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Behavioral Science

US voters exhibit ‘flexible morals’ when confronting misinformation


Why do American voters stand by their favorite politician, even when he or she shares information that isn’t factually correct? As it turns out, being “morally flexible” doesn’t discriminate between parties.

The forthcoming research paper “When Truth Trumps Facts: Studies on Partisan Moral Flexibility in American Politics,” from MIT Sloan’s delves into the reasons both Democrats and Republicans permit the spreading of misinformation when it articulates a deeper truth that captures their grievances.

“The study illustrates how both Democrats and Republicans shift their standards to suit their interests. It seems that we all do it,” said Zuckerman Sivan, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship.

Zuckerman Sivan’s co-authors include Minjae Kim, SM ’17, PhD ’18, of Rice University, Oliver Hahl, PhD ’13, of Carnegie Mellon University, and Ethan Poskanzer, SM ’20, PhD ’22, of the University of Colorado-Boulder.

For their research, the co-authors recruited American voters to complete six online surveys. Five of the surveys were conducted during the final two and a half years of Republican President Donald Trump’s term. The other survey was conducted during Democratic President Joseph Biden’s administration in spring 2023.

In four of the surveys, respondents were asked to evaluate statements made by Trump. In the other two surveys, respondents were asked to evaluate statements made by a Republican politician (Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis) and a Democratic politician (Biden or U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). The statements were related to contentious political issues: immigration, Black Lives Matter protests, COVID-19, and Trump’s claim that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was rigged.

Participants were shown a statement made by one of the politicians, along with a disclaimer indicating that a third-party fact-checking organization had verified the statement as non-factual.

Voters were then asked whether they thought the statement was based on objective evidence or subjective impressions, whether they thought the overarching statement was true, and whether it was more important for the statement to be based on objective evidence or to send the right message about American priorities.

The researchers produced two key findings:

  • Voters cared more about “moral truth” when they were evaluating a politician they liked.
  • Voters relied more on strict factuality when evaluating a politician they didn’t like.

Both of these findings were slightly stronger for Republican voters, though they also applied to Democrats. According to a summary from the co-authors, in the five surveys that contained Trump’s statements, Trump supporters were more likely than nonsupporters to say that a statement was based on “objective evidence.” They gave it a rating of 3.96 out of 7, on average, which was 1.15 points higher than the average for nonsupporters.

This gap between supporters and nonsupporters was larger when respondents rated the moral truth of these statements. According to the same summary, across the five surveys, Trump supporters gave an average rating of 5.2 for moral truth. Those who didn’t support Trump averaged 2.2.

A similar gap between Biden supporters and nonsupporters was found in responses to an inaccurate statement Biden made about COVID-19 vaccines being effective in stopping “the spread of disease to anyone else.”

Zuckerman Sivan said it’s important to recognize how much of an influence moral flexibility has in the American voter’s decision-making process.

“Our hope is that if people come to recognize the extent of partisan flexibility, then we’ll be able to start making some progress from there,” he said.

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216