Intellectual Humility Can Lessen Political Myside Bias
Whether we are debating with others about day-to-day topics (like what is the best restaurant in town) or polarizing topics (such as politics or religion), we are motivated to be accurate and also to uphold our beliefs. We strive to maintain our views because whenever our views face disconfirmation, it feels uncomfortable, threatening, and stressful. Sometimes, however, we may work harder to uphold our beliefs than to be accurate.
As one can imagine, this desire to uphold our views bears on politics and polarization. Partisans tend to generate, test, and seek out evidence in support of their views and dismiss, deny, or distort evidence that disconfirms their views, a phenomenon known as myside bias. Such biased processing of political information may limit bipartisan initiatives, feed polarization, and fuel ideological discord.
Political myside bias can take several forms. One manifestation of political myside bias is partisan bias, where a person thinks or behaves in ways that align with their political party. For example, a 2003 research study found that partisans will often favor a given policy when informed that it was endorsed by their party but reject the same policy if informed that it was endorsed by the opposing party.
People’s interpretation and evaluation of information are also susceptible to bias. Biased assimilation is the tendency to readily accept confirmatory evidence as true but dismiss disconfirmatory evidence as false. As a consequence of biased assimilation, people interpret new evidence to align with their preexisting beliefs and expectations, even if the evidence does not actually support them.
Political myside bias not only affects the evaluation of information but also the selection of information, or selective exposure. Studies suggest that people are more likely to select belief-consistent than belief-inconsistent information.
Thus, political myside bias affects the ways we select, interpret, and evaluate political information, often pushing people to confirm rather than disconfirm their views. We asked, is there a way to identify traits that may lessen political myside bias?
In our research, we focused on a trait called intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is the degree to which people evaluate the accuracy of their beliefs and even change their beliefs when presented with compelling evidence that they are wrong. This capacity to be open-minded is connected to one’s ability to reflect on their own thought processes, and together these qualities may give rise to a greater ability to form evidence-based decisions and reduce overconfidence. Indeed, recent research indicates that intellectual humility is related to less partisan animosity, same-party favoritism, and political polarization.
We expanded upon existing research by using multiple measures of both intellectual humility and political myside bias and testing their relationship in two community samples (not college students or clinical patients).
We found that intellectual humility was significantly associated with less political myside bias. Compared to participants low in intellectual humility, participants high in intellectual humility displayed less partisan bias. Participants read about two candidates, a Republican and a Democratic candidate, who both were accused of “flip-flopping” just to get elected. Intellectually humble individuals were less likely to pejoratively characterize the outgroup candidate as flip-flopping. In essence, intellectually humble individuals were not overly swayed by partisan cues and were able to impartially evaluate presented political information.
Furthermore, intellectual humility was related to less biased assimilation. Participants were presented with equally strong arguments in favor of and against certain political topics. Intellectually humble individuals were better able to identify that the arguments across conditions were similar in the evidence they presented and how the evidence was used to reach a conclusion. What this means is that intellectually humble individuals were able to see past whether the argument supported their beliefs when interpreting the political information.
Participants high in intellectual humility also displayed less selective exposure. Such people selected fewer confirmatory political articles and more contradictory political articles. Intellectually humble individuals are more likely to seek out challenging political information than less intellectually humble individuals.
In sum, intellectual humility is associated with less political myside bias. Even when individuals hold their political beliefs with conviction or certainty, intellectual humility is still related to less political myside bias. Given the rise of polarization in American society, intellectual humility may be one promising avenue to explore, as it may help people scrutinize their political beliefs and reach bipartisan consensus even when it is tough to do so.
And here is perhaps an even more important question: What can we do about political myside bias? Does intellectual humility actually cause people to have less political myside bias? If so, pursuing research focused on increasing intellectual humility may help bridge some of the partisan divisions in our society.
For Further Reading
Bowes, S. M., Costello, T. H., Lee, C., McElroy-Heltzel, S., Davis, D. E., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2022). Stepping outside the echo chamber: Is intellectual humility associated with less political myside bias? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 48, 150-164. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167221997619
Bowes, S. M., Blanchard, M. C., Costello, T. H., Abramowitz, A. I., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2020). Intellectual humility and between-party animus: Implications for affective polarization in two community samples. Journal of Research in Personality, 88. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2020.103992
Porter, T., & Schumann, K. (2018). Intellectual humility and openness to the opposing view. Self and Identity, 17, 139-162. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2017.1361861
Shauna M. Bowes is a fifth-year graduate student in the clinical psychology doctoral program at Emory University and author of the “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” blog series on Psychology Today. Her research interests include abnormal and normal personality traits, intellectual humility, beliefs (such as political, religious, and conspiracy beliefs), and decision-making.