Can the science of science communication explain the 2016 Presidential election? The answer is almost certainly “no” in its entirety, but very possibly “yes” for one particular aspect of it: the apparent heedlessness of the truth that the candidates evinced toward myriad factual claims, and the tolerance for the same among their respective supporters.
Probably the most important insight from the science of science communication is that factual beliefs on contested science issues lead a double life. At least part of the time, for at least some people, they furnish guides for action that depend on the best available evidence. But for many more people, a much greater part of the time, factual beliefs on climate change, evolution, and the like are symbols used to communicate membership in and loyalty to groups embroiled in a competition for social status. The psychological process by which people form and persist in the latter species of belief is known as identity-protective cognition.
To get a sense of how identity-protective cognition works, let’s start with a simple instance of it.
In a canonical 1950s paper entitled They Saw a Game, researchers showed college students from rival Ivy League colleges a film of a football game between their colleges’ teams. The students were instructed to assess whether the referee had been right or wrong on a number of contested officiating calls. Students from each school, the researchers found, deemed the referee to have been correct when his calls benefited their school’s team but incorrect when they benefited their rival’s.
This outcome—the selective crediting or dismissing of evidence in patterns that express one’s group commitments—is identity-protective cognition. It predictably happens in settings in which holding group-consistent beliefs makes a bigger contribution to one’s well-being than holding true ones does.
That was certainly the case for the students in They Saw a Game. Nothing bad could have happened to them from misperceiving the correctness of the referee’s calls. But because partisan rooting interests are a potent currency of solidarity within a college-student community, forming perceptions inimical to one’s team risked alienating the students from others with whom they shared important emotional ties.
Now let’s scale this model up to an issue of global significance: human-caused climate change.
Here, too, we see the signature pattern of identity-protective cognition. The contending groups comprise not students who attend rival colleges but rather ordinary citizens who subscribe to opposing worldviews: hierarchical, individualistic, in the one case, and egalitarian, collectivist on the other. Groups holding these opposing sets of values, research shows, selectively credit and discredit all manner of evidence—empirical data, the credibility of scientists, their own recollection of recent weather conditions—in patterns that fit their groups’ respective positions on the reality of human-caused global warming.
As in the case of the students, moreover, this skew in perception benefits the individuals who display it. As a consumer, a voter, or participant in public discourse generally, an ordinary indivdual’s personal behavior is too inconsequential to affect climate change. Accordingly, if an individual makes a mistake about the best available evidence in any of these capacities, neither she nor anyone she cares about will be adversely affected. But because of what positions on climate change have come to signify about who one is, and whose side one is on in the struggle for dominance in American cultural life, someone who forms beliefs out of keeping with her social group risks losing the trust and confidence of her peers.
In this situation, then, the formation of habits of mind that conduce to beliefs in line with one’s cultural group is thus perfectly rational for ordinary individuals. Indeed, studies show that as individuals’ capacity for rational engagement with scientific evidence improves, the tendency to construe evidence in patterns that express and reinforce their group allegiances become all the more intense.
Yet if everyone engages in this form of identity-expressive reasoning all at once, the collective consequences can be disastrous. For in that situation, the members of culturally diverse democratic society are less likely to converge on the best evidence on risks that threaten their collective well-being. That doesn’t change the psychic incentives, though, that any individual has in continuing to reason in an identity-protective way.
Does such a model of reasoning fit the just-concluded U.S. presidential election? Yes, to a tee.
Even more than their respective political parties, the candidates squaring off in the 2016 election represented the same cultural constituencies that are polarized on climate change along with various other factual issues that admit of scientific inquiry. Indeed, many of those other issues—the impact of immigration policies, the efficacy of gun control, the cost-effectiveness of Obamacare, the consequences of taxation rates on the economy, the safety of fracking—are all ones in which people have been shown to hold identity-protective beliefs and to display associated reasoning biases.
But likely in part because the cultural styles of the candidates were so powerfully aligned with those of their supporters, the veracity of the candidates themselves—and thus of every factual assertion to come out of their mouths—became freighted with identity-defining significance for the candidates’ respective supporters.
Consider the polls that showed that Trump hadn’t lost ground but actually gained it with women in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape and the subsequent accusations of sexual assault by a half a dozen or more women. Commentators were shocked. But they wouldn’t have been if they had understood the cultural stake that Trump’s most ardent supporters, women and men, had in his election, and the corresponding impact of that commitment on their formation of beliefs.
Is there a way to counter identity-protective cognition? There might be. But simply bombarding people with more “true” information is definitely not it. Studies show that where facts have assumed symbolic significance for individuals with opposing cultural identities, trying to correct mistaken beliefs with “corrective” information tends to backfire and harden the message recipients’ resolve—exactly as occurred upon release of the “Access Hollywood” tape.
A republic rent by the sorts of cultural cleavages that feed identity-protective cognition clearly faces a serious problem. But what it needs to solve it is not better science education, public speaking lessons for scientists, or clever social marketing campaigns.
Instead it needs a new set of institutions, practices, and norms aimed at preventing the entanglement of factual positions with cultural identities and disentangling them when preventive efforts fail.
The science of science communication is working on that, too.
And if it weren’t clear enough before, the mass transformation of factual beliefs into symbols of cultural identity in the 2016 Presidential campaign should make it clear just how heavily the prospects for enlightened self-government turn on the progress that this form of science makes.