Motivated Reasoning and the Act of Obliteration

I continue to explore the notion of motivated reasoning and whether there is hope of overcoming the deep societal divide on political issues as empirical evidence separating fact from fiction mounts.

Adherence to views central to identity drives people toward sources of information that confirm their existing perspectives. Furthermore, people resist correcting misinformation. As one set of scholars studying this phenomenon note, “research indicates that corrective information often fails to change the false or unsupported belief in question, especially when the targeted misperception is highly salient.”

A critical question confronting us, then, concerns the conditions under which those holding beliefs central to their identity might revise their views in the face of strongly contradictory evidence.

Some researchers have identified mechanisms that might break through motivated reasoning.

Earlier this year, communications scholars at Boston University found from experiments with videos on climate change that skeptics were more likely to change their views when seeing damaging climate change impact in close geographical proximity, making the evidence less abstract.

In a fascinating 1955 book, When Prophecy Fails, researchers from the Laboratory for Research in Social Relations at the University of Minnesota studied an extreme instance of motivated reasoning, in which a small group of people embraced a prophecy involving their rescue from outer space from an upcoming cataclysmic flood. When the appointed flood (and extraterrestrial salvation) did not materialize on the appointed date, most of the followers in fact intensified their proselytizing. But a small number of former believers began to retreat from their views. The researchers found that in contrast with the former group, the latter individuals had been extracted from the social milieu reinforcing their original views, and were simply physically isolated from other adherents.

But how in such a deeply polarized and politicized environment saturated in social media is an equivalent “social isolation” effect possible?

Research on interactions between Twitter users, for example, suggests that while not all interactions are ideologically polarized, such polarization becomes highly pronounced for discussion of political issues (such as elections, government shutdown, the State of the Union address, e.g.).

These researchers find that for specific traumatic events – like the Newtown school shooting of 2012 – discussions that begin as information exchanges become highly polarized as they evolve into political debates about causes and remedies (i.e., gun control).

On Saturday I was at a social gathering which included many people I did not know. As I approached two men in the midst of discussion, prepared to introduce myself and join in, I overhead one make reference to “how unfair the whole thing is, since there is no evidence at all.” The man listening nodded vigorously in agreement. They were discussing the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination and the allegation of Christine Blasey Ford that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. Since this was a polite social gathering, I steered clear.

However, I’ve been thinking about this brief encounter ever since. Echoing a position heard frequently from conservative politicians and media sources, these two men do not consider Ford’s specific and detailed allegation as “evidence,” which of course it is (not to mention that there already is some additional evidence in the record).

In one stroke, they obliterated Ford’s existence, rendering the allegation simply a trick conjured by the political opposition.

I wondered whether it would have been best to break in to the conversation to offer an alternative perspective. Would my intervention have burst their self-reinforcing bubble, encouraging them to consider an alternative view? Or would they have instead, when learning that I am a professor, latched on to this fact to conclude that I suffer from liberal delusions and the disease of “political correctness,” further reinforcing their shared view?

And I continue to wonder: when Dr. Ford testifies this coming week, will they listen to the evidence? Will they approach her testimony with the understanding that her vivid recollection of the event, but not of the ancillary details of precise date and location are entirely consistent with everything known about sexual assault and memory?

Will they consider the possibility that she may well be telling the truth, and that Kavanaugh rather than Ford may be lying here (just as those of us inclined to believe Dr. Ford should be willing to conclude that the evidence is not compelling if warranted)? Or will they – as many others unwilling to look beyond their politically-driven conviction that Kavanaugh is “a good man” and a reliably conservative judge —  simply adjust their rationale for rejecting Christine Blasey Ford’s story?

Unfortunately, I fear I know the answer.

A Natural Experiment

We are in the midst of a natural experiment at the national level.

As I wrote about a few months ago, there is a great perceptual divide in the nation. I argued at the time that in the face of mounting evidence of lies and corruption “one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency” while “another group of American citizens grows increasingly angry with what they perceive to be a coordinated effort to delegitimize an administration that simply refuses to adhere to conventional norms imposed by elites, and takes delight in this refusal.”

The perceptual rift is deeply embedded, driven, as social psychologists have shown, by motivated reasoning in which individuals adjust to evidence threatening to their world view by modifying their justification for embracing that view rather than revising that view itself.

This appears to be a cogent explanation of a world in which, according to a June Quinnipiac poll, 82% of Democrats believe the Mueller probe is legitimate, while 81% of Republicans indicate it is a “political witch hunt.”

When Prophecy Fails.pngThe psychology of the perceptual divide explains why the incremental accrual of evidence is unlikely to result in significant converge of views. But we have now embarked on a natural experiment — a study in which events unfold that are not designed or planned by those conducting the experiment, and which are applied to the study group — i.e., supporters of the current administration. (Note that the study group would be those who condemn the incumbent of the White House as venal and dishonest were there mounting exculpatory evidence. That is by no means where the evidence is trending.)

The “treatment” applied to those who see a politically motivated investigation of the administration arrives in the form of confirmed legal evidence of massive and pervasive corruption, from tax fraud to money laundering to obstruction of justice, and likely more.

The outcome of the experiment could not be more significant, for the result will illuminate the future course of  American democracy. Will there be continued support for an unfettered press, democratic accountability and for rule of law?

Amazingly, we also have underway a localized microcosm of the larger experiment that is, chronologically, running just ahead of the national experiment.

In California’s 50th Congressional District, Congressman Duncan Hunter was indicted on August 21 – the very same day of the federal indictment against Michael Cohen and the finding of Paul Manafort’s guilt on charges of bank and tax fraud. The indictment against Hunter detailed misuse of $250,000 worth of campaign funds for personal expenses, along with wire fraud, falsification of records, breaches of campaign finance rules and other crimes.

While Hunter has been under federal investigation for a year, we now have an indictment detailing very specific and egregious illegal activities.

The indictment can be viewed as the “treatment” in the “experiment” underway. How will Hunter’s constituents react?

The experiment will continue until results of the November 6 election are settled, unless Hunter were to resign or drop out prior to that time, which to date he has indicated he will not do.

A recent New York Times article about Hunter’s 29-year old Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, quoted a veteran and supporter of the current occupant of the White House who was particularly disturbed by Hunter’s falsified filing of one set of personal expenditures as a contribution to the Wounded Warrior Project.

“It’s a form of stolen valor,” this person asserted, adding “that’s just a really crappy thing to do.” The conclusion? This individual “had not decided whom to vote for in November.”

How might we explain a logic that enables those observing the corrupt behavior to nonetheless continue to support, or at least to consider supporting, the perpetrator?

While offering only anecdotal evidence, the San Diego Tribune recently published a few reactions from constituents.

One wrote: “Gadz!! A politician involved in a scandal. That’s it, the world is about to end!!! Truthfully, I think it’s a slap in the face to his constituents, but I’ll vote for him (again) over his opponent, as the thought of the Democrats gaining even one more seat in the House is distasteful at the very least.”

Two components of the logic at work justify the decision to stick with Hunter: (1) all politicians are corrupt; and (2) electing a Democrat to Congress is the worst of all possible outcomes.

A commenter responding to an August 23 article in The Federalist echoes the first element of the justification for backing Hunter despite the indictment:

“This was a stupid crime, easily exposed and provable. Hunter and his wife wanted to live the good life. They probably hobnobbed with many rich people and wanted more. But I wonder if all the other members of Congress are now being audited to see if they did similar things?”

Presenting a version of the second component of the argument – that a member of Congress is simply an instrument for delivering a vote in support of an agenda, another constituent writes to the San Diego Tribune:

“Our good Congressman Duncan Hunter is criminally indicted for spending some campaign funds for personal use. As a public record that should be the extent of it. It was donated money. It’s disappointing, but no one here was a victim. Accordingly, I see no problem with a congressman choosing how to spend campaign funds for election probabilities. He may sacrifice in other ways no one is aware of. It’s how he votes that matters.”

Here we have a third logical construction at work that extends the ability to confirm support in the face of damning evidence: the Congressman makes other sacrifices for his constituents that are not visible. The psychological value of this rationale is that it is entirely irrefutable. Since the sacrifices are unnamed and invisible, their extent and magnitude are up to the imagination.

Buttressing the “all politicians are corrupt,” “it’s how he votes (and the opposition is far worse) that matters” and “he sacrifices in other ways” logics are rationales for dismissing the evidence that involve an embrace of macro-level narratives advanced by the current administration, involving distrust of the media and of the workings of the “Deep State” judiciary.

The recent New York Times article focused on Hunter’s Democratic challenger cites a self-identified conservative and supporter of the current occupant of the White House who is “withholding judgment” on Hunter’s indictment due to mistrust of the media. “How can you have an opinion about it if you don’t really know the circumstances?” asked this individual.

Another respondent to the August 23 article in The Federalist, implicitly embracing the “Deep State” conspiracy, writes:

“My question is why was this withheld until after the primary? Most of these events happened years ago and the investigation has gone on for a year. Why the delay? Was it to disadvantage the Republicans in the general election? It seems like it to me.”

Despite this anecdotal evidence, we do not know what the aggregate result of the stark verification of corruption will be. We know that some portion of voters will rationalize – through logics including those outlined above – their continued support for the corrupt member of Congress from the political party they support. We can surmise that that share of supporters of the corrupt Congressman will be substantial, but we do not know if it will be sufficient to carry him to reelection.

The most recent poll of likely voters – from late July — shows a somewhat narrowing race, with Hunter  ahead by 9 points. While this poll occurred in a context of investigations and allegations of campaign finance fraud, it does not yet factor in the formal indictment.

Dynamics at the national level look similar. The experiment is in a relatively early phase, so results remain uncertain. The psychology of motivated reasoning, along with the administration’s construction of narratives of media conspiracy and judicial illegitimacy may be reasons to despair of any convergence of views of American voters. But there are also some glimmers of hope.

A recent Washington Post article cites evidence – however tentative – that the administration’s attacks on the Mueller probe are becoming less effective.

There is little doubt that much more evidence of fraudulent and criminal behavior by the current occupant of the White House is soon forthcoming. The “treatment” applied in the experiment, in other words, will intensify.

As this occurs, we will have a crucial test of the extent to which assaults on democratic institutions and the rule have done deep and lasting damage to American democracy.