Do one’s political leanings blind people to the facts? Judging from decades of polling, the answer is sometimes yes—partisanship appears to lead some people to claim as facts things that aren’t particularly factual.
For example, national surveys have found that Democrats are more likely to say that inflation rose under Ronald Reagan while Republicans say that the deficit rose during the Clinton administration. Some 81% of Democrats but 33% of Republicans in an April 2011 New York Times/CBS News poll said Obama was born in the U.S.
What explains these partisan gaps? Political scientists from Yale University and the University of California-San Diego think they may know. Their working paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research found significant numbers of Democrats and Republicans actually know the correct answer to these questions—or know that they don’t know—but choose to give pollsters the incorrect response in order to cast their party in a favorable light or stick it to the opposition.
In fact, the researchers found that they could cut the partisan gap by more than half if they offered survey respondents a chance at a monetary reward for answering questions correctly. And when they gave respondents incentives to acknowledge that they don’t know the right answer, the partisan knowledge gap nearly disappeared.