In America’s highly charged partisan atmosphere, it can be difficult to hear the signal through the noise — to discern facts through the spin and rancor often generated on both sides of the political aisle. But could there be a form of communication that would allow Republicans and Democrats to draw similar conclusions when choosing between policy options?
Assistant Professor of Political Science Matthew Luttig asked this question, with coauthor Philip Chen of Beloit College, in the paper, “Communicating policy information in a partisan environment: the importance of causal policy narratives in political persuasion,” which appeared in the August 2019 issue of the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties.
In his academic career, Luttig has been drawn to the intersection of politics and psychology, particularly the concept of partisan-motivated reasoning. “A person’s group identity is important to their well-being,” he explains. “Because of that, people tend to hold beliefs and opinions that make their own political party look good in contrast to the opposing party.” He was struck by one paper that looked at how subjects’ views of the federal budget, something that can be objectively quantified, were not based on those clear measures but on their party’s perspective. “We’ve seen a lot of this kind of partisan-motivated reasoning over the past several months in regard to COVID-19,” he says.
Luttig and his coauthor designed a study to, in their words, “upset” this type of thought process. “We wanted to assess how we could get people to be less partisan and rely more on facts and evidence when coming to the political opinions they hold,” he says. “People often don’t know what the government can or should do in order to produce better outcomes. So we provided our subjects with information from nonpartisan experts that communicated that there was a clear link between a particular policy instrument and a societal outcome. The assumption behind our hypothesis is that, if we give people clear information, then they would be persuaded by it and ignore the position adopted by their affiliated party’s leaders.”
Their first experiment looked at the issue of funding for Head Start, a federal program that provides pre-K education for low-income children with the aim of reducing inequalities in educational achievement. Their second experiment focused on national education standards in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. “We purposely chose less salient issues,” Luttig says. “People are likely to not have given these topics as much thought, so it’s a test case for what happens when an issue emerges, and it provides more potential for people to be persuaded in that context.”
The concept of outcome preference also influenced which two issues they selected. “Both Democrats and Republicans want, in the abstract, more equality and better education. But they disagree over which policies will produce those outcomes.”
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the first condition, people were given no information about where party leaders stood on the issue. In the second, people were told that Democrats supported the issue and Republicans opposed it. In the third condition, respondents were told that Republicans supported the issue and Democrats opposed it. In addition, participants were also given clear or unclear information from nonpartisan experts about the efficacy of the policy solution for achieving the broader social goal it aims to accomplish.
For example, the clear information on Head Start stated that, according to independent analysis, the program decreases the achievement gap between high-income and low-income children. The unclear information stated that the independent analysis of the program’s benefits was inconclusive; more data was needed. After reading the article, participants were asked a series of questions designed to reinforce the key clarity manipulation, followed by questions about their perceptions of the policy’s efficacy and their level of support for the policy.
The results showed that, when the causal narrative is unclear, most people will revert to relying on their party’s position. But when people are told a clear narrative linking a policy to a desired outcome, support for that policy rises, even in a context where partisan cues direct people to oppose that policy. “We found that everyone, regardless of how knowledgeable they were about politics or how strongly partisan they were, were at least somewhat persuaded by nonpartisan experts when they claimed a clear link,” Luttig says. He emphasizes that the presence of clear communication did not completely negate the influence of party leaders. “Rather, people seem to take into account both the nonpartisan evidence and the partisan position,” he says.
A real-life example of Luttig’s results is playing out in real time, as guidance on mask use has evolved during the pandemic. “If you think back three or four months ago, the communication about masks was not very clear,” he says. “Although there were valid reasons why experts did not want to encourage mask wearing at that time, the lack of clear communication made what the party leaders were saying and doing all the more influential. As the guidance has become more clear, more people are now wearing masks.”
Luttig is incorporating his findings into his upcoming book, tentatively titled The Bipartisan Closing of the Partisan Mind. The study put into starker relief for him just how influential political leaders are in their choices and recommendations. “I think our research suggests that it’s all the more important that our political leaders are people who are well-informed,” he says.
He also anticipates the study’s results will be of use going forward to not only politicians but government agencies and media organizations in shaping their communication strategies. “We want experts to have an important say in government policy,” he says. “Our results show that it is important to think about not only the science and evidence that those experts have to share, but how they communicate their findings.”