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Hidden Brain: How People React To Election Interference By Foreign Countries


Robert Mueller is expected to testify before Congress this month about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. New social science research suggests that our response to that news says a lot about us. Rachel Martin sat down with NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: How do our minds play a role in this?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, in the case of Russia helping the Trump campaign in 2016, Rachel, many Republicans have been skeptical that Russia interfered or, if it did, that it made a difference in the outcome of the election. Democrats, of course, think the opposite.

Jessica Weeks at the University of Wisconsin and Michael Tomz at Stanford asked how much partisanship influences these perceptions. They presented several thousand volunteers with scenarios where a foreign power interfered with a U.S. election. Weeks said people reacted very differently to this interference when it was targeted against their party compared to when it helped their party.

JESSICA WEEKS: On the left, there is this temptation to say that this is sort of a uniquely Republican phenomenon. What we see is that this seems to be a pretty universal phenomenon where, regardless of whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, you evaluate these interventions through the eyes of partisanship.

MARTIN: So does that mean when Democrats say they're outraged about what Russia did, they're really saying they're outraged that Russia didn't help them?

VEDANTAM: A little bit, Rachel. Now, in fairness, Weeks and Tomz do find that large numbers of Democrats and Republicans are angry about foreign interference regardless of which side it helps. But partisanship plays a major influence for a substantial number of Americans.

One area in common between Republicans and Democrats is that neither thinks foreign election interference merits a military response. It doesn't rise up to that level. In other words, Americans might think of this very differently than the same foreign power that accomplishes the same goal, changing who gets to be president via election interference. Jessica Weeks says this reveals a U.S. vulnerability.

WEEKS: A foreign country could basically attack the U.S. political system, if you will - just not using guns, but using these cyber techniques - and then would face relatively modest consequences for that.

MARTIN: So the problem really is how you define the problem. I mean, unless you agree that something bad has actually taken place, you're not going to agree on how to respond to it.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, Rachel. But let me put it another way. Partisans often say they're very patriotic. But the intense hatred between Democratic and Republican partisans ironically turns out to be a national vulnerability that's waiting to be exploited.

MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam, he joins us regularly to talk about social science research. You can listen to more of his work on the podcast that he hosts. It is called Hidden Brain.

Shankar, thanks.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY'S "DINOSAUR DIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.