How Facts Backfire

That’s the title of a very nice article by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe. The subject is political misinformation and the stubborn persistence of political beliefs in the face of correct information. Keohane focuses on the work of Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (see here or here for our links to this work). The piece also mentions the work of Larry Bartels, Jim Kuklinski, Milton Lodge, and Charles Taber—as well as a working paper (pdf) by Jack Citrin and me on the (null) effects of certain information about immigrants.

Of course, the picture isn’t always that grim. In another paper (pdf), I find that correct information about who pays the estate tax—namely, a small fraction of people, all of whom are pretty rich—increases support for the tax and it does so among primarily among people whom you might think would resist this information: conservatives and Republicans.

But, as Brendan correctly notes, the study of information and misinformation is “very much up in the air.” Political scientists simply don’t have a very thorough account of why factual information corrects misperceptions and changes attitudes in some contexts but backfires in others.

11 Responses to How Facts Backfire

  1. Charles July 11, 2010 at 9:42 am #

    Aren’t we ALL “pretty rich” here in America? The full estate tax does, in fact, hit family businesses with one big, appreciated asset fairly hard. Heirs who actually want to keep running the business (rather than just take the loss and liquidate) especially find themselves between a rock and a hard place. That can’t be good for the economy, especially unemployment rate from said small businesses. Maybe there’s something we could do about at least that.

  2. MQ July 11, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    In your paper you appear to say that the “correct answer” on how many people pay the estate tax is 1 to 5 percent of Americans. But under 2009 estate tax rules, only about one-fifth to one-quarter of one percent of deaths owed an estate tax. So wouldn’t the right answer be, (a lot) less than one percent?

  3. Charles July 11, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    Unless Obama and the Dems in Congress change 2010 retroactively, ZERO percent of Americans will be subject to the estate tax this year. The problem will be the FULL estate tax kicking in next year (there are lots of small businesses worth over $1 million, or $2 million for a married couple).

    In John’s abstract, there’s a reference to “casual” information, when I think you meant “causal.”

  4. mike July 11, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    That is already taken care. First, because the thresholds for a meaningful tax rate are high, very few small, family business are affeected. When the proponents of eliminating the estate tax tried back around 2004 to find a farmer who had to sell, they could not find one. The second reason it does not happen very often (I’ll never say never) is that if a single asset makes up 35% or more of the estate, arrangements can be made to take up to 14 years to pay of the estate tax.

  5. John Sides July 11, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

    Charles: Thanks for catching the typo. On family businesses, few are actually subject to the tax (as Mike notes). See here:

    In fact, the expiration of the estate tax in 2010 may actually hurt them:

    MQ: I am not suggesting that 1-5% is the correct answer. Re-read that section. And if you read deeper into the paper, you will see that the factual information provided to respondents is that “the vast majority, about 99%” don’t have to pay the tax. This is based on CBPP calculations again.

  6. Charles July 11, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    How many will have to pay if the Bush tax cuts expire with no change next year as soon as their small business goes over $1 million?

  7. Charles July 11, 2010 at 10:48 pm #

    Thank you for admitting, at least, that a few small businesses (my parents are one) will actually subject to the tax.

  8. Carlos July 12, 2010 at 1:37 am #

    Given the wild fluctuations of the estate tax exclusion amount in recent years, the “correct information” as to how many people are affected by this tax ought to be better defined. As things now stand, as of next year the exclusion will affect all estates above 1 million. If you google the number of millionaires in the USA, and multiply that number by a small integer (the number of family members who are also affected by the tax — actually more so that the person who “pays” it) then the percentage of those potentially affected comes closer to 10% of the population. In any case, a more interesting question to ask would be what the exclusion amount and the tax rate for the taxed amount should be (reminding the subjects that states take a cut as well). It is perfectly possible for someone to support an estate tax but oppose a low exclusion level or very high tax rate.

  9. Charles July 12, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    Good points, Carlos. One of the articles linked above points to a little-known capital gains tax provision that could make this year’s savings a wash. I think some of us want lower taxes in ALL categories. Also, Obama and the Dems may try to “retroactively” increase this year’s estate tax. But, they say, you at least have 14 years to pay that onerous tax (with interest and penalties of course).


  10. Charles July 14, 2010 at 4:12 pm #

    No follow-up reply from John? After Steinbrenner’s death (and his family saving an estimated $500 million because he died this year instead of next year), I would think that the death tax would have become a hot topic. When former Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie died, his family sold their share in the football franchise to pay the “measly” $45 million they owed in taxes. I guess that you would argue they are “rich” enough to afford it. My point has always been that some families are NOT.

  11. David July 15, 2010 at 7:14 am #

    As I commented in my post on this article, I don’t think the picture is as grim as the article makes it out to be. People need values to filter the abundant info out there. Also the distinction between fact and falsehood is not as clear in reality.