Political parties play a vital role in democracies by linking citizens to their representatives. Nonetheless, a longstanding concern is that partisan identification slants decision-making. Citizens may support (oppose) policies that they would otherwise oppose (support) in the absence of an endorsement from a political party—this is due in large part to what is called partisan motivated reasoning where individuals interpret information through the lens of their party commitment. We explore partisan motivated reasoning in a survey experiment focusing on support for an energy law. We identify two politically relevant factors that condition partisan motivated reasoning: (1) an explicit inducement to form an “accurate” opinion, and (2) cross-partisan, but not consensus, bipartisan support for the law. We further provide evidence of how partisan motivated reasoning works psychologically and affects opinion strength. We conclude by discussing the implications of our results for understanding opinion formation and the overall quality of citizens’ opinions.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Our work also adds to studies of how party endorsements in general affect public opinion (e.g., Arceneaux 2008; Bullock 2011; Nicholson 2012). Consider, for instance, Bullock’s (2011) recent paper, which tests the effects of a partisan endorsement on support for a policy by varying the availability of a source endorsement. He concludes (2011, p. 512), “party cues are influential, but partisans… are generally affected at least as much—and sometimes much more—by exposure to substantial amounts of policy information.” What Bullock does not probe deeply, however, is the conditions under which partisan endorsements are likely to slant evaluations.
Note that motivated reasoning encompasses a range of distinct goals, including defending prior opinions, impression motivation, and behavioral motivation (see Kunda 1999), but here we follow political science work to date focusing on directional and accuracy goals.
These various moderators somewhat contradict Taber and Lodge’s (2006, p. 767) conclusion that: “despite our best efforts to promote the even-handed treatment of policy arguments in our studies, we find consistent evidence of directional partisan bias…Our participants may have tried to be evenhanded, but they found it impossible to be fair-minded.” Of course even Taber and Lodge themselves find moderating effects of opinion strength and sophistication (also see Druckman 2012).
This can be accomplished in a variety of other ways, with the underlying rationale being to increase, “the stakes involved in making a wrong judgment or in drawing the wrong conclusion, without increasing the attractiveness of any particular opinion” (Kunda 1990, p. 481). One approach is to inform respondents that their decision is important, will be judged by peers, will have to be justified, will be made public, or will affect someone else (also see, e.g., Tetlock 1983; Tetlock et al. 1989; Lerner and Tetlock 1999; Tetlock 1986, all of whom do not explicitly look at social expectations but use it as a clear implicit component of their treatments).
As will become clear, we follow this approach (i.e., inducing participants to believe they will have to justify their responses). This approach differs from the one taken by Taber and Lodge (2006, p. 759), who ask respondents to, “view information in an evenhanded way so [as to] explain the issue to other students.” The potential problem with not asking explicitly for general justification is highlighted by Lord et al. (1984) who find that inducing people to form accurate preferences requires not only encouraging them to be unbiased, but also inducing them to justify their opinion. Taber and Lodge’s manipulation asks respondents to put their prior opinions aside and requires them to “explain the issue” to others. However, individuals may have understood this to mean that they need to present some facts to others; they may not have been induced to consider alternative viewpoints or justify their opinions. This is why we follow this other experimental work by asking respondents to justify their specific opinions (e.g., Redlawsk 2002; Tetlock 1983). Indeed, Houston and Fazio (1989, p. 65) explain that removing attitudinal slant requires “directing people to focus on the nature of the judgmental process” (also see Creyer et al. 1990; Lerner and Tetlock 1999).
We are careful here because such an endorsement could work to generate something akin to an accuracy goal given that conflict can generate elaboration (e.g., Chong and Druckman 2007) which is what we posit; however, it also is possible that the endorsement just leads to a moderation of opinions. We thank an anonymous reviewer for this point.
We thank Laurel Harbridge for pointing out the important distinction between unanimity and cross-partisan situations.
We contracted with a survey research company (Bovitz Inc.) to collect the data. The sample was drawn from a panel of respondents who have opted into complete online surveys. The panel was originally developed based on a random-digit-dial (RDD) telephone survey, where to enter the panel a respondent needed to have access to the Internet. (In this sense, it is a non-probability sample in the same way as those taken by firms such as YouGov are non-probability samples.) The panel has continued to grow based on ongoing RDD recruiting and referrals. From the panel, which has ~1 million members, a given sample is drawn using a matching algorithm to ensure that those screened to qualify for the survey constitute a sample that demographically represents the United States.
To explore the possibility of extra-ordinary pre-treatment effects, we content analyzed news articles from The New York Times and The USA Today from June 2008 to approximately June 2009 that included one of the following terms in the headline or lead paragraph: “energy policy,” “energy crisis,” “energy shortage,” or “energy plan.” From these, we selected articles that met specific criteria to ensure they are about the U.S. energy situation. This resulted in a total of 67 articles (28 from the USA Today and 39 from the NYT). We found that 39 % mentioned some type of partisan content (from one party) and 6 % mentioned some sort of bipartisanship. These results suggest nothing out of the norm a la pre-treatment and that partisanship plays a role in these discussions.
We asked pre-test respondents whether they thought the Act was sponsored by Democrats or Republicans, and we found no significant differences in presumed attributions.
Personal communication, Charles Taber 12/28/09, and personal communication Milton Lodge 12/31/09. The closest example we could find was Boiney et al. (1997, p. 8) who ask respondents to decide whether to introduce a new product for a company with a directional manipulation telling them that the product is profitable and that past proposals have been turned down too quickly. We build on this general approach. Redlawsk (2002) manipulates motivation in a study of motivated reasoning, but focuses on on-line versus memory-based processing; he assumes on-line is the default, and then manipulates memory-based processing by telling people they will have to list everything they can remember and justify their choice. This latter aspect will likely prompt more accuracy processing, which is what Redlawsk (2002) wants to show—i.e., that memory-based processing moderates motivated reasoning.
We thank Charles Taber for suggesting this specific approach; personal communication, 1/4/10.
We use one-tailed tests throughout as is conventional given clear directional predictions; see Blalock 1979; hence our 90 % confidence intervals.
The question wording and distribution of each response for all control variables is reported in Table 6.
Note that the directional processing motivation Conditions (2, 5, 8, 11, and 14) significantly exceeded the no manipulation processing Conditions (1, 4, 7, 10, and 13) in only one of five cases. The one case is the same party endorsement, no motivation relative to same party endorsement, directional motivation conditions (Conditions 4 and 5, p < 0.05). The no endorsement conditions with no processing manipulation (1) and a directional processing inducement (2), perhaps surprisingly, register significant increases in support for the policy. Interestingly, the increase in support in these conditions stems entirely from movement among Democrats (evidence on this is available upon request from the authors). In short, in the absence of any processing inducement, Democrats seem to engage in motivated reasoning to a greater extent than Republicans when they are induced to think about and justify their views. This presumably reflects that energy is an issue owned by Democrats (see Druckman et al. 2009a).
There also is the question about whether partisan motivated reasoning leads to polarization. Elite partisan polarization itself appears to increase motivated reasoning (e.g., Druckman et al. 2013; Levendusky 2010; Slothuus and de Vreese 2010). In other words, partisan reasoning will be most likely to occur on issues where the parties conflict or are most dissimilar. We cannot directly examine this because we look at a single case at a single point in time, and, thus, there is no objective variation in polarization. We also do not manipulate polarization (perceptions) as Levendusky (2010) and Druckman et al. (2013) do. We did, however, measure perceptions of partisan similarity. Specifically, we asked “In general, to what extent do you think Democrats and Republicans take similar or dissimilar policy positions?” on a 1–7 scale with higher scores indicating greater similarity. Although we do not report the results from this analysis here (these are available upon request from the authors), we find clear evidence that partisan motivated reasoning occurs to a greater extent among those who view the parties as most different on this issue. This provides further evidence suggesting that partisan motivated reasoning can exacerbate polarization.
We employ a median split for this measure which allows us to focus on what are more likely to be qualitatively distinct groups (as do Druckman and Nelson 2003; Miller and Krosnick 2000, p. 305). We find consistent results, albeit slightly weaker, using a continuous measure rather than using a median split. Of note, we find our party trust measure does not moderate support for the Act in conditions where a party endorsement was not provided, as one would expect given trust should only moderate support for the Act in cases where partisan motivated reasoning occurs.
Arceneaux, K. (2008). Can partisan cues diminish democratic accountability? Political Behavior, 30(2), 139–160.
Atkeson, L. R., & Maestas, C. D. (2012). Catastrophic politics: How extraordinary events redefine perceptions of government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Baum, M. A., & Groeling, T. (2009). Shot by the messenger: Partisan cues and public opinion regarding national security and war. Political Behavior, 31(2), 157–186.
Blalock, H. M., Jr. (1979). Social Statistics (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Boiney, L. G., Kennedy, J., & Nye, P. (1997). Instrumental bias in motivated reasoning: More when more is needed. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 72(1), 1–24.
Bolsen, T., & Cook, F. L. (2008). Public opinion on energy policy, 1974–2006. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72(2), 364–388.
Bolsen, T., & Leeper, T.J. (Forthcoming). Self-interest and attention to news among issue publics. Political Communication.
Brader, T. (2006). Campaigning for hearts and minds: How emotional appeals in political ads work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bullock, J. G. (2011). Elite influence on public opinion in an informed electorate. American Political Science Review, 105(3), 496–515.
Bullock, J. G., Gerber, A. S., Hill, S. J., & Huber, G. A. (2013). Partisan bias in factual beliefs about politics. Working Paper.
Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Chang, L., & Krosnick, J. A. (2009). National surveys via RDD telephone interviewing versus the Internet comparing sample representativeness and response quality. Public Opinion Quarterly, 73(4), 641–678.
Chong, D., & Druckman, J. N. (2007). Framing public opinion in competitive democracies. American Political Science Review, 101(4), 637–655.
Chugh, D. (2004). Societal and managerial implications of implicit social cognition: Why milliseconds matter. Social Justice Research, 17(2), 203–222.
Clarke, H. D., & Stewart, M. C. (1998). The decline of parties in the minds of citizens. Annual Review of Political Science, 1, 357–378.
Cohen, G. L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(5), 808–822.
Cooper, J., & Young, G. (1997). Partisanship, bipartisanship, and cross partisanship in Congress since the New Deal. In L. C. Dodd & B. I. Oppenheimer (Eds.), Congress reconsidered (pp. 390–420). Washington D.C.: CQ Press.
Creyer, E. H., Bettman, J. R., & Payne, J. W. (1990). The impact of accuracy and effort feedback and goals on adaptive decision behavior. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 3(1), 1–16.
Dancey, L., & Goren, P. (2010). Party identification, issue attitudes, and the dynamics of political debate. American Journal of Political Science, 54(3), 686–699.
Dennis, J. (1992). Political independence in America, III: In search of closet partisans. Political Behavior, 14(3), 261–296.
Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of political action in a democracy. Journal of Political Economy, 65(2), 135–150.
Druckman, J. N. (2001). The implications of framing effects for citizen competence. Political Behavior, 23(3), 225–256.
Druckman, J. N. (2012). The politics of motivation. Critical Review, 24(2), 199–216.
Druckman, J. N., & Bolsen, T. (2011). Framing, motivated reasoning, and opinions about emergent technologies. Journal of Communication, 61(4), 659–688.
Druckman, J. N., Fein, J., & Leeper, T. J. (2012). A source of bias in public opinion stability. American Political Science Review, 106(2), 430–454.
Druckman, J. N., Kifer, M. J., & Parkin, M. (2009a). Campaign communications in U.S. congressional elections. American Political Science Review, 103, 343–366.
Druckman, J. N., Kuklinski, J. H., & Sigelman, L. (2009b). The unmet potential of interdisciplinary research: Political psychological approaches to voting and public opinion. Political Behavior, 31, 485–510.
Druckman, J. N., & Leeper, T. (2012). Is public opinion stable? Resolving the micro-macro disconnect in studies of public opinion. Daedalus, 141, 50–68.
Druckman, J. N., & Nelson, K. R. (2003). Framing and deliberation: How citizens’ conversations limit elite influence. American Journal of Political Science, 47(4), 729–745.
Druckman, J. N., Peterson, E., & Slothuus, R. (2013). How elite partisan polarization affects public opinion formation. American Political Science Review, 107(1), 57–79.
Fazio, R. H., & Olson, M. A. (2003). Attitudes: Foundations, functions, and consequences. In M. A. Hogg & J. Cooper (Eds.), The Sage handbook of social psychology (pp. 139–160). London: Sage.
Gerber, A. S., Huber, G. A., & Washington, E. (2010). Party affiliation, partisanship, and political beliefs: A field experiment. American Political Science Review, 104(4), 720–744.
Green, D. P., Palmquist, B., & Schickler, E. (2002). Partisan hearts and minds. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Harbridge, L. (2013). Is bipartisanship dead? Strategic partisanship and agenda control in the House of Representatives. Unpublished Book Manuscript, Northwestern University.
Houston, D. A., & Fazio, R. H. (1989). Biased processing as a function of attitude accessibility: Making objective judgments subjectively. Social Cognition, 7(1), 51–66.
Huckfeldt, R., Levine, J., Morgan, W., & Sprague, J. (1999). Accessibility and the political utility of partisan and ideological orientations. American Journal of Political Science, 43(3), 888–911.
Iyengar, S., Sood, G., & Lelkes, Y. (2012). Affect, not ideology: A social identity perspective on polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly, 76(3), 405–431.
Jerit, J. (2009). How predictive appeals shape policy opinions. American Journal of Political Science, 53(2), 411–426.
Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Slovic, P., Gastil, J., & Cohen, G. (2009). Cultural cognition of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology. Nature Nanotechnology, 4, 87–90.
Keith, B. E., Magleby, D. B., Nelson, C. J., Orr, E. A., Westlye, M. C., & Wolfinger, R. E. (1992). The myth of the independent voter. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480–498.
Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Lavine, H., Johnston, C., & Steenbergen, M. (2012). The ambivalent partisan: How critical loyalty promotes democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lerner, J. S., & Tetlock, P. E. (1999). Accounting for the effects of accountability. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), 255–275.
Levendusky, M. S. (2010). Clearer cues, more consistent voters. Political Behavior, 32(1), 111–131.
Lodge, M., & Taber, C. S. (2000). Three steps toward a theory of motivated political reasoning. In A. Lupia, M. D. McCubbins, & S. L. Popkin (Eds.), Elements of Reason (pp. 183–213). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Lord, C. G., Lepper, M. R., & Preston, E. (1984). Considering the opposite: A corrective strategy for social judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6), 1231–1243.
Magleby, D. B., Nelson, C. J., & Westlye, M. C. (2011). The myth of the independent voter revisited. In P. Sniderman & B. Highton (Eds.), Facing the challenge of democracy: Explorations in the analysis of public opinion and political participation (pp. 238–266). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Malhotra, N., & Krosnick, J. A. (2007). The effect of survey mode and sampling on inferences about political attitudes and behavior: Comparing the 2000 and 2004 ANES to Internet surveys with nonprobability samples. Political Analysis, 15(3), 286–323.
Miller, J. M., & Krosnick, J. A. (2000). News media impact on the ingredients of presidential evaluations: Politically knowledgeable Citizens are guided by a trusted source. American Journal of Political Science, 44(2), 301–315.
Mulligan, K. J., Grant, T., Mockabee, S. T., & Monson, J. Q. (2003). Response latency methodology for survey research: Measurement and modeling strategies. Political Analysis, 11(3), 289–301.
Nicholson, S. P. (2012). Polarizing cues. American Journal of Political Science, 56(1), 52–66.
Petersen, M. B., Skov, M., Serritzlew, S., & Ramsøy, T. (Forthcoming). Motivated reasoning and political parties: Evidence for increased processing in the face of party cues. Political Behavior.
Petrocik, J. R. (1974). An analysis of intransitivities in the index of party identification. Political Methodology, 1, 31–47.
Petrocik, J. R. (2009). Measuring party support: Leaners are not independents. Electoral Studies, 28(4), 562–572.
Prior, M., & Lupia, A. (2008). Money, time, and political knowledge: Distinguishing quick recall and political learning skills. American Journal of Political Science, 52(1), 169–183.
Redlawsk, D. (2002). Hot cognition or cool consideration. The Journal of Politics, 64(4), 1021–1044.
Schattschneider, E. E. (1960). The semisovereign people: A realist’s view of democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Sinclair, B. (2012). The social citizen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Slothuus, R., & de Vreese, C. H. (2010). Political parties, motivated reasoning, and issue framing effects. The Journal of Politics, 72(3), 630–645.
Smith, J. R., Terry, D. J., Crosier, T. R., & Duck, J. M. (2005). The importance of the relevance of the issue to the group in voting intentions. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27(2), 163–170.
Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. American Journal of Political Science, 50(3), 755–769.
Tetlock, P. E. (1983). Accountability and complexity of thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(1), 74–83.
Tetlock, P. E. (1986). A value pluralism model of ideological reasoning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(4), 819–827.
Tetlock, P. E., Skitka, L., & Boettger, R. (1989). Social and cognitive strategies for coping with accountability: Conformity, complexity, and bolstering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 632–640.
Visser, P. S., Bizer, G. Y., & Krosnick, J. A. (2006). Exploring the latent structure of strength related attitude attributes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 1–67.
We thank Aries Arugay, Kevin Levay, Julia Valdes, and especially Josh Robison for research assistance. We also are grateful to Matt Baum and Sean Richey for insightful comments and the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) for research funding.
Table 5 offers a robustness check by adding controls for models we used to estimate treatment effects. We include the following categories of variables (see the precise wording for each measure in Table 6).
Demographics and control variables. We include standard demographics that tend to influence political attitudes: gender (Female), minority status (Minority), age, education, partisanship, income, trust, and knowledge in different domains (i.e., political knowledge, energy knowledge, and science knowledge). We do not have clear directional predictions for these variables so we use two-tailed tests for statistical significance. We also measure media exposure with the idea that any coverage may have been positive in terms of the need to address energy problems.
Values/Ideology. We measure political ideology with the idea that conservatives will be less supportive of the Act due to increased government regulation. We also include two worldview variables of communitarian (EqRgtsToofar) and egalitarianism (GovOut) (Kahan et al. 2009). We expect those who are more individualistic (anti-communitarian) and hierarchical (anti-egalitarian) will be less supportive of the law as they tend to put more faith in market solutions. We include a variable capturing the extent to which the economy is favored over the environment (EconEnv).
We also added a question that asked about the extent to which individuals believe in the “precautionary principle” that is: “When it comes to decisions about energy production, do you think the guiding principle should be whether there will be harm to the environment and/or the public?” (i.e., Precaution).
Attitudes about government’s role when it comes to energy policy. We included an item that measures the extent to which the government is the cause of an energy problem (CauseGov). The more people view government as a cause, the less likely they may be to see government as the solution. We also ask explicitly about whether government is responsible for addressing the nation’s energy problem (RespGov), which should correlate with increased support since this is a government law. We include an item that rates the extent to which laws are a good way to address energy issues (ApphConsum). Finally, we measured trust in government to specifically address energy problem (TrustUSGov). This is interesting because it allows us to see if a domain specific trust in government measure is more appropriate than the aforementioned general trust in government item (TrustGov) in explaining support for the Energy Act. Note that the two variables are correlated at about .61, but this does not present a problem in terms of estimating a model with both variables included.
We recognize that several Conditions (e.g., 6, 9, 12) offer similar predictions and thus we could merge these dichotomous variables in the regression (via interactions). If we were to do so the results would be robust/unchanged. We opted to not do this simply because we offered condition by condition predictions in Table 1 and thus believe the approach we employ is the most straightforward.
Appendix 2: Party Trust as a Moderator of Partisan Motivated Reasoning
Lavine et al. (2012) find that the ambivalence of one’s partisan identity moderates partisan motivated reasoning. This is sensible because when one feels a strong attachment to one’s party, he/she is more likely to reason in ways that defend and cohere with his/her attachment (Bullock 2011; Cohen 2003). As that attachment weakens, the motivation to defend it may as well. Lavine et al. (2012) argue that those with weaker partisan attachments are less likely to engage in partisan motivated reasoning. They state (2012, p. 122): “partisan strength [i.e., ambivalence for them] …undercuts the judgmental confidence that citizens typically derive from partisan cues, [and] they should turn away from these perceptual anchors and pay more attention to the particulars. As a result, they should hold more accurate perceptions…”.
We did not include a measure analogous to theirs but we did measure a somewhat related measure of party attachment—trust in one’s party (see Visser et al. 2006 on attitude strength). Specifically, we asked “To what extent do you trust members of your political party to provide good advice about which energy policies to support?” on a 7-point, fully labeled scale ranging from 1 = “not at all” to 7 = “completely.” We opted for this domain specific trust measure given that people’s evaluation of a party often varies across issue domains, and we are interested in the strength of people’s attachment in the domain of energy.Footnote 17
The bottom line is we find strong support for the argument that trust in one’s party moderates the effects stemming from partisan motivated reasoning. We display the results in Figs. 2 and 3, which are analogous to Fig. 1 except that Fig. 2 focuses on respondents with low trust (N = 538) and Fig. 3 looks only at those with high trust (N = 506). The figures show an enormous moderating effect of trust in one’s party on partisan motivated reasoning in evaluating the Energy Act. For those with relatively weak attachments to their partisan identity (Fig. 2), with one exception, there is evidence of partisan motivated reasoning only when there is an explicit directional motivation prompt and a partisan endorsement is present. The one exception is a significant effect in the other party, no motivation condition (Condition 7, Fig. 2). In cases of significance, the effects are smaller than in the “all respondent” data (Fig. 1). In short, individuals with weaker attachments to their partisan identity clearly engage in less partisan motivated reasoning.
The treatment effects among individuals with a stronger attachment to their partisan identification Fig. 3 show a much more pervasive influence stemming from the presence of a partisan endorsement. There are very large treatment effects in all of the directional motivation, party endorsement conditions—i.e., same party (Condition 5), other party (Condition 8), and consensus endorsement (Condition 11). However, as predicted, in the presence of a cross-partisan endorsement (Conditions 13, 14, and 15) the effect disappears. Also, in the accuracy manipulation conditions, as predicted, there continues to be no significant partisan motivated reasoning. In sum, those who are less trusting of their party are less likely to engage in motivated reasoning and do so only when explicitly prompted to defend/think about their partisan identity. On the other hand, those who have relatively higher levels of trust in their partisan identity are significantly more likely to engage in motivated reasoning when there is a partisan endorsement present. We ran interactions for cases where both low and high trust groups registered significant effects to explore differences between low- (Fig. 2) and high- (Fig. 3) trust individuals within the same condition. The results show, in every case, the differences are statistically significant (available upon request from the authors). This is all quite interesting because we find results similar to Lavine et al. (2012) but using a distinct measure, speaking to the need for more work on moderators of motivated reasoning, starting with a direct comparison between the effectiveness of distinct constructs found to serve as a moderator.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Bolsen, T., Druckman, J.N. & Cook, F.L. The Influence of Partisan Motivated Reasoning on Public Opinion. Polit Behav 36, 235–262 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-013-9238-0
- Motivated reasoning
- Partisan trust