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Will the Mueller Report Change Anyone's Mind?

Political psychologists weigh in on whether people's views will change, and how entrenched our partisan identities are.
The Department of Justice is seen on March 24th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Justice is seen on March 24th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Justice's summary of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election has a little something for both Democrats and Republicans, depending on how you look at it. In his letter about the report, released on Sunday, United States Attorney General William Barr notes that the investigation did not find that "the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia" to influence the 2016 election, but it also says the report "does not exonerate" President Donald Trump on the question of obstruction of justice.

Reaction has varied: In a joint statement, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-New York) called the letter "a partisan interpretation of facts"; he's also previously noted that crimes and impeachable offenses differ, signifying that this fight is not over. Meanwhile, Republican statements collected by Axios praise Mueller, and Trump welcomed what he called "TOTAL EXONERATION" in a celebratory (and false) tweet this weekend.

That these statements can coexist is no surprise in an increasingly polarized country. "The four-page letter is being viewed far differently by Democrats and Republicans," NPR's Domenico Montanaro wrote on Monday.

But to fully understand how Americans will absorb any further information revealed in the report, we can look to political psychology. Will anyone's views change? Or are our partisan identities too entrenched?

Motivated Reasoning Conspires Against Us

Barr's letter did not identify any evidence of coordination, but that hasn't dispelled liberals' hope. There are other forces at work—cognitive processes such as confirmation bias—that "conspire to produce persistence and polarization of opinion," political scientists wrote in a 2011 article.

This is the effect that psychologists call motivated reasoning, which allows people who are especially attuned to politics to reject information that does not fit their views. This means that people "love to find information that supports their biases, and they discount information that is inconsistent with their biases," explains political scientist John Hibbing, who studies differences in political behavior at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. "I would assume that reaction to the Mueller report would follow the same patterns: Liberals would tend to discount at least Barr's interpretation of it; conservatives would suddenly decide Mueller was a wonderful American and embrace the report to the extent that Trump is right that the report exonerates him."

How deep does this reasoning go? Some people may not be aware they're even engaging in it. "At least for those who've come to a pretty clear conclusion about politics, there's a pretty strong process of rationalizing to make whatever information they obtain fit with their pre-existing view of the world," Hibbing says.

According to Hibbing, this can explain a lot about routine partisan disagreements in America: Why CNN concludes one candidate won the debate, and Fox News another—or why many conservatives, as defense hawks, switched from viewing Russia as a security risk to adopting the president's more favorable view. (Polls have confirmed this dramatic reversal.) Studies show that motivated reasoning can inform presidential approval ratings and views on policies on everything from health care to climate change.

The effect is so widespread, it's almost predictive. "I don't think you have to be a social psychologist—but maybe it helps—to predict that Trump supporters will resist any evidence of wrongdoing in the Mueller report," New York University psychology professor John Jost writes in an email.

The Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives

Research shows that political identities revolve around an "us vs. them" mentality, with roots in the idea that individuals connect with an in-group and spurn the out-group; this extends to one's party. According to political psychologist Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland, there's some evidence that Americans' adherence to political labels has more to do with the pull of social identity than the policy issues themselves. As Pacific Standard has reported:

"Americans are dividing themselves socially on the basis of whether they call themselves liberal or conservative, independent of their actual policy differences," Mason argues. "It is the 'otherness' of ideological opponents, more than issue-based disagreement, that drives liberal-vs.-conservative rancor."

Hibbing believes, somewhat controversially, that the issues matter too. He argues that, while conservatives or liberals are quick to identify with a political tribe based on our own biases, they are drawn to that group for deeper reasons. For example, Hibbing's 2012 study with University of Nebraska–Lincoln psychologist Mike Dodd used an eye tracker and found that conservatives spent 15 percent longer looking at photos of car wrecks and other disturbing images than liberals; Hibbing concludes that they "tend to be very sensitive to threats," which is evident in the president's own rhetoric against immigrants on the border.

Many studies show there are indeed key differences between how liberals and conservatives process information: As Vox explains, similar phenomena inform the way we view fact-checks of favorable figureheads, or even what we choose to remember. (A 2013 study found conservatives were more likely to remember seeing Barack Obama shaking hands with the president of Iran, and liberals more likely to remember George W. Bush vacationing with a baseball celebrity during Hurricane Katrina. Neither happened.)

It Doesn't Matter Much Where You Hear or Read About the Report

Already, you can see motivated reasoning (and other factors) at work in politicians' and pundits' reactions to Barr's letter. But according to Hibbing, it doesn't matter much where people get this news. "If you force liberals to watch Fox News, so they're just deluged with all this stuff that says the Mueller report has exonerated Trump, they wouldn't believe it," he says. "The same would be true if a conservative watched Rachel Maddow and MSNBC. They're looking for things they already believe, and if they don't find them, they're just going to discount that."

There is one group whose views could potentially change, however: "The people in the middle who are persuadable—there's some hope with them," Hibbing says. "In a weird sort of way, our hope has to lie with those who've not thought a lot about politics." In the end, those who know and care the least about the Mueller report may be the only ones who will get something new out of tuning in.