For decades, many social scientists have promoted the view that conservatives are particularly closed-minded—that people on the political Right are more tribal in their thinking patterns, more vulnerable to propaganda that confirms their pre-existing ideas, and more skeptical of inconvenient facts. But a new paper reviewing dozens of relevant studies on this topic finds that this view is not supported (indeed, one might wonder if this consensus is not itself a product of liberal bias in the social sciences). Political bias is not a conservative trait, it turns out, but a human one, and it afflicts both sides in equal measure. An excerpt, with added emphasis:
The clearest finding from this meta-analysis was the robustness of partisan bias. The tendency to find otherwise identical information more valid, persuasive, and compelling when it confirms rather than challenges one’s political views was shown not only by participants in every individual study, but this pattern was found consistently across a wide range of studies using different operationalizations of political orientation, different manipulations of belief-consistent and belief-inconsistent stimuli, and across multiple political topics. […]
Contrary to a longstanding view in psychology that political conservatives are particularly prone to defensiveness and cognitive rigidity (Adorno et al., 1950; Jost et al., 2003), our meta-analysis found that when partisan bias was aggregated across studies, topics, and methodological details, both liberals and conservatives were biased in favor of stimuli that confirmed their political beliefs, and to a virtually identical degree.
This finding helps add credibility to (a version of) the frequently-articulated conservative concerns about the liberal tilt in important U.S. institutions like the prestige press and academia and professional organizations. If the desire to see one’s own political beliefs confirmed is hard-wired into the human psyche, as the paper suggests, then there really is real reason to worry about the fact-finding competency of politically-involved institutions whose members overwhelmingly favor one side or the other—and there is no dispute that conservatives are vastly underrepresented at the most high-brow media outlets and the most prestigious social science departments relative to their presence in the general population.
To be clear, the fact that influential media and academic and professional institutions may be “biased” does not imply any deficiency on the part of the people who work there. It merely implies that these people are overwhelmingly liberal, and that liberals—like conservatives—are almost certainly more likely to pursue stories or research questions that flatter their sensibilities and dodge those that do not. Because both journalism and social science research depend on a process of scrutiny and revision and peer review, the ideological uniformity within these institutions means that the final product is more likely to be favorable to views the overwhelming majority of members already find agreeable.
Bias is a fact of human nature; we won’t be able to beat it out of our opponents by berating them sufficiently, and we wouldn’t want to. What we might be able to do is retool our institutions so that bias can be put to good use. In an ideologically diverse environment, bias could impel partisans to fact-check each others’ contravening claims and come up with something closer to the truth, rather than merely amplifying the point of view that everyone held to begin with.
Not all institutions should try to become politically-neutral. Liberal and conservative (and libertarian and socialist) activist groups are fundamental to civil society. But when the intellectual landscape fractures into homogeneous ideological groups, with leftwing institutions trying to promote one agenda, and rightwing institutions trying to promote another, with no genuinely intellectually diverse intermediary that offers a forum for the competition of ideas … well, then as we are seeing now, the machinery of quality governance and of cultural solidarity seems to start breaking down.