The Enduring Importance of False Political Beliefs

by david_park on November 28, 2007 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections

What’s the effect of false political information? For example, if you knew a negative story about a candidate was completely fabricated, would that change your view of the candidate? John Bullock conducts some very interesting experiments and finds:

Much work on political persuasion maintains that people are influenced by information that they believe and not by information that they don’t. By this view, false beliefs have no power if they are known to be false. This helps to explain frequent efforts to change voters’ attitudes by exposing them to relevant facts. But findings from social psychology suggest that this view requires modification: sometimes, false beliefs influence people’s attitudes even after they are understood to be false. In a trio of experiments, I demonstrate that the effect is present in people’s thinking about politics and amplified by party identification. I conclude by elaborating the consequences for theories of belief updating and strategic political communication.

By “amplified by party identification,” Bullock means that whether your view is changed depends in part on your party identification as well as the candidates. For example, if a Republican were to hear a negative story about a Democratic candidate, his impression of the Democratic candidate becomes worse. However, when it is revealed that the information was false, his opinion of the Democratic candidate does not return to its initial state, instead his belief lies somewhere between the initial state and the false state (and the same is true for Democrats and Republican candidates). In contrast, if a Republican hears a negative story about a Republican candidate, his perception of the candidate goes down, but after learning that the information was false, his perception returns to his initial state (again, the same for Democrats and Democratic candidates).

{ 4 comments }

Scott McClurg November 28, 2007 at 11:11 am

This is really a fascinating finding, with all kinds of implications for politics. But having not read the paper, I wonder if Bullock examined how the subject’s perception of the information source changes. In other words, do Republicans penalize Republican sources for false information about Democrats? About Republicans?

low-tech cyclist November 28, 2007 at 11:38 am

Fascinating stuff. Depressing, but fascinating.

As a lefty, my main thought is that, as long as the GOP continues to be the way it is, the Dems will have a target-rich GOP to inflict ‘honest smears’ – damaging claims that have the advantage of being true – on.

Now they’ve just got to figure out how to use the truth to play hardball politics. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party is absolutely terrible at this.

Dan November 28, 2007 at 12:49 pm

“Sometimes false beliefs influence peoples attitudes even after they are known to be false.”

How much of that is media induced? OJ was found innocent, but his news coverage always implies guilt. Iraq didn’t have WMD, but don’t tell anybody who watches Fox News. Bush is not a popular president, Clinton is not a socialist softy, and the mexicans are not invading, but you’ll never get that from the editors of the washington post.

The apparent facts influence what people think is true. Just because falsehoods have been labeled false doesn’t mean they won’t be repeated in ways that make them seem true. Remember CNN repeated “John Kerry was infuriated by this ad by Swiftboat Veterans for Truth” every half hour and then played the complete ad.

Do the effects of a retraction weaken over time. Are the effects weaker if the false claim is outside standard frames (democrats are disorganized, opportunistic, weak on defense, aroused by the sight of regulation, gay heathens confiscating your taxes so they can buy welfare queen votes. Republicans are arverse to reality, closeted homosexuals, strong on defense, manly servants of the rich. Blacks are poor, dumb, sex driven, drug addicted criminals with frightfully large dicks. Women should be submisive, husbands should rule over their households, and Israel is always only defending itself)?

Inquiring minds want to know…

John November 30, 2007 at 1:38 pm

I wonder if Bullock examined how the subject’s perception of the information source changes. In other words, do Republicans penalize Republican sources for false information about Democrats? About Republicans?

Scott,

I didn’t examine this. It’s a logical next step.

Someone suggested that my findings imply that it’s always to politicians’ advantage to launch false but plausible attacks on their opponents. Of course, this isn’t so—and one reason is that false attacks, once exposed, may redound to the discredit of the attackers even if they maintain some of their power.

Are the effects weaker if the false claim is outside standard frames (democrats are disorganized, opportunistic, weak on defense, aroused by the sight of regulation [...]

Dan,

I think that no one has done an empirical study of this topic, but I have done closely related research. Leaving truth and falsehood aside, a standard spatial model of preferences suggests that if intuitive and counterintuitive claims are equally credible, the counterintuitive ones should have a greater effect on preferences. But I find only weak evidence of this. The paper on this topic is experimental; it won’t be ready to distribute for several months.

We have little empirical work on the relative power of intuitive and counterintuitive political claims. I’d like to see more.

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