It depends: Partisan evaluation of conditional probability importance

Leaf Van Boven, Jairo Ramos, Ronit Montal-Rosenberg, Tehila Kogut, David K. Sherman, Paul Slovic

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Policies to suppress rare events such as terrorism often restrict co-occurring categories such as Muslim immigration. Evaluating restrictive policies requires clear thinking about conditional probabilities. For example, terrorism is extremely rare. So even if most terrorist immigrants are Muslim—a high “hit rate”—the inverse conditional probability of Muslim immigrants being terrorists is extremely low. Yet the inverse conditional probability is more relevant to evaluating restrictive policies such as the threat of terrorism if Muslim immigration were restricted. We suggest that people engage in partisan evaluation of conditional probabilities, judging hit rates as more important when they support politically prescribed restrictive policies. In two studies, supporters of expelling asylum seekers from Tel Aviv, Israel, of banning Muslim immigration and travel to the United States, and of banning assault weapons judged “hit rate” probabilities (e.g., that terrorists are Muslims) as more important than did policy opponents, who judged the inverse conditional probabilities (e.g., that Muslims are terrorists) as more important. These partisan differences spanned restrictive policies favored by Rightists and Republicans (expelling asylum seekers and banning Muslim travel) and by Democrats (banning assault weapons). Inviting partisans to adopt an unbiased expert's perspective partially reduced these partisan differences. In Study 2 (but not Study 1), partisan differences were larger among more numerate partisans, suggesting that numeracy supported motivated reasoning. These findings have implications for polarization, political judgment, and policy evaluation. Even when partisans agree about what the statistical facts are, they markedly disagree about the relevance of those statistical facts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-63
Number of pages13
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2019


  • Conditional probability
  • Motivated reasoning
  • Political cognition
  • Probability judgment


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