Why are we so politically divided? Research suggests people may just be liars.
Some claim political disagreements are due to “information problems” or even “voter ignorance.” The idea is that if people had an objective set of facts, they would make better decisions. According to this idea, people are either ignorant of the facts or get their information from the wrong sources. In short, some believe the source of intense political disagreement is that Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on facts.
But a study from political scientists John Bullock (UT Austin), Alan Gerber, Gregory Huber (both at Yale) and Seth Hill (UC San Diego) tells a different story. It appears most people are liars.
The researchers first discuss partisan differences in responses to factual questions in political surveys. For example, unemployment and inflation improved during Reagan’s presidency. But surveys in 1988 found that Democrats were more likely to claim they had worsened. And in 2000, Republicans were more likely to offer negative evaluations along similar lines regarding the Clinton presidency.
Next, they ran two experiments to test political knowledge in participants. In the first experiment, they put participants into two groups.
In one group, researchers asked participants some basic factual questions about politics.
They asked a second group the same questions. But these participants were entered into a raffle for a $200 Amazon gift card. Their odds of winning depended on how many questions they got right.
In the first group, there were large partisan gaps in the responses. For instance, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to accurately respond that unemployment and inflation rose under Bush's presidency. Additionally, Republicans were more likely to correctly state that American casualties in Iraq dropped from 2007 to 2008.
The second group, aiming to win a gift card, had a different result. The partisan gap dropped by 55%.
Researchers also ran a different version of the experiment. It included a cash payment for number of correct answers, and an “I don’t know” response, which offered a very small payment. Suddenly, gaps between Democrats and Republicans dropped 80%.
Why the difference? Plainly, the chance to win a gift card or cash created an incentive for people to answer the questions accurately.
Still, why did people in the control group, not aiming to win a reward, not answer the questions correctly? What was their incentive to be wrong? They weren’t going to win a gift card based on their number of incorrect answers, after all.
The answer is that typically, when people answer political surveys, they are lying. But the lying serves a purpose: It is a form of partisan cheerleading. In the experimental group, people accepted the reduction of the status of their political tribe in exchange for material gain. They traded one good (the status of the tribe) for another (cash or gift card).
Here is how the researchers put it:
“Partisan divergence in surveys may therefore measure the joy of partisan “cheerleading” rather than sincere differences.”
Are people lying to protect the image of their tribes? Not according to the economist Bryan Caplan. For Caplan, partisans are sincere in their political beliefs. Rather than being scheming liars, people are lazy. Our default is to be loyal to our tribe.
But when the cost of holding such beliefs increases, then people will change their beliefs to more accurately reflect reality. In the experiment, the cost of an incorrect answer was foregoing the chance to win money. This motivated participants to evaluate questions in terms of facts rather than tribes.
Regarding the results of the experiment, economist Tyler Cowen states, “The paper also has implications for democracy. Voting is just another survey without individual consequence so voting encourages expressions of rational irrationality and it’s no surprise why democracies choose bad policies.”
This echoes Nassim Taleb’s idea of “skin in the game.” According to Taleb, when decision-makers are affected by their own decisions, they are more likely to make smart choices. In contrast, in cases where decision-makers do not bear the burden of their decisions, they are more likely to be malicious or irrational.
Any individual survey response or vote is unlikely to make a difference. But vocally supporting one tribe or another does have a direct impact on one’s social life. If expressing an untrue opinion increases one’s “expressive utility” and social standing, it is in their interest to do so.
Social media can also promote a disregard for objective truth. Instead, people favor “social truth,” which maintains and enhances one’s position among peers.
Then there's hypocrisy. Suppose a member of Tribe A does something bad. A member of Tribe B points out the bad act. A common response from members of Tribe A is, “So people in Tribe B never do anything wrong?” We can interpret this as protecting the standing of one’s tribe. Another word for this might be “loyalty.”
People have the option to state facts, which often carry social risk. Or they can state views that align with their group membership, which have few risks. People tend to opt for the latter.
In some cases, people may actually express certain opinions or signal certain tribal loyalties because it is beneficial for their pocketbooks. Put simply, it may be financially wise to express some views and financially unwise to express others.
In sum, it appears there are at least 3 possible reasons why we express certain opinions:
1. We think they are true.
2. They maintain or enhance social standing in our tribes.
3. It is financially wise to do so.
Political disagreements do not exist because of a lack factual knowledge. They exist because of tribal loyalties.
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Bartels, L. M. (2002). Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions. Political Behavior, 24(2), 117-150.
Bullock, J. G., Gerber, A. S., Hill, S. J., & Huber, G. A. (2013). Partisan bias in factual beliefs about politics (No. w19080). National Bureau of Economic Research.