Political partisans are not really that concerned about political bias per se

Liberals in the United States decry the bias of Fox News, while conservatives decry the bias of the New York Times. But new research suggest that partisans do not care much about political neutrality.

The study, published in PLOS One, found that partisan mostly cared about political bias that harmed their own side.

“I am currently a postdoc in the political science department at Stony Brook University, but this paper was part of my Ph.D. dissertation, in which I focused on understanding people’s perceptions of political bias,” said study author Omer Yair.

“The current study is one of my dissertation chapters; in another chapter I examined what causes students to infer political bias in the behaviors of their professors (that study can be found here), and in the concluding chapter I provide a more general theoretical account for people’s perceptions of political bias.

“All of these studies were made in collaboration with Prof. Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan, my then-PhD advisor,” Yair said.

“In a discussion I had with Raanan during my Ph.D., we noted that it seems that many athletes and sports fans do not really care about a referee’s mistake when it helps their team while they are angry and frustrated with a referee’s mistake that hurts their team. We thought that this familiar observation might also transpire in politics, where rival political groups compete in the presence of ‘mediators’ that are expected to be politically neutral.”

In three studies of 886 participants from Israel and the United States, Yair and his colleagues found that partisans tended to be less concerned with biases against their political foes.

For example, conservatives considered alleged Facebook bias against right-wing news outlets as more serious and as more warranting of correction than liberals did.

“People generally consider ‘political bias’ (in the media, academia, the FBI, in redistricting, or wherever) as something negative and inappropriate, and people from all political parties and ideologies also say that they prefer neutrally over bias, even when the bias in question would benefit their party or ideology,” Yair told PsyPost.

“In this study we focus on situations in which rival partisans agree that a particular act or message is politically biased and on the ‘nature’ (or ‘direction’) of the bias (i.e., who is it biased against/in favor of).”

“We show that even under such conditions, many of us are affected by partisanship and/or ideological leanings when we consider how serious that bias is and whether actions should be taken in order to address or correct that bias; if it helps our party or group, many of us would consider the bias as less serious or ‘problematic’, and would be less likely to take active measures to address it, in comparison to a case when the identified bias hurts our party or group.”

“Thus, it seems that, even though people say that they are against any bias, in many cases they are not really concerned about political bias per se; rather, they mainly care about political bias that hurts their party or group.”

However, not all partisans have this attitude.

“We should make it clear that not everybody responded differently to biases that help their political party or ideology and to biases that hurt it. We found that many people responded similarly to ‘helpful’ and ‘harmful’ biases,” Yair noted.

“And it would be interesting to find out in future studies who respond similarly and who respond differently to these different ‘types’ of bias. It would also be interesting to find out whether there are cases in which the bias is so blatant and extreme that partisans from all sides would consider it as similarly serious and reprehensible.”

The study, “When do we care about political neutrality? The hypocritical nature of reaction to political bias“, was authored by Omer Yair and Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan.