The moment that inspired psychology professor Jeremy Frimer’s latest research happened a while back, in the middle of a casual chat with one of his colleagues, a liberal philosophy professor, about what it means to be intellectually humble.
“I wondered out loud about being willing and even interested in hearing from the ‘other side,’” recalls Frimer, the director of the Moral Psychology Lab at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. “He reacted strongly, stating that he didn’t even want to hear what opponents of same-sex marriage had to say. I was speechless. The juxtaposition of an expert of philosophy —which literally means ‘love of knowledge’ — and a desire to avoid knowledge surprised me.”
That conversation spurred Frimer to investigate why people avoid information that goes against their beliefs. All of us are susceptible to confirmation bias — in general, people tend to expose themselves to information that confirms their beliefs, and to interpret and remember new information the same way. What Frimer wanted to know was how that confirmation bias broke down along political lines: whether people on the right and left were differently motivated to remain in their respective ideological bubbles. The resulting study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that when it came to hot-button social issues, liberals and conservatives were similarly motivated to avoid hearing each other’s opinions.
Across five different experiments encompassing roughly 2,400 participants, the researchers identified a handful of issues that people seemed particularly keen to avoid debating, including climate change and the merits of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as presidential candidates (the study was conducted before the 2016 election). Harkening back to Frimer’s experience with his colleague, same-sex marriage sparked a similar reaction among the study subjects: In one experiment, when it came to the issue of same-sex marriage, the majority of people on both sides of the debate willingly passed up on a chance to win money so that they wouldn’t have to hear from someone with an opposing view.
The study authors also found that this lack of interest was not related to election fatigue, nor was it because people already felt well informed about both sides of the issue. Rather, participants from both sides were trying to avoid the discomfort that comes with being confronted by conflicting opinions, and were concerned that disagreeing with someone would damage the relationship they had with them. “People are looking to avoid feeling angry and frustrated when they hear from the other side, and they are also looking to avoid fights,” Frimer says. Or, as the study put it: “People have a fundamental need to feel mental synchrony with others … Seeking out information from like-minded others could satisfy this fundamental need, and avoiding information from unlike-minded others could undermine [it].”
This latest study adds a new nuance to previous research on these so-called “bubbles,” which has generally found that political conservatives are more prone to avoiding dissenting opinions than liberals.
“The dominant view within social psychology has been that conservatives are small-minded and fearful people,” Frimer says, but he and his colleagues found that liberals and conservatives are “remarkably similar in their cognitive and emotional processing.”
In other words, the tendency to self-segregate by political beliefs is far from one-sided. “Liberals are very open-minded — toward other liberals. Beyond that, they might be a little more self-congratulatory than the evidence warrants,” Frimer says. Both liberals and conservatives, he argues, perceive themselves to be on the right side of an epic moral battle. “Ideology breeds self-righteousness — the sense that ‘our’ side is motivated by love and reason and the ‘other’ side is motivated by hatred and ignorance.”
The study come with a few caveats: First, the participants were disproportionately wealthy, well-educated, and white. Additionally, all the opinions included in the analysis were ones that the subjects had already developed; the researchers didn’t ask subjects to form a new opinion on a novel or hypothetical issue.
It’s also possible that one side may have better reasons to want to ignore the other or be justifiably disinterested in what the other side has to say. As an example, the study authors cited the fact that Trump lied much more often than Clinton on the campaign trail during the 2016 presidential campaign. They also noted the “the emergence of fake news aimed at undermining the credibility of Clinton” as another “asymmetry in the defensibility of the two sides.” It’s one thing to discuss two valid, differing opinions; it’s another to position lies against truth.
Still, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, people tend to see their own views as unquestionably right and others’ as unquestionably wrong. “Liberals may think that conservatives’ views truly are irrational, indefensible, and the product of fear — and thus not worth hearing,” Frimer and his colleagues wrote, but “a conservative might have a similar impression of liberals’ beliefs, opinions, and reasoning.” The result: “What could ultimately be a contest of ideas is being replaced by two, non-interacting monopolies” — a situation we’re all responsible for helping to create.