Political Psychology

Right-wing authoritarians are less likely to update false beliefs after corrective feedback, study finds

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New research has found that right-wing authoritarians tend to be less successful at correcting erroneous beliefs than others. The study, published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, provides evidence that cognitive factors, such as a general aversion to new information, are related authoritarian attitudes.

“I first became interested in this topic because of the pervasive effects of misinformation. I found it fascinating that people can hold false memories and beliefs that are so remarkably resistant to change,” said study author Alyssa (Allie) Sinclair, a PhD student at Duke University.

“Misinformation in the media has serious consequences for public health, politics, and the environment. If we encounter misinformation that is later retracted, we need to be able to correct our false beliefs. For example, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans received conflicting information about the costs and benefits of wearing masks. Even though science has now clearly shown that wearing masks helps reduce disease transmission, many people still hold onto their false beliefs based on outdated information.”

“In this study, we decided to explore whether right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), a specific type of conservative thinking that features an ideology of control and rigidity, was related to the process of belief updating. We chose to investigate RWA because it has been linked to racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and political polarization. These issues are more important than ever because our societies are grappling with deep cultural and political divisions that are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sinclair explained.

“The current global prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement also highlights the acute need to confront racial bias and the authoritative policies that can perpetuate inequity. For example, RWA predicts prejudice and support for racially-motivated policing. As these social issues have moved to the front of public discourse, many people have found that it is increasingly difficult to have productive discussions about these controversial topics.”

“In order to find solutions, people must be receptive to listening to others’ perspectives and be prepared to revise their beliefs. This research is critical for understanding how people learn from feedback that challenges their beliefs,” Sinclair said.

In the study, 278 U.S. residents recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform were presented with a series of statements and indicated whether they believed each statement was true or false. The participants also reported how confident they were that the statements were true or false.

The statements included factual information along with common urban myths, such as “Diamonds are formed when coal undergoes high pressure”, “Dogs see in black-and-white”, and “Antibiotics kill viruses, like the flu”. Immediately after rating a statement, the participants were informed whether the statement was indeed true or false.

After providing true or false judgments for 120 statements, the participants provided demographic information and completed assessments of political ideology and personality, including right-wing authoritarianism. They were then shown 60 of the 120 statements and again asked to indicate whether each statement was true or false. One week later, the participants completed a second test using the remaining 60 statements.

Overall, the participants rated a substantial number of false statements as true during their first go-around. But most participants improved during the subsequent testing phases.

The researchers found that participants who scored higher on the measure of right-wing authoritarianism tended to be less successful at correcting their false beliefs after receiving feedback. Those high in right-wing authoritarianism were also less likely to learn from feedback when it contradicted a false belief they were confident about. Confidence was unrelated to updating a false belief among those low in right-wing authoritarianism.

“We used a set of urban myths to challenge everyday misconceptions and false beliefs, testing how well people learn from feedback. We found that individuals who scored high on RWA tended to be less successful at updating their beliefs, even though the beliefs in question had nothing to do with politics or ideology. We also found that high-RWA individuals were less likely to update beliefs when corrective feedback was surprising, suggesting that they may be resistant to changing strongly-held beliefs,” Sinclair told PsyPost.

The researchers also measured the participants’ political conservatism and social dominance orientation, but neither were associated with differences in learning from feedback. But they did find that actively-open minded thinking was positively associated with updating false beliefs.

“In this study, we wanted to test whether RWA was related to underlying cognitive processes, so we used stimuli that did not address very strong politicized beliefs. Future studies should explore whether our findings also apply to politicized topics like climate change. It also remains unknown whether left-wing radicals with authoritarian attitudes show similar biases,” Sinclair said.

“Lastly, in this study, we provided very simple feedback to our participants (True/False answers). Research in educational psychology suggests that more elaborate feedback that offers reasons or alternative explanations may be more effective for learning. Future studies can test which types of feedback are most beneficial for belief updating.”

The study, “Closed-minded cognition: Right-wing authoritarianism is negatively related to belief updating following prediction error“, was authored by Alyssa H. Sinclair, Matthew L. Stanley, and Paul Seli.

(Image by James Paramecio from Pixabay)