Rethinking the link between cognitive sophistication and politically motivated reasoning


Partisan disagreement over policy-relevant facts is a salient feature of contemporary American politics. Perhaps surprisingly, such disagreements are often the greatest among opposing partisans who are the most cognitively sophisticated. A prominent hypothesis for this phenomenon is that cognitive sophistication magnifies politically motivated reasoning—commonly defined as reasoning driven by the motivation to reach conclusions congenial to one’s political group identity. Numerous experimental studies report evidence in favor of this hypothesis. However, in the designs of such studies, political group identity is often confounded with prior factual beliefs about the issue in question; and, crucially, reasoning can be affected by such beliefs in the absence of any political group motivation. This renders much existing evidence for the hypothesis ambiguous. To shed new light on this issue, we conducted three studies in which we statistically controlled for people’s prior factual beliefs—attempting to isolate a direct effect of political group identity—when estimating the association between their cognitive sophistication, political group identity, and reasoning in the paradigmatic study design used in the literature. We observed a robust direct effect of political group identity on reasoning, but found no evidence that cognitive sophistication magnified this effect. In contrast, we found fairly consistent evidence that cognitive sophistication magnified a direct effect of prior factual beliefs on reasoning. Our results suggest that there is currently a lack of clear empirical evidence that cognitive sophistication magnifies politically motivated reasoning as commonly understood, and emphasize the conceptual and empirical challenges that confront tests of this hypothesis.

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 150, 1095–1114.
Ben Tappin
Research Fellow