2-97. Are You Conservative, Liberal, or Curious?


Is Curiosity a political position? Should it be? Maybe.

If there’s one thing political spectators agree about, it’s that people in the United States (and other parts of the world) are deeply polarized, perhaps in a way we’ve never seen before. But researchers Brian Schaffner of the University of Massachusetts and Samantha Luks, managing director of scientific research at YouGov think there’s hope to bridge this gap, and that hope lies in curiosity.

The Atlantic ran a story about the pair on January 26th, 2017. The research team recently ran a study where they quantified how curious people were, captured their demographic information and asked them some binary questions about images, such as photos of the inauguration crowd at the last two inaugurations.

You’ve probably heard a lot about the controversy, but for this experiment, the task was to compare two photos, which were labeled simply A and B. The photos could have been manipulated or taken at different times, or whatever. But it was clear that one photo had many more people than the other.

When asked which photo was for which inauguration, the photo with the largest crowd was identified most often with the political opinion of the person making the choice. Trump voters said the more populated photo was of Trump’s inauguration, and Clinton voters said it was for Obama’s. When they were told which photo was which, 15% of Trump supporters switched photos, and insisted the more sparse image had more people in it, despite the overwhelming visual evidence that the Obama photo had a crowd at least three times larger.

And lest you think this just proves what you may already believe about political parties, other tests showed the converse was true as well—Democrats also picked the choice that showed their view in a better light, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. And they weren’t lying. Studies indicate that they believe these things, but their reasoning is politically motivated.

This carries forward to a bias for news that agrees with one’ s point of view, creating an endless cycle that feeds political reasoning, but actually isn’t aligned with objective reality. Unless, the person has (as they term it) “Scientific Curiosity.”

Using a series of videos to determine how curious a participant was, a score was applied to each. Researchers found that people who scored highly in scientific curiosity had much closer opinions on things, despite their party affiliation. For example, most scientifically curious liberals believed fracking posed a moderately high risk to the environment, and most scientifically curious conservatives thought the same, though to a lesser degree.

And what’s fascinating is that this phenomenon carried forth when factored against the scientific knowledge of the participants. It didn’t matter if they were good at math or science, curious people share opinions just due to the fact that they’re curious.

While no one is pretending that curiosity is a panacea for bringing people together, if this study can be replicated, it suggests that curiosity would at least narrow the gap. People with differing values will disagree on policies regardless if they share the same facts, but if they’re curious, they’re more likely to agree on what is a “fact,” and that’s something that’s open for debate these days.

Here’s a link to the Atlantic article on the website, and you can also learn more about the photo experiment from The Washington Post. In the meantime, take a look at some headlines that might indicate a “truth” that hurts your cause. You could be doing a great deal to heal the political divides that make us all suffer.

Which is Obama and Which is Trump?

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