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Harvard Economists Find Political Bias Skews Americans' Perception of Verifiable Facts

Harvard's economics department is based in Littauer Center.
Harvard's economics department is based in Littauer Center. By Krystal K. Phu
By Simon J. Levien and Austin W. Li, Crimson Staff Writers

According to a recent paper from a team of Harvard economists, Americans' political orientation distorts both their worldview and their basic understanding of policy.

In a paper released last month in the annual issue of the AEA Papers and Proceedings, the three researchers sought to determine how Democrats and Republicans perceive different social and economic issues by comparing their perceptions to known statistics. Ultimately, the group demonstrated that political polarization skews Americans’ perceptions of verifiable facts.

Participants answered questions about social mobility, wealth inequality and tax policies, and immigration. The study found that both Democrats and Republicans overestimate the size of the United States immigrant population and underestimate immigrants’ level of education, but that Republicans were almost twice as likely to think that the average immigrant receives double the aid of the average nonimmigrant.

“Immigration is an area where there’s a very widespread misperception,” co-author and Economics professor Stefanie Stantcheva said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication. “One group is not necessarily more wrong than the other. Everybody’s quite wrong.”

Stantcheva co-authored the study with Economics Ph.D. student Armando Miano and the late Economics professor Alberto F. Alesina, who died from an apparent heart attack in May at age 63.

Additionally, the researchers found that Democrats underestimate the tax rate for the richest Americans at 28 percent of their income, while Republicans estimated 31 percent. In reality, the top tax rate in the U.S. is 37 percent of earned income.

Stantcheva said in an NPR interview that strong political leanings can affect how we seek out information, which can lead to confirmation bias.

“And this is how even the information we receive may be completely different from [what] other people receive,” Stantcheva said in the interview. “And this is how echo chambers and, really, tribes can form where the information received matches with what is already believed in.”

Stantcheva told the Gazette that the research has “a ton of policy interventions.”

“By understanding the thought process, we can actually design better learning,” she said in the interview. “We can design better information interventions that can actually help people understand the economy, economic policies, all these phenomena, better.”

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

—Staff writer Austin W. Li can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @austinwli.

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