New research monitoring 602 American voters during the 2016 presidential election reveals that people often reshape their memories to align with their current opinions. The study published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, also found that participants were vulnerable to misinformation, or “fake news,” without being aware of these biases.
Previous research in psychology has demonstrated that people often display a memory bias in which they remember their past attitudes as more in line with their current opinions. This bias is usually unconscious, which could make it emotionally or cognitively easier to handle. However, the influence of false information on memory, particularly during political events, can leave a lasting impact even if corrected later.
A team of researchers led by Rebecca Grady of the University of California, Irvine aimed to investigate how voters’ memories and attitudes changed during an election season. The divisive 2016 presidential election in the United States provided an ideal case study. The study focused on exploring the psychology behind the shift from disliking to supporting a candidate, examining the roles of memory bias and susceptibility to fake news.
Participants in the study were U.S. adults, averaging 35 years old and mostly male, non-Hispanic white, and mostly Democratic recruited online through Amazon’s marketplace Mechanical Turk, or MTurk. Data was collected via three surveys conducted at three critical times: during the primaries, just before the general election, and two months post-election. Researchers assessed changes in attitudes toward candidates, memory accuracy of past events and attitudes, and susceptibility to fake news.
Findings revealed that people’s memories of their past opinions on candidates tended to shift to align with their current views. This finding was statistically significant and held true across the study’s timeline.
“Moreover, participants were largely unaware of this bias,” the researchers wrote. “When asked whether their attitudes or memory had changed significantly over time, the vast majority of participants did not acknowledge any possibility that they may not accurately recall their past attitudes. For example, ‘I don’t think I feel more positively or negatively with any candidate,’ and ‘No, I think that my memory of my attitudes are correct, and that I feel the same way now as then,’ were both responses from people who changed their favorability towards either Trump or Clinton by over 30 points between Time 1 and Time 2.”
In addition, supporters of candidates were more susceptible to false positive news about their preferred candidates, while opponents remembered negative fake news more easily. Despite evidence of memory and attitude change, most participants also did not acknowledge that their views had shifted over time.
“One notable finding was the high rate of endorsement of false news items by Republicans who supported Trump during the primary,” the researchers explained. “Trump-supporting Republicans were twice as likely to remember at least one false event as other groups. This was particularly true for the negative Clinton events and the positive Trump event, driving the finding that Republicans overall were more likely to remember the Republican-congruent fake news items, while Democrats were not more likely to recall the Democrat-congruent fake news items.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. The study sample was recruited from the crowdsourcing marketplace MTurk, so it may not be entirely representative of the general population — participants on MTurk tend to be more Democratic and liberal than the general population. In addition, the possibility of “anchoring effects,” where the framing of questions influences responses, was also noted.
The study, “From Primary to Presidency: Fake News, False Memory, and Changing Attitudes in the 2016 Election“, was authored by Rebecca Hofstein Grady, Peter H. Ditto, Elizabeth F. Loftus, Linda J. Levine, Rachel Leigh Greenspan, and Daniel P. Relihan.