On Conservatives, Liberals, and Fake News

Political differences in negatively-biased credulity.

Posted Feb 03, 2017

An interesting study by Fessler et al. (in press) found that conservatives are more receptive to believing false negative information regarding hazards (relative to benefits) than liberals. This is called negatively-biased credulity. The study was covered in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan in “Why Fake News Targeted Trump Supporters.” Khazan interviewed me for that article and did a great job of representing my thoughts.

Here are more of my thoughts that did not make it into her article:

Jonathan Haidt’s research (Graham et al., 2009) into the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives has shown that liberals evaluate information through the lens of two foundations: harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. Conservatives evaluate information through the lens of five foundations: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Thus it stands to reason that conservatives might show the normal human effects for negatively-biased credulity across a wider range of types of information. However, fake news tends to be tailored to the target, so fake news built for liberals plays on one of the two moral foundations that liberals use and fake news for conservatives plays on all of them. Interestingly, this could be interpreted is either making conservatives more gullible or more open-minded, depending on who is interpreting the finding.

Many social scientists mischaracterize conservatives. For instance, Fessler et al. state, “If a core dimension of political orientation is that liberals value the opportunities afforded by change and cultural homogeneity, whereas conservatives value the safety of tradition and cultural homogeneity…” At first glance this seems plausible and is commonly used shorthand, but it misses many aspects of conservatives. Currently conservatives are finding very innovative ways to violate the safety of the tradition of the last eight years, which is at odds with the above definition. Liberals are aggressively rallying around the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity moral foundations. The basic definitions of conservatives by social scientists usually omit the reality that conservatives can, and often are, agents of change. Though usually conceived as being a characteristic of conservatives, Kurt Jefferson and I have argued that authoritarians are found in influential numbers in both the Democratic and Republican parties (Mather & Jefferson, 2016). The sum of all of this is that when one perspective completely misunderstands another perspective, they may formulate a poor electoral strategy.


Fessler, D. M. T., Pisor, A. C., &  Holbrook, C. (in press). Political orientation predicts credulity regarding putative hazards. Psychological Science.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1029-1046.

Mather, R. D., & Jefferson, K. W. (2016, May). The authoritarian voter? The psychology and values of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders support. Journal of Scientific Psychology, 1-8.