Why Partisanship Changes How People React To Noncontroversial Statements

Mar 7, 2019
Originally published on March 7, 2019 11:41 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Take a moment, if you will, to consider how you respond to two different sentences. The first is a bit of political rhetoric expressing a common idea. Quote, "I grew up knowing the only way we can make change is when people come together." That's it. Now, how does this bit of political rhetoric make you feel? Quote, "my goal is always, again, to bring people together." Those sentences express the same appealing thought. Let's get together in divisive times. It would be natural if you have the same response to both, unless you knew who said them because one was spoken by Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker. And the other was spoken in 2016 by Republican candidate Donald Trump.

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CORY BOOKER: I grew up knowing that the only way we can make change is when people come together.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My goal is always, again, to bring people together.

INSKEEP: Do you respond differently now to those same words? NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to explain why.

Hi there, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's going on here?

VEDANTAM: Well, you hear these bumper sticker soliloquies from politicians all over the world, Steve. In some ways, they are conversation filler for the C-SPAN crowd. You know, I'm optimistic about our shared future, et cetera. Social scientists based in the United Kingdom and Germany recently asked how volunteers heard these quotes, how they processed these messages. They found in experiments that they conducted in the United States, Britain and Germany that these quotations elicited interesting reactions from partisans depending on who was said to have come up with the quotes. Paul Hanel at the University of Bath told me the studies tested these two quotes from U.S. politicians.

PAUL HANEL: Without passion, you don't have energy. Without energy, you have nothing - or the American people are tired of liars and people who pretend to be something they are not.

VEDANTAM: Can you guess who said these, Steve?

INSKEEP: First one sounds kind of John F. Kennedy-esque...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...To be honest with you.

VEDANTAM: Really, these could be anyone.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: The first one happened to be Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: Oh.

VEDANTAM: The second one came from Hillary Clinton.

INSKEEP: OK.

VEDANTAM: Now, here's the experiment. The researchers sometimes just gave volunteers the quotes and asked if they agreed with it. Other times, they gave volunteers the quote and correctly identified the speaker. And in a third condition, they gave volunteers the quote and misidentified the speaker. They said the quote came from someone else.

INSKEEP: Wow.

VEDANTAM: Hanel found that partisans agreed with the quotes unless they thought these anodyne quotes came from a political opponent.

HANEL: As soon as we added the source, if participants believed it's a quote from Hillary Clinton, then supporters of the Democratic Party agreed with it more and less if they believed it was from Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: Almost to suggest that we as Americans, say, actually agree on a lot of general things. But as soon as we get into a partisan frame of mind, we disagree a lot.

VEDANTAM: That's right, Steve. And what this is suggesting is that partisanship, in some ways, is extending to lots of things that have nothing to do with politics. You know, so, perhaps, if we learn about the breed of dog that's favored by a president, that dog's breed is now going to be disfavored by the president's opponents. From the point of view of journalism, Steve, I think there's a very sad implication here. And the implication is that increasingly, we are unable to hear the actual message. The moment we know who the messenger is, it's almost like we stop listening because we say, why do I have to listen? I already know what this person is going to say.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He is NPR's social science correspondent and also the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. Give a listen. It's called Hidden Brain.

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