Originally published in Politico by Neil Malhotra
It was, indeed, all about politics. Gardner’s strong support of personhood legislation might have bolstered his popularity among conservative Republicans. But after declaring his Senate bid, Gardner found himself having to appeal to a more moderate electorate (Colorado voters have repeatedly rejected a personhood ballot measure) and changed his position on the issue. So far, his equivocation hasn’t hurt him.
If Gardner wins on Election Day, he certainly won’t be the only politician to get away with not being totally transparent, and it prompts the question: Why do voters fall for misinformation? A common refrain these days is that this is because there is a plethora of “low information” voters. If only those citizens knew more about politics, the argument goes, then the problem would be solved. But in fact, the problem is much more complex: It is often the people who are most interested and informed about politics that are most likely to adopt false beliefs. After all, there has been an explosion of “fact-checking” organizations out there, and they don’t seem to be breaking through. PolitiFact gave President Barack Obama’s “if you like your health plan, you can keep it” statement about the Affordable Care Act a “Pants on Fire” rating, but that hasn’t stopped liberals from defending his claim.
This is because human beings have a tendency to engage in what is called “motivated reasoning,” meaning the way they view evidence and come to make decisions is not to better understand “the truth” but, rather, to achieve self-serving goals. One goal could be the reduction of cognitive dissonance, or holding two incompatible opinions in one’s mind at the same time. Suppose you supported the Iraq War because of President George W. Bush’s argument that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. When those weapons were not found, you would be forced to reckon with two incompatible ideas: (1) The Iraq War was good policy based on an accurate assessment of the threat; (2) There were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. The dissonance has to be resolved somehow. You could change your position on the Iraq War, but the easiest thing to do is to just to believe that weapons of mass destruction were in fact discovered.
And why is that so easy to do? It’s because motivated reasoning leads us to seek out and accept information that confirms what we already believe and know, and reject information that goes against prior beliefs. Just look at how easy it is for eager supporters on both sides of the aisle to ignore a fact-checking organization, claim it’s biased or work hard to come up with arguments that its conclusions are wrong.
Even more than that, research has shown that attempts to correct misinformation don’t just fall flat; they often backfire. Forcing people to reckon with and argue against facts they don’t want to accept actually makes them more entrenched in their political predispositions. For example, when provided with evidence from conservative economic scholars that tax cuts do not pay for themselves, conservatives were actually more likely to claim that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenue. And the question wasn’t even whether tax cuts are a good or bad idea. It was a purely factual one about the relationship between tax rates and tax revenue. So much for the conventional wisdom that challenging one’s beliefs broadens one’s perspective.
People on both sides of the political spectrum do this. When they see information they like, they are not motivated to come up with reasons why it is wrong. When they see information they don’t like, they work very hard to discredit it. This even occurs when people are evaluating ostensibly nonideological information like who is going to win an election. I have observed that voters, when presented with a poll in which a preferred candidate is trailing, are likely to argue the poll is flawed methodologically by digging into its response rate, margin of error and cross-tabulations. But this intensive research doesn’t occur when the poll shows one’s preferred candidate leading. It makes sense: Why would you want to uncover evidence that goes against what you hope to be true? Recent analysis by the New York Times on its readers has found that people constantly rerun the site’s election prediction simulation until it tells them what they want to hear.
To be sure, like most phenomena, the tendency to accept misinformation is an average effect. Not all people react the same way, and some might be immune from such behavior, such as people who don’t have strong ideological predispositions. But this behavior is still worrisome. It provides politicians broad latitude to be nontransparent or ambiguous about their political positions. Why think twice about lying if your supporters aren’t going to care?
On the other hand, perhaps such behavior is not so problematic. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss.