Police surround Comet Ping Pong after an armed man arrived to investigate false claims that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a child sex ring out of the pizza restaurant. New research helps explain why conservatives are more susceptible to false information. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)
After an electoral season that blurred the line between fact and fantasy, a team of UCLA researchers is offering new evidence to support a controversial proposition: that when it comes to telling the difference between truth and fiction, not all potential voters see it the same way.
When “alternative facts” allege some kind of danger, people whose political beliefs are more conservative are more likely than those who lean liberal to embrace them, says the team’s soon-to-be-published study.
Conservatives’ vulnerability to accepting untruths didn’t apply equally to all false claims: When lies suggested dangerous or apocalyptic outcomes, more conservative participants were more likely to believe them than when the lie suggested a possible benefit.
Participants whose views fell further left could be plenty credulous. But they were no more likely to buy a scary falsehood than they were to buy one with a positive outcome.
In short, conservatives are more likely to drop their guard against lies when they perceive the possible consequences as being dark. Liberals, less so.
Slated for publication in the journal Psychological Science, the new study offers insight into why many Americans embraced fabricated stories about Hillary Clinton that often made outlandish allegations of criminal behavior. And it may shed light on why so many believed a candidate’s assertions that were both grim and demonstrably false.
Finally, the results offer an explanation for why these false claims were more readily embraced by people who endorse conservative political causes than by those whose views are traditionally liberal.
“There are a lot of citizens who are especially vigilant about potential threats but not especially motivated or prepared to process information in a critical, systematic manner,” said John Jost, co-director of New York University’s Center for Social and Political Behavior. For years, Jost said, those Americans “have been presented with terrifying messages that are short on reason and openly contemptuous of scholarly and scientific standards of evidence.”
Jost, who was not involved with the latest research, said the new findings suggest that when dark claims and apocalyptic visions swirl, many of these anxious voters will cast skepticism aside and selectively embrace fearful claims, regardless of whether they're true. The result may tilt elections toward politicians who stoke those fears.
“We may be witnessing a perfect storm,” Jost said.
The preliminary study, led by UCLA anthropologist Daniel M.T. Fessler, is the first to explore credulity as a function of ideological belief. The pool of participants was not strictly representative of the U.S. electorate, and some of the findings were weakened when the researchers removed questions pertaining to terrorism.
Moreover, some argue that it is not ideological belief but feeling beaten that makes people more credulous. When parties are thrown out of power, or have been out of office for long periods, their adherents are naturally drawn to believe awful things of the other party, says Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami.
Until the new findings have been replicated under the changed circumstances of a Republican victory, said Uscinski, they should be greeted with caution.
But the new results are in line with a picture of partisan differences emerging from an upstart corner of the social sciences. In a wide range of studies, anthropologists, social psychologists and political scientists have found that self-avowed liberals and people who call themselves conservatives simply think differently.
All people range across a spectrum of personality traits and thinking styles. But when compared with liberals, conservatives show a lower tolerance for risk and have a greater need for closure and certainty, on average.
Wired up to monitors that measure physiological changes, people who are more conservative respond to threatening stimuli with more pronounced changes than do their peers on the other end of the political spectrum: On average, their hearts race more, their breathing becomes more shallow and their palms get clammier.
Fessler started with a much more universal finding from evolutionary anthropology: When confronted with danger, humans are more likely to pay attention to the experience and commit it to memory than when they’re presented with cues that are neutral or pleasant.
Called the “negativity bias,” this inclination to give special weight to negative experiences has been powerfully protective, scientists believe. After all, failing to give such hazards their due could result in death, and humans who took a laid-back approach to such dangers were more likely to be purged from the gene pool.
As a result, a tendency to pay more attention to negative experiences — and even to scary warnings from others — is seen pretty much across the board.
Even so, Fessler reasoned, some people may weight incoming negative information more heavily than others. Given the growing body of evidence for ideological differences in thinking styles, he and his team wondered whether conservatives and liberals would be differently inclined to believe assertions, including false assertions, when they warned of potential hazards.
In two experiments conducted in September 2016, Fessler’s team recruited 948 American adults on websites designed to query subjects for research studies. To place each participant on the American political spectrum, the researchers asked for his or her views on a list of policies that generally divide conservatives from liberals. Then the study authors asked subjects to rate how strongly they believed or disbelieved 16 assertions.
“Some” but not all of those statements were true, the researchers told participants. In fact, 14 of the 16 were false.
While six of the assertions dealt with outcomes that were generally positive (“People who own cats live longer than people who don’t”), 10 made claims about potential hazards. Some of these outcomes were pretty serious: One stated that terrorist incidents in the U.S. have increased since 9/11 (not true in September 2016). Others declared that an intoxicated passenger could open an aircraft door while in flight (not true), that kale typically contains high levels of toxic heavy metals (not true), and that thieves could read encoded personal information from hotel keycards (not true).
Plenty of people were taken in by lies about both hazards and benefits. And across the political spectrum, participants were more likely to believe scary pronouncements and a little less likely to believe cheery ones.
But when a bogus claim raised a prospective danger, the more heavily a subject leaned toward policies linked to conservatism, the more likely his or her skepticism fell aside. Meanwhile, the more heavily a subject leaned toward positions associated with liberalism, the more evenly skeptical he or she was toward claims cheery and scary.
The differences were not stark. But statistically, credulity toward dark assertions tracked with a subject’s position on the political spectrum.
Using a statistical measure that gauges how widely subjects were scattered across the political spectrum, the researchers reckoned that for each tick rightward, the average subject grew 2% less skeptical of statements when they warned of bad outcomes than when they promised good ones.
That effect is pretty subtle. But spread over an electorate of 231 million eligible voters, the inclination of some to more readily accept scary lies could make the purveyors of frightening falsehoods a more powerful force.
Fessler said his team’s findings may help explain a curious phenomenon reported by those who fabricated fake news for profit: that stories aimed at liberal audiences were less likely to go viral than stories designed to draw in conservatives.
He also said the results might help explain why social conservatives were so inclined to support Trump.
When his team subdivided conservatives into three groups, he found that the trend toward dark belief was greatest in those who defined their conservatism largely in social and cultural terms. Among those whose conservatism was largely rooted in fiscal policy, the selective credulity toward scary assertions was not evident.
The upshot, Fessler said, is that Americans across the political spectrum need a steady diet of truth. Since apocalyptic claims will always get a little more credence, they had better be factual.
“You might be able to change people’s minds about issues, but you can’t change their stable ways of responding to the world,” said Fessler, who will try to replicate his findings with a Republican in the White House.