Motivated Responding in Studies of Factual Learning
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Large partisan gaps in reports of factual beliefs have fueled concerns about citizens’ competence and ability to hold representatives accountable. In three separate studies, we reconsider the evidence for one prominent explanation of these gaps—motivated learning. We extend a recent study on motivated learning that asks respondents to deduce the conclusion supported by numerical data. We offer a random set of respondents a small financial incentive to accurately report what they have learned. We find that a portion of what is taken as motivated learning is instead motivated responding. That is, without incentives, some respondents give incorrect but congenial answers when they have correct but uncongenial information. Relatedly, respondents exhibit little bias in recalling the data. However, incentivizing people to faithfully report uncongenial facts increases bias in their judgments of the credibility of what they have learned. In all, our findings suggest that motivated learning is less common than what the literature suggests, but also that there is a whack-a-mole nature to bias, with reduction in bias in one place being offset by increase in another place.
KeywordsMotivated reasoning Learning Responding Partisan bias Factual beliefs Polarization Biased assimilation Prior attitude effect
We would like to thank Princeton Research in Experimental Social Science (PRESS) for financial support. We are also very grateful to Dan Kahan for generously sharing experimental design details; Doug Ahler, Martin Bisgaard, Katie McCabe, Peter Mohanty, and Markus Prior for insightful comments on a previous draft; participants of the PRESS workshop for suggestions about the experimental design; and finally, the editor of this journal and three reviewers for their critical feedback and guidance. The data and code necessary to replicate the results in this paper are available at https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/polbehavior.
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