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Politics Professor Says Values Determine the Facts We Believe

Morgan Marietta Researches “Dueling Fact Perceptions”

Assoc. Prof. Morgan Marietta teaches political science at UMass Lowell Photo by Courtesy
Assoc. Prof. of Political Science Morgan Marietta researches the political consequences of belief.

By Katharine Webster

Americans are more divided than ever – not only along political lines, but on hot social topics such as the safety of childhood vaccines and whether marijuana use is harmful.

More disturbing, says Political Science Assoc. Prof. Morgan Marietta, is that we no longer derive our political and social beliefs from a common set of facts. Instead, our deeply held values and identities determine which facts we believe. 

That’s a serious problem for democracy, Marietta argues in his latest book, “One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy,” co-authored by American University Prof. David C. Barker and published by Oxford University Press. 

Marietta is also an expert on how the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) interprets the Constitution. He recently conceived and launched an annual series of books on the Supreme Court’s most significant decisions from each term. The books are aimed at a general audience and come out soon after the court’s term ends. 

“SCOTUS 2018: Major Decisions and Developments of the U.S. Supreme Court” was published in March, and “SCOTUS 2019” is now at the publisher, Palgrave MacMillan. That gave Marietta a chance to sit down and talk to us about how his work in both fields – political psychology and constitutional politics – focuses on the political consequences of belief. 

Q: Many people were surprised at the idea of “alternative facts” when White House advisor Kellyanne Conway used the phrase to support the administration’s claim that President Trump had the largest inauguration crowd in history.  Did the term surprise you?

A: No. There’s certainly been an increase in the rhetoric of “alternative facts” in the Trump era, but Trump didn’t create this; he rode a wave.

Liberals and conservatives used to share a base of common facts. Since the ’90s, though, we’ve seen a rapid rise in partisan news outlets and social media that offer competing sets of “facts.” In the last decade, David Barker and I began noticing that people on opposite sides of an issue had very different perceptions of reality, and we began to research the phenomenon. 

Q: How did you study it, and what issues did you look at? 

A: We examined people’s perceptions on a wide array of topics that are socially divisive, including: Is climate change real? Is racism prevalent and influential? Does immigration help or hurt the economy? We learned that people are very good at dismissing evidence that doesn’t support their deeply held values. Psychologists call it confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, but it is also driven by the desire to conform to social groups and identities.

Q: If we can’t even agree on a common set of verifiable facts, how can we resolve some of these pressing public issues?
A: The results of our research are actually pretty depressing, because this is not going to be easy to solve. There’s been a massive breakdown of trust in facts promulgated by the government, the mainstream media, scientists and other experts. That includes academics, and that’s partly our fault. Over the last few decades, people lost trust in us. 
Q: Does education help?

A: Unfortunately, our data show that people with a college education are even more biased than those with less education. It seems that the effect of higher education is to give people better cognitive skills to discount information they dislike and to project their preferred values onto their perceived facts.

Q: Your research also shows that increasingly, people don’t want to spend time with those they disagree with.

A: That’s true. We ran a number of what we call the “Bob” studies. We’d ask people, “Do you want to work on a long-term project with Bob?” Then we’d show them “Bob’s” Twitter feed, which indicated his perceptions of facts about climate change, the effects of immigration or the results of a minimum wage increase. When people disagreed with Bob’s perceptions, they weren’t willing to work with him. Sadly, people were not only driven away from Bob, but also from participating in elections. Moderates in particular tend to abandon the political process, leaving the field to the ideologues.
The social consequences and the consequences for democracy are bad. The workplace used to be less polarized than our personal lives. Work was the place where we met people who were different from us, but still tolerated them. That’s no longer true. There’s a kind of spiraling polarization in which divided values create distinct perceptions, and clashing perceptions drive further polarization in belief.

Q: You write a column for Psychology Today to explain these concepts to a broader audience. Recently, you’ve also started writing for The Conversation, a nonprofit that distributes articles to the media on what academic research can tell us about current issues. And your Supreme Court books are also aimed at the general public. What’s the value in that, if no one’s going to change their minds anyway?

A: Trust has to be earned, and we (academics) ought to be speaking to the public to develop that trust. But we need to speak in everyday, common language for it to have any impact. 

A lot of people have encouraged the belief that Supreme Court rulings and constitutional debate should be handled only by experts. I disagree. The Constitution is our document: It was written by us and for us. The public should talk about and think about the Constitution. This election year, the court will make major rulings on gay rights, gun rights, abortion, immigration, religion and other deep debates, and I’m happy to be contributing to that discussion.

Q: You’ve won a lot of teaching awards and mentored lots of students. What’s your philosophy of teaching, especially in a field that invokes such strong partisanship?

A: I love teaching at a place where many students are first-generation college students, as I was. They’re not from elite backgrounds, so this is a place where teaching really matters – education really matters.

The purpose of a university is seeing people you have not seen before, people who have had different experiences and explain the world in different ways. I tell my students that until they understand and can explain both conservative ideology and liberal ideology, they really don’t know anything about politics. I don’t think it’s my job to tell them what values to hold, but I do want them to fully understand the clash of values and that people who disagree with them may have valid reasons for their views. I was very fortunate myself to have mentors who didn’t expect me to think like them, but just to think.