I have been reading a great deal lately about the labor battle in Wisconsin lately. As someone who rarely has had a traditional job, I have never had a well formed opinion about unions and it has been an interesting opportunity to think about the role of unions in society. There have been a great number of polls lately, each of which provides fodder for our innate abilities to confirm what we already believe to be true (confirmation bias). What psychological (as opposed to demographic) variables might lead someone to have warm or cold feelings toward unions?
By the time we can vote, we have developed coherent narratives that help us make sense of our emotions, beliefs, and opinions. In psychology, we often study individual variables and their impact on attitudes, but the real world is more complex and there are a whole host of attitudes, opinions, and dispositions that may have an impact on your opinion about unions. As such, I thought it might be interesting to look at the whole picture of what our yourmorals data shows as the correlates of warm or cold feelings toward unions.
The below chart (click on it to enlarge) is sorted from measures/beliefs that are most associated with warm feelings toward unions to measures/beliefs that are negatively associated with warm feelings toward unions. Warm/cold feelings were assessed using a feeling thermometer scale from 1-7. Our sample is not representative, so any conclusion that you may draw would be based on the idea that the psychological associations in our overly educated, liberal leaning, internet user sample would hold for other groups. To help isolate psychological variables, I ran the analysis on only those who self-identified in our sample as liberal, effectively holding that variable somewhat constant (I say somewhat because within this sample, some people were more liberal than others).
I would love to hear what others see in these patterns, but my initial impressions are:
- A lot of what is associated with being liberal is associated with being pro-union. It is likely a mistake to try and figure out which comes first as people certainly adhere to their party positions, but people also certainly gravitate toward their parties due to psychological variables. It is all tied together and research supports both relationships. As such, it may make sense that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's decision to not only try and reduce pay, but effectively try to end all union representation for public workers, meets with such vehement opposition.
- Other oriented connections appear even more related to feelings about unions beyond what one might expect from simple liberal partisanship. For example, identification with country is actually negatively associated with liberalism, but is positively associated with feelings toward unions. All measures of connection to others seem to have positive relationships. The Big 5 personality dimension of agreeableness (e.g. being trusting) has an almost equal relationship as the dimension of openness to experience, which is usually the dominant predictor of liberalism among Big 5 dimensions.
- Dispositional emotional reactivity appears to be a predictor of how liberals feel about unions. Liberals who are empathizers (on Baron-Cohen's measure) who care about the less fortunate, feel emotional when perceiving beauty, and are also slightly more prone to depression tend to be those who feel warm toward unions.
- In contrast, rationality, a liberal hallmark, is not related to feeling toward unions. Belief in scientific causation is strongly associated with liberalism, but not related to feelings toward unions among liberals. Experiential thinking appears slightly positively correlated with positive feelings toward unions among liberals even as it is negatively correlated with liberalism in our wider dataset. Rational thinking is not correlated with feelings toward unions, even as it generally is associated with being liberal.
Overall, the impression I get from the pattern is that it is the bleeding heart liberals, as opposed to the more rational, scientific liberals, who likely feel more connected to the ongoing protests in Wisconsin. But I welcome alternative ideas/interpretations as well as ideas about how these results might not hold in other populations, as the interaction would likely prove instructive.
- Ravi Iyer
Yesterday, in a strangely appropriate thing to do for President's Day weekend, I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. When I first got there, I had this idea that I might need to keep a low profile considering my liberal leanings and when I told a docent there that I was from Venice Beach, I projected a liberal-conservative frame upon him, as I took his information that General Electric had given them a grant to bus kids from Los Angeles to the library as partisan gloating, even as I've myself wondered why Republicans care about our president addressing our children. If I'm honest, there is not much difference and school children should be able to do both. Perhaps visiting his library is an opportunity to remove myself from partisan framing and to understand someone with a different worldview than myself.
Perhaps the most important thing I got from his visit is that I realized that Reagan was a far more complex, sincere and likable person than I might have thought. As someone who actively seeks to promote civility in politics, this was an opportunity to practice what I've often espoused. I was born in 1974, and so perhaps was too young to have any direct ideas about Reagan, instead relying on the caricatures of his persona from the current political discourse. These caricatures map onto the below graph of yourmorals.org data where strong liberals report being disgusted by conservatives and believe that conservatives are generally not good people (compared to the midpoint of the scale on a 1-7 disagree-agree scale). Vice versa, strong conservatives often believe that liberal democrats disgust them, are anti-country, and also are not good people. Note that these effects hold for "strong" partisans rather than slight partisans.
On visiting the Reagan Library, I learned a number of things that add depth to my impression of Reagan as a likable person, even if I disagree with much of his worldview. Among the things I learned were that:
- Reagan was the "first president of the United States to hold a lifetime membership in an AFL-CIO union". While he may be famous for firing the air traffic controllers, who imperiled national safety for fairly ambitious demands, I didn't get the impression that he would resolutely support Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union busting ethos. Reagan's first political experience was actually in solidarity with students who wanted to strike to protest cuts at their university.
- Reagan actually was a Democrat in his early career.
- While governor of California, he actually signed legislation increasing the affordability of homes for low income individuals and funding grants for the disabled, meaning he was hardly as extreme as either liberals who villainize him or strong conservatives who hold him up as an example, make him out to be.
- Reagan appreciated nature in that he spent a lot of time outdoors in his spare time, and praised the government of Sri Lanka for it's "dedication to preserve God's gift of nature."
Civility does not mean that I have to agree with his policies, but rather that I am open to appreciating that he genuinely meant well for the country, was a good person, and was not someone to be disgusted by, in contrast to the above graph. Of course, there were many points where I disagreed with the focus of the exhibits.
- The cold war was portrayed as a struggle between good and evil, whereas much moral psychology would suggest that pure evil is far less common than we might think. Indeed, while "peace through strength" is a common theme of exhibits, it is Reagan's friendship with Gorbachev, not force, that ultimately seemed to be the breakthrough in the cold war.
- Reagan's belief in unrestricted free enterprise and supply side economics seems to me like an exercise in motivated reasoning, in that people don't like to make tradeoffs between helping the poor and rewarding those who produce more.
Still, my overall impression of Reagan was improved by my visit and perhaps a civil thing to do would be for all partisans to visit a presidential library of someone of the opposite party as familiarity breeds liking, and in these hyperpartisan times, we could all use a bit more appreciation for our friends across the aisle.
- Ravi Iyer
We live in a world where we often have to make categorical decisions. We date someone or we don't. We marry them or we don't. We hire someone or we don't. We pick either the Democrat or the Republican. There is no middle ground.
Unfortunately, the world isn't necessarily organized in that fashion. Few would believe there are such categorical distinctions. Prospective dates have some degree of positive and negative qualities, rather than attributes being merely present or absent. Are people either qualified or not for a job? Most people instead belong along a continuum of professional ability, with some being very qualified (way above being merely adequately qualified) and some people being just below and just above the border of qualification. Politicians aren't uniformly liberal or conservative and we routinely see partisans on both sides upset at those who aren't extreme enough and who toe the partisan line.
This may seem obvious, but the reason I bring it up now is that while most everyone would agree with this fact, when thought about more carefully, still many people continue to argue as if things are categorical. There are two recent examples on the yourmorals blog.
First, the comment section of this post has become a debate (for many) over whether psychology is objective (science) or subjective (art). Allow me to quote Gene, from this thread:
there is SOME objective knowledge that comes from psych research (anything that can be experimentally shown, is predictive, even if only statistically, it has value).
If you want to get really nitty gritty, even physics is not completely “objective”…it’s merely instrumental to understanding objectivity (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumentalism)
Most things are not completely objective or completely subjective, especially where human affect, behavior, and cognition is concerned. Yes, psychology is less objective than physics...but it's more objective than sculpture. If I think that Paul McCartney sings better than I do, is that an objective or a subjective fact? It's objective in so far as a survey of people would detect a very large statistically significant difference between perceptions of our singing. But it's subjective in so far as it may not be true for a particular person (e.g. my wife and my mom).
What complicates things further is that many people who read psychology don't really care about what happens to most people, but rather how the research applies to them. Consider this very useful overview of how changing our consumption patterns can make people happier. One of the recommendations is something that I tell people often, that experiences lead to more happiness than material things, an opinion shared by 57% of a national sample (and shown to be true for most in experimental research). Yet, 34% of those people disagree (and some don't benefit in experiments). So is the statement that "buying experiences leads to more happiness than buying things" an objective or a subjective fact? It's true for a majority of people, but not for a significant minority. It's likely true for many groups, but certainly not all groups. Yet many people still think we can definitively decide if psychology is objective or subjective, even though humans, unlike inanimate objects, don't react predictably to situations, except perhaps in aggregate (e.g. we have free will or at least the illusion of it). I can find truths that apply to all rocks or all electrons, but not for all humans. But I can find truths that apply to many humans or most humans, and that might give someone insight into themselves, which is a valuable thing.
A second instance of categorical thinking on the yourmorals blog of late is Pigliucci's critique of Haidt's recent SPSP speech. Haidt pointed out that there is underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology compared to the population and cites both self-selection and discrimination as issues to varying degrees. Many people (understandably) focus on the sexier charge of discrimination, and Pigliucci answered that he "suspect(s) the obvious reason for the “imbalance” of political views in academia is that the low pay, long time before one gets to tenure (if ever), frequent rejection rates from journals and funding agencies, and the necessity to constantly engage one’s critical thinking skills naturally select against conservatives." But what if causality was continuous and not categorical. Pigliucci may be entirely right about his obvious reason, yet there still could be some amount of discrimination. Indeed, if there is one student somewhere whose ideas are supressed (and there was at least one in Haidt's talk), then there is at least some degree of both self-selection and discrimination, meaning that a debate over what statistically causes underrepresentation misses the point. Bear in mind that these are not just data points, but actual human beings. One human being discriminated against is one human being we could serve better, even if the vast majority of under-representation is due to self-selection.
I'm obviously biased in the above debate, but these thoughts are not a response to that debate, but rather a response to almost every debate and decision I see in psychology. Some other things that are continuous, and not categorical:
Journal Publication - Editors have to make categorical decisions to accept or reject papers, yet many papers that are accepted never get cited, while other papers are published through sheer persistence down the chain of journal prominence.
Statistical Significance - A 94.9% chance of being right is not that different than a 95.1% chance of being right, yet it is treated as a categorical distinction called "significance" because we need to be able to say whether something is true or not, when in reality, all we have is some evidence toward the truth, that varies to some degree. Even the best paper does not definitively prove anything and even the worst paper is some evidence toward something.
Authorship - Many people work on papers (often undergraduate research assistants) and are not authors, while others do fairly little and receive authorship. Sometimes the first author does 90% of the work and sometimes they do 51%. Yet they still receive the categorical distinction of first author.
Psychological conditions - Few psychological clinical conditions are categorical. In reality, people have some degree of anxiety, rather than having or not having an anxiety disorder. Yet, for insurance reasons, people have to be diagnosed categorically as having a particular condition.
Psychological constructs - Is shame the same as guilt or different? Is shame the same as sadness? Is shame the same as happiness? The truth is that shame is somewhat like some of these constructs and less like others of these constructs. Categorical distinctions between such constructs are useful for publications, but don't really reflect the continuous nature of the real world.
I am sure that if I thought more, I could come up with many more examples of things that are continuous, but treated as categorical. In academia, perhaps we can eventually change our systems, leveraging technology, to acknowledge the continuous nature of things. My real-world hope, as someone who believes that a world with less conflict is better than a world with more conflict, is that perhaps seeing things as continuous, rather than categorical, means that people will be less likely to make harsh judgments of others based on the idea that their beliefs are the categorical caricatures that we make them out to be.
- Ravi Iyer
At our recent meeting of social psychologists, I had a few conversations about a particular facet of our data, the fact that liberals in our dataset score higher on measures of neuroticism than conservativism. The effect in our data is small, but not insignificant (d=.24 of the standard deviation). This surprised some people in that there is a fair amount of research about conservatives being fearful that people are aware of, even as there is some contradictory evidence. A recent meta-analysis + study yielded mixed results, with some research and samples showing liberals as being more neurotic (including the lone non-student sample, though with a very small effect size), and some research showing conservatives as being more neurotic. One conclusion might be that this is all statistical noise. An alternative possibility is that it depends on the types of questions being asked or that it depends on the group being sampled. I thought I'd explore this in our yourmorals data.
First, you can see that within the yourmorals dataset, liberals appear more neurotic than conservatives regardless of the question that is asked.
This even extends to asking about symptoms in the recent past. The questions here are how often the participant has experienced "Being suddenly scared for no reason", "Spells of terror or panic", or "Feeling fearful" in the past 7 days, though the effect is tiny.
It appears that the effect is robust across questions. Our sample is not representative of the broader US, but in this instance, this may be instructive. Liberals may be more neurotic than conservatives within certain groups. Our data is a large enough sample that it likely represents a sizable group of people, and it is possible that there is something peculiar to the kind of people who visit yourmorals that makes our liberals more neurotic than our conservatives. As a broader test of this idea, I thought I'd examine those participants who visit yourmorals from sites like the New York Times or Edge, versus those who find yourmorals.org via search engines (e.g. searching for 'morality quiz'), with the idea that the NY Times and Edge readers are more like our core audience (people especially interested in social science).
Here is the graph by question for those who find us via search engines:
And here is the graph for those who find us via the New York Times and Edge.org.
It may be self-evident from the graphs, but put another way, the correlation between neuroticism and liberal-conservative identification (1-7) is -.03 (n=1634, p=.22) for those who find us via search engines, -.08 (n=7129, p<.001) in New York Times readers, and -.13 (n=2382, p<.001) for those who find us via Edge.org. Overall, the correlation is -.08 (n=35,793, p<.001).
To me, this supports the idea that there is something peculiar about the kind of liberal that reads the New York Times or visits Edge.org or a site like YourMorals.org. Perhaps the common thread here is the idea that these are people who are searching for answers in life. It somewhat converges with this paper by Napier & Jost, where they find that liberals are less happy than conservatives, a finding that replicates in our data and has been found by others, and they found that this relationship is explained by the liberal un-acceptance of inequality. It seems somewhat implausible that liberals walk around consciously thinking about inequality a lot. But perhaps the inability to accept inequality is part of a general questioning of the way things are and what the larger meaning of things is, which inevitably leads to anxiety about why things are not 'better'. I cannot show that with data, but I can say that, as a liberal, this rings true for me. My search for meaning and desire to create change inevitably lead me to anxiety producing situations when I try to swim against a tide. And yet it's a tradeoff I continue to be willing to make.
- Ravi Iyer
Recently, Jon Haidt gave a talk at the main social psychology conference about the statistically impossible lack of diversity in social psychology, meaning that the vast majority of social psychologists are liberal, with a smattering of libertarians or moderates and close to zero self-identified conservatives. This talk was covered in this New York Times article by John Tierney, and it has inspired many social psychologists I know to some degree of introspection about our discipline. It has also led many who read the article to wonder why there are so many liberals in academia. Is it a question of discrimination? Self-selection?
As someone who studies political psychology, I have two main self-serving thoughts. First, findings in political psychology would support the idea that most of this is due to self-selection. We know that liberals score higher on measures like openness to experience, challenging the status quo, enjoying effortful thinking, having existential angst (searching for meaning) and placing a value on stimulation. All of these findings are published and replicated in our YourMorals dataset. These are all traits that can be framed as positive (enjoying new things, wanting to be an agent of change) and negative (disrespecting tradition, being narcissistic) in the 'real world', but are useful in academia. Personally, I could be earning more money and likely doing something more objectively useful, but I like the stimulation of working in the world of ideas and it helps ease my existential angst. This cluster of traits describes some part of most academics I know.
If you see the actual talk (video below), you'll notice that Haidt presumes a fair degree of self-selection and does not set representativeness (e.g. 40% conservatives in the US means we should have 40% in psychology) as a goal, perhaps for this reason.
Still, much of the talk is about discrimination (e.g. the analogy of the closeted homosexual) and so I see why many bloggers might have picked up on the discrimination angle. I am not saying that there is not some peer pressure exacerbated by the assumption that everyone in the room is liberal...but my experience is that self-selection causes that environment more than the reverse. That does not mean it isn't a problem. It is and we should do something about it.
The main problem, from the perspective of someone who wants to understand political attitudes and ideology, is that it's really hard to study something you have no experience with. Imagine what a collective of non-parents would think of parenting from a completely outside perspective. Giving up sleep, friends, leisure, and money for an infant that cannot even smile might seem delusional, which is exactly the way that some psychologists see conservative ideology...as a product of some kind of mental fault. It is only from the inside that sometimes things make more sense.
Those of us who study ideology often have nobody on the inside of conservative movements to help us make sense of them. It is for that reason that I'd love to see more research conducted by conservatives. Conservatives don't just have different perspectives on politics, but also in all sorts of other domains. Until then, I'll have to settle for befriending them wherever I can and plying them with liquor to get their inner thoughts. As a liberal who wants to persuade conservatives, such understanding is essential, unless I simply want to cheerlead amongst people who already agree with me.
In some ways, it's part of a larger problem in psychology where we ask relatively inexperienced (outside of academia) individuals to theorize about the nature of human experience. Business school students are expected to have business experience to get into business school, yet social psychologists often have very limited experience with human social life before investigating it. Given that, is it any wonder that many people feel that memoirs offer as much insight into the human condition as psychology journals? Having a diverse set of experiences and perspectives within political psychology can only make our work that much more interesting.
- Ravi Iyer