Researchers at the University College London (UCL) are reporting that politics can interfere with an individual’s ability to assess expertise. The study has found that people tend to rank like-minded peers as being more qualified than others in positions that are completely unrelated to politics.
“Our findings have implications for the spread of false news, for political polarization and for social divisions,” explained study senior author Professor Tali Sharot. “If we are aware of a person’s political leanings, for example on social media, we will be more likely to accept their take on a myriad of issues without scrutiny.”
A team of researchers from UCL and Harvard University instructed 97 study participants to categorize geometric shapes based on the features of the shape. While completing the task, participants were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of political statements, such as “Immigration gives a boost to the national economy.”
After completing the shape categorization task, the individuals were informed of whether their answers were correct and were shown the answers of four other “co-players.” The participants were also shown how the co-players had responded to the political statements.
In reality, the co-players were computer algorithms designed to perform the task either extremely well or relatively poorly. The system was also designed so that some of the co-players would mostly agree with the participants on political issues while others would mostly disagree.
In a second phase of the trial, the participants were given a new set of shapes to categorize and were promised a financial reward based on their performance. For each shape, the individuals were allowed to view the answer of one of the co-players before finalizing their answers.
The study revealed that the participants chose to view the responses of those who shared their political views, instead of increasing their odds of a higher reward by consulting with a co-player who had proven expertise on the task.
“When we examined participants’ impressions of the co-players we found they overestimated how good the politically like-minded were at the shape categorization task. This misperception drove the participants to seek advice from the politically like-minded,” said Professor Sharot.
“These results suggest that similarity creates an illusory perception of competence which generalises to unrelated domains. This is an example of a halo effect – the tendency for positive evaluations in one area to influence evaluations in other areas,” added co-lead author Joseph Marks.
“Our findings have clear real-world implications: If people seek out and listen to the advice of those who share their political beliefs over those who possess subject matter expertise, they may end up forming wildly inaccurate beliefs on topics where there are objectively correct answers.”
The study is published in the journal Cognition.