Ideologically Motivated Perceptions of Complexity: Believing Those Who Agree With You Are More Complex Than They Are

Lucian Gideon Conway, Shannon C. Houck, Laura Janelle Gornick, Meredith A. Repke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


While prior research has found linguistic complexity to be predictive across multiple domains, little research has examined how people perceive—or misperceive—linguistic complexity when they encounter it. Drawing from a model of the motivated ideological lens through which people view linguistic complexity, two studies examined the hypotheses that (a) participants are more likely to overestimate the complexity of political candidates when they believe they align with their own political views and (b) this complexity overestimation effect will be particularly strong for political liberals. Both studies presented participants with paragraphs from political candidates that varied in their actual integrative complexity levels and asked them to estimate the complexity of the paragraph. Consistent with expectations, Study 1 found that participants were significantly more likely to overestimate complexity levels for political candidates with whom they shared ideological beliefs and that this effect was particularly in evidence for political liberals. Study 2 replicated this basic pattern and further demonstrated that this effect was dependent on participants’ knowledge of their ideological agreement with the paragraph author. Because people misperceive linguistic complexity, researchers should move beyond thinking solely about how complex political rhetoric is; we have to also consider the degree that the intended audience may over- or underestimate complexity when they see it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)708-718
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Language and Social Psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • agreement
  • ideology
  • integrative complexity
  • linguistic complexity
  • overestimation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language


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