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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.