Why partisan bias alters our view of facts

Bureau of Labor Statistics
The U.S. unemployment rate from 2008-2015. In a recent Washington Post poll, by 76-18, Democrats said that unemployment had gone down. By 53-38, Republicans said it had gone up.

One of the struggles within the struggle to believe in the benefits of democracy is the struggle to believe that the thinking of average voters is rooted in some kind of coherent factual or logical reality, something more rational than tribal loyalty (whether we define “tribal” according to race or just according to partisanship).

Of course, every citizen has a right to base his vote (or the decision not to vote) on any reason that satisfies him. One of the most common types is a person who always votes, and always votes for the same party, and often it is the same party for whom his parents voted. This could be rational, but it is more likely akin to a quasi-religious quality, just as most people follow their family’s religion, usually without giving serious consideration to other faiths.

Changes in the media environment over recent decades make it easier for news consumers to pay attention only to TV, radio, print and online sources that confirm one’s existing partisan/political biases. This is sometimes called the “Fox Effect,” a term certainly coined by a liberal. I’m sure it affects plenty of people on both sides of the spectrum and I’m sure unthinking partisan voting is also common among the many Americans who pay little interest to news or politics.

The syndrome that liberals sometimes call “Obama Derangement Syndrome” refers to the semi-joking theory that the presence of Barack Obama in the Oval Office has driven many conservatives so crazy that they cling to impossible beliefs, contradicted by all evidence. The idea that Obama is a secret Muslim is perhaps the craziest one but, according to this recent poll, 43 percent of Republicans said it was so.

More typical of such dichotomies, when asked by pollsters whether the economy has improved during the Obama years, the responses track closely along the partisan loyalty of the person being asked. Here’s a recent example from the Washington Post. If you didn’t click through, the question was whether the unemployment rate had gone up or down during the Obama presidency. By 76-18, Democrats said — accurately — that unemployment had gone down. By 53-38, Republicans said it had gone up.

“Unemployment” can be measured several ways. The official measure of the unemployment rate counts as “unemployed” someone who is looking for a job but doesn’t have one. If you’re not looking, you’re not “unemployed” by that traditional measure. The number who have stopped looking includes some who are called “discouraged workers,” meaning they have given up looking for work.

The rate of “discouraged workers” has risen during the Obama years. It’s certainly not crazy to suggest that this increase in discouraged workers is part of Obama’s economic record, and not a good part. But the idea that Republicans are more attuned and Democrats less attuned to the problem of discouraged workers makes no sense. To the degree that they are aware of it, Republicans are obviously more (and Democrats less) motivated to notice the rise of discouraged workers under Obama.

(By the way: This whole partisan pattern occurred during the Reagan years as well. Only in those years it was Democrats who were far more likely to say the economy had gone downhill, when in fact by most normal measures it had gotten significantly better.)

But I was quite struck by a scholarly study that economics reporter/analyst Neil Irwin highlighted in a recent piece for The New York Times’ Upshot blog, which suggested that at some level people know when they give these answers out of partisan bias that they are giving wrong answers. Here’s Irwin’s version of the setup, without even referencing the Obama syndrome:

“Did unemployment get better or worse during Ronald Reagan’s presidency? In a 1988 survey, some 80 percent of dedicated Republicans accurately said it had improved, compared with 30 percent of loyal Democrats. In the 1990s, the pattern reversed on a range of factual questions about economic and fiscal issues. In a 1997 survey, for example, Republicans were far less likely than Democrats to acknowledge that the budget deficit had declined during the Bill Clinton administration.”

But political scientists apparently wondered the same thing I wondered: When people give wrong, partisan answers to factual questions, do they believe what they are saying or are they somewhat knowingly engaging in partisan spin?

Small bribes

So two teams of scholars one led by John Bullock of the University of Texas, the other by lead author Markus Prior of Princeton, tried a wrinkle. Before asking the question, they told the respondents that they would receive one dollar if their answer was accurate. And, in one version of this experiment, they told people that if they weren’t sure of the correct answer, they would be paid 33 cents for responding “I don’t know” rather than guessing and getting the answer wrong.

The results were funny or sad, depending on how you look at them. When offered these tiny bribes for either giving the right answer or admitting they didn’t know, the normal partisan gap in the responses basically disappeared.

I asked University of Minnesota professor Howie Lavine, who specializes in political psychology, what he made of this. He was aware of the research and said that people who answer survey questions in a way that favors their preferred party aren’t lying to help their party in the realm of public opinion as much as they are “gratifying their partisan identity.”

“Think of it as an expressive act that gives them a psychological benefit,” Lavine said. “They feel good expressing a belief that puts their partisan identity in a positive light. It’s a self-esteem boost. When your group is doing well, you feel better about yourself.”

The question might be: Did unemployment go up or down during the Obama presidency? But, Lavine said, “It’s almost as if they’re answering a different question, something like: Do I like Obama or not? Am I a Republican or not?”

Lavine added: “People are increasingly shuttering themselves within partisan echo chambers. They’re told over and over again that everything the other party does is bad. This tendency has been getting stronger. It got worse from the first President Bush to Clinton, worse during the second Bush and worse again from Bush to Obama, where it also got caught up with race.”

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Peter Stark on 01/12/2016 - 10:53 am.


    Researcher: “Question 1: Was George W. Bush a good President?”

    Republican Respondent: “Of course! He was the best ever!”

    Researcher: “Okay, how about I give you a dollar for an accurate response?”

    Republican Respondent: “Oh, well in that case he was terrible.”

    • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 01/12/2016 - 11:23 am.


      Let’s not forget that 18 democrats still believe unemployment went up shall we.

      • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 01/12/2016 - 12:57 pm.

        Just look at Minnesota on how that could happen

        If your district is in the Twin Cities, things look pretty rosy. If you represent the Iron Range, you have a different view of the employment picture.

        • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 01/12/2016 - 03:00 pm.


          How does that explain how 18 dems think the opposite of the rest of them? The survey in no way indicates a regional bias at all.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/12/2016 - 04:55 pm.

            Huh, indeed

            Reading the linked article in the Washington Post, the author suggests that poor personal economic circumstances could lead some respondents to think that the overall situation is worse than it is. They may be currently employed, but making less than they were before the recession hit. This sounds believable. I’ve seen the converse, where wealthy people will think the economy is doing better than it really is (remember Phil Gramm’s “nation of whiners” comment?).

            The other factor that the author points to is that respondents are absorbing so much negative news from either end of the political spectrum that “hat the official data is either not to be believed and things have never, ever been worse or things just aren’t as good as they seem.”

  2. Submitted by Bill Willy on 01/12/2016 - 11:44 am.

    Are we all partisan hostages, or what?

    Think about this one for a few seconds:

    “No one should be REQUIRED to join a political party to vote.”

    Late the other night I popped on the tv to see if anything interesting might be on, decided to take a look at “Open Mind” on PBS and, when it comes to the overall issue of partisan politics, I wound up hearing from someone that made more sense than anyone I’ve heard from in the last 100 years or so:

    “Open Primaries President John Opdycke appeared on PBS’s The Open Mind with Alexander Heffner to discuss the importance of building nonpartisan election systems.”


    That link leads to a page where you can watch the show or read the transcript if you’re interested. I won’t try to explain what he had to say other than he does a great job of articulating something I’ve had a rough awareness of for years: The constitution doesn’t say anything about the DFL or the GOP which, for all the sanctimonious posturing, means they are nothing more than two special interest groups (like, say, “the unions” and the “financial services industry”) that have, over the decades, hijacked the entire democratic process and set themselves up as gatekeepers that decide who will run for office and how America will be run (and, of course, how everyone’s tax money is spent).

    That’s just one aspect of what’s behind the overall idea (and fledgling reality) of the Open Primaries “movement” that he explains so well. I’d heard about the concept before and how it’s being tried out a few places (California and Washington, I believe) but highly recommend checking out this particular explanation (the guy is quietly, calmly brilliant when, for example, he explains the above and things like why campaign finance reform is futile).

    And if you’re the type of person that is so inclined it may be something worth thinking about advocating for in Minnesota. It makes a tremendous amount of sense when it comes to the issue this article addresses.

    Four bullet points and a quote from the home page of the Open Primaries web site:

    “86% of Americans believe the government is broken

    “43% of Americans identify as politically independent

    “In many states, less than 5% of voters are deciding who represents 100% of that district or state

    “Primaries are conducted with taxpayer dollars. Independent voters are paying for elections they are being excluded from

    “The American people are fed up with partisan politics. In a recent Gallup poll Americans named dissatisfaction with government as the number one problem facing our country today. To change the way our elected officials work for the American people, we must change how they are elected. We need to start with the first round of voting, the primaries.”


  3. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 01/12/2016 - 12:07 pm.

    His vote….

    Eric, do you mind trying some gender neutral writing? Switching from his to hers, if singular they isn’t allowed by MinnPost copy editing rules. It’s jarring in this day and age to keep reading about a bunch of male voters when I know that’s not what you mean.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/12/2016 - 12:46 pm.

    Dissonance theory

    This is of course an updated version of cognitive dissonance theory (first formulated by Lean Festinger in 1957) which states that people will reduce the stress of holding contradictory beliefs by changing one of them; usually the one that costs the least to change.
    The Bullock and Prior studies are interesting, but I’m waiting for replications with more subjects and greater ranges of parameters.

  5. Submitted by Sonja Dahl on 01/12/2016 - 01:38 pm.

    Not in a Vacuum

    The striking increase in partisanship over the past few decades has not occurred in a vacuum — it corresponds with an increase in right-wing media sources and the 24-hour cable news noise of Fox. Yes, there are corresponding left-wing radio and TV, but they are more recent and hugely outnumbered, in radio by about 9 to 1. Many of the counter-factual ideas held by people are not their own, but created, coordinated, and spoon-fed by these media conglomerates.

    Classic propaganda techniques are used, one of the most significant is the “Strawman” argument, where the views of liberals are so vilified and the Right’s political opponents so caricatured, the consumers of conservative media voluntarily cut themselves off from alternate sources. Even mainstream media is deemed as too liberal.

    I hope this study also asked people where they get their news and information.

  6. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 01/12/2016 - 02:22 pm.

    The party of liars, of lies, and of those who believe them, is most often the Grand Old Party; and that is why we have had so many liars in chief from them, but nothing like this silly season has ever happened.

    Donald Trump may bring us a real version of the old Pied Piper of Hamelin leading all young voters to support Democrats thanks to the Republican Party. Whatever version of the legend you take as gospel, the supreme dishonesty of these folks has made a German folktale real enough to update Wikipedia when the year is out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pied_Piper_of_Hamelin

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/12/2016 - 02:38 pm.

    “One of the most common types is a person who always votes, and always votes for the same party, and often it is the same party for whom his parents voted.”

    My parents were Republicans something which I am definitely. I used to work for a politician, a Democrat, whose parents and children were Republicans.

    ““People are increasingly shuttering themselves within partisan echo chambers. They’re told over and over again that everything the other party does is bad.”

    My party is the party of moral and I would suggest, political relativism. I would never dream of claiming anything so obviously false tht everything the other party does is bad. How could this even be within the realm of possibility? Their party has their interests, which they represent, just as my party has it’s interest which I work to further. The Manichean view of good and evil the professor offers, I like to think, is more characteristic of Republicans than Democrats.

  8. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/12/2016 - 03:31 pm.

    You want a disconnect ?85%

    You want a disconnect ?

    85% of Americans surveyed are happy with how their lives are going


    Yet only 20% of Americans surveyed are happy with how things are going in the US


    People know their own lives, so the personal satisfaction should be a realistic assessment.

    And people do not know all of the world around them, so they rely on others to inform them.

    But things outside one’s personal experience are seen as being pretty bad and heading worse.

    Now where, oh where, would one get that sort of perception ?

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/12/2016 - 05:03 pm.


      As I often comment, the USA is deemed an incredible place by most people in the world, and billions would love a chance to live here. And I agree that most of us are very happy here and in no hurry to move to another country.

      Yet the folks on the Left and Right sure do like to focus on perceived problems and throwing rocks at each other. Be it income inequality, taxes, programs, services, voter rights, campaign funding, illegal aliens, government waste, etc…

      In my life, I sometimes would get frustrated because everything was not perfect… That 5% of my life that was not ideal would take up the majority of my attention. The good news is that I got older and wiser and started focusing on the 95%… It is a very fast way to become happier !!! 🙂

    • Submitted by Jeffrey McIntyre on 01/17/2016 - 07:54 am.


      Similar to folks that have a really low opinion of Congress; but love their representative….

  9. Submitted by John Appelen on 01/12/2016 - 05:24 pm.


    Eric, Excellent Topic.

    Personally I think it is scary for most people to think that they are just a creation based on where they were born, who raised them, which friend group they were in, etc. The idea that our beliefs and perception of life is based on luck is a difficult concept.

    I had a Conservative commenter that insisted I was wrong about this and that he was self determined. So I asked him if he would have the same perspective, faith, beliefs, etc if he was born in a small Taliban village? I got no answer…

    With this in mind, I think people just feel natural going along with the clique that they associate with. It is easier and more comfortable than actually thinking analytically and factually.

    One of my instructors noted that “Not All Old People are Wise”. This helped me to strive to challenge my beliefs and focus on facts and different belief systems. It takes a lot of work, so a I hope wisdom comes along sometime…

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/17/2016 - 10:03 am.

      Excellent Comment, John

      Maybe we had that same instructor somewhere.

      Old people are philosophically pretty much as they always were, perhaps more liberated and emboldened by minimized personal consequences.

      We generally no longer blame old people for everything, mostly because they are now us.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/17/2016 - 03:55 pm.

      JA, good comment, looks like a reference to:

      “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought” JFK

  10. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/13/2016 - 10:17 am.

    My test…

    While there are many issues that will always inspire genuine partisan spirit and rightly so, a test I sometimes apply is: “can a scenario be plausibly envisioned where the partisans would fine themselves on the opposite sides of the argument and still be fighting?” If so, let’s find a compromise agreement and move on.

    I’ll offer Obamacare as an example: Make a few changes in the 2008 GOP primaries and it is not implausible that Mitt Romney gets the nomination then instead of 2012. Mitt may have some faults; but, I would say that one of them is not impetuous decision making. He is a deliberative, by the numbers business guy. Sorry Sarah Palin, some conservative Senator is getting the job. With the Palin sideshow out of the way, the main issues would likely have been the financial meltdown and healthcare reform. What are Mitt’s strengths to win theses arguments? A single one: Experience. Who better to deal with a financial crisis than a by the numbers business guy who also has actual experience implementing healthcare reform in a bipartisan manner? Mitt paints the picture of his conservative inspired healthcare reforms vs. Big Government Obama and some single payer recipe for disaster. Mitt wins!!!! Oh, Oh, now he has to deliver. What does he do? He brings in a few key people from his Massachusetts healthcare team and goes to work. The Republicans back their new President on a key campaign promise, the Democrats do not want to be on the wrong side of the passage of a major social program and fall into line. What do we have? Romneycare, essentially the same thing that the Republican’s have described as the evil of all evils when constituted as Obamacare. The left and right would have still found plenty to fight about in the past 8 years; but, take healthcare out and it would have been less contentious.

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