Does conflict avoidance underlie disproportionate liberal support of civility?

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

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