A new study conducted by Cal Poly Pomona researchers found that conservatives tend to see both expert evidence and personal experience as more equally legitimate than liberals, who put more weight on the scientific perspective.
Co-authored by Assistant Professor Randy Stein and Michelle Sarraf, a master’s student studying economics, the study was published in the journal Political Psychology.
In the study, 913 American adults were asked to read an article debunking a common misconception, such as the existence of “lucky streaks” in games of chance. The article quoted an expert explaining why people hold the misconception. The article also included a dissenting voice that drew from personal experience.
Though both liberals and conservatives tended to see the researcher as more legitimate overall, conservatives saw less of a difference in legitimacy between the expert and the dissenter.
The study found that about three-quarters of liberals rated the researcher as more legitimate, while just over half of conservatives did. Additionally, about two-thirds of those who favored the anecdotal voice were conservative. The data also showed that conservatives’ tendency to trust their intuitions accounted for the ideological split.
“In stripping away issues of political interest, we have revealed something more basic about how conservatives and liberals differ in the ways they interact with evidence,” said Stein. “Conservatives are more likely to see intuitive, direct experience as just as legitimate as scientific evidence.”
Though the studies were conducted before the pandemic, Stein believes they help explain some of the ideological reactions to the virus and public health efforts to slow the spread.
“Among conservatives especially, the idea that the pandemic itself is not a major threat can hold as long as there’s personal evidence on offer that supports that view,” Stein said. “President Donald Trump’s recovery from COVID-19 and his assertion based on his own experience that the disease is not so bad would have bolstered this belief. Recommendations from researchers to wear masks can remain mere suggestions so long as the court of public opinion is still undecided.”
Stein is an assistant professor of international business and marketing, whose research focuses on how behavior is influenced by others. His research spans consumer behavior, political psychology and belief biases.