying it.

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