How "Party Cues" Can Influence Political Opinions

Some views are swayed by partisanship regardless of the issues at hand.

Posted Feb 22, 2020

The website “I Side With” provides opinion surveys to help voters see with which political candidates they most agree. First, you answer a bunch of questions about your stance on various political issues. Then you find out which candidates are best matched to your opinions, based on their proposed policies and comments on the campaign trail. Sometimes people’s results surprise them. “Really? I agree with that person?”

But what if you knew which candidates supported which policies as you were being asked for your opinion? Would you still base your support purely on the issue at hand? Or would the candidate endorsing the policy color your judgment?

This is the sort of question that political psychologists love to tackle. Specifically, they can design careful experiments that give us a peek into how much people lean on “party cues”—or information about which political parties support which policies—when forming their own opinions.

Testing the “Party Over Policy” Effect

Back in the early 2000s, Geoffrey Cohen wanted to know how much power groups have over people’s political beliefs. He designed several experiments pitting political identity against political policy.

One of these studies rests on a reliable pattern: on average, liberals prefer more generous welfare policies and conservatives prefer more stringent welfare policies. Indeed, under ordinary conditions, liberal college students agreed more with a welfare policy when it was more generous in the money and opportunities it provided.

But what would happen if a Republican endorsed the generous policy and a Democrat endorsed the stringent one? In the study, sometimes they would describe the generous welfare policy and say it was supported by 95% of House Republicans and only 10% of House Democrats. Other times, they would describe the stringent welfare policy and say it was supported by 95% of Democrats and only 10% of Republicans.

In these latter conditions, liberal college students agreed more with the policy supported by Democrats than the one supported by Republicans even though it was a policy they would have otherwise opposed!

(And don’t think this is only true for liberals. Their other studies show the same thing happens among conservatives.)

A Broader View

You may have noticed that the last study focused on college students’ opinions. This is pretty common for psychological research, but you may wonder whether college students are especially influenced by simple political party cues. Would most people have the same bias?

More recently, some researchers have tested these ideas with hundreds of Americans all over the country, giving us a glimpse into how “typical” Americans think about politics.

They simply showed people a brief essay summarizing a debate about farm subsidies. The essay gave reasons why some people support the subsidy and then gave reasons why some oppose it. The arguments were always the same, but sometimes it was liberals who apparently opposed the program, sometimes it was conservatives who apparently opposed it, and sometimes it was “various other groups” who opposed it. Then they asked everyone how much they themselves supported or opposed the farm subsidies.

In the latter condition where political parties are never mentioned, liberal and conservative survey respondents equally supported the policy. That is, this isn’t an inherently partisan issue for the public.

But when the essay claimed that liberals opposed this farm subsidy, liberal survey respondents said they opposed the policy more than conservative respondents did. And when the essay claimed that conservatives opposed this farm subsidy, conservative survey respondents said they opposed the policy more than liberal respondents did.

Is This Mindless Conformity?

It sure seems like this is a case of people following the herd, thoughtlessly accepting whatever their group says. But this isn’t quite right.

Let’s go back to Cohen’s studies. In his final study, he took several measures of how much people were really paying attention to the information they received. The evidence showed that people were taking the task seriously, spending time and mental effort to carefully consider the policy. When he asked participants to summarize their reactions, he found that when a policy seemed to be opposed by Democrats, liberal students tended to see the policy as less “liberal” and highlighted the ways in which the policy was insufficient.

In the more recent study, people’s beliefs about the farm subsidy were colored by the political party endorsing it. For instance, liberals who learned that other liberals opposed the subsidy were more likely to believe that it would not actually save jobs or keep food costs low. It was these beliefs that guided their own opposition to the program, not merely the fact that other liberals had opposed it.

Together, this shows that party cues spark a thought process aimed at making sense of why one’s group doesn’t support a given policy, and these thoughts are why people end up agreeing with their group.

Political Identity versus Political Opinion

This “Party Over Policy” effect harkens back to my last post on political ideology. It seems that most people think of themselves as aligned with political groups rather than actually having coherent political ideologies. When your political tribe endorses a position on some issue, it can carry more weight than what that position actually is.

A growing perspective in social and political psychology is that politics can serve social belonging needs and provide social identities that help us pick sides. You may consider how much your own political attitudes are driven by your personal beliefs and opinions versus those conveyed to you by a sense of social belonging.

References

Cohen, G. L. (2003). Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(5), 808–822.

Malka, A., & Lelkes, Y. (2010). More than ideology: Conservative-liberal identity and receptivity to political cues. Social Justice Research, 23, 156-188.

Van Bavel, J. J., & Pereira, A. (2018). The partisan brain: An identity-based model of political belief. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(3), 213-224.