Individuals who fail a test of cognitive reflectiveness are more likely to doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and also less likely to characterize the January 6 Capitol attack as violent and extreme, according to new research published in American Behavioral Scientist. The new study indicates that fact-checking articles by media organizations can successfully influence attitudes about the 2020 election, particularly among those who are show a greater ability to correct faulty intuitions.
“We have been interested in fact-checking for several years, so when we realized that nearly a third of Americans believe former President Trump’s false claims that systematic and decisive fraud caused him to lose the election, we wanted to explore strategies for correcting their false beliefs,” said study author David Lynn Painter, an assistant professor at Rollins College.
“Speciﬁcally, we wanted to measure how the ways that Americans think (intuitive and heuristic versus reflective and critical thinking) may inﬂuence their responses to election fraud fact-checking. Thus, we designed an experiment with a control and a treatment condition to measure fact-checking’s inﬂuence on viewers’ conﬁdence in the election’s legitimacy and characterizations of the January 6 Capitol Hill attack.”
Painter and his co-author, Juliana Fernandes, recruited 737 adults from Prolific Academic crowdsourcing platform and from a college in the United States between September 17 and 24, 2021. The participants completed a Cognitive Reflection Test, which contains questions that tend to generate quick and intuitive — but incorrect — answers. In other words, the test measures the tendency to “go with your gut” instead of thinking critically about a problem.
The participants were then randomly assigned to either read an election fraud fact-checking article from the Associated Press or an article about birdwatching (the control condition). Afterward, they completed a questionnaire regarding their perceptions of the 2020 election’s legitimacy and the January 6 Capitol attack.
The researchers found that participants who read the Associated Press article tended to express greater confidence in the election’s legitimacy compared to those who read the birdwatching article. In other words, those who read the fact-checking article were more likely to agree with statements such as “I am confident the ballots in the 2020 U.S. presidential election were secure from tampering.”
The difference was particularly pronounced among Republican participants. “Republicans in the treatment condition reported 29% greater confidence in the election’s legitimacy than did those in the control condition,” the researchers observed.
Painter and Fernandes also found evidence that critical thinking played an important role. Participants who failed to answer a single question correctly on the Cognitive Reflection Test reported less confidence in the election’s legitimacy and characterized the Capitol attack as less violent and extreme compared to those who answered at least one question correctly.
The findings indicate that “factchecking works, especially among people who are critical (versus intuitive) thinkers,” Painter told PsyPost. “In fact, we found that factchecking Trump’s claims of election fraud was most effective at correcting false beliefs among Republicans who are critical thinkers.”
“On the other hand, Republicans and Democrats with positive attitudes toward Trump who are intuitive thinkers were the most likely to believe Trump’s false election fraud claims and to believe that the January 6 Capitol Hill attack was a legitimate protest,” the researcher explained. “Further, these ﬁndings suggest pro-Trump Republicans who are intuitive thinkers may ﬁnd violent acts acceptable means of achieving their goals.”
The findings are in line with some previous research, which has provided evidence that people who score better on the Cognitive Reflection Test tend to be less trusting of fake news, regardless of whether the made-up stories appeal to their political ideology.
But Trump continues to say that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and many Republican voters continue to believe his false claims. The ongoing situation has led to heightened concerns about the state of democracy in the United States.
“The partisan gap between Republican and Democrat’s confidence in the 2020 election’s legitimacy is a symptom of our political party affiliations becoming central elements of our identities,” Painter said. “And when our political party afﬁliation becomes central to our identities, it may lead to moral disengagement and violence. These partisan divides are also reﬂected in survey results suggesting that more than 80% of Americans believe there is a serious threat to democracy, but most Democrats cite voter suppression while most Republicans refer to voter fraud (Marist Poll, 2021).”
“These conﬂicting concerns in the wake of the 2020 election have justiﬁed 25 Democrat-controlled states enacting 62 laws expanding voting access where it was already relatively easy to vote, while 19 Republican-controlled states have passed 33 new laws making it harder to vote where it was already relatively difﬁcult to do so (Brennan Center for Justice, 2021).”
“Finally, after the highest voter turnout in more than a century – and a deadly violent attack halting the resulting transfer of power – an individual’s access to their right to vote increasingly depends on partisan policies in their home state,” Painter added.
“Even more troubling, however, is that the 19 state’s new voting restriction laws were based on ‘The Big Lie’ that there was systematic and decisive election fraud in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. And while the results of this study indicate election fraud fact-checking may correct viewers’ false beliefs, it does not appear to inﬂuence their attitudes toward the Capitol Hill attack that was motivated by those false beliefs.”
The study, ““The Big Lie”: How Fact Checking Influences Support for Insurrection“, was published May 18, 2022.