The Situationist

Motivated Skepticism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 27, 2010

Ezra Klein recently wrote a great post for the Washington Post about some of the political-psychological dynamics shaping current policy debates.  Included in it was as a helpful summary of the research commonly featured on the Situationist.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

When we’re faced with information or ideas that accord with our preexisting beliefs about the world, we accept them easily. When the ideas and information cut against our beliefs, however, we interrogate them harshly, subjecting them to endless scrutiny and a long search for contrary evidence which, when found, we accept uncritically.

Let’s start with an amusing experiment that [Situationist Contributor] Peter Ditto, a political psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, and David Lopez, a psychologist at Kent State, use in their paper “Motivated Skepticism.” Ditto and Lopez assembled 67 female undergraduates to conduct hypothetical evaluations of the intelligence of prospective college applicants. The participants were given two pieces of information: One, a pre-graded test where they could see how well the applicant had done. The other, an evaluation from someone who’d worked with the applicant. For the control group, the evaluation was blandly positive. For the experimental group, the evaluation was sharply negative: The subject was presented as rude, condescending, and unlikeable. Oh, and there was one catch: The undergraduates were supposed to grade the tests as quickly as possible.

. . . . If the applicant got all the questions right, the grader usually judged them as intelligent. But when an unlikable applicant got the questions wrong, the grader would cast them aside far quicker than when a likable applicant got the answers wrong. We’re much more skeptical of evidence that harms people we like than people we don’t like — and that’s true no matter the quality of the evidence.

Perhaps the seminal paper in the field was conducted by Stanford’s Charlie Lord in 1979. In it, “subjects supporting and opposing capital punishment were exposed to two purported studies, one seemingly confirming and one seemingly disconfirming their existing beliefs about the deterrent efficacy of the death penalty.” The studies were methodologically identical, but you can probably guess which paper found each group found most convincing, and which they found methodologically flawed. In other words, what mattered wasn’t the evidence. It was the conclusion.

My favorite study (pdf) in this space was by [Situationist Contributor]Geoffrey Cohen. His experiment found the position of an individual’s preferred political party overwhelmed both the objective policy content and the individual’s preexisting beliefs. Cohen had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. As expected, liberals preferred the generous plan and conservatives favored the more stringent option. Then he had another group of liberals and conservatives look at the same plans — but this time, the plans were associated with parties.

Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with them. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along. Three scary sentences from the piece: “when reference group information was available, participants gave no weight to objective policy content, and instead assumed the position of their group as their own. This effect was as strong among people who were knowledgeable about welfare as it was among people who were not. Finally, participants persisted in the belief that they had formed their attitude autonomously even in the two group information conditions where they had not.”

* * *

You can read the entire article, which includes links to the studies, here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see


3 Responses to “Motivated Skepticism”

  1. Precious said


  2. […] Motivated Skepticism […]

  3. […] source: The Situationist _________________________________________ /zza77 ← Previous article Next article […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: