©2019 by Connor Rothschild

What I'm Reading: Partisanship, Curiosity, and Happiness

July 3, 2018

What I'm reading this week:

- "Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government" by Dan M. Kahan, Ellen Peters, Erica Dawson, and Paul Slovic

- "Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing" by Dan M. Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson 

- "Losing Hurts: The Happiness Impact of Partisan Electoral Loss" by Lamar Pierce, Todd Rogers and Jason A. Snyder

The subject of partisanship has been extensively documented in academic literature, covering topics ranging from partisanship’s impact on voting behavior, religious identity, and its impact on the decision-making processes of traditionally rigid companies.


Partisanship could hardly be more relevant than it has become following the 2016 presidential election. Seasoned political veterans and casual observers of politics alike were left questioning the identity and integrity of the Republican party considering the party's willingness to elect a president who, in many ways, rejected traditional conservative orthodoxy. Donald Trump's quick and unexpected ascension makes us ask important questions regarding the presence of partisanship in America and the lengths to which partisans are willing to go to support a party despite its shifting identity.


(relevant definition: while the classification of an individual as “liberal” or “conservative” describes their political ideology, partisanship refers to the potency of one’s identification with a political party (e.g. Republicans or Democrats))


Two years after Mr. Trump assumed the position of the presidency, there is little left to wonder: as put by one political science professor, partisanship is one h*ck of a drug. Civically involved citizens on both ends of the political spectrum have never acted so intellectually and ideologically flexible to remain dedicated to their party of choice.


Here are some examples (in graphs!):


Russia: Between July 2014 and December 2016, the net favorability rating for Russian president Vladimir Putin increased 56 points among Republicans.



Trade: A year and a half before the 2016 election, 56% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents had a favorable view of free trade agreements. By November 2016, that number had nearly been chopped in half, with 32% of Republican respondents holding positive views of free trade. 



The NFL: Following President Trump's insistence that the NFL fire players who participate in anthem protests, the NFL's favorable and unfavorable ratings among Trump supporters flipped.



The FBI: Following Trump's attacks on the integrity of the FBI, Republicans' favorable views of the FBI tanked.



The Ethics of Affairs and Other Things We Shouldn't Need Polls to Guide Our Moral Compass On: A 1998 CBS poll found that 64% of Republicans believed Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was a “public matter having to do with Bill Clinton’s job as president." Today, 67% of Republicans believe that “an elected official who has committed an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” The shift is also pronounced among white evangelicals:


Here's the problem: Such strong partisan identification can have troubling effects on partisans themselves and America more broadly.


Partisanship makes us unhappy: In 2015, a group of researchers found that partisans were twice as affected by their party losing in a presidential election than respondents with children were after the Sandy Hook shooting and Boston residents were following the Boston Marathon bombing. Partisans perceive their electoral losses more negatively than most Americans do national tragedies.

If that sounds insane, that's because it is. Some of America's most extreme partisans have developed such an identity with the party which with they associate that they are deeply personally affected by that party's loss.


Partisanship makes us toxic: Much of America's problem with partisanship is rooted in tribalism. As Alan I. Abramowitz and Steven W. Webster argued earlier this year, the ever-widening racial and cultural divide between parties leads loyal party members to increasingly view the opposing party as "the other." As we have less and less in common with the party on the other side of the aisle, we start disliking that group as a collective. As put by Dr. Lilliana Mason, "The angrier the electorate, the less capable we are of finding common ground on policies, or even of treating our opponents like human beings."


More than ever, we not only disagree with our political opponents, we actively believe they want to harm our nation:



When we associate such irredeemable qualities with the opposing party, our attitude influences our actions. In one study, researchers found that partisans are less likely to offer academic scholarships to the most qualified candidates with different political views, instead opting to provide scholarships to less qualified yet copartisan candidates.


Partisanship makes politics dysfunctional: In her book "Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock," Sarah A. Binder found a (unsurprising) direct link between polarized parties and legislative gridlock. 


When parties have more centrists (and thus, more "moderation") Congress experiences less gridlock. Contrarily, the more ideologically divergent the two parties, the more gridlock occurs. Other researchers have concluded that the presence of intense partisanship has "reshaped the legislative process in Washington,"

perpetuated unorthodox lawmaking, and caused citizens to lose trust in essential governing bodies.


And here's the biggest problem which makes the aforementioned problems worse: Partisanship isn't rooted in ignorance. It's the smartest people who tend to be the most partisan.


In 2013, Dan Kahan, Ellen Peters, Erica Cantrell Dawson, and Paul Slovic published a remarkable paper which detailed one's propensity toward partisanship given that individual's numeracy--"a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information."


Using fake data regarding gun control's impact on crime mitigation, the researchers found that individuals with higher numeracy were more likely to reject the truth and confirm their own belief.


To ensure the participants weren't simply just misunderstanding the data as provided, the researchers replicated the experiment with non-political data regarding the effectiveness of a skin-rash cream. Indeed, the individuals with high numeracy scores were able to answer the skin-rash question with great accuracy, but when the words "skin-rash cream" were replaced by "gun control measures," the smartest people suddenly lost their mathematical skills.



In other words, "numeracy magnified political polarization among high numeracy partisans" because "more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks."

Many believe that the solution to partisanship is to educate individuals more, or to do a better job teaching them critical thinking skills. While these strategies are independently important, they seem unlikely to mitigate extreme partisanship.


Kahan and his colleagues conclude their 2013 paper with the following: "... improving public understanding of science and propagating critical reasoning skills... cannot be expected to dissipate persistent public conflict over decision-relevant science. Only removing the source of the motivation to process scientific evidence in an identity protective fashion can."


What does this mean in layman terms? You can't educate people out of their partisanship. Deep-seated beliefs held by an intelligent person are going to remain deep-seated until that person undergoes a serious attitudinal shift.


And so, it falls on the individuals. Although there are more complex explanations for partisanship which one could delve into (for example, identity-protective cognition) and try to control, the decision to be inflexibly partisan is mostly a personal one.


Kahan's more recent research has introduced a new potentially promising solution to partisanship: curiosity. In 2017, Kahan and colleagues concluded "science curiosity promotes open-minded engagement with information that is contrary to individuals’ political predispositions."


These graphs show an individuals willingness to believe something contrary to their prior worldview given their scientific curiosity:



Substantiating prior research, those with high levels of science intelligence or numeracy were more entrenched in partisan views. But those who were curious were more able to consider ideologically unorthodox perspectives.


Moreover, on both sides of the political spectrum, those who were scientifically curious had a preference for surprising information, even if it didn't align with and confirm their prior worldview. 

Conclusions/Takeaways/Applications: The U.S. is more partisan than ever, and its primarily the most intelligent and most politically involved citizens that fall victim to partisanship's grasp. Partisanship makes us less happy, more extreme, and more tribal. It also makes our politics dysfunctional.


Although minimizing inflexible partisanship is in the best interest of the U.S., common antidotes--like educating someone--are unlikely to work. The solution instead is to engage curious people to think differently about their preconceived notions. It's a shame that there is likely little overlap between the camp of the scientifically curious and those who have deep-seated partisan beliefs. 

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