Are Independents More Immune to Bias Than Liberals or Conservatives?

Dan Kahan‘s research at the Cultural Cognition Project has found that even very smart people fit their knowledge to their ideology. (He has appeared on this blog a few times, and in our podcast “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?”) Kahan has a new working paper (abstractPDF) on political affiliations and bias, which argues that independents seem to show immunity to the bias that afflicts both conservatives and liberals:

Social psychologists have identified various plausible sources of ideological polarization over climate change, gun violence, national security, and like societal risks. This paper reports a study of three of them: the predominance of heuristic-driven information processing by members of the public; ideologically motivated cognition; and personality-trait correlates of political conservativism. The results of the study suggest reason to doubt two common surmises about how these dynamics interact. First, the study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups. The paper discusses the normative significance of these findings, including the need to develop science communication strategies that shield policy-relevant facts from the influences that turn them into divisive symbols of identity. 

Seminymous Coward

This suits my biases as an independent.

In seriousness, that shielding seems like it would be immensely useful if it pans out. In addition to the obvious and plentiful potential to set policies correctly instead of by tribalism, I'd certainly like to apply it to rid myself of some of the irrationality that in all likelihood exists in my views.


If I understand this correctly (I'd really, really suggest a course on writing comprehensible English prose), it's saying that because we who are independents (some of us, anyway) have no attachment to either liberal or conservative ideologies, we can think about them rationally. Duh!


I think it says a bit more than that. To the extent you identify with a group (even independents I expect) you tend to process information to reinforce group identity. More broadly the more you care the less objective your assessment; the less objective the less accurate and you are of course blind to this effect.

Not really news but it's always good to be reminded.

Eric M. Jones

You see, the difference between Dan Kahan‘s research and real science, is that real science takes the information and test subjects that already produced the opposite results (showing that e.g. _____s are mostly idiots) and reruns the experiment. Testing the quality of the data and proposing other explanations is allowed. But crafting some gummidgey experiment out of whole-cloth whilst choosing one's own data is not science.

BTW: Q: What do they call a politically-radical talk show who has just talked to the station manager? A: An independent.


I don't think the tagline is really supported by the abstract.

The abstract basically just contradicts the rather obviously partisan paper a few months back, by pointing out that it's the attachment of the individual to the idea that's relevant, not the location of that idea on the ideological spectrum. The tagline seems to be claiming that independents are therefore immune from this.

Most of the time an 'independent' is not undecided on ideological issues, but simply divided between the parties on different issues. (at least this is the case with 'independents' who run for office) This would indicate that they have their own ideological biases that new information would be forced to conform to, but they might be slightly less predictable than a self-identified liberal/conservative.

brian warden

Almost everyone I know claims to be an independent; it seams to be the only smart position. Yet, if you converse in depth with people, the claim of independent is revealed as just a label. Virtually every person I have every met could be described as either a liberal, conservative, or libertarian. Their own self description is often just self deception or posturing, because really, who wants to seem like a sheep beholden to some party?


As much as I admire the libertarian position on many issues, I find it embarrassing how easily most libertarians will dismiss the scientific consensus on issues such as climate change because it represents such a whopping externality and thus a challenge to many libertarians' world views. To dismiss the science is to dodge the issue.

That said, I think that libertarians are much more intellectually consistent than the other major parties, of which I could go on for page after page on their shortcomings and inconsistencies.

The challenge is to try to promote that values of getting to the truth over winning the argument, self checking views for logical/intellectual consistency, and the courage to stand tall when coming to conclusions that are different from whatever crowd you call home. In the end, these are the values we need to reach the best solutions to society's problems.