Today's lead story from Politico, The Age of Rage, probably summarizes a lot of what people think is wrong with politics. Rather than make good policy, politicians and media are more concerned with scoring points for their political ideology (hyperpartisanship). However, as the Politico article points out, their actions are largely driven by the general populace. Politicians and media reflect what people respond to, which happens to be hyperpartisanship, rather than causing the incivility we see.
...there are two big incentives that drive behavior at the intersection where politics meets media. One is public attention. The other is money. Experience shows there’s lots more of both to be had by engaging in extreme partisan behavior.
Fox News has soared on the strength of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom fanned the Sherrod story on the strength of the misleading Breitbart video. (A Fox senior executive, by contrast, urged the news side of the operation to get Sherrod’s response before going with the story, The Washington Post reported.) On the left, MSNBC is trying to emulate the success of primetime partisanship. Meanwhile, CNN, which has largely strived toward a neutral ideological posture, is battling steady relative declines in its audience.
If media executives hunger for ratings, politicians hunger for campaign cash and fame.
Obama put it best earlier this year, after Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “you lie” during the president's State of the Union speech. "The easiest way to get on television right now is to be really rude,” the president told ABC News.
Indeed, at first Wilson seemed embarrassed and apologized for his outburst. But within days, Wilson and his opponent were both flooded with campaign contributions; Wilson took in more than $700,000 in the immediate aftermath of his outburst and was a guest of honor on Hannity’s show and Fox News Sunday.
We reward politicians and news organizations, with our attention and our money, that engage in the very incivility that makes politics so ugly. This is true on both sides of the aisle.
At the recent meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Linda Skitka gave a talk which puts a lot of this in perspective for me. Her lab studies the dark side of moral conviction, which I call hypermoralism in the hope that the term catches on. Roy Baumeister studies a similar concept, idealistic evil. In Skitka's talk, she demonstrates in a Chinese sample that political intolerance (e.g. "people with different positions than your own about this issue should be allowed to have their phones tapped by the Chinese government") and social intolerance (e.g. "How willing would you be to have someone who did not share your views on this issue as a close personal friend?") were best predicted by moral conviction (e.g. "To what extent are your feelings about this issue or policy based on your fundamental beliefs about right and wrong?"). When controlling for moral conviction, all other variables (e.g. demographics, political position, attitude importance, and attitude strength) were all insignificant predictors of social and political intolerance. I look forward to seeing how this replicates on a US sample and how political intolerance is operationalized. Perhaps something along the lines of liberal consideration of censoring Fox news or conservative publication of what many would consider private discussion would make good operationalizations of political intolerance as they mirror what we see in reality, where considerations of privacy, context, and free speech are considered secondary to partisanship. Moral conviction may underlie the hyperpartisanship that Politico talks about.
Hyperpartisanship and hypermoralism may be another instance of the effects of what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls "Supernormal Stimuli". As the Wall Street Journal writes about her book:
As Ms. Barrett notes, modern life surrounds us with supernormal stimuli. An example: Humans evolved strong tastes for fats and sweets, tastes that conferred a reproductive advantage in the days when starvation was common. But these tastes can be a burden when we're confronted with such supernormal stimuli as the 400-calorie Frappuccino at Starbucks. An evolutionary adaptation that once promised survival is more likely nowadays to produce Type 2 diabetes.
Ms. Barrett pushes her thesis too far at times, but her plain-spoken disquisition makes a strong case that supernormal stimuli "can help us understand the problems of modern civilization."
In the case of hyperpartisanship and hypermoralism, our evolved moral senses, which allow human beings to cooperate, are now subject to the stimulus which is the 24 hour news cycle and the non-stop political campaign. Moral emotions are powerful forces, which are now activated routinely, rather than rarely.
If anybody has ideas on how to escape this cycle, I would love to hear them. Humanizing and getting to know the opposition, along the lines of intergroup contact theory, is an idea. Perhaps moral emotions can be activated against hyperpartisanship itself, rather than against individual ideologies. Or maybe with greater understanding, we can all learn to recognize supernormal moral stimuli and give them less power in our lives. Ideas welcome and I'm open to operationalizing particularly promising ideas as studies to be run on yourmorals.org.
- Ravi Iyer
As a regular reader of political blogs, I could not help but notice that a number of my favorite sites were writing about the same thing, specifically, their participation in a discussion group called JournoList, which included numerous media members such as Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight and Politico writer Ben Smith, both of whom I read with some regularity. These posts were prompted by the publication of numerous emails from this largely liberal group by a conservative blog, the Daily Caller, which recently ran this story (one of many on this topic):
On Journolist, there was rarely such thing as an honorable political disagreement between the left and right, though there were many disagreements on the left. In the view of many who’ve posted to the list-serv, conservatives aren’t simply wrong, they are evil. And while journalists are trained never to presume motive, Journolist members tend to assume that the other side is acting out of the darkest and most dishonorable motives.
Reading other people's private emails evokes an embodied moral reaction in me. Maybe it's motivated reasoning as a liberal myself, but I would hope that I'd find it similarly distasteful for a business to make money by posting the private emails of conservatives. Still, I think that the above paragraph is likely correct for some (not all) members of the list, along the lines of this wonderful post by Peter Ditto of UC-Irvine, concerning the ways that liberals and conservatives mirror each other in their negative attributions. In it, he notes that a "mirror image pattern, two opposing sides in an ideological struggle having virtually identical stereotypes of each other, is a common characteristic in intergroup relations." The idea is that when you find these mirror image perceptions, they are often more a function of partisanship and group conflict than reality.
It's not hard to find quotes from conservatives that mirror the above observation of journolist members. Consider this article entitled "Why does Obama hate America so badly?" My guess is that Democrats don't hate the economy and Republicans don't hate poor people, yet these mirror image negative attributions of malicious intent exist.
Here is the same story in graph form, using our yourmorals.org data, where liberals and conservatives rate both republicans and democrats on "warmth"...
and on "competence"....
Hardly surprising, but liberals think Republicans are cold and incompetent, while conservatives think Democrats are cold and incompetent. (strangely, we generally think that we ourselves are both more warm and more competent than the average member of either party..:))
I'm sure that cherry picking any person's email archive would lead to embarrassing material, but I would agree with Andrew Sullivan's take on JournoList:
The far right is right on this: this collusion is corruption. It is no less corrupt than the comically propagandistic Fox News and the lock-step orthodoxy on the partisan right in journalism - but it is nonetheless corrupt.......
.....I'm glad Journo-list is over. It should never have been begun. I know many of its members are good and decent and fair-minded writers. But socialized groupthink is not the answer to what's wrong with the media. It's what's already wrong with the media.
These mirror image negative perceptions are an inevitable part of intergroup conflict, so rather than morally judging the individuals involved for behavior that is likely quite common, I prefer to take this as a cautionary tale for all who want better policy. On both sides of the aisle, we should be seeking to recognize and reduce these biases, not amplify them through ideologically homogeneous discussions, such as what appeared to occur on JournoList.
- Ravi Iyer
Presented in the context of bringing together consilience from outside of psychology, a friend of mine sent me the below TED video, by Simon Sinek, which I believe has a lot in common with what much of psychology is discovering, specifically that intrinsic gut-level motivations are much more powerful than extrinsic rational motivations. In some ways, much of moral psychology is just using the scientific method to argue what Hume knew all along, that "reason is a slave of the passions"....and passion results from intrinsic, not extrinsic motivation.
Besides dovetailing with my research, I think there is a practical value to be taken from this video. I often find myself concentrating on what I am doing, sometimes forgetting why I do things. In a world where we all have too many paths to choose from, we sometimes choose the path that has the most urgency (extrinsic motivation) rather than the path that is the most meaningful (intrinsic motivation). In business, that might mean doing whatever generates a profit now, rather than what satisfies the business' core mission. In academia, that may mean writing a paper for publication sake (extrinsic reasons) rather than exploring ideas that may not just get published, but also may serve some larger purpose. If you are inclined to explore these theories/ideas further, I might read more about self-determination theory, which talks about how intrinsic, rather than extrinsic motivation, leads to better human functioning, in addition to the benefits described in the above talk.
- Ravi Iyer
I just finished Ted Conover's book, Rolling Nowhere, which I definitely recommend to anyone interested in understanding the human condition. In fact, I'd recommend any/all of Conover's books, where he assumes roles as diverse as a prison guard, illegal immigrant, and in this book, a train jumping hobo. Personally, psychology is always more convincing when placed in a larger context, with conclusions reached from different angles (consilience) and I think there is as much to learn about the human condition from one of Conover's books as in an issue of a psychological journal. In Rolling Nowhere, Conover hops trains for a few months and joins a subculture of 'tramps' that live a wandering, lonely lifestyle on the margins of society.
This may be an odd thing to say, but as a liberal, Rolling Nowhere helped me to appreciate American libertarians better. There are surely lots of differences between liberals and libertarians, but there are similarities as well. The book helped me contextualize the relationships we've found between being libertarian, which implies a sacredness placed on the value of freedom, psychological reactance, and the desire for stimulation. These are traits where liberals tend to score higher than conservatives as well.
The below graphs, taken from our yourmorals.org data, show these characteristics, using the Schwartz Values Scale, comparing liberals, libertarians, and conservatives. Notice that while self-direction is valued highly in all groups, it is highest in libertarians, and the difference between self-direction and the next highest value, is greatest for libertarians. Liberals score higher in self-direction than conservatives.
In the above graph, libertarians also show a relatively high desire for stimulation (equal to liberals, higher than conservatives) and a relatively low value placed on tradition and conformity. This is consistent with the idea that libertarians are experience seekers, an idea further confirmed by the below graph of libertarian big five personality dimensions, where libertarians score relatively high (similar to liberals) on openness to experience.
Conover writes a fair amount about the motivation that made him (who seems to lean liberal) seek to experience life as a tramp:
I hit the rails to learn and because, as Lonny said, when you become afraid to die, you become afraid to live. Confronted by the prospect of entering a laid-out and set-up life largely devoid of the need to be resourceful, I had desired an activity with an unpredictable outcome. Risk-taking, in a way, seemed its own reward.
Notice how in the above graph, libertarians score relatively low in agreeableness (e.g. "likes to cooperate with others"). That converges with the below measure of psychological reactance (e.g. "I become angry when my freedom of choice is restricted").
As Conover writes -
To understand tramps...you have to understand the idea that people cannot always do what they are told. Maybe you are told to get a job, but there aren't any; maybe you return from a crazy war and are told to carry on as though nothing ever happened...Many tramps' careers on the road began when the tramp told society, "You can't fire me-- I quit!"
There may indeed be a lot of overlap between the tea party movement and traditional republicans. But that doesn't mean that there isn't something that liberals can't identify with in the American libertarian. Both groups share a desire to escape established structure (liberals score higher than conservatives on reactance) and seek new experiences (high openness to experience scores), and I bet Rolling Nowhere, with it's portrait of individuals who have escaped life's routines, living by their own resourcefulness, is the kind of book that would appeal to many members of both groups.
- Ravi Iyer