As the recent masquerade of a Presidential election in the United States has shown, the left and right seem more divided than ever in this nation. Partisan beliefs can be deeply ingrained in our psyche and when we’re confronted with an opposing partisan view, cognitive dissonance kicks in. Most often than not, a conversation becomes impossible with potentially severe social and political consequences. Case in point, a recent study found some people would rather forfeit their chance of winning a financial reward than having to listen to a conflicting liberal or conservative view on anything from climate change to guns to marijuana.

liberals vs conservatives

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When the other view hurts your brain

The findings were reported by social psychologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Winnipeg who performed five studies involving liberals and conservatives. Participants were assessed about their interest around several common debates like same-sex marriage, the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, the yet upcoming at the time election of 2016 in the U.S. and Canada, and Culture War issues. Each study was meant to determine whether liberals and conservatives are similarly or differentially motivated to avoid crosscutting information. Previous research has found mixed results, i.e. some found liberals are more inclined to get exposed to cross-partisan views than conservatives and vice-versa.

In one study, liberals or conservatives could earn $3 extra if they agreed to hear from the other side on the topic of legalizing same-sex marriage. Those that were either for or against same-sex marriage read the same adapted instructions:

“You and the other participants in this study have been entered into a drawing to win a cash prize. Your drawing prize is currently valued at $10. The next task is to read 8 statements that argue against [for] legalizing Same-Sex Marriage (SSM for short) and answer a question about each one. Alternatively, you can read 8 statements that argue for [against] legalizing SSM on the condition that your draw prize will be valued at $7.”

The researchers found 62% chose to give up $3 to avoid hearing from the other side, a proportion greater than one would expect by chance.

Similarly, in another study, Obama voters expressed greater interest in hearing about the reasons for why they voted from Obama supporters than from Romney supporters and Romney voters expressed greater interest in hearing about the reasons why they voted for Romney supporters than Obama supporters.

In yet another study, the participants were surveyed about their opinions on issues such as: (a) whether marijuana should be legal everywhere in the U.S., (b) whether climate change is real and human-caused, (c) whether the federal government should impose restrictions on the sales of firearms, (d) whether participants identify as pro-life or pro-choice on the abortion issue, (e) whether Donald Trump would make a good President, (f) whether Bernie Sanders would make a good President, and (g) whether Hillary Clinton would make a good President. After their opinions were assessed, the participants had to report how much interest they had in hearing from people on each side of the issue tell them about their opinion.

The group that exhibited the most motivation to avoid crosscutting information was Donald Trump supporters, but otherwise, the results were similar to the previous studies.

Information bubbles

The aversion to hearing or learning about opposing views goes beyond political topics. The researchers found participants were more likely to desire to hear from like- versus unlike-minded people even on seemingly benign questions or non-issues if you ask me such as Coke vs Pepsi, spring vs autumn, NFL vs NBA, and even aisle vs window seats in an airplane.

This aversion is not motivated by being or feeling already knowledgeable as the researchers factored that out when they designed the study. “Rather, people on both sides indicated that they anticipated that hearing from the other side would induce cognitive dissonance,” the researchers concluded in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 

We tend to selectively expose ourselves to bias-confirming information for a number of reasons. Since decades ago, researchers have found undeniable evidence that conflicting views with our own beliefs trigger cognitive dissonance and frustration. Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. As such, selective exposure is a self-defense mechanism against feeling threatened. It’s either that or we change our views to escape the dissonance, which rarely happens because you have to go through the pain of dissonance in the first place.

According to the theory of shared reality, we have an ingrained need to feel mental synchrony in others and this is often achieved by seeking out information from like-minded people. Information from unlike-minded people undermines this fundamental need, which explains why both liberals and conservatives equally engage in selective exposure.

Ultimately, this causes both liberals and conservatives to retract in ideological information bubbles.

“What could ultimately be a contest of ideas is being replaced by two, non-interacting monopolies,” the researchers said.

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