Motivated Responding in Studies of Factual Learning

Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11109-017-9395-7

Cite this article as:
Khanna, K. & Sood, G. Polit Behav (2017). doi:10.1007/s11109-017-9395-7


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.


Motivated reasoning Learning Responding Partisan bias Factual beliefs Polarization Biased assimilation Prior attitude effect 

Supplementary material

11109_2017_9395_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (552 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (pdf 553 KB)

Funding information

Funder NameGrant NumberFunding Note
Princeton Research in Experimental Social Science

    Copyright information

    © Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

    Authors and Affiliations

    1. 1.Department of PoliticsPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA
    2. 2.Data ScientistSan FranciscoUSA

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