It’s not just conservative politicians who like to stay ideologically insulated, though. So do campus liberals. Consider what happened two years ago at Rutgers University when Condoleezza Rice was invited to be commencement speaker. The faculty senate objected and students protested vehemently enough that the former secretary of State backed out.
In the wake of the 2016 election, there’s been a lot of talk about how Americans are stuck in partisan bubbles, especially on Facebook and Twitter. Anecdotes like the ones above remind us that bubbles don’t happen accidentally or passively. Instead, many politically minded people are in a state of motivated ignorance: They neither know — nor want to know — what the opposition has to say.
As social psychologists, we wondered whether liberals and conservatives were equally resistant to learning about one another’s views. Some psychology studies, for instance, have suggested that conservatives are more prone to the confirmation bias — meaning they selectively consume information, like biased news, that aligns with their preexisting opinions. But we weren’t so sure that liberals were any more open-minded.
So we created some experiments to check. In one, we offered a chance to win $10 to participants who opposed letting gay couples marry. There was a catch: To qualify for the prize drawing, they had to read eight arguments for legalizing same-sex marriage. As an alternative, they could read eight anti-same-sex marriage statements — but any potential prize money would be reduced to $7. Greed and curiosity were teamed up against motivated ignorance.
Motivated ignorance won. Most conservatives (61%) chose to stay in their bubble and forgo the extra cash.
And when we gave liberals the same dilemma? Slightly more, 64%, chose to stay in their bubble.
The general trend held regardless of the issue or how we probed their interest. We asked about legalizing marijuana, climate change, gun control, or abortion. We even asked about elections (including Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton). The result was the same: Neither side much wanted to hear from the other.
Why were they so dug in? It wasn’t that they already knew the opposing arguments. Participants on both sides admitted to being largely unaware of the other side’s views, and this was confirmed by how poorly they did on a quiz before diving into the rest of the experiment. Rather, participants said that hearing from the other side felt lousy; they reported it was about as unpleasant as taking out the trash or standing in line for 20 minutes.
Participants pointed to social ramifications, too. In a separate study, people we surveyed said they anticipated getting angry if they were to listen to the other side, and suspected that it might damage their relationship with the person spouting off. This might explain why holiday dinners are both cherished (the meal part) and dreaded (the conversation part). Socially speaking, the safe bet is to stay in your bubble.
Although our research found that both liberals and conservatives are averse to learning about the other side, it is fair to ask whether both sides’ ideas are equally worth hearing. To be civically informed, one should consider a spectrum of reasonable views; fake news, baseless claims and lies are not necessarily in bounds. Trump and his surrogates notoriously played fast and loose with facts and propagated baseless claims. So perhaps opponents of Trump have reasonable grounds to ignore what he has to say.
Still, plugging one’s ears can prove costly. For example, during the election, mainstream media outlets spotlighted Trump’s most unhinged moments and largely ignored his dominant message — economic populism. Focusing on coverage of Trump’s gaffes made it too easy for the anti-Trump camp to dismiss his supporters as “deplorables.”
Those who feel politically embattled aren’t likely to unilaterally abandon motivated ignorance. But they should — and for their own sake. If their political opponents feel understood, they might be more receptive to hearing what others have to say. Listening to the other side could at least help prepare an arsenal of counterarguments.
Talking past each other is deeply unhealthy for our entire political system. A functioning democracy requires that citizens make informed choices — which voters can’t do if their information sources are ideologically monochromatic. Motivated ignorance replaces the marketplace of ideas with two isolated, noncompeting monopolies. It’s a scary situation if, in this deeply partisan moment in U.S. history, the one thing both sides have in common is a lack of curiosity about what the other thinks.
Jeremy Frimer is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg. Linda J. Skitka is a psychology professor and Matt Motyl is an assistant psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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