A recent study has found that our political beliefs and the ideological cues associated with university labels can significantly influence our perceptions of academic research. The findings, published in American Politics Research, shed light on how our preexisting ideologies impact our views of scientific studies.
Researchers have long been interested in understanding how people’s political beliefs influence their perceptions of various issues, including scientific topics like climate change and racial disparities. Previous studies have shown that individuals often engage in motivated reasoning, where they interpret information in a way that aligns with their existing beliefs. However, this new study delves deeper into the role of university labels in shaping these perceptions.
“When Dr. Santoro and I started looking into this question in 2018, we were struck by what was then a relatively new set of findings about declining conservative trust in science and higher education,” said study author Emily Sydnor, an associate professor at Southwestern University and author of “Disrespectful Democracy: The Psychology of Political Incivility.”
“We also knew intuitively from our own experiences in many universities across several states that there were differences in public perceptions of the ideological placement of different schools, whether that was based on the overall composition of the student body, religious affiliation, or some other factor. As we talked about how these two things might relate to one another, the idea for the paper was born!”
To investigate the impact of political ideology and university labels, the researchers conducted two experiments.
The first experiment involved 835 participants recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in October 2018. These participants were asked to read a paragraph of information on climate change and its causes. Importantly, the researchers varied the content of this information. Some participants received information supporting the scientific consensus that human activity contributes to climate change, while others received information suggesting that climate change is primarily a natural process.
The researchers attributed this information to different universities. Some participants were told the research came from the University of California at Berkeley, often perceived as a liberal institution, while others were told it came from Texas A&M University, seen as more conservative. There was also a group that received no university label.
“We hear the narrative that higher education is so liberal, but in reality Americans perceive some colleges and universities as more left-leaning (UC Berkeley) or right-leaning (Texas A&M),” Sydnor explained. “We should be clear that these assessments may or may not be based on a substantive body of evidence — that’s beyond the scope of what we looked at in our paper.”
The researchers explored three types of evaluation: subjective persuasion (how persuasive and convincing the research was), source credibility (how participants felt towards the sponsor of the research, how trustworthy they found the sponsor, and how credible they perceived the sponsor to be), and research credibility (how appropriate and fair the research was).
They found that liberals were more likely to find research supporting human-caused climate change persuasive and credible, while conservatives did not exhibit a significant difference in their assessments of the persuasiveness of the research.
The ideological cue associated with the university had a significant impact on liberals’ perceptions. When research aligned with their ideology and was attributed to a liberal university, liberals found it more persuasive and credible. Conversely, when the research contradicted their ideology and was attributed to a conservative university, liberals found it less persuasive and credible. However, conservatives’ assessments of research credibility were less influenced by the university source cue. Whether the research supported their views or not, their assessments remained relatively stable.
In the second experiment, conducted with 1,233 participants recruited through Prolific in September 2021, the researchers explored the influence of ideological cues and political beliefs in a different context. This time, the study focused on explanations for racial wealth disparities.
Participants were divided into treatments based on research findings about the racial wealth gap. Some were presented with research emphasizing institutional discrimination and policymaking (a liberal perspective), while others received information emphasizing individual choices and behaviors (a conservative perspective). The research was attributed to a fictional university, Central Illinois University, described as having both liberal and conservative faculty and student bodies, or without any university label.
The researchers found that both liberals and conservatives exhibited motivated reasoning, with liberals finding research supporting their ideology more credible and conservatives finding research supporting their views more credible.
The ideological cue associated with the university had a significant effect on liberals’ perceptions of research credibility. They found research from the conservative university less credible, and research from the liberal university more credible, compared to the control group. For conservatives, on the other hand, the university source cue did not have a significant impact on their assessments of research credibility. They were consistently skeptical of research that contradicted their beliefs, regardless of the university source.
“We find that colleges and universities act as an ideological source cue, and this cue impacts the way people understand and react to scientific research, particularly around politicized issues like climate change and racial disparities,” Sydnor told PsyPost. “This is particularly true for liberals, who are more likely to believe research that does not support typical liberal policy positions if it comes from a ‘liberal’ university.”
But, as with any study, there are limitations to consider. One limitation is the potential imbalance in the ideological makeup of participants, which could have influenced the results. Additionally, the use of real and fictional universities in the experiments may introduce some differences that could affect the findings.
“Given that the national narrative has centered mainly around conservative skepticism of scientific research, we were surprised when our findings suggested much stronger effects for liberals than conservatives,” Sydnor said. “However, that also leads into your question about major caveats and questions to be addressed. Because we used online samples, even when we tried to balance across key demographics, we were able to collect more data from liberals than conservatives.
“Thus, it’s not clear if conservatives are less susceptible to the university’s ideological source cue, or if we simply didn’t have enough conservatives in our sample to be confident in the statistical power of our results. We also only focused on two issues, both of which were highly salient at the times we ran the studies. The same effect may not show up if we focused on different issues.”
In terms of future research, it’s important to further explore the mechanisms behind these effects and understand why liberals appear more influenced by ideological cues than conservatives in these experiments. Additionally, researchers may investigate whether similar patterns emerge in other contexts beyond climate change and racial disparities.
The study, “Blind Trust, Blind Skepticism: Liberals’ & Conservatives’ Response to Academic Research“, was authored by Lauren Ratliff Santoro and Emily Sydnor.