People are less willing to share information that contradicts their pre-existing political beliefs and attitudes, even if they believe the information to be true, according to new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The phenomenon, which researchers have dubbed selective communication, could help explain the widening gulf between liberals’ and conservatives’ perceptions of reality in the United States.
“For a long time, I’ve been interested in how our political opinions and our partisan attachments bias how we deal with information. We’ve known for a while that people are very selective in what they read, listen to, and ultimately believe. And that’s a problem if we want political behavior to have some grounding in objective reality,” said study author Pierce Ekstrom, assistant professor at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
“Selective communication was so interesting to me because if people are biased in what they talk about with others, they could perceive reality very clearly and still present distorted or inaccurate versions of reality to the people around them. People counting on their friends and family for information will only get the facts they are willing to provide.”
In four studies, which included 2,293 individuals, participants were presented with a few positive and negative effects either of increasing the minimum wage or of banning assault weapons. After reading a positive or negative effect of the policy, the participants indicated whether they believed the finding and how likely they would be to mention the finding to someone close to them.
As expected, liberal participants were more likely to believe in the positive effects of the minimum wage and banning assault weapons, while conservative participants were more likely to believe in the negative effects of the minimum wage and banning assault weapons.
“When ideology, partisanship, or a strong political opinion is at stake, it is difficult to persuade people to believe unappealing political facts. Which we call ideology-inconsistent, identity-inconsistent, or attitude-inconsistent information. Bear in mind this first point is not remotely new to our study,” Ekstrom told PsyPost.
But the researchers found that participants were also consistently more willing to pass on findings that supported their political ideology. This selective communication of information occurred regardless of whether participants believed the findings were accurate.
In other words, liberal participants expressed a greater willingness to communicate the positive effects of the minimum wage and banning assault weapons, while conservative participants expressed a greater willingness to communicate the negative effects of those policies.
“Even if and when you succeed in persuading someone that something is true, they may be relatively unwilling to pass that information along if it undermines their ideological, partisan, or other political commitments,” Ekstrom explained.
This biased sharing of information also appeared to be impacted by political ideology in another way.
“Liberals were most biased in communication with ideological opponents, revealing greater willingness to discuss ideology-inconsistent information with fellow liberals than with conservatives. Conservatives, in contrast, were most biased in communication with ideological allies—and showed no significant evidence of bias in what they were willing to communicate to liberals,” the researchers said.
All research includes some limitations, and the current study is no exception.
“There are at least two” important caveats, Ekstrom said. “First, we asked people how likely they would be to mention the information we showed them. Their answers to this hypothetical question may under- or overestimate how selectively they communicate in actual conversations.
“Second, we focused on people’s willingness to share a specific type of information: good and bad effects of increasing the minimum wage and banning assault weapons. People may show different biases in how they talk about other issues. They may also show different biases in how they about information that is less black-and-white (like what they’d read in an op-ed, for example).”
The study, “The Selective Communication of Political Information“, was authored by Pierce D. Ekstrom and Calvin K. Lai.