When Being a “Know-It-All” Goes Wrong: How Intellectuals and Anti-Intellectuals Are More Similar Than They Might Assume.

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dara Gaines, covers the new article by David C. Barker, American University, Ryan DeTamble, American University and Morgan Marietta, University of Massachusetts, Lowell: “Intellectualism, Anti-Intellectualism, and Epistemic Hubris in Red and Blue America”.

Have you ever scrunched your face in disgust after hearing a colleagues’ opinion? What makes us so sure our point of view is correct or even accurate? In their new article, “Intellectualism, Anti-Intellectualism, and Epistemic Hubris in Red and Blue America,” David Barker, Ryan DeTamble, and Morgan Marietta demonstrate the variation of this emotion for partisans. Epistemic hubris or the tendency to be a “know-it-all” exists when, despite little confirming evidence, an individual is assured that their perspective is the only correct way to see things. In this innovative study, the research team shows that whether you are a science-trusting Democrat or a “Big Lie” Republican, you probably suffer from epistemic hubris.

The authors theorize that epistemic hubris, or unwarranted confidence, stem from an individual’s self-identification as an intellectual and their inner levels of anti-intellectualism.  Interestingly enough, these concepts are not opposites.  A self-identified “intellectual” is likely to respect learning for pleasure and careful thought.  They yearn for knowledge, ask questions, and embrace creative solutions more than someone who has a non-intellectual identity. A non-intellectual often rejects knowledge production or unconventional lifestyles. All of this is separate from experiencing anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism refers to resentment for intellectuals that grows from perceived bias coming from universities or media. Most intellectuals are pro-intellectual, and non-intellectuals are anti-intellectuals. However, there are some people who have intellectual identities who rebuke intellectualism and some non-intellectuals who support the pursuit of knowledge. The authors test several theoretical relationships developed from these concepts.

First, they claim that both intellectual identity and anti-intellectual affect are positively associated with epistemic hubris or unwarranted certainty. Next, they claim Intellectual identity is associated with Democratic party ID and anti-intellectualism is associated with Republican party affiliation.

To test these claims, the authors designed a survey measure of epistemic hubris. Respondents rated their confidence in a panel of political statements. Not surprisingly, respondents were more likely to express “certitude” on cultural hot points like gun control and abortion than they were for bipartisan problems such as healthcare and the minimum wage. This measure was compiled and layered onto the responses for a question on personal anxiety. To measure respondents’ intellectual identity, they created an index of indicators that measured attributes related to careful thinking, learning for fun and an individual’s self-image. The authors assessed anti-intellectual affect by determining the level of agreement with five statements that represent components of the feeling like suspicion toward intellect, anti-establishment, and populism.

“Knowing that some individuals are prone to epistemic hubris allows policy builders to tailor their approach with individual lawmakers.” The authors built models to predict levels of epistemic hubris using the indices of intellectual identity and anti-intellectual affect. Here, they found support for their claims that intellectuals and anti-intellectuals “have” epistemic hubris. This means that as a person becomes more strongly identified as an intellectual or more averse to intellectualism, they become more confident in their position, even in the absence of proof.

Regarding party, the authors created models to explain the relationship between party choice and where individuals fall on the intellectual and ideological intellectualism grid. When accounting for anti-intellectualism and intellectual identity, the writers found overwhelming evidence that people who were pro-intellectual and/or identified as intellectual were most likely to be Democrats. On the other hand, anti-intellectuals and non-intellectuals were more likely to be Republicans.

The findings are important because they illustrate a mechanism of partisan sorting that must be considered for bipartisan collaboration: personality. Knowing that some individuals are prone to epistemic hubris allows policy builders to tailor their approach with individual lawmakers. Congress is increasingly polarized and understanding that these political positions might have material effects on the strength of certain types of information will prove useful to those attempting to innovate policy. On a more personal level, this information might save you a headache at the holiday dinner table! Arguing with your family members on the ideological extremes might not be the best use of your time, they aren’t listening to you, they’re trying to prove why they’re right.