Why Partisanship Is Such a Worthy Foe of Objective Truth

By Charlotte Hu | February 20, 2018 4:18 pm


The truth is out there, but if it doesn’t come from “my side” who cares?

In an era of “fake news” our relationship status with factual knowledge, and a shared reality, has changed to “it’s complicated”. Democracies depend on informed populations, but objective truth has of late taken a back seat to partisanship. In an essay published in Cell Press Reviews, New York University psychologists Jay Van Bavel and Andrea Pereira attempt to demystify how partisan bias has skewed the pursuit of truth.

“What we’ve done in our paper is pull together all the relevant research we can find in many different fields including political science, psychology, cognitive science and neuroeconomics and tried to develop a single, common framework that help us understand why people have accurate or inaccurate beliefs in some areas in politics,” says senior author Jay Van Bavel.

While it’s clear that partisanship affects voters’ donation decisions and voting patterns, it’s not clear why this bias carries over into perception of facts. For Van Bavel and Pereira, the disconnect boils down to identity and values. They’re calling their framework the identity-based model of belief.

Me First

We all have an internal rating system that determines the extent to which we value different things and ideas. This can be applied to choosing what to eat or how we feel about gun laws. But the exchange rate between people’s pros and cons is far from universal.

“You’re weighing all these different potential trade-offs, which gets put into some kind of common currency that helps guide your behavior,” he said. “We’re assuming that because the same regions of the brain are involved in [assigning] competing values for all kinds of decisions, that the same type of mental processes are happening when we’re deciding to what extent we want to value and trust certain pieces of information.”

People are seeking different outcomes when they read news article online, for example. For some, accuracy and credibility are all that matters. However, Van Bavel believes that people who aren’t news junkies bring to bear a number of different goals for each story they read, many of which are channeled through their political identities.

“The need to belong is one of the fundamental human needs from an evolutionary perspective… and this manifests itself in modern politics because we’re looking for evidence that our group is correct, and our group has a good chance of winning over another group,” explains Van Bavel.

Political parties typically reflect the emergent ideologies of the people who align themselves with them. For people who deeply commit to a particular party, the group membership can overshadow other identities that they juggle—mom, co-worker, aunt, American. That’s because our political affiliations give us a sense that we belong to a larger group, and agreeing with the group can help bolster our sense of self. As often happens, the value of reinforcing our sense of self outweighs the value of a shared, factual reality.

Take, for example, an experiment that demonstrated how party affiliation affected people’s perception of a protest video. When participants felt the video depicted liberally minded protesters, Republicans were more in favor of police intervention than Democrats. The opposite emerged when participants thought the video showed a conservative protest. The visual information was identical, but people drew vastly different conclusions that were shaded by their political group affiliation.

“People are more likely to behave and experience emotions in ways that are congruent with the activated social identity,” says Bavel. In other words, people will go along with the group, even if the ideas oppose their own ideologies—belonging may have more value than facts.

The situation is excacerbated by social media, which creates echo chambers on both the left and the right. In these concentric social networks, the same news articles are circulated, validating the beliefs of the group and strengthening their identity association with the group.

“If you go to the Wall Street Journal they actually have this great app called Red Feed, Blue Feed, where you can see what somebody from a different political party is seeing on the exact same issue,” says Van Bavel.

So how do we get out of this jam? Van Bavel suggests reducing the emphasis placed on identity. Rather than emphasize political parties, we can replace our affiliation with that of an even larger group of people, say, global citizens.

Van Bavel believes that there are other practical ways to combat the devaluation of objective truth. One way is to have social media upgrade how trusted news is rated. This could create a simple filter for higher quality news. Media literacy is another peg. We need to help people discern facts from opinion pieces, and dissociate identity affiliation with information.

“Be mindful of the fact that news that contradicts people’s party or belief system is going to be threatening, and there’s a lot of research showing that when people are threatened their minds tend to close and they just get hardened in their view,” says Van Bavel.

Another suggestion: Put your money where your mouth is. If you find yourself in a disagreement, make a bet with your opponent. The value placed on group affiliation is suddenly dwarfed by the $20 sitting on the table. It’s certainly one way to elevate the value of facts.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    In an era of “fake new” journalism, education, and even literacy are dead. A nation of criminals is viable, for it has ethics. A national of lairs is not viable, for reality is not a peer vote. A nation of seditious liars requires firing squads. “I>Political parties typically reflect the emergent ideologies of the people who align themselves with them.” The Democrat Party feeds upon its constituents.

    Put your money where your mouth is.” Hillary and Donald are walking down the street when they come upon a homeless man. Donald takes out his wallet, removes two $20s and a business card, and says “get yourself cleaned up a little, come in tomorrow morning at 8 am, let’s see kind of job you can do.

    Hillary and Donald are walking down the street when they come upon another homeless man. Hillary takes out Donald’s wallet, pulls a $20 for herself, and gives the man two $50s. Hillary says, “there’s a Welfare office thee blocks down, Take a cab.” Then she gives the man a voter registration card.

    • http://www.brunogebarski.com/ Bruno Pierre Gebarski

      that is exactly how t hings work!

  • OWilson

    A timely article indeed!

    The political war between left and right that used to stop at the borders of its proponents has now infiltrated every modern society.

    A culture war of epic proportions.

    They don’t even share the same language definitions anymore, the notion of right or wrong, so there is no common standard by which to judge behaviour.

    A couple of illustrative examples:

    A surrepticious recording of locker room talk among men, is seen as a major sex assault on women. While a President who drops his pants in front of a State Employee Paula Corbin Jones, and orders her to, “Kiss it!” is elevated to the status of Icon.

    A President who exaggerates his Inauguration audience numbers, (It was the most watched Inauguration in history if you count the worldwide TV, online and smartphone audience) is accused of being mentally unfit, while a Candidate who claims she was running and ducking sniper fire in a war zone, is given a pass!

    A Secretary of State who got $millions “donated” to her family foundation by the evil Russians, while she was in office, is given a pass, while a President who received nothing is accused and has 5 investigations ongoing into his “collusion”! :)

    The political chasm has now infiltrated every level of society, including, unfortunately, government.

    The only useful guidebook to truth, is history, but this Kardashian society has little time or patience to with that, so history will eventually have to catch up with them!

    I woud just ask folks to honeslty evalute the facts, if they were reversed, Here’s the test:

    If at some point, Ivanka Trump became Secretary of State, and amassed a staggering $3,000,000,000.00 from the foreign governents she was making deals with, (and not disclosing the fact to the Administration, as was required) and covered it up by running the State Department’s communications out of a private server in her Trump Tower personal bathroom, then after an investigation into corruption had begun, ordered the destruction of 33,000 emails as pertaining only to “personal matters”. Would you accept her excuses that “it was allowed”!

    In the meantime I continue to challenge willful misrepresentations with wagering offers. I made such an offer here a couple days ago.

    Over the years I have never yet had a taker! 😐

    I have, however, made some decent walking around money from betting houses Ladbrokes and William Hill in the U.K. by betting on Presidential Elections! :)

    • Andrew Worth

      “The political chasm has now infiltrated every level of society”, including you, you’d be more credible if you’d mentioned something positive about Democrat’s and something negative about Republican’s/Trump (and don’t say Trump isn’t guilty of infractions worthy of your list of misdeeds).

      • Mike Richardson

        Yes, it’s a tribute to irony, isn’t it?

      • OWilson

        My point was the differring standards by which politicians are judged, and why.

        Politicians by definition are usually compromised well before they reach the national stage. I’m not a fan of politicians, except in a relative way!, but I’ll always go out of my way to promote the lesser of the evils! :)

        But feel free, like I did, to give examples of how Trump is given a free pass?

    • Andrew Worth

      “(It was the most watched Inauguration in history if you count the worldwide TV, online and smartphone audience)”

      Evidence? From what I can find the crowd was smaller and TV viewer numbers were lower than for Obama’s inauguration, I’ve found nothing on online audience size.

      • OWilson

        If you remember the Media controversy was about the photos of the relative crowd attendance at the event, for Obama and Trump. Weather is alway a factor in a llive e public outdoor event.

        Around the world, though, it was a big and controversial event.

        A lot of live TV coverage around the world. Saw some preliminary numbers of foreign coverage, India, China, Europe, in schools, and just a function of more TV’s, online feeds to home computers, and smart phones alone than were available 8 years before, was a major factor.

        I will not try to put it all together again, although I found this comment in my files from ewcomtv folks who are in the ratings business who watch these things:

        “And actually, Trump could have been seen by more viewers than either Obama or Reagan. Nielsen ratings do not account for online viewing, which has grown sharply in recent years and is far more commonplace than even four years ago. CNN, for example, clocked 16.9 million live streams, tying with its Election Day coverage for the site’s top event (live stream tallies are typically not apples-to-apples with Nielsen’s strict methodology of counting average viewers, but are still additive). Plus, portals like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter offered live streams as well.”

        And, they don’t mention increased TV availabilty and online viewership across the world!

  • TLongmire

    The only acceptable way forward is a system that teaches individuals to think and do for themselves. Once survival is guaranteed everything changes. Once A.I. awakens it will either have to appease the crooked or fight them and to think the masses will “switch teams” for the sake of truth is laughable, but the people aware enough to adhere to truth and logic might at least see the torch passed as the bullets fly.

    • John C

      The problem is that while a collection of objective facts might exist to some extent partisans place weight on some while ignoring others according to their philosophy and values. Perfect example – the self styled “wonky” political commentators who reel off facts to bolster their pre-baked philosophical conclusions while utterly ignoring data that deflates their narrative.

      • TLongmire

        So imagine the near future when A.I. offers an alternative and all those in power sabotage for ego.

  • Andrew Worth

    Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has an interesting presentation on “The Polarization of America” [10:36] on YouTube.
    I tried posting a link but Disqus is still in the Dark Ages in allowing links through.

  • John C

    Partisans would say this article is ridiculous, of course. True believers have a monopoly on Truth. Anyone who disagrees with them is either:

    1) Ignorant
    2) Crazy
    3) Evil
    Or some combination of the 3.

    Through this lens, watch any round table discussion of political talking heads on TV, read any editorial and most “objective” stories in the major print organs. Let alone, God forbid, listen to politicians talk about the policies / personalities of the other party.

    And if you don’t agree with my point it’s obviously because you are evil, crazy or simply ignorant.

  • Jason Huynh

    Our environment provides many obstacles to the proposed solutions. I think it is important to point these out. The reality I present is cynical, but worth recognizing.

    Identifying as global citizens will be interpreted by many as a fruitless compromise. We have reached a point in politics where making concessions alienates your base, even if the sole alternative is doubling down into an unsatisfying stalemate. Everything is, “I’m willing to work with the other side if they do this first.” Meeting halfway is impossible if nobody is willing to take the first step. And even when someone makes a conciliatory move, the other side will take the inch and ask for another mile, moving the finish line.

    Social media (at least Facebook) has already attempted to prioritize trusted sources on their feed. But we are starting to run out of sources that are trusted by members across the multidimensional political spectrum. The echo chambers will still boom. And if the social medium’s community turns on the fringe groups, they will congregate elsewhere.

    Media literacy is a significant step, but if minimally biased journalism is going extinct, there is no point. The Internet allows choice. Van Bavel’s quote at the second to last paragraph can be taken further: people who find their beliefs under threat will take shelter in their filter bubbles, which the attention economy is eager to provide. You need more than just the ability to distinguish fact from opinion: you also need to care more about the facts.

    The last suggestion is perhaps the most naive of them all. Most political disagreements are not on the facts, but the framing. What is the problem? Every side suggests a different solution because their arguments revolve around different issues within the same topic.

    We all need to admit to ourselves that we can be wrong. Our political affiliations should never cause us to accept us versus them mentalities. The crazed rhetoric is not just on the other side; you are contributing to it, too. The truth is not black and white (figuratively and literally speaking), nor can it be fully acquired by anyone. Man may be the measure of all things, but acknowledge that he is never 100% correct.

    *Hops off soapbox and continues homework.*

    • TLongmire

      By saying that “man is the measure of all things” you are actually stating the entire problem in a nutshell. The ego feeds on justification and the trough of modern politics is a muddy trench.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Put your money where your mouth is.” Two Liberals are walking along, and hear moans. Terrible sounds are spilling from an alley. They walk in to find a man face down in his own blood. His clothing is rent, his pockets are torn open. His teeth are scattered like Chiclets. One Liberal says to the other Liberal, “whoever did this really needs help.”

    • OWilson

      Not too long ago, there was a guy who raped an entire family incuding the kids, but what got the liberal media in a panty waist outrage, and blew up the story, was when he was sentenced, he smiled and gave the finger to the judge and victims.

      Now THAT was going too far!

  • Valerie Patrick

    Timely article and how refreshing to apply science to a current problem that is so damaging to the well-being of society. One challenge that could provide a common global goal that supersedes political interests is addressing climate change. Evidence abounds on the scientific link between warming, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, and impact on the Earth’s water cycle, ocean currents, and extreme weather events. The U.S. government is in the dark ages compared to other governments like Germany where politicians have spent the time and effort interacting with the most prominent scientists in the world to understand what science is telling us about climate change. It is past time for U.S. politicians to stop being afraid of what qualified scientists and high-quality science has to tell us about climate change. U.S. businesses already know this – they ignore climate change to their peril – US businesses can’t ignore climate change because their global competitors are not and viewing their business through the lens of climate change leads to opportunities and risks they would be foolish to ignore.

    • OWilson

      As usual the grandoise mom and apple pie saintly pronouncements gloss over the real issues surrounding “climate change”.

      It starts right there, with an ill defined scientific term. What is this climate change? The climate changes all the time, has always changed, and will continue to do so naturally. Nobody denies that so what is a “climate denier”, precisely? Why do some politicians want to bring them to justice?

      It’s the politics of it all that is questionable. It’s a left wing crusade, more to do with the left’s long term goal of shutting down the engine of Western Capitalism, and the other left wing goal of Western Wealth redistribution to the third world in “climate reparations”.

      They lie and exaggerate the effects of the slight warming we have naturaly occuring being in an inter glacial epoch.

      Their hyperbolic doomsday predictions, based on false models, have tipping points coming ang going like rain showers.

      Their poster child Tuvalo is report by satellite imagery to be substantially growing, not shrinking or being washed away, despite the pleading of the U.N. for an open ended fund of $55,000,000.00 to prevent it being “the last Country to join the U.N., and the first country to disappear”.

      All other major waterfront cities are shown to be growing, not shrinking!

      The U.N. also want the West to send $1,500,000,000.00 per year to Zimbabwe, the home of genocidal Dictator Robert Mugabe.

      This, while the U.S. has a National Debt of $20,000,000,000,000.00 that is being kicked down the road to generations unborn.

      Then there is the priests of the movement, Al Gore, Heinz-Kerry. Leo di Caprio, Lady Ga Ga, Richard Branson, Prince Charles, Steven Spielberg, and even the Pope himself who have palaces, mansions, giant planes, giant yachts the size of small countries with staffs of servants, who’s carbon footprint doesn’t matter, either to them or their duped supporters!

      Lots there to debate, besides, why can’t we all just get along, Kumbaya!

  • Amy Jordan

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