Research & Insights

Baad News: People Let Politicians Tell Them What To Think

Polls keep telling us that the favorability rating of political leaders drops lower and lower each day. Yet the power of politicians to influence our opinions doesn’t seem to be waning.

In fact, according to researchers James Druckman, Erik Peterson and Rune Slothuus, what party leaders say about divisive issues can sometimes hold more sway than a solid argument. Or as they put it, “party endorsements drive opinions.”

For their study, which appears in the February 2013 issue of the American Political Science Review, the authors conducted two experiments to explore whether high levels of political polarization impact how people process information.

Using an online survey of 646 Americans who identified as partisans (people who lean toward either the Democratic or Republican party), the researchers asked participants to read news stories on the topics of drilling for fossil fuels and immigration policy. The stories contained cues to whether Democrats or Republicans endorsed a given policy as well as whether the issue was polarized (i.e. whether all Democrats and all Republicans felt the same way about the issue or whether it had support from both sides).

For example, in the drilling article, all participants were told that “Republicans in Congress tend to favor drilling and Democrats in Congress tend to oppose drilling.” However, some participants were also told that “the partisan divide is not stark as the parties are not too far apart,” while others were told that “the partisan divide is stark as the parties are far apart.”

The authors found that when the articles contained no party endorsements at all, participants were influenced by the strength of the argument. Even when party endorsements were present, people still favored positions with the strongest arguments. Party endorsements only swayed opinions when both sides presented an equally strong argument, in which case people sided with their respective parties.

When the issue was polarized, though, things changed dramatically.

“[P]artisans in a polarized environment follow their party regardless of the type or strength of the argument the party makes,” the authors warn. That is, politically committed people will agree with their party on an issue even when it makes the weaker argument, which is bad news for fans of reasoned debate on issues of importance.

The researchers also found that partisan positioning has other consequences.

“When individuals engage in strong partisan motivated reasoning, they develop increased confidence in their opinions,” the authors note. “This means they are less likely to consider alternative positions and more likely to take action based on their opinion.”

Overall, these findings have implications for the democratic process.

“Competition [of ideas] is a defining element of even the most minimalist conceptions of democracy,” say the authors. “Yet when it comes to the impact of competition on public opinion formation, the opinion dynamics involved can be problematic.”

When people side with a party regardless of the strength of its arguments, we get gridlock in the short term. And over the long term, we get policy that doesn’t result from a thoughtful, fact-based debate.

The study’s findings suggest that groups advocating for policy change will have a harder time being persuasive if their nonpartisan arguments get pushed aside by partisan positioning. However, knowing that can help in deciding when and how to expend communication resources and how much of an effort to make. For instance, there may be times where an endorsement from a political leader for a cause may hold more sway than an airtight argument. At other times, a more successful strategy might be to frame an issue as apolitical.

For more on how one advocacy group had success in winning a November 2014 water conservation ballot measure, see this frank talk post: Transcending Politics For The Greater, Greener Good.

American Political Science Review, February 2013

James N. Druckman, Northwestern University
Erik Peterson, Stanford University
Rune Slothuus, Aarhus University

Posted: November 20, 2014
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