Professor David Rand, Gordon Pennycook, Ben Tappin
Partisan disagreement is a salient feature of contemporary American politics. A surprising but robust aspect of this disagreement is that it is often the greatest among individuals who are the most cognitively sophisticated. A popular hypothesis for this phenomenon is that cognitive sophistication magnifies “politically motivated reasoning”—reasoning driven by the motivation to reach conclusions congenial to one’s political group identity. However, in the designs of studies supporting this hypothesis, the effect of political group identity is typically conflated with the effect of specific prior beliefs about the issue under study; and reasoning can be affected by such beliefs in the absence of any political group motivation. The diagnosticity of existing evidence is thus ambiguous. To shed new light on this issue, we conducted three experiments in which we statistically controlled for people’s specific prior beliefs—isolating the direct effect of political group identity—when estimating the association between their cognitive sophistication, political group identity, and reasoning in the paradigmatic design used in the literature. Despite observing a robust direct effect of political group identity (per se) on reasoning, we found no evidence that cognitive sophistication magnifies this effect. In contrast, we found fairly consistent evidence that cognitive sophistication magnifies a direct effect of specific prior beliefs on reasoning. We conclude that there is currently a lack of compelling empirical evidence that cognitive sophistication magnifies politically motivated reasoning as commonly understood.