Death Panels and the Challenges of Correcting Political Misperceptions

by John Sides on January 8, 2013 · 7 comments

in Health Care,Public opinion

Context: Misperceptions are a major problem in debates about health care reform and other controversial health issues.

Methods: We conducted an experiment to determine if more aggressive media fact-checking could correct the false belief that the Affordable Care Act would create “death panels.” Participants from an opt-in Internet panel were randomly assigned to either a control group in which they read an article on Sarah Palin’s claims about “death panels” or an intervention group in which the article also contained corrective information refuting Palin.

Findings: The correction reduced belief in death panels and strong opposition to the reform bill among those who view Palin unfavorably and those who view her favorably but have low political knowledge. However, it backfired among politically knowledgeable Palin supporters, who were more likely to believe in death panels and to strongly oppose reform if they received the correction.

Conclusions: These results underscore the difficulty of reducing misperceptions about health care reform among individuals with the motivation and sophistication to reject corrective information.


That is the abstract of a new paper by Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, and Peter Ubel.  A gated copy is here.  A neat graph is at Brendan’s blog.  It’s consistent with Nyhan and Reifler’s other research—e.g., here—that shows that correct information can backfire, especially among the people least likely to believe it in the first place.

{ 7 comments }

Bill January 8, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Part of this surely results from right-wing scaremongering about bias of the “mainstream media”. I’ve noticed that commenters on Yahoo political news stories frequently express extreme rage at any author who uses so-called facts to challenge their beliefs. Fact-checking is often seen as equivalent to left-wing bias.

Nick January 9, 2013 at 6:33 am

I think part of the problem here is that there isn’t a clear right or wrong answer. It is not obvious exactly what sort of powers the affordable care act is going to end up giving doctors or administrators. Here in the UK, the NHS already uses something rather similar to a “death panel” already. In fact, an actual death panel would probably be a step up in terms of accountability and transparency from their current procedure: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/elderhealth/9788737/Hospitals-treating-Liverpool-Care-Pathway-as-just-another-thing-to-do.html

My father is a clinician and he sits on a panel which decides how serious symptoms have to be before more expensive drugs can be used to treat certain conditions. Obviously, the panel doesn’t judge individual cases. It sets guidelines for other clinicians to follow.

So the fact that the US could end up with them is not implausible and treating those who worry about them as simply wrongheaded is a bad assumption. I think the main problem is that their possible use is not compared to the US status quo, where people are given sub-standard care which allow them to die sooner but not according to whether their health would benefit from better care, but according to their health insurance status. The two approaches are just different forms of bureaucratic rationing.

Adam January 9, 2013 at 11:41 am

How much of the results can be explained by “cheer-leading”–i.e., the knowledgeable Palin supporters (who are also likely to be more partisan/ideological) are using the costless survey response as an avenue to cheer lead for their favored side?

Even if the treatment makes it clear that the thing that conservatives labeled as “death panels” weren’t actually death panels, the term is loaded; for conservatives, it’s come to represent their general opposition to more centralization, more government control. For liberals, it’s come to represent the idiocy of their opposition. When partisan Palin supporters received the corrective treatment, they could have perceived it as a partisan signal from the other side and are just pushing back against that by cheer leading even more for their side.

I recently saw a presentation where the researchers paid survey respondents for correct answers on factual questions that had partisan significance–e.g., whether the deficit decreased in the Clinton years, or whether inflation has increased since Obama took office. When people were paid small sums for the correct answer (maybe 10 or 30 cents; I don’t recall the exact amounts), the difference between the answers given by Democrats and Republicans was cut in half compared to when no monetary incentives were provided for correct responses. In other words, in a world where responses are costless, some of what we attribute to partisan filters might just be partisan cheer-leading.

I couldn’t find a way to access the actual article to see what the corrective treatment consisted of, so my apologies if the authors addressed some of my points.

Kevin Hill January 9, 2013 at 5:39 pm

This is an excellent comment. I wonder if you could dig up a reference to the presentation on “paying” for right answers. All sorts of implications are possible in that finding.

Adam January 11, 2013 at 11:11 am

Sorry, I couldn’t find a copy of the working paper.

Brendan Nyhan January 10, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Hi Adam – That’s a good question. We weren’t able to pay participants for correct answers. (The paper you’re referencing actually found results that were characterized as surprisingly small — financial incentives closed only a fraction of the Dem-GOP gap on factual beliefs — but it’s under revision so we should withhold judgment until the authors release a more final version.)

In this case, it’s certainly possible that respondents were cheerleading to some extent, but if that were the only reason for the backlash, we would most likely expect it to be broadly shared among Palin supporters of all knowledge levels. The fact that the backfire response was concentrated among the most knowledgeable Palin supporters — the individuals who are best able to counter-argue unwelcome information — is consistent with the notion that people were trying to think of reasons to disbelieve the correction. Hope that helps…

Adam January 11, 2013 at 11:10 am

That makes sense. Thank you for replying to my comment–and for doing interesting work.

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