People Believe What Resonates With Their Beliefs: An Interesting Experiment

Over at CoOp, Dave Hoffman points to a new paper, “They Saw a Protest”: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction, by the folks at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project — Dan Kahan, Dave, my colleague Don Braman, Danieli Evans, and Jeffrey Rachlinski. The paper reports the results of an interesting study on how a person’s political and ideological worldview impacts how they see facts that have a significant political and ideological valence.

In the study, individuals are shown a video of a protest at a building. Individuals are then asked to say, based on the video, whether the protesters violated a law that that prohibits intentionally interfering with, obstructing, intimidating, or threatening a person seeking to enter, exit, or remain lawfully on the premises. Now here’s the catch: There were actually two videos, not one. The two videos are identical except that the designers of the study altered the videos to change what was being protested. One video is edited so that the protest is against military recruiters; the second video is edited so that the protest is against an abortion clinic.

Here’s the video for the abortion clinic:

Here’s the same video for military recruiting.

The results of the study found that people tended to find or not find liability based on large part on their views of abortion and military recruiting. As the authors of the paper explain:

Our subjects all viewed the same video. But what they saw—earnest voicing of dissent intended only to persuade, or physical intimidation calculated to interfere with the freedom of others—depended on the congruence of the protestors’ positions with the subjects’ own cultural values.

Motivated cognition not only polarized individuals of diverse cultural outlooks but also generated contradictions in what subjects of a shared orientation reported seeing. Relatively hierarchical and communitarian subjects rejected the proposition, credited by relatively egalitarian and individualistic ones, that demonstrators were blocking access to a facility represented to be an abortion clinic; yet when hierarchical communitarians understood the demonstrators to be objecting to the exclusion of openly gay and lesbian citizens from the military, they agreed the protestors were blocking access to the same building—a claim that egalitarian individualists now overwhelmingly dismissed. Subjects subscribing to a hierarchical individualistic outlook as well as those adhering to an egalitarian communitarian one exhibited similar shifts in perception.

Perhaps none of this is particularly surprising to folks who spend a lot of time on the Internet. If reading political blogs teaches you anything, it’s that as soon as the political valence of an event changes, those with strong political views will often switch their assessments of that event. But the study is a nice demonstration of the dynamic.