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How motivated reasoning leads to tolerance of false claims: Three experimental tests of mechanisms

Stedtnitz, Christine (2020) How motivated reasoning leads to tolerance of false claims: Three experimental tests of mechanisms. PhD thesis, University of Essex.


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Many recent electoral events have been characterised by false claims which, despite abundant fact-checking, were often widely believed. This led to much talk about a ’post-truth’ politics. Meanwhile, an extensive literature confirms that false beliefs voters have about political issues are of- ten highly resistant to correction. The drivers of that resistance are well- known: people engage in motivated reasoning. They are prone to accept as fact those claims that confirm their opinions, and dismiss claims that challenge them. This dissertation investigates reactions to two types of challenging in- formation: false information that affirms individuals’ political opinions, and factual information that challenges them. More specifically, it explores how the situation individuals are in when exposed to challenging information affects their susceptibility to engage in motivated reasoning. In a series of experiments, I explore the effect of three types of situations: stress, low group status, and exposure to post-truth comments. In chapter 1, I explore the effect of stress on tolerance of false claims. I describe a survey experiment (n=380) fielded shortly after the 2016 Brexit referendum in which I attempted to induce stress to investigate the effect of stress on belief in false campaign claims among Leave voters. I found no effect. In chapter 2, I explore the effect of low group status on tolerance of false claims. To test the pure causal mechanism in a non-political environment I designed a laboratory experiment (n=277). The set-up was a pub quiz in which one team was disadvantaged, received more difficult questions and, therefore, a lower payoff than the other team. After the quiz players were shown two sets of feedback – one person called the quiz ’fair play’; the other called it ’unfair’ and demanded a top-up for the disadvantaged team. Crucially, one of the two feedback givers made false claims. As hypothesized, the disadvantaged team overlooked false claims coming from the person who sided with their team (but not from the other team). I discuss implications for 21st century political campaigns in which false facts about and in which some groups of voters are structually disadvantaged. In chapter 3, I shift to reactions to factually accurate information that chal- lenges political beliefs. This chapter is joint work with John Bartle and Rob Johns, Professors of Politics in the Government Department at the University of Essex. We conducted a nationally representative survey ex- periment in the UK (n=2936) in which we corrected false beliefs about immigration. We identified false beliefs on both sides of the immigration debate (pro and anti-immigration) and showed respondents a fact check challenging a false claim they had rated as true. We went beyond classic misperception-correction studies in two key ways: First, we used a more nuanced, seven point true to false scale, which allowed us to trace smaller changes in the perceived accuracy of false claims. Second, we mimicked ’post-truth’ surroundings in which expert information is rarely the ’fi- nal’ word: Some of our respondents saw not only the fact check but also a post-truth comment encouraging them to retain their old beliefs. We found that fact checks significantly reduced belief in false claims. Exposure to post-truth comments cancelled out some but not all of this effect. We discuss what these results mean for 21st century election campaigns and the public broadcasters who accompany them.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Subjects: J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
Divisions: Faculty of Social Sciences > Government, Department of
Depositing User: Christine Stedtnitz
Date Deposited: 16 Jun 2020 12:14
Last Modified: 12 Jun 2021 01:00

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