…because I’m an economist and a mom–that’s why!

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

July 12th, 2010 . by economistmom


A very interesting column by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe has my Concord Coalition colleagues depressed about what it suggests is the futility of our mission in reaching out and educating the public about fiscal responsibility:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

And some of the professor’s examples of this psychological dysfunction? (my emphasis added for obvious reasons):

New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or “facts” — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge. In 2005, amid the strident calls for better media fact-checking in the wake of the Iraq war, Michigan’s Nyhan and a colleague devised an experiment in which participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). Nyhan inserted a clear, direct correction after each piece of misinformation, and then measured the study participants to see if the correction took.

For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire…

But Joe Keohane goes on to describe some potential solutions to work around this “entrenchment” protective mechanism:

But researchers are working on it. One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

There are also some cases where directness works. Kuklinski’s welfare study suggested that people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas.

So let me give this a shot.  (I’m feeling a bit more optimistic than the rest of my colleagues.)  Repeat after me:

“I’m smart”

“I’m thoughtful”


“The Bush tax cuts are very costly.”


14 Responses to “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”

  1. comment number 1 by: JB

    Why don’t you turn that laser like open mind on the success of Keynesian (or NeoKeynesian poilcy)? Ooops, that doesn’t work so well

  2. comment number 2 by: JMH

    I believe this article misses a very important point: people distrust information from political parties opposed to their own. I believe people WILL change their opinions when presented with different facts on non-political topics. Alternatively, the partisan nature of a lot of the political information flow combined with the current vitriol between parties has caused many people to distrust “facts” which oppose their political views. I suggest that this phenomenon be called “blow-off” instead of “backfire.” All three of the examples cited in the story were political in nature, which I would argue is not a sufficient type sample to test this phenomenon or worry about its results.

  3. comment number 3 by: CV Harquail

    Diane, as a social pyschologist and an activist, this line of research drives me batty. I often resent how “not telling the truth” and “preying on emotions” wins out over the cold, hard, facts. And, it drives me crazy that progressives don’t know now to get down into the emotions (which ought to work even if they don’t stretch the truth). The affirmation idea is fun, and addresses the question of “do I trust myself”… the overall issue of trust, as JMH points out, is a bigger matter.

  4. comment number 4 by: Arne

    From the article: “sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong.”


  5. comment number 5 by: AMTbuff

    >“sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong.”

    I disagree. Krugman is nowhere near 90 percent correct. :)

    The parties’ actions in the face of an inevitable bond market crash precisely match the classical Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    The public will pay the price in much lower government services and much higher tax rates. It’s inescapable because the parties will not cooperate and the public has been so polarized that they don’t want the parties to cooperate.

    Concord could have begun the push for cooperation, but its failure to oppose a massive expansion of government promises to pay for health care revealed Concord’s top priority to be something other than solving the long-term fiscal imbalance. This was not merely a matter of steering clear of partisanship. If Republicans had been in power and proposed unsustainable long-term tax cuts, Concord would have vigorously opposed them with no concern for being labeled partisan.

  6. comment number 6 by: SteveinCH

    But AMT, the CBO says that the ACA will reduce the deficit…..

    Well, sort of

  7. comment number 7 by: rjs

    your prejudices are like your property; you defend them…

    an attempt to change one mind is preceived at the gut level as the same as a threat to burn down one house…

  8. comment number 8 by: BillSmith

    These are two different things:

    “Bush tax cuts decreased government revenues”


    “The Bush tax cuts are very costly.”

  9. comment number 9 by: VAT Brat


    These are soon to be Obama’s and the Democrat’s tax cuts once the Bush tax cuts expire. Bush has exited the stage. Why direct your ire at him?

    Oh, I guess you must be an Obama booster pretending to be a budget hawk!

  10. comment number 10 by: VAT Brat


    After reading Brian Riedl’s explanation of the growing deficits, I became depressed about the futility of believing in the non-partisan goodwill of the Concord Coalition. But if Brian has got his facts wrong, I’ve got an open mind and willing to have you restore my optimism in your good faith.

  11. comment number 11 by: AMTbuff

    Riedl’s piece is slanted. First, he blames Democrats for the sunsets in the 2001 bill. That blame should be shared. Second, he implies that deficits would have continued to be low under Bush policies had the bubble continued. That’s simply not true. There is more sleight of hand, but these two examples should suffice.

    It’s more baseline gamesmanship, another example of why I dislike baselines.

  12. comment number 12 by: AMTbuff

    Riedl’s point that the tax cuts at the high end are an insignificant portion of the gap is, however, accurate. The gap is far, far larger. It is driven by retirement of baby boomers and by outsized increases in medical costs due IMHO to third party payment. The bursting of the real estate bubble, while inevitable, added significantly to the problem in the near term, as did stimulus spending directed at avoiding the necessary retrenchment in government size.

  13. comment number 13 by: economistmom

    VAT Brat: I think I have directed plenty of my “ire” about the Bush tax cuts at President Obama over the past couple years (dating back to the campaign even). One example is here. Another is here. There are many more; just search “Bush tax cuts” using my blog’s search function and you’re sure to find my lecturing and scolding President Obama way more than President Bush.

    As for Brian’s piece for the Heritage Foundation on the contribution of tax cuts to our fiscal problems, I have written many times before on how tax cuts in general do reduce, not increase, revenues, and how the Bush tax cuts in particular have been and will continue to be (if we extend them) very costly. And to counter a favorite Heritage response, just because the Bush tax cuts are not the majority of the long-term fiscal problem, it doesn’t mean the undoing of them couldn’t be a good deal of the medium-term solution–even though that shouldn’t be and couldn’t be all of the solution. But I could, and probably should, more specifically comment on the Heritage analysis you cite, so that is going to be on my “to do” list.

  14. comment number 14 by: VAT Brat


    Over the past months I’ve followed your very deferential admonitions to President Obama. Similar to striking your opponent with a wet noodle.

    The tone of those posts was quite different than the smirking “Repeat after me……..” in your current post.

    Hey, I’ve got nothing against people who have partisan points of view. Brian Riedl does and so do you. The difference is that Mr. Riedl has more truth in labeling working for a conservative think tank. You, on the other hand, write as if you’re just some little econ nerd without a political agenda worried about the greater good.

    Mr. Riedl’s best point is that deficits arise from both spending and revenue policies. Why the lop-sided focus on the tax side when it’s the spending side that’s exploding far beyond historical trends. And anyway, isn’t that a value decision for the politicians to work out?

    I think most of us read this blog (and Bruce Barlett, and others) because we want to see some honesty from our elected officials. Reconcile your spending programs with a tax policy that balances a budget in the near future. That’s the part that is truly non-partisan; that’s the core value I hope we share. If the Democrats have the stronger argument, then tax increases will account for the greater percentage of closing this gap. If Republicans prevail, then spending cuts will account for the greater percentage. That’s the mathematical force of logic we want both parties to acknowledge.

    But when I see that over 2/3’s of the posts from someone focusing on Bush tax cuts without nary a word about spending, I don’t sense the same passionate commitment to that core value of fiscal responsibility. I see the promotion of a political agenda under the cloak of non-partisanship.