Poll after poll tells Americans how hopelessly divided we are on politics. We hear about “fake news” and we assume it’s folks of the other political party who can’t tell truth from lies. But a study done a few years ago suggests we know the truth better than we let on. In fact, we may actually agree on what’s factual more than we realize.
Partisan Bias in Factual Beliefs about Politics, a 2013 study (which was not peer reviewed but is still very cool) asked the question, will people give different answers when determining political facts if they have an incentive to choose the truth? The answer was, yes! In fact, people know political truth with 55-60% more accuracy than they let on.
The study was simple. A control group was given politically-charged statements which could be verified as factually correct or not, and were asked if the statements were true or false. The results came out much like the polls we hear every day. The answers to the questions diverged wildly and fell along party lines. No surprise there.
The second group was given the same statements but with this twist. For every correct response they gave to whether the statement was true or false, they’d be entered into a drawing for a $200 Amazon gift card. The more correct answers they gave, the greater their chances of winning the gift card. The results? The correct answers obtained from the second group shot up 55% over those of the control group.
Then a second study was designed in which the second group was given the option, “I don’t know,” along with true or false. The “I don’t know” response didn’t give the participants a full entry into the drawing, but a partial entry. For example, if they gave two “I don’t know” responses, they’d get only one additional try at the gift card. The accuracy rate in the answers in the second study went up 60% over the control group.
The study suggests folks know true from false political statements far more than they let on! And people also know when they don’t know the answer.
So why the heck do we hedge on the truth when it comes to politics?
The study suggests we are expressing value when we answer political questions, not expressing the truth. We’re giving an emotional response. We’re sticking to less-than-accurate information out of allegiance and loyalty to our party. Human beings do this in any number of arenas, not just in politics.
I do this unabashedly in my allegiance to the San Francisco 49ers. I find sports metaphors are often apt, so please bear with me.
Say, for example, I was asked if Joe Montana possessed super-human powers and was the greatest athlete who ever played football, I’d say “But of course!” If I had to answer correctly to be entered into a drawing, I would begrudging say, “I don’t know.” (I cannot bring myself to say “false.”) If I had to answer correctly to get a chance in the drawing as to whether Bill Belichick wins Super Bowls because he lies and cheats, as much as it hurt, I’d have to say “false.”
And so it is in politics. Like it or not, we cheer wildly for our own team, forgiving them all manner of foibles and crimes, while snarling and vilifying the opponent.
Yes, there are differences between our political parties. But we selectively chose our truths about them.
The lesson to be learned here? I’ll leave that up to you to contemplate.
For me, I think it wouldn’t hurt to dial back the intensity of my rhetoric. And I can be willing to cut the other team a bit of slack when they act like football fans at a playoff game. After all, I understand completely.