Resistance to Position Change, Motivated Reasoning, and Polarization

Abstract

People seem more divided than ever before over social and political issues, entrenched in their existing beliefs and unwilling to change them. Empirical research on mechanisms driving this resistance to belief change has focused on a limited set of well-known, charged, contentious issues and has not accounted for deliberation over reasons and arguments in belief formation prior to experimental sessions. With a large, heterogeneous sample (N = 3001), we attempt to overcome these existing problems, and we investigate the causes and consequences of resistance to belief change for five diverse and less contentious socio-political issues. After participants chose initially to support or oppose a given socio-political position, they were provided with reasons favoring their chosen position (affirming reasons), reasons favoring the other, unchosen position (conflicting reasons), or all reasons for both positions (reasons for both sides). Our results indicate that participants are more likely to stick with their initial decisions than to change them no matter which reasons are considered, and that this resistance to belief change is likely due to a motivated, biased evaluation of the reasons to support their initial beliefs (prior-belief bias). More specifically, they rated affirming reasons more favorably than conflicting reasons—even after accounting for reported prior knowledge about the issue, the novelty of the reasons presented, and the reported strategy used to make the initial decision. In many cases, participants who did not change their positions tended to become more confident in the superiority of their positions after considering many reasons for both sides.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that this is also a problem for many investigations into partisan motivated reasoning just as it is for investigations into issue motivated reasoning.

  2. 2.

    Participant recruitment was restricted to individuals in the United States with a prior approval rating above 80% on AMT.

  3. 3.

    This study was approved by the Duke University Campus Institutional Review Board.

  4. 4.

    All data and materials are available at https://osf.io/dxt8q/.

  5. 5.

    The same pattern of results was obtained when subject and reason were included as crossed random-effects in separate linear mixed-effects models for each issue.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by a John Templeton Foundation grant to FDB. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

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Correspondence to Matthew L. Stanley.

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Stanley, M.L., Henne, P., Yang, B.W. et al. Resistance to Position Change, Motivated Reasoning, and Polarization. Polit Behav 42, 891–913 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09526-z

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Keywords

  • Reasoning
  • Political
  • Bias
  • Motivation
  • Polarization