The man hears what he wants to hear

(and disregards the rest)

Jonah Lehrer reports the result of a depressing but unsurprising experiment: The Facts Don’t Matter.

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

It’s particularly interesting that the backfire effect is more pronounced with Republicans; this certainly resonates with my admittedly biased view. Better information doesn’t seem to fix the problem, either:

During the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What’s interesting about this data is that so-called “high-information” voters – these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress – weren’t better informed than “low-information” voters.

Anyone have a better solution? Or should we just throw in the towel on democracy?


  1. Michael Schurter Sep 15

    Fascism seems about due for another go around and gets rid of those pesky myopic voters. It may be a lot like authoritarianism, but at least the leader-for-life can deliver a rousing speech.

  2. Jeff Richards Sep 15

    This brought a couple of Churchill quotes to mind…

    The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
    Winston Churchill

    “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947)

  3. matt hampton Sep 16

    Cutting the deficit by decimating the national defense is nothing to cheer about. How much is the natl. defense budget? Clinton was a sham; I’ll cut my budget too, I’ll just stop paying my mortgage. Bush cost money?. Welcome to natl. defense spending again.. I don’t even like Bush, but, you are stupid………..

  4. matt hampton Sep 16

  5. Bob Sep 16

    Or should we just throw in the towel on democracy?

    Who has a Democracy? The United States form a Republic that has a grounding in Democratic principles, but it is not a Democracy.

  6. Steve Laniel Sep 16

    Deep breaths are necessary here.

    Doesn’t the selection bias bother you? Pick people who are already self-identified as members of a certain party, then give them information that could negate that party’s ideology. Instead, how about picking people who are self-identified as independents? Seems like the conclusion that “the man hears what he wants to hear” only applies to self-described partisans. Which is hardly surprising.

    There’s also a question of experimental design. I believe that Cass Sunstein, among others, has shown that if you put like-minded people in a room together and ask them to deliberate, the outcome is more extreme than if you put some dissenting voices in.

  7. adam Sep 16

    Steve: I think selection bias is actually part of the experimental design here. The point is not that partisans tend to be partisan — it’s that they become more partisan when given accurate factual information that contradicts their views. In other words, not only do the facts not matter, they make these targets’ views more inaccurate. I also think it is interesting that this study suggests the “backfire” effect is more pronounced with Republicans.

    On the Susnstein point, I don’t believe the subjects were given a chance to deliberate together.

    Matt Hampton: I have no idea what you’re talking about. Did you read this blog entry?

  8. James Sep 16

    I also think that the result of conservatives could be explained by the fact that they are suspicious (paranoid if you want to be partisan) about information elites. They conceive that both the academy and journalists (other than their favorites) twist all facts to their world view.

  9. Steve Laniel Sep 16

    I think we’re still talking about a result that focuses on partisans, yes? Given that, it seems hasty to conclude that democracy itself is done for.

  10. adam Sep 16

    Oh, the democracy line? That was supposed to be seen as overblown rhetoric.

  11. Steve Laniel Sep 17

    Andrew Gelman, a highly respected statistician whose books I’ve been following for a long while, writes about this partisan-screening idea today.

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