Reality Increases the belief in the Lie.

>> Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I always thought that if you had a story that was told to you and that story was later concretely refuted you would not believe that story. It seemed like the only rational way to live your life. If you have a belief and that belief is proved totally wrong by reality then you should stop believing in that thing. Apparently that might not be how the world works. If we are to believe a series of studies performed on the topic of debunking misinformation. The findings were synthesized in an article by the Washington Post.

The post article discusses what happens when people are informed that things they thought true were lies. The experiments point to a strange phenomenon where presenting proof of the lie actually increases support for the false claim. The findings were not limited to one group but the effect seemed to be most pronounced in Republicans-

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation -- the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration's claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar "backfire effect" also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

That paper is available in pdf here. There have been several speculations and musings about this effect in the blogosphere. Kevin Drum put forth a very common sense theory that makes sense given the common wisdom about the feelings about the "liberal media" and "ivory tower" academics and those damnlibruls in conservative circles.

I'd say it's because right-wing talkers have spent so many years deriding "so-called experts" that they now have negative credibility with many conservatives. The very fact that an expert says a conservative claim is wrong is taken as a good reason to believe the claim. This could probably be tested by doing a study of factual information outside the realm of politics and seeing if conservatives react the same way. If they do, maybe that's support for the generic rigidity theory. If not, it's support for the theory that conservatives simply distrust political elites.

It is something that sounded eminently reasonable to me. Spend over two decades telling people that a group is biased against them and you should start to build up a distrust or hostility to that group through socialization. In accordance with this theory that it is prejudice against the librul elites that causes a distrust of the facts dday over at Hullaballo advanced the idea that this would make fox news an especially powerful tool in combating the lies and smears. As a blatantly conservative outlet it should have much more credibility with the GOP. This led to an elevated importance of the Meghan Kelly's demolition of Tucker Bounds today on Fox News.

...Meghan Kelly's demolition of Tucker Bounds today on Fox News is arguably more important than the independent analyses or comprehensive takes from sources that ought to be trusted more.

You see that Bounds falls back on "you can't trust what Obama will say because he voted to raise taxes 94 times," etc. He's trying to delegitimize anything that comes out of Obama's mouth. And for some wingers, that will be enough. But seeing this argument play out on conservative media is far more likely to be impactful to those who have seen traditional sources trashed and conservative sources elevated and made trusted over the years. "Why is John McCain saying Obama will raise taxes on the middle class when he’s not?" is a pretty compelling argument coming from an embedded conservative trusted source, I would imagine. And Bounds had no answer for it.

We all have the power to be trusted sources in our spheres of influence. Instead of passing around links to the New York Times saying something or Time saying another, the only way to persuade in an environment of diminishing trusted sources is to create your own arguments. Cracks in the facade like Meghan Kelly showed today are not going to be plentiful, important as they may be.

What is interesting though is that Kevin Drum followed up after receiving an email,

Via email, Nyhan tells me that they tried to test my proposition that conservatives don't trust elite experts by varying the source of the refutations. Sometimes it was the New York Times, other times it was Fox News. "Surprisingly," he says, "it had little effect."

Yes it was very surprising to me. What are we to make of this then? Fox News fails to get through to conservatives? The paper actually needs more analysis as the first experiment that showed such strong back lash was not the only experiment that the pair conducted. They followed up to that first experiment and found results that were very different.

However, we again add an interaction between the correction and
ideology in Model 2 and find a statistically significant result. This time, however, the interaction term is negative – the opposite of the result from Study 1...

Unlike the previous experiment, the marginal effect of the correction is negative for individuals who placed themselves to the right of center, meaning that the correction made conservatives more likely to believe that Iraq did not have WMD.

They link this shift to a shift in the Bush policy on Iraq and the movement away from WMDs as a rationale for war. That line became a political liability as the 2006 campaign heated up. If we theorize that the main source of the response was the assault on something the believed to be true, ie a reliance on Bush and belief in his correctness, then the change does make sense as people became less invested in protecting the WMD angle.

It is this separate aspect of psychology discussed in the paper that seems to be getting overlooked. How committed a person is to a particular idea is playing a big factor.

there is a positive, statistically significant interaction between ideology, the correction, and issue importance (p < .02), indicating that the correction failed for conservatives who viewed Iraq as most important. Thus, even an effective correction may be resisted by highly committed subgroups.

The predicted probability that conservatives who chose other issues as most important would “somewhat agree” with the misperception that Iraq had WMD before the invasion decreased from .46 to .25 (p < .05). However, the predicted probabilities of responding “somewhat agree” among those who viewed Iraq as most important increased from .25 to .47 (p < .01) – another backfire effect. Thus, while the correction was more effective than in Study 1, its effects were reversed for the most strongly committed subjects.

People's emotional investment in the topic is increasing their resistance to the facts. They cant bring themselves to admit that they were wrong. That i think is the general thrust of the study. The general republican is more willing to believe that they are right. It is something we see all the time, instead of admitting that something is not working and changing the GOP doubles down. They cannot be wrong so then something else must be at fault.

The study is probably measuring this visceral reaction to the confrontation. People are having their views assaulted and instead of persuading them it is hardening them in the face of that opposition. It is not really a reaction to the media or the information presenter it is a reaction to someone telling you that what you believe is wrong. The more committed you are to a proposition the harder you will cling to that proposition even in the face of overwhelming opposition.

So i must concur with Reifler in that the main effect that appears here is a dogmatism prevalent in the GOP. Taxes and support for Bush and by extension his claims on wmds were two of the core beliefs of the GOP for a significant period of time. Tax cuts still are. Assaulting those appears to have caused a reaction where people reaffirm there beliefs more strongly than before. It is a no, "that cant be right" response. If they hold a belief then any challenge to that belief, no matter the source, draws a strong protectionist response.

There are contemporary political implications to all of this. They involve Sarah Palin and John McCain. We have to watch the foll trends in the favorable unfavorable categories to see if people are adjusting their opinion as the facts about the lies come out. It is very possible we see McCain and Palin solidify their support among the conservatives because of this. They have a strong emotional investment in their beliefs about McCain and Palin and will be very resistant to changing them.

Thus the entire spectacle around the bridge lie may end up Backfiring if the indy's who like palin are too emotionally invested to accept the facts. The conservatives are most likely a lost cause on this front and i do expect that any attacks will only increase their support of the two regardless of their corruption. How committed are the middle indy voters to McCain-Palin? If the answer is not very then the facts will play a huge part other wise we better hope the issues can overcome the personality and lies of McCain.


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