Morgan Marietta Ph.D.
Dueling fact perceptions about Ukraine.
Recent polling shows a decline in support for impeachment following the public hearings in the House of Representatives. What is going on? How can support for impeachment fall after the evidence of wrongdoing has just been presented?
Decline in Support
According to a CNN poll conducted 12-15 December, support for impeachment now stands at 45% nationally, down from 50% in November. Opposition has risen from 43% to 47%.
In the crucial 2020 swing states the story is more dramatic: According to a Washington Post average of polls in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, 51 percent of voters oppose impeachment while only 44% favor it. The aggregation of legitimate polls illustrated at RealClearPolitics switched for the first time to opposing impeachment (47.4% to 46.7%).
Among Independents, the RCP average is -6% against impeachment. The most shocking poll may be from Quinnipiac from 11-15 December. The poll has impeachment support at 45%, with 51% opposed. But among Independents, the gap is 36% in favor to 58% opposed—a 22% gap against impeachment among Independents.
In a book of poetry from 1967, Richard Wilbur wrote, “Try to remember this: what you project is what you will perceive; what you perceive with any passion, be it love or terror, may take on whims and powers of its own.”
The psychology of perception has a bias at its core: We tend to project our priors onto our perceptions; we project our group’s beliefs onto our own; we project our preferred values onto our perceived facts. How do people project their values and social connections onto their perceptions? By framing their questions to match what they want to be observe.
Our personal values (what we want to be important), group identities (what we want other people to think of us), and partisan attachments (who we want to win) lead us to embrace some questions and downplay others.
For example, about the evidence and testimony presented in the hearings we could ask:
- A) Is this requesting interference in US elections? Or …
- B) Is this asking for information on possible corruption that American voters would want to know about?
The two questions can lead to different conclusions about whether the conduct was an impeachable offense. We are more likely to ask the first question if we already distrust the president; if we already think he orchestrated foreign interference in 2016; or if we already want him to lose in 2020. We are more likely to ask the second question if we have the opposite priors. But it is the priors framing the questions, which shift the perceptions.
“Why did he shoot him?”
At a CNN panel of women voters in early November, Alisyn Camerota asked, “If he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, would you vote for him?” The first response was, “You’d have to know why he shot him.”
Just as another Trump supporter in the panel asked, “Why did he shoot him?” they might equally ask, “Why did Trump want the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden?” If you want to see a reason, one is there: Biden’s son accepted a large amount of money to sit on a board of a Ukrainian gas company known to be corrupt, while the Vice President was leading the administration’s anti-corruption initiative regarding Ukraine. While no overt corruption by Joe Biden has been proven, the allegation remains that the company paid for the Biden name to demonstrate powerful American connections. article continues after advertisement
The impeachment hearings avoided discussing that allegation, which allows Trump supporters to continue to perceive it as crucial while also perceiving the proceedings as unfair.
This is just one example of how framing the crucial question determines the final perception.
Depending on the questions we ask, our perceptions of facts will differ sharply. For partisans this is difficult to understand, because the most important question seems obvious to them and employing a different question seems nonsensical. Through a partisan lens the evidence presented in the hearings is crystal clear. But it is crystal only in the sense that when looked at from different perspectives it reflects light differently.