Confirmation Bias Is False, Says Study

Ever since cable news outlets that displayed a pronounced partisan slant became available, observers have voiced concerns that political partisans from both poles will immerse themselves in outlets that offer only reinforcement of their own beliefs, blocking themselves off from conflicting opinions (also known as “confirmation bias“). With the advent of online news sources with frankly partisan outlooks, that fear has only grown.

A new study from researchers at Ohio State University suggests that such concerns are unfounded. They discovered that even the most partisan readers visit mainstream news sites, as well as partisan sites that express views that oppose their own. In fact, as visits to partisan sites increased, the researchers noted a corresponding increase in visits to sites that represented the opposite extreme, as well as more mainstream, general news sources.

The study, led by assistant professor of communication R. Kelly Garret, is slated for publication in the journal Political Behavior. According to Garret’s results, those who push for legislation requiring the expression of opposing viewpoints on partisan websites and broadcasts can relax. Although the proliferation of partisan websites would make it easy for surfers to avoid ever encountering an opposing viewpoint, people do not appear to be immersing themselves in sites that only reinforce their own opinions.

The Ohio State academics analyzed data taken from multiple Pew surveys and a survey from the National Science Foundation that was led by one of the current study’s researchers. The surveys were conducted between 2004 and 2008 and interviewed from 600 to 2,500 respondents each. Participants were asked questions about their personal political leanings and about the frequency of their use of websites that use a particular ideological slant. Using a variety of different approaches, the surveys asked questions designed to elicit information on how often survey respondents accessed politically conservative or liberal blogs or news outlets, major mainstream news outlets and online newspapers.

The investigators determined that around 14 percent of the respondents go to websites that reinforce what they already believe. However, they do not stick to the same old sites, nodding mindlessly in response to ideas and viewpoints that they already hold, as many who fear confirmation bias have speculated. These respondents are also more likely to access mainstream news sites and online newspapers than respondents who report that they do not access sites with any partisan slant. This raises the possibility that individuals at both political poles are actually exposed to more viewpoints that oppose their own than those who hold more mainstream views.

Garret and his teams determined that a person who accessed sites with a particular political orientation had a nearly 80 percent chance of also accessing one of the major mainstream news outlets’ websites. This is slightly more than double the odds for a person who never visits sites that exhibit a partisan bias. The analysis showed that the more frequently a respondent went onto sites that agreed with their own political views, the more frequently they also went onto sites that presented the opposite view. Perhaps even more significantly, those with strong partisan views don’t tend to rely upon biased sites for the bulk of their political news. Nearly 70 percent of them visited sites that provided information and commentary that challenged their established political beliefs.

Although critics may be quick to speculate that people who hold strong political opinions may be more likely to access a variety of news and political information sites simply because their interests lie in that area, Garrett was quick to reassure readers that his team ruled out this possibility. According to Garrett, the study’s results hold true whether participants showed a great deal of interest in politics or only a little. ”Whether you’re very interested in politics or only casually interested, if you visit websites supporting one political view, you’re more likely to visit sites supporting the opposing view,” he said.

One of Garret’s co-authors, Dustin Carnahan, considers the study good news about the way Americans use the internet to gather information on politics. The results contradict conventional wisdom, which holds that the voting public is resistant to opposing viewpoints and that those on the far ends of the spectrum are particularly closed-minded. Instead, he said, voters appear to be much more willing than many had thought to consider political ideas and beliefs that do not reflect their own. Garret pointed out that this willingness is the crucial first step towards looking at both sides of an issue and achieving an eventual compromise. He acknowledges that it takes more than mere exposure to prevent people from lapsing into a confirmation bias. “Of course, it is not enough to simply look at what the other side has to say. But it is at least a start,” he said.

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