I recently attended a lecture by Vivian Schiller, the CEO of NPR, where an audience member asked her insights about Roger Ailes' recent assertion (Ailes is CEO of Fox News) that NPR executives "are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view." Schiller's response was that she really had no idea where that came from, and could be perceived as conflict avoidant, in that she had an opportunity to reciprocate an allegation and did not. NPR (unlike MSNBC) doesn't appear to seek conflict with Fox News, and its "no rant, no slant" slogan would seem to differentiate itself consciously from partisanship. Similarly, Jon Stewart has sought to promote civility in a consciously non-partisan fashion, yet has drawn a lot of criticism for appealing to a disproportionately liberal audience. NPR's audience is a bit more balanced, but still with a slight liberal lean.
Some question the motivations of NPR executives or Stewart based on their audience, but what if something more basic is going on. Perhaps the concept of non-partisanship, conflict avoidance, and compromise is inherently appealing to liberal sensibilities. This can be framed as both a positive or negative trait, as being extremely conflict avoidant could relate to appeasing one's enemies or being a moral relativist. Some in the press have observed that "An endorsement of civility and reason is basically an endorsement of Barack Obama. 'Reason and civility' are practically the Democratic party's platform." Perhaps anyone with the motivation to promote reason and civility in politics would necessarily attract a liberal audience, regardless of how truly non-partisan one intended to be.
What psychological traits might relate to being conflict avoidant? The most obvious trait is Agreeableness, one of the Big Five dimensions of personality, depicted in the below graph of yourmorals.org data. As you can see, liberals do score slightly higher on measures of Agreeableness, which includes questions like not finding "fault with others" and being "generally trusting".
The effect size is fairly small though, so it might help to find some convergent evidence. I did find this paper, where a nationally representative sample was asked if people "try to avoid getting into political discussions because they can be unpleasant, whether they enjoy discussing politics even though it sometimes leads to arguments, or whether they are somewhere in between." There was a small, but significant correlation (r=.07) between being conflict tolerant and being Republican and a smaller, but insignificant correlation (r=.03) between being conflict avoidant and being a Democrat. This paper cites 6 instances where Agreeableness is negatively linked to conservativism, but also 2 instances where it is positively linked. It seems like there may be a link between being agreeable overall and being liberal (again, with both positive and negative connotations), but the link is certainly weaker than other effects (e.g. openness to experience or conscientiousness). Perhaps whatever effect exists due to differences in Agreeableness may be magnified by lower liberal perceptions of ingroup/outgroup distinctions, leading to reduced willingness to engage in conflict with out-groups, as conservatives have heightened concerns about constructs like group loyalty.
So far the data I have and research I've looked at doesn't yet paint a decisive picture as to why liberals disproportionately seem to rally around civility. I need to do more research on this and would welcome ideas that might yield cleaner data. Perhaps conservative critics are correct and the problem is the source of the message, but there does appear to be some intrinsic psychological mechanism at work that makes Fox News popular with conservatives, while liberals prefer an ostensibly neutral NPR to a more obviously partisan MSNBC.
- Ravi Iyer
Today is Veteran's Day and I would like to express my profound thanks for the sacrifices that soldier's make in service to our nation. I may not agree with the decision to go to war in some cases or with the utility of war in general, but soldiers do not make those decisions. Politicians do. Once they are made, soldiers are the ones who make the sacrifices necessary as a result of those decisions, including the potential ultimate sacrifice, and there is something truly noble and selfless about being willing to risk one's life for others. While the decision to go to war can be partisan, supporting the individual people who carry out military policy is usually bipartisan, and today, Obama honored troops in Korea while incoming House Speaker Boehner joined Vice President Biden in a bipartisan show of support at Arlington National Cemetary.
However, some people have trouble separating their attitudes toward war from their attitudes toward soldiers, especially the more liberal among us. As a liberal myself, I can understand the cognitive dissonance that may arise from the idea of supporting those who carry out policies that we find destructive. On the conservative end of the spectrum, it may seem dissonant to think that people can oppose a war and still support the people involved in the war.
In our YourMorals.org dataset, attitudes toward our troops do indeed appear highly related to attitudes toward war.
And this no doubt contributes to lower feeling thermometer ratings among liberals in terms of attitudes toward troops, though I should point out in the below graph that the midpoint of the scale is 4, so the range of mean attitudes toward soldiers ranges from neutral (very liberal) to extremely warm (very conservative), with no group being against our troops. Of course, mean values are to be taken with a grain of salt for our dataset, given its non-representativeness, but here is a similar Gallup finding.
It may be hard to do, but especially on Veteran's day, I think the civil thing to do for liberals is to attempt to separate their negative attitudes toward specific war decisions from their attitudes toward our nation's troops, perhaps populating the upper left quadrant of the first graph above where negative attitudes toward war coexist with positive attitudes toward soldiers. At the same time, perhaps those who support specific war decisions can take liberals at their word, that most of us do support our troops, even if we might have made different decisions about the policies that led to their deployment.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. If you want to more fully explain liberal-conservative differences in feelings toward soldiers using our dataset (reducing ideology beta to .122, p=.055), you can add differences in identification with country ("How close do you feel to people in your country?", beta=.215) and authoritarianism ("Our country needs a powerful leader, in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in society today.", beta = .221) to attitudes toward war ("War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict.", beta = .387) in a regression model.
I voted on Tuesday. Like many people on this day, one of the highlights was the opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself and cast my vote, in the hopes that whomever is elected, we'll work together to solve problems and make the world a better place. I actually had a mail ballot, but in California, you can turn in your mail ballot and vote in person if you want to. I chose to do so and went to the polling station with my wife. The polling station is cheerful environment and it may be my bias, but I felt that people were genuinely happy to see each other there and share their experience with others. When I got home, I changed my facebook status to indicate that I had voted and my conservative and liberal friends all 'liked' my status. It is one day of the year when liberals and conservatives have the same message. Please vote! In social psychology terms, voting could be thought of as a superordinate goal that leads to increased cooperation and goodwill between formerly conflicted groups.
The goodwill of the voting booth stood in sharp contrast to the shows I watched to get the results of the election. Consider the below exchange which led one blogger to comment that "manners are a dying art".
Other things I read or saw on election day included Fox Reporters talking about Democratic senators who kept their jobs as "missed opportunities", MSNBC reporters talking about how they really didn't want to see Republicans "with a kick in their step", and live chat comments like "is there a way to collect democratic tears in a cup, because I want to drink them?" It's one thing to celebrate our successes, but does that necessarily mean enjoying the negative emotions of others.
Realistic conflict theory, shows the conflict that inevitably arises when groups compete (also see Robert Wright's book Nonzero) and the resulting negativity towards each other. But that isn't the end of the story. In Sherif's Robers Cave study and Wright's book, there are great examples of situations where superordinate goals create goodwill.... the kind of goodwill I experienced at the voting booth. Those of you who watched Jon Stewart's Rally for Sanity may remember his analogy of the cars trying to enter a tunnel that took turns (see 10.5 minutes into this video). They each had the individual goal of getting to their destination, but also the shared goal of fairness and keeping traffic moving, that facilitated a relatively orderly process.
So as we enter into a new phase of politics with a divided government, perhaps we can think about how we can frame policy in terms of superordinate goals (e.g. more jobs, a decreased deficit, better healthcare) rather than as a zero-sum game (e.g. the battle for control of government between "socialist" Democrats and "heartless" Republicans). I generally vote liberal and may not agree on all of Boehner's ideas. But I share his goals of controlling the deficit, reigning in government spending and getting people back to work. And I'm hopeful he shares my goals of helping the working poor afford health care, even if we may disagree about the priorities of those goals. Perhaps consciously thinking about our superordinate goals is a way to increase civility in politics.
- Ravi Iyer
A common critique that we get about results using the YourMorals dataset is that our sample is a volunteer sample prone to self-selection bias as all participants have a demonstrated interest in morality research and access to the internet. This clearly does not describe all people, or perhaps even a majority of people. This critique has merit and is important to remember in considering any result that we may report, and as such, I'm making this blog post so that I can link to it to acknowledge such limitations. However, this critique is not unique to our dataset and the problem of generalizing findings from one group to the population at large exists to varying degrees (and in many cases, to greater degrees) in all published research.
All research recruits some part of the population and generalizes findings to others. Nationally representative samples attempt to sample completely at random, achieving greater generalizability, but as a result cannot often go into great depth with people called at random on the phone. At the other end of the spectrum are the many studies conducted on college students, which are a very specific part of the population. The YourMorals dataset clearly falls somewhere between, in that it's more diverse in terms of age and life situation than college samples (Mean age is around 35 with a standard deviation of 13 years), but clearly not representative.
The limitations of college samples and representative studies are well known, and inform the types of questions you can ask when sampling each group. Representative samples are the ONLY group you can reasonably use to ask questions about percentage rates in the population. For example, if you find that 70% of college students think Jon Stewart is cool, that is unlikely to be the same in pretty much any other group. However, you might instead look at liberal and conservatives within a college student sample and find that liberals like Jon Stewart while conservatives don't. Or that liberal college students preferred Obama to McCain in the 2008 election. Those results are more likely to generalize since they are not about percentages in the population, but about the relationship between variables. Height may differ across samples, but taller people are likely better at basketball across samples. Exceptions exist, but usually that is not the norm.
Experimental research (which we are doing more of) is even more likely to generalize, but the issue of generalizability still remains. For example, all medical trials are done on volunteer populations, similar to our yourmorals data sample, and it is hoped that random assignment will mean that any result will be due to the treatment being different than the control. However, it is possible that the treatment will work better than the control, but only in that group. Logically, that seems unlikely as human physiology is relatively standard, but one could imagine a case where volunteers for a medical study were all people who had similar diets or had certain common genetic traits that interacted with effects. Again, this is the exception, rather than the rule. And even if we encounter such exceptions, they are usually informative.
With yourmorals data, we never suggest that we can generalize our mean values to the general population (e.g. if 6% of our users say they are libertarian, it has no real relation to the population). But we do feel that if we find a pattern in our data (e.g. our libertarians all score lower on measures of disgust), that our evidence for the existence of that general pattern is at least as good as most published research samples using non-representative data for the following reasons:
- Our users are well-educated and have stable well formed opinions (see David Sears' article on College sophomores in the laboratory for more information on this).
- Our users are intrinsically motivated volunteers, and research has shown that such volunteers provide better data because they take surveys seriously (see Jon Haidt's review of a Chang & Krosnick paper that showed this).
- Internet samples compare very well to non-internet samples in terms of data quality (see Gosling et al.)
- The fact that our results replicate a lot of published research (also see our libertarians paper) means that our findings have already replicated in different populations and we replicated our results in representative samples (to be published by Smith, C. & Vaisey, S. - Charitable giving and moral foundations in a nationallyrepresentative sample.) Empirically, the relationships found in our users' data are typical of other samples, of the kind that other researchers use.
- Our users come from a variety of sources. New York Times readers are different than Dallas Morning News readers, search engine users, and people from the UK. We are able to replicate findings across these different sub-groups in our data. We also routinely replicate findings within our sample using different measurement methods on different groups.
- Our samples are large and diverse enough that even if our results do not generalize to all individuals, our results likely represent a large number of people. In such cases, our findings would represent an interesting interaction effect among better educated, internet savvy users.
Still, we readily admit that our users are not 'average' and seek to confirm our findings using materially different (uneducated, non-internet users) groups. No research by any single method or group of researchers is definitive and any study is evidence for the existence of something, not conclusive proof. Our findings are equally in need of replication and confirmation. Certainly, some studies are more conclusive than others and I feel confident that our findings are at least comparable, in terms of generalizability, with other research that asks similar types of questions. It is certainly possible that interaction effects with the types of people who are interested in morality exist (which would be interesting in and of itself), but our research is at least as good evidence as most published research in our area, especially given that the vast majority of research using psychological measures is done on non-representative samples of a smaller number of less diverse, less motivated research participants.
- Ravi Iyer