Backfiring Facts

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Research has shown that not only do facts not sway some people’s political opinions, they can actually backfire and cause a person to become more entrenched in their beliefs. Patrick Kenney, the Director of ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies, will discuss how facts can backfire with regard to political beliefs.

Ted Simons: it's often been said that facts are stubborn things but the opposite could also be true. researchers have found that facts can actually backfire and make people more entrenched in their political beliefs. here to talk about this phenomenon is Patrick Kenney, director of arizona's state university school of politics and global studies. good to see you again. thanks for joining us.

Patrick Kenney: thank you.

Ted Simons: facts don't necessarily change minds. explain what's going on here?

Patrick Kenney: right, people who hold political attitudes, those attitudes take a long time to cement and come together. they're often based in family and politics over time and so if facts run counter to what these people believe, what many voters believe, they often don't change their mind. they hold pretty firm and kind of ignore those facts altogether.

Ted Simons: let's say you believe tax cuts do a certain thing whether it's good or bad and that's been your belief for your lifetime, yet all the research and pretty credible folks could show you the graphs and the numbers, not only will you not believe them, you'll become further entrenched in your beliefs?

Patrick Kenney: especially when the sender, that is the person that's giving that you information, if that person in the opposite view in particular. so if you don't trust the source, you can almost automatically dig in deeper on your own beliefs.

Ted Simons: the is study suggests that the politically sophisticate are the worst?

Patrick Kenney: the politically sophisticated, a very small portion of the population, they are the political elites, they tend to be in the media, interest groups. they have strong ability to counterargue facts they don't like to hear.

Ted Simons: i want to make sure we're not confusing the uninformed with the misinformed, correct?

Patrick Kenney: correct. right, there's 50 years of research. i think this resonates with a lot of people. politics takes a lot of time to follow and to stay attuned to and everyone's very busy in their daily lives. and for lots of good reasons, people don't follow politics all that frequently. we have found on a lot of public policy issues, they actually do not hold strong views at all and they're not consistent in those views. it's the politically sophisticated, it's the elites who -- not only the voters, ok? it's about half the population but people who work in politics, politicians, press, interest groups, those kinds of people. those are the kinds of people that hold these strong views.

Ted Simons: why is this happening? it makes sense to say, hey, listen, this is right, this is wrong and for you not to believe just because it comes from someone you may not also have other beliefs with, why is this going on?

Patrick Kenney: research has shown -- it's been a pretty consistent pattern over time, some of the most recent research showed the heightened heavily partisan environment. there's a strong divide especially among political elites but it's resonating among many voters, too, that they do not trust another party, other interest groups other sources for the information they hear.

Ted Simons: what about the glut of information on the internet, you can find anything you want on the internet, agreeing or disagreeing. how much is that playing a factor?

Patrick Kenney: we think it's playing a dramatic factor, there's two strong findings we're seeing on this. one is the people who aren't interested in politics, there's a lot more easily accessible information about politics, they tend not to follow that, they tend to go to all the new entertainment sources out there. we've not elevated a larger percentage of people who follow politics. that's not changed. a lot of people who talk about the strength of democracy was hoping that would happen. the second thing is now all the selection so people who like politics and follow it tend to gravitate to the sources that say what they wanted to hear. psychologists call attribution theory or agreement principles. you want to hear and agree with your beliefs.

Ted Simons: we do debates here on "horizon." i like to think when we get candidates together and they talk about things and debate back-and-forth, viewers are watching and weighing the two candidates on what they say, the information they're getting and who seems to have it right and who seems to have it wrong. you're saying not necessarily?

Patrick Kenney: right, not necessarily and there's actually two affects you can think about there. one it tends to re-enforce preexisting attitudes, unless we're seeing some effects where the news media help interpret, debate a specific situation. sophisticated politicians often sound very good next to one another and so if you came in liking politician a that politician probably sounds good. if you like politician b, they probably sounded good but they may go to a neutral draw as you listen to the information especially when they talk about public policy you're not following, the media could have a strong impact in interpreting that.

Ted Simons: is that because our brains are wired to make short cuts? we're busy with other things as you mentioned earlier? make it a shortcut, make it precise and we'll take it from there?

Patrick Kenney: we know people use shortcuts when they're assessing politicians. one easy shortcut cue is political party.

Ted Simons: give me the ramifications for our democracy here with the idea being you can be as clear as your facts and no one cares.

Patrick Kenney: this is a longstanding debate among theorists in democracy over the past 2000 years especially over the past 300 years because there's been so many new democracies. how many people have to be informed? how many people have to know exactly what they're talking about? there's no good answer to that. people go back-and-forth. the united states is the longest standing democracy currently in the world and we know that sizable proportion of our electorate doesn't follow politics at all.

Ted Simons: is there a way, though to address the phenomenon of being presented with facts that disprove your beliefs and yet you still not only continue with your beliefs but are even holding to them stronger? is there anything you can do about that?

Patrick Kenney: probably not. at least not in the evidence we're seeing right now. people do tend to change their mind on view -- on issues they don't view are very salient to them but of course then we're not really interested in those because most of the important issues are salient to people. right now, the given way we look at this research, it doesn't seem to be very hopeful you can persuade people in different kinds of views.

Ted Simons: last question, the whole idea of you grow older, you grow wiser, you're a little more able to balance things do we see anything as far as age differences here?

Patrick Kenney: i see the opposite. the older you grow, the more entrenched you are in your beliefs. you've held them longer. harder to persuade you to do differently.

Ted Simons: basically i can wear a clown costume and stand up there and spout all kinds of things and if folks like me, i could be elected whether or not what i say is true or false?

Patrick Kenney: depending on the cue you give off as a clown.

Ted Simons: wow! that's somewhat disturbing but interesting stuff. thanks so much for joining us. we appreciate it.

Patrick Kenney: you're welcome.

Patrick Kenney:Director, ASU's School of Politics;

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