Starting roughly in the second week of March 2020, a number of American cities, counties, and states issued orders to close down workplaces, schools, colleges, restaurants, and other gatherings to avoid overwhelming the medical system with COVID-19 cases. In this, America mirrored the rest of the world; but what followed in the wake of the shelter-in-place orders was unique to the United States. In survey after survey, voters who identified as Republican or conservative were more likely to play down the seriousness of COVID-19 than those who identified as Democrat or liberal. The president, on Twitter and in his speeches, and many elected Republican officeholders encouraged people to protest against public closures. Despite the recommendation of the federal agency he presided over, the president rarely wore a mask (and ultimately contracted COVID-19). The measures to contain the virus turned into the familiar American battlefronts of the culture war.
Why did a deadly pandemic become so exceptionally political in America? Why do many citizens and political elites question taken-for-granted understandings about public health, for example, around masks? Why do so many Republican voters accept the president’s clearly inaccurate (even laughable) claims about the stolen election of 2020?
The usual technocratic answer to these questions would be to argue that this is a result of people’s innate gullibility and to advocate for more education and literacy. In the past decade, however, social psychologists—such as Hugo Mercier in Not Born Yesterday and John Jost in A Theory of System Justification—have advanced a different argument, around ideas of “motivated reasoning” and “system justification.” This idea has started to find increasing purchase among journalists. Motivated reasoning is the propensity by individuals to read even the validity of sacred facts through the lens of their (political) identity or group membership. In this formulation, people reason their way to conclusions that favor their group.1
Paradoxically, high-information individuals are even more likely to pursue motivated reasoning, because they have the resources and the skills to argue for their side. As people are increasingly driven to motivated reasoning, they end up politicizing what might have been simply accepted and taken for granted before.
Despite these fascinating results, the overall focus on motivated reasoning as a driver of misinformation, mistrust, and politicization fails when applied to politics. Here is the major failing of such psychological thinking: it has no theory of institutional power. Instead, everything is reduced to a matter of communication and persuasion, and the unit of analysis is always an individual. It is true that people are more prone to reasoning in a way that favors their group when their political identity is activated. Yet, the fundamental question is often why some issues get politicized in the first place. To answer that question, one must go deep into understanding political and media institutions. In the American case, it requires us to understand the conservative media ecosystem and its influence on the Republican Party.
Motivated Reasoning and American Politics
Over the past few decades, the scientific and political institutions in the United States have experienced a significant drop in public trust. We can see this when climate deniers question the research on global warming or vaccine skeptics challenge the power of vaccines or when the Trump administration alleges rampant voter fraud without evidence or disputes the photographs showing the size of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration. The usual explanation of this phenomenon is that people are too gullible, too taken in by hucksters and demagogues to see the facts that sit right in front of them.
Hugo Mercier’s Not Born Yesterday is a bracing antidote to these charges of gullibility, as well as a lucidly written introduction to the social psychology of communication and reasoning. Mercier starts from a simple premise: to survive, physically and socially, human beings have developed a set of cognitive mechanisms through which they can evaluate the information they receive.
These mechanisms of “open vigilance” make us open to new information but also cautious about accepting it. They include the practice of checking if the information received is plausible, as well as the ability to reason or argue about it. Receivers of new information can also assess the reputation of the sender, based on the prior history of their communication. If there is enough dishonesty, people will start to disregard the information signals of dishonest people. In other words, far from being too gullible, human beings might be too conservative: “If anything, we’re too hard rather than too easy to influence.”
How, then, to explain all those famous instances of people falling under the spell of charismatic leaders and demagogues or being taken in by the magic of political campaigns and subliminal advertising? Mercier argues that, far from deceiving us, advertising, political campaigning, and even spell-binding oratory are successful when they reach something that already exists. So, far from putting people under a spell with his ideas, Hitler was successful because he was able to use already existing beliefs and notions in the population to accomplish new ends. Persuasion is extremely difficult and, when it works, it often only works on the margins.
Mercier makes a further distinction between the workings of open vigilance when it comes to “intuitive” versus “reflective” beliefs. Intuitive beliefs are those that we have to act on; for instance, the belief that when you open a door the ground continues underneath you is an intuitive belief. If you stopped holding this belief, you could never leave rooms. Reflective beliefs do not involve any repercussions for action; at best, they involve actions of little consequence. Those who believed that the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria was trafficking in children left bad Yelp reviews; but only one person, the Pizzagate shooter, turned this reflective belief into an intuitive one (and got himself arrested).
But precisely because reflective beliefs involve no action, the costs of professing them are exclusively social. Reflective beliefs are a way of demonstrating to some people that you are on their side and of alienating others. The more outlandish the professed reflective belief, Mercier argues, the more likely it is that it is professed to signal to one group how much on their side that person is.
But if this dynamic of open vigilance works quite well in small groups of people who communicate with one another interpersonally, its functioning may get somewhat skewed in a world of mass media. It is still true that persuasion, through political campaigns or advertising, only works at the margins. But the dynamics of the costs of signaling change dramatically. Thus, “fake news”—transparently absurd news items—can be shared by people not because they think they are necessarily true but because the costs of professing them are so low (fights in the comments) and the gains so high (it shows their in-group the lengths they would go to offend the out-group).
Surprisingly, it is high-information citizens who tend to have the most elaborate justifications for these views if they are asked to explain them. As a key review of the research explains, people are often caught in a “tug-of-war between accuracy and directional motivations.” Thus high-information people are more likely to defend and justify their false views for a politicized situation (which triggers their political identity and directional motivations) than for a nonpoliticized one (which triggers their motivation for accuracy).
Psychology or Institutions?
There is much to recommend in this theory of communication, if only because it disabuses us of the notion that people are gullible and that political divides can be fixed by “education” or “literacy” campaigns or that “reason” is some final arbiter of truth. But its biggest problem is that it ignores the power of institutions to set agendas and parameters for trust.
This can be seen when social psychologists build on their theories to propose possible solutions to the problems they diagnose. In his book A Theory of System Justification, the social psychologist John Jost argues that “it might be possible to harness [people’s] system justification motivation on behalf of the environment by reframing pro-environmental initiatives as patriotic and consistent with the goal of protecting the American way of life.” Even he is not sure this will actually work to change people’s minds.
Mercier himself ends six of his chapters (explaining belief in rumors, false confessions, fake news, con men, and other assorted subjects using the theory of open vigilance) with a section titled “What to do?” These sections are addressed to the proverbial “we”: we get recommendations from the advice to pause before spreading a rumor (and assessing it as if it were an intuitive rather than reflective belief) to “we should also help others by providing accurate sources for our opinions.”
These are not bad recommendations, but their character points to a major failing of these theories: the “we” is always an individual. They don’t offer an understanding that fits psychology into the broader world of institutions, which, of course, also shape politics.
How to solve the vicious loop of politicization? The answer lies less in understanding the human mind and more in reimagining the American political and media ecosystem.
Consider, for instance, the question of mass media. Mercier, rightfully, points out that, contrary to hype, advertising and political campaigning work far less than people think. When they do, it is often because campaigns build on preexisting beliefs. On the other hand, media coverage—the sort that is typically not paid for—works differently. Mercier notes that the media have “the potential to influence public opinion: not by telling people what to think but by telling people what to think about (agenda setting), how to best understand issues (framing), and what criteria to use when evaluating politicians (priming)” (my emphasis). Moreover, just as media institutions can help people evaluate politicians, they can also enter into relationships of trust with their viewers and help their viewers with criteria for evaluating other kinds of facts.
But social psychologists really have no explanation for American media polarization. In the 19th century, America’s newspapers tended to be partisan. But by the middle of the 20th century, newspapers and news media had converged on a style of objectivity that the media critic Jay Rosen has called the “view from nowhere.” Organizationally, they separated their business and editorial divisions, so that the business of news (revenue and advertising) should not interfere with the reporting of news. On the printed page, they began to keep facts, opinions, and advertisements separate by clearly delineating them. And they started to report (political) conflicts by giving equal coverage to every side while the reporter stayed invisible. This style of reporting is today embodied by some of the most well-known American media institutions that span print, radio, and television: the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, the Atlantic, CBS, NBC, CNN, NPR, and others.
Starting from the middle of the 20th century, however, with the rise of the civil rights movement, the Democratic and Republican parties sorted ideologically, with the Democrats becoming more liberal, and Republicans becoming more conservative. With sorting, the media’s “view from nowhere” approach to journalism stopped satisfying partisans, especially conservatives, who started to (understandably) accuse mainstream media institutions of exhibiting “liberal bias” and therefore sought to create their own media outlets. Aided partly by regulatory changes like the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine, this led to the rise of alternative right-wing media outlets like cable-news channels and conservative talk radio and audiences who consumed them (often exclusively).
Three features distinguish this conservative media ecosystem from the established mainstream one. First, conservative media outlets are often exclusively oriented around showing that mainstream media and academics are “biased,” without necessarily following journalistic norms around producing new facts. Which is to say, they are more interested in tearing down someone else’s credibility than in establishing their own through journalism. Second, as the historian Nicole Hemmer argues, conservative media trained its audiences to be receptive to news that emphasizes ideological purity.2 Conservative audiences thus tend to look for partisan rather than informational journalism, to the point where many of them have ceased to consume any mainstream reporting. Third, and most important, as political scientists Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins have pointed out, conservative media institutions exert an influence on the Republican Party that the mainstream media simply does not on the Democrats. GOP politicians—incumbents or reformers—are forced to seek the approval of its media personalities, without whom they have no way of appealing to primary voters and activists. (Indeed, it seems like the logical conclusion that a media personality who mirrored conservative media’s style of outrage became the Republican presidential nominee.)
Conservative media outlets thus end up turning any policy issue into a politicized culture war, since there is always some conservative value that, as David Hopkins describes the world they construct for their audiences, is under “ceaseless attack from Democratic politicians, liberal interests, and a mainstream news media all bent on its destruction or catastrophic transformation.” (Strangely, but also logically, this is also true, Hopkins observes, when Republicans are in power, when more attention continues to be devoted to “criticizing Democrats and the non-conservative media than on celebrating conservative electoral or governing successes.”)
The frame of outrage is most visible in the story of Obamacare’s “individual mandate,” which stipulates that all US residents must purchase (subsidized) health insurance (or be fined for failing to do so). The individual mandate emerged out of the Heritage Foundation as the conservative market-based alternative that would keep American health care in the private sector, and, indeed, was the centerpiece of Mitt Romney’s health-care reforms in the state of Massachusetts. But once it became part of Obamacare, conservative media outlets turned it from an arcane policy tool into an attack on “freedom” itself. As Republicans turned against it one by one, state Republican lawmakers filed a case against the mandate as inherently unconstitutional that made its way, securing victory after victory, all the way to the Supreme Court, before Justice John Roberts—barely—found it constitutional as a tax. The conservative media’s ability to set the Republican agenda through its lens of outrage makes it almost impossible for any GOP politician to negotiate in good faith on any nuts-and-bolts issue of governance.
What is to be done? Social psychologists along with historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists must first convince policy makers and the broader public that persuasion is difficult, at the best of times. Yes, Cambridge Analytica abused its privileges as a third-party Facebook application (and Facebook’s lax regulation of third-party developers allowed it to do so), but it had no magic recipe through which it “manipulated” people into supporting Donald Trump. Neither do Facebook or Twitter have any secret sauce through which they “hijack our minds,” as the popular documentary The Social Dilemma seems to suggest. The power of social-media platforms comes less from their ability to change someone’s mind and more from the way in which their size, reach, and ability to combine different types of speech (advertisements versus organic content, commercial versus journalistic speech, personal versus public speech, etc.) in the pursuit of “virality” and profit allows old and new media institutions to connect with audiences and set parameters for political conversations and public trust. As the communication scholars Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor argue, the problem with social media isn’t “misinformation” or manipulation that dupes gullible audiences as much as how political elites on the right have used their media platforms for profoundly antidemocratic purposes.
This leads to my second course of action, which is convincing policy makers and others that the answer to US media polarization is not really “educating” social media users or fact-checking. While there is nothing wrong in teaching the tools of digital literacy or fact-checking, America’s political divisions do not arise from a gullible population that lacks literacy or because one side does not understand facts. The answer must lie in standardization: getting social-media companies, journalistic outlets (mainstream as well as conservative), and other stakeholders to come up with a set of standards for “news” and then making sure that only articles that uphold those standards can go viral.
Social psychologists are thus entirely correct on the conservative media’s ability to set agendas, frame issues, and give viewers criteria on which to evaluate politicians—just as they are about the audiences who consume these media, who, far from being unsophisticated, trust them with good reason. But there is nothing one can do at the level of individuals to solve the vicious loop of politicization here. The answer lies less in understanding the human mind and more in reimagining the American political and media ecosystem.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Much of John Jost’s book is about how individuals reason their way to conclusions that favor not themselves but the dominant social group, thereby justifying and perpetuating the (unjust) system. However, the rest of this review will focus much more on “motivated reasoning” than on “system justification.” ↩
- Nicole Hemmer, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). ↩