Why people call themselves "independent," even when they aren't

This perception of partisans leads ordinary people to be embarrassed about admitting – including to pollsters – that they identify with a political party. Instead, people have come to believe that they will make a better impression if they say they are independent.

In one of our first studies on the topic, we randomly assigned survey respondents to two groups. We instructed the first group to answer the question “what is your partisanship?” in a way that they believed would make the most positive impression on another person. We instructed the second group to answer the very same question in a way that they believed would make the most negative impression on another person.

The results were striking: when asked to make a “positive impression” nearly 60 percent more people reported that they were independents, as compared to those who were asked to make a negative impression.

This belief that independence is more socially acceptable than partisanship is magnified by news coverage that highlights partisan disagreement. In another study we asked a representative sample of Americans to read one of three news stories. Among these stories was one about partisan disagreement in Washington. Reading a story about partisan disagreement increased people’s tendency to identify as independent by nearly 20 percentage points.