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Republicans and Democrats are living in separate realities, new study suggests

<strong>AUSTIN, TEXAS:</strong> Trump supporters rally outside of the Texas State Capitol building.
AUSTIN, TEXAS: Trump supporters rally outside of the Texas State Capitol building.

A new study has made some surprising conclusions about how Republicans and Democrats are living in their own separate realities.

The study found that people were more likely to rate a claim as true if it supports their political party.

TPR's Jerry Clayton spoke with one of the coauthors of the study, Christian Overgaard, a research associate at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity

Clayton: Can you give us a brief overview of this study?

Overgaard: Absolutely. So there's been a lot of talk in recent years about political polarization, where Democrats and Republicans tend to disagree a lot about politics and also dislike each other. We're coming at the problem from a kind of different point of view where we want to ask if Democrats and Republicans also live in different worlds where they believe different facts to be true.

And there are some indications from past studies that this is the case. And we are testing this by focusing on contemporary hot button issues like COVID 19 and U.S. presidential elections. And then we are looking at some of the predictors of this tendency for people to live in different worlds.

Clayton: One thing that I found very surprising is that political partisanship was more predictive of someone's belief than their education. How is that even possible?

Overgaard: Yeah, that's a good point to touch on. And I think you won't be the only person surprised by this finding. And I think there are two important things going on here. One is just that partisanship has a much stronger influence on this tendency that you might expect. And we did see very consistent impact of partisanship across everything we tested. And the other thing going on is that education seems to have a weaker influence than you might expect, and this is perhaps the most surprising thing.

But at the same time, it is actually consistent with prior research that doesn't necessarily show that those with higher education, more noticeably, are more correct when it comes to political issues. And one explanation that that our scholars have offered is that sometimes if you have a lot of educational and analytical skills, you might not only use those skills of stratification to find out what is actually true.

And here psychologists talk a lot about what they called motivated reasoning, where people sometimes used their reasoning skills not to actually arrive at the truth, but instead to support a particular conclusion that they would like to be true. And education seems to do very little to curb this tendency.

Clayton: What can the media do better in communicating to an audience that's increasingly polarized?

Overgaard: That's an excellent question, Jerry, and it's also a really difficult question. I will say I don't have a perfect solution there. I do think that awareness of the problem is an important first step. And perhaps one helpful strategy could be tied up to use intellectual humility and acknowledge when there's uncertainty. And I think that's true both for journalists and for news consumers.

As humans, it tends to feel really good to be right and to feel confidence. But often you don't really know exactly what's true, or at least you are uncertain. And I think acknowledging that both for journalists and for news consumers could potentially help.

(The study was coauthored by postdoctoral research fellow Jessica Collier.)

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.