United in States of Dissatisfaction: Confirmation Bias Across the Partisan Divide

AuthorDaniel Acland,Amy E. Lerman
Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(2) 227 –237
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X18799274
During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump prom-
ised to fight back aggressively against government waste and
inefficiency. For instance, while experts estimated that the
candidate’s proposed tax cut would increase the size of the
debt by roughly US$10 trillion, Trump insisted much of that
amount could be mitigated by cracking down on pervasive
public mismanagement: “Department of Education. We’re
getting rid of Common Core,” he said during the campaign.
“Department of Environmental Protection. We’re going take
a tremendous amount out. The waste, fraud, and abuse is
Coming from a Republican candidate seeking to appeal to
a particularly disaffected segment of the American elector-
ate, this sort of antigovernment rhetoric might be expected.
What is more remarkable, though, is how closely it echoes
some of the sentiments voiced by Democrats. Bernie Sanders,
who also made government dysfunction a centerpiece of his
candidacy, said during the primary campaign, “I believe in
government, but I believe in efficient government, not waste-
ful government.” Similarly, Hilary Clinton noted in a cam-
paign speech,
I would like to take a hard look at every part of the federal
government and do the kind of analysis that would rebuild some
confidence that we’re taking a hard look about what we have
and what we don’t need anymore.
In this study, we conduct a set of survey experiments
across four distinct policy domains—education, municipal
waste management, emergency medical services, and crim-
inal justice—to investigate whether Americans’ widely
held beliefs about the quality and efficiency of government
have implications for political information processing. In
some treatment conditions, we provided respondents with
clear information about the quality of a particular service.
However, we did not tell them whether that service was
administered by government or a private firm. In other con-
ditions, we provided clear information about public versus
private service provision, but provided only ambiguous
information about service quality. We find that individuals
engage in motivated reasoning to “fill in” missing informa-
tion according to their preexisting beliefs about govern-
ment. However, this bias is driven not only—or even
primarily—by party identification and ideology. In addi-
tion, effects are conditioned on respondents’ general views
of government incompetence and inefficiency.
Taken together, our findings suggest sizable limitations to
citizens’ capacity to learn about public services from new
information, and ultimately to form coherent assessments of
what government delivers. Instead, many Americans process
information in ways that simply confirm their preexisting
799274APRXXX10.1177/1532673X18799274American Politics ResearchLerman and Acland
1University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Amy E. Lerman, University of California, Berkeley, 2607 Hearst Ave,
Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
Email: alerman@berkeley.edu
United in States of Dissatisfaction:
Confirmation Bias Across the Partisan
Amy E. Lerman1 and Daniel Acland1
Partisan polarization is a central feature of American political life, and a robust literature has shown that citizens engage
in partisan motivated reasoning when processing political information. At the same time, however, recent events have
highlighted a rising tide of antigovernment sentiment among Democrats and Republicans alike. Using an original set of survey
experiments, we find that citizens engage in confirmation bias when they encounter new information, and this is driven not
only by party and ideology but also by beliefs about the quality and efficiency of government. Taken together, our findings
suggest important limitations to citizens’ capacity to learn about public administration, and expand our understanding of what
drives confirmation bias with respect to public and private service provision.
confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, privatization, trust in government

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