American politics have become increasingly divisive due to contrasting viewpoints — but can your political orientation actually alter your memory of significant events? A new study published in PLOS One suggests that political beliefs can cause people to misremember events in ways that play into their biases.
Tensions between the American political parties have debatably reached new highs in the past decade with the Trump presidency and the 2021 insurrection. Partisanship can significantly impact what moral standards individuals uphold, what behaviors they find acceptable from political leaders, and more.
Previous research has suggested that individual’s perceptions can be skewed by motive, which can lead to inaccurate memory recall. People are more likely to remember something that serves their beliefs and misinterpret something that challenges them. This study seeks to understand how people in each political party remember a video they are shown of the Women’s March.
For their study, Eden Hennessey and colleagues utilized a sample of 351 participants recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants were predominantly white with an average age of 37-years-old. Participants were asked demographic information, political ideology, and who they did or would have voted for in the 2016 election.
Participants were then shown a 87 second long video of the Women’s March and asked questions about it, including their perceptions of the protestors and how many times they saw certain events occur in the video. Events included actual events, neutral false events, and negative false events.
Results showed support for partisanship significantly affecting the memory of an event. Trump supporters were more likely to recall more negative and fewer positive protest techniques. Additionally, people who supported Trump perceived the event as much more extreme than other participants. Trump voters were more likely to report negative events that did not occur, such as people burning things or breaking windows.
When it came to events that did occur, all voters, regardless of political orientation, had similar memory. This implies that people were only motivated to see particularly negative events differently.
“Our findings showed that perceiving more negative tactics or negative events that did not occur, predicted perceptions of extremity, which in turn predicted lowered support for the movement,” the study authors explained. “Thus, the current study moves beyond research demonstrating that partisanship fuels diverging perceptions of an actual event, to show how such perceptions predict seeing actions as more extreme, which ultimately predicted diminished support for the cause. The present findings therefore may point to a feedback loop in which partisanship predicts perceptions of political events that confirm the narrative that political opponents are bad or evil.”
The new findings are in line with similar research, recently published in Political Psychology, which provided evidence that partisan biases can promote false memories.
But the new study, like all research, include some limitations. One such limitation is that the Women’s March is a left-leaning protest. Future research could include a right-leaning protest and see if left-leaning participants show similar patterns of false memory. Additionally, strength of political affiliation was not measured and could affect this phenomenon.
“In all, we suggest that the underlying worldview differences that divide individuals into partisan camps also impact how individuals literally view politically relevant events in the world around them,” the researchers concluded. “Even in the face of identical stimuli, people are apt to see what they want to, motivated by their own political narratives instead of factual accuracy. As a result, partisans perceive different realities which could in turn provide further fuel for the differences between the two sides.”
The study, “How political partisanship can shape memories and perceptions of identical protest events“, was authored by Eden Hennessey, Matthew Feinberg, and Anne E. Wilson.