Partisan Dissonance

Partisan Dissonance May 12, 2012

Fascinating — and I have to say that my confidence that academics can suspend partisanship in order to evaluate is not entirely serene when it comes to politics.

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control….

Along with Jason Reifler at Georgia State University, Nyhan said, he’s exploring the possibility that partisans reject facts because they produce cognitive dissonance — the psychological experience of having to hold inconsistent ideas in one’s head. When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices — the information challenges their dislike of the president.

Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they’re against the facts, but because it’s painful. That notion suggested a possible solution: If partisans were made to feel better about themselves — if they received a little image and ego boost — could this help them more easily absorb the “blow” of information that threatens their pre-existing views?


"Must admit I don't worship all the time. It's not because I'm bored. It's because ..."

Why Worship Services Are So Boring
"I follow two astute comments, both of which I agree with totally. I briefly (until ..."

Why Worship Services Are So Boring
"I totally agree with the premise of this article, and it addresses the whole "church ..."

Why Worship Services Are So Boring

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    Of course, if people could just quit being partisan, quit voting for a certain party no matter who the candidate is, quit putting their party politics over almost every other loyality, then I suspect how people interpret the data would definitely change!

  • Patrick

    I think the research is accurate. This would be like Paul warned in one epistle, that the time will arrive when believers would prefer “our ears get tickled as opposed to truth be preached”(my vernacular).

    Most humans are like this I think.

    Subjective. Just a matter of what degree.

  • DRT

    Ah, so there is hope because people, at least subconsciously, can tell that they are not being consistent.

  • Dan

    This can’t really be much of a surprise to anyone. It is far too common in political circles. It would be interesting to see a similar examination of how cognitive dissonance works in religious circles. A cursory reading of the responses in religious oriented blogs like this one show how hard it is to see things without our biases entering in. The discussions about egalitarian/complementarian things comes to mind. The polarization of politics becomes evident in the blogosphere when a discussion cannot be had without distorting the views of ones*opponents.* Even when a relatively nice article is posted about an adult with Down’s Syndrome a swipe is made at an opponent.

  • Patrick


    It’s common in theology, too. It’s rare when someone does a serious change of theologies they have learned from early on, IMO. Not unheard of, just rare.

  • While I do not doubt that this conclusion has merit, and it resounds with an almost obvious truth about it, it also seems a bit simplified.

    I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I would never see anything the President can accomplish (gain an end result), as something he can simply do. It’s not like a straightforward power: of course he can’t just snap his fingers. But there are two issues as I see it, muddling our perception of his powers to accomplish anything at all. First, there is an ideological perception of how something could get done. Then there is the perception of what might be standing in the way. Democrats might have thought that Bush could lower gas prices, if only he would take actions A, B, and/or C, in conjunction with a (cooperative?) congress. While Republicans might think that Bush could not implement actions X, Y, and/or Z, because of uncooperative congress or other political/social factors. So those same people could simultaneously view Obama’s abilities in a different light, based on the avenues which they see as freely available, or which they see as now completely closed off. For instance, Democrats might think that Obama cannot convince congress to help out alternative energy investment, while Republicans would think that Obama could easily have opened up more drilling or approved Canada’s pipeline (whether he could do any of these things might be up for debate, of course). So to say that it’s all just cognitive dissonance is a bit of an oversimplification, because it doesn’t take into account the ideology of the partisans. Instead it focuses on blind loyalty to one party or another, which could be the case with many people, but might not be the only reason for the findings. Partisanship almost certainly plays a roll, but you can’t take these statistics at face value outside of their contexts in the political atmosphere.

  • Answers are simplistic because the question is immaterial to begin with. It doesn’t matter who is President; they would have as much latitude to do something as someone has wiggle room while in the grip of King Kong. The President has a log-jammed partisan Congress. We used to think that was good, because maybe divided power would keep Congress from doing something stupid. But now divided loyalties to different special interest groups, that are the real controlling factors, keeps Congress from preventing something stupid. One party would rather vilify the other than work with them. It’s more important to posture the blame than to get it right. “They” — on the other side of the isle — would claim credit for it. Tom Coburn has written a book, “The Debt Bomb.” In an interview with Charlie Rose, Coburn, a conservative Republican Senator, said he would give up a lot to work with the President to solve this country’s financial problems because the problem is so great it will sink everything. He was asked how many other Senators felt as he did, and the answer was “maybe 10” out of 50. The rest would rather fight than switch. Coburn said the solution would be painful, but that Congress wouldn’t do anything until the pain of the problem exceeded the pain of the solution. We’re not there yet. That’s where the cognitive dissonance is. It’s denial by choice. We ain’t felt pain, yet. Politicians are so influenced by their own greed that they are controlled by the selfishness and greed of the special interest groups. By the time the problem gets so big that it exceeds the control of the special interest groups, it will have sunk the non-special interest group, called the citizens of the US. Asking a question about whether the President can affect gas prices is as relevant to reality as asking what kind of bug is on the ground when a tank is about to run everybody over.

    And, yes, this same type of problem can be seen in the church, as evidenced between religious groups and, as a comment pointed out above, on blog and chat pages. But, it’s even more than humanistic behavior infiltrating the church. How are politicians or anyone else of the world supposed to know how to act better? The church is supposed to model it for them. Our society is in a mess because the church hasn’t done its job. The influence is from human society onto the church, when it is supposed to be the other way around.

    What can the President do about gas prices? What are Christians going to do to show the love of Christ to the world so the Holy Spirit can convict the world of sin?

  • Fred

    Thirty years ago I read a Peanuts cartoon. Linus was writing a book for pastors but he agonized over what title to give the book. He settled on this: “Have You Ever Considered the Fact That You Might Be Wrong?”

  • James Doss

    If you don’t believe that the premise of the article is correct, just examine ALL of the comments posted here…. mine included..

    Find one comment that is not rooted strongly in personal opinion?