Lately, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have been having fun with Jon Kyl's bizarre response to an error he made on the senate floor in saying that 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion. The real figure is 3% and his bizarre response was that his use of the 90% figure was "not intended to be a factual statement", which has become a new twitter meme.
In case you haven't seen it, here is a summary:
The interesting thing to me of this story was a bit on the Daily Show where Wyatt Cenac points out that "in his defense, he's only lying about something that he believes in. It's in service of a strongly held moral principle. He's not lying to get out of jury duty or be boastful." (at about 1:10 in the below clip)
While the defense was intended to be comical, many might see Cenac's explanation as a truly mitigating circumstance. Kyl likely believed what he was saying, given that an intentional lie would undoubtedly be revealed. At some point in our lives, many of us also believe in something so much that our perceptions of reality are altered. Many people do indeed believe that sometimes the ends justifies the means, and from our data, those people are actually more likely to be liberals (or libertarians). One might argue that our incursion into Libya, for many, is a case where the ends (saving civilian lives, increasing freedom) justifies the means (violence). In other examples, Democrats believe that the health care reform bill will improve access to health care, and also reduce the deficit. Republicans believe that reducing taxes on the wealthy will actually increase revenue. There are arguments to be made for either position, but an objective observer would probably believe neither of these claims and it seems likely that moral principles (Democrats believe in a social safety net & Republicans believe taxes on the wealthy are immoral) are shaping perceptions of reality, which is the definition of moral confabulation, when you believe in something so strongly, that you don't let objectivity get in your way.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. as if on queue, the Wall Street Journal published this perceptually skewed view of taxation, perhaps born out of their belief that higher taxes on the rich are immoral. This article, by Jeffrey Sachs, details the correct math. Of course, it is also possible that Sachs' view of the statistics is skewed by his own moral views.
For the past few months, I have been working with Matt Motyl and Jon Haidt on a website that promotes research based methods for increasing civility in politics. The desire to increase civility in politics is not new, having been parodied as the cliche-d dream of PhD Poli Sci students and recently promoted by Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, but it has obviously been taken to a new level with the tragic shooting of congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and many others, with politicians on both the left and the right, calling for a less heated atmosphere.
Predictably, the response to the shooting has taken on a partisan tinge, with each side claiming that Loughner, the shooter, is a far-right activist, evidenced by his interest in Ayn Rand, or a far-left activist, evidenced by his interest in the Communist Manifesto. More indirectly, those on the left have blamed the right for their militant rhetoric, while those on the right have pointed out that the left sometimes uses similar rhetoric.
Some on the left have pointed out that the use of extreme rhetoric is unbalanced, and while I don't think this is necessarily wrong, I think it is a mistake to focus upon, especially for liberals and those who want less divisiveness in politics. It sets up an "us vs. them" dynamic at a time when all leaders, including Republicans that are sometimes characterized as obstructionist, are open to unity.
Have you ever noticed that liberal churches often have the word 'unity' in their title? That conservatives want to solve health care by increasing competition across state lines? That liberals prefer diplomatic, while conservatives prefer military solutions to conflicts? Doesn't it seem as if Fox News sees purportedly unbiased (e.g. NPR is run by fascists) and moderate (e.g. the Rally to Restore Sanity) entities as greater existential threats than the more obviously opposed, MSNBC?
Liberalism is congruent with cooperation, while conservativism is oriented toward competition. In social science, linguist George Lakoff shows how conservatives use the language of competition. In psychology, Morton Deutch's considerable work was inspired by the difference between competitive and cooperative systems and his work can be explicitly connected to liberal-conservative differences. Consider the below YourMorals data showing that liberals feel less warm towards sports fans than conservatives.
Neither cooperation or competition is inherently superior as there are situations where each is needed. Sometimes war is the only way to prevent injustice (e.g. stopping Hitler) or competition does lead to greater productivity (e.g. capitalism vs. communism). However, competitive framing and divisiveness is likely to increase both conservativism and vitriolic rhetoric (see this page on how competition leads to incivility) and most Americans now say that, at least in politics, competition for office has gotten out of hand, at the expense of cooperation on policy and now at the expense of innocent lives. We are in a moment when moderates on both sides of the aisle are preaching unity and civility, which should naturally lead to less divisiveness, threatening to marginalize extremists on both sides. If there is anything that the killer's reading list is indicative of, it is of extremism, not any particular political view. As such, those liberals who are using these events to specifically attack conservative rhetoric, further polarizing debate, are fighting a fire with gasoline.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. if you are interested, here is Jon Haidt's reaction to these events.
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
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
As someone who is interested in promoting civility and reason in politics, I have been really excited over the past few days by Jon Stewart's announcement of a Rally to Restore Sanity ("Million Moderate March"), coupled with Stephen Colbert's satirical "March to Keep Fear Alive". The below video, where the announcement is made, is well worth watching, if only for it's entertainment value.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Rally to Restore Sanity|
Normally, we look at our yourmorals.org data in terms of liberals and conservatives, but what can we say about moderates. In many instances (e.g. Measures of general moral or political positions using Moral Foundations or Schwartz Values), moderates score between liberals and conservatives. However, there are a couple interesting findings about moderates in our data that might be of interest.
First, moderates are less engaged in politics. This isn't a particularly controversial finding as research in social psychology shows that extreme attitudes are more resistant to change and more likely to predict behavior. Moderates are defined by their lack of extremity and this lack of extremity predicts a disinterest in politics and lack of desire to engage in political action.
As such, it is not surprising that, as Stewart notes, the only voices which often get heard are the loudest voices. Shouting hurts your throat and moderates are unwilling to pay that price. But couched in terms of entertainment and comedy? Maybe that will spur moderates to attend in a way that an overtly political/partisan event could never do.
Going a bit deeper, the other area where moderates score differently than liberals and conservatives is in terms of their willingness to moralize issues. Moderates are less likely to frame issues as moral and less likely to be moral maximizers. Morality can be a great force for good, but there is also research on idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction. You'll notice that while liberals and conservatives moralize individual issues in the below graph at different levels, the extremes generally moralize issues more than moderates or less extreme partisans. It's worth noting I recently attended a talk by Linda Skitka where her team found (in China) that high moralization scores predict willingness to spy on and censor people with opposing viewpoints.
Moderates also score lower on a general (not issue specific) measure of moral maximizing. Below is a graph of scores on individual moral maximizing questions. Again, a lot of good may be done in the name of morality and moral maximizers may be less willing to let people starve or let injustice stand. However, a lot of bad may be done in the name of morality as well and "never settling" for imperfect moral outcomes seems like a recipe for the kind of political ugliness that we see these days. Moderates appear willing to accept imperfection in the moral realm.
Maximizing is a concept made popular by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore in his book, the Paradox of Choice and his TED talk. The argument isn't that high standards are a bad thing...but that at some point, there is a level where overly high standards have negative consequences. The point that Stewart and Colbert are making is that perhaps partisans have reached that point in our political dialogue, to the detriment of policy.
I probably won't make it to DC, but I do plan on celebrating the Rally to Restore Sanity in some way, perhaps at a satellite event. I am generally liberal and will be surrounded mainly (though not exclusively) by liberal friends. It would be really easy to use the event as a time to mock and denigrate the extremity of the other side. However, liberal moral absolutism has it's dangers too. For those of us who really want to restore sanity to political debate, it is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world and take a moment to reflect on how our political side can 'take it down a notch for America', rather than assuming that Stewart is talking to 'them'. And perhaps that begins with accepting some amount of moral imperfection.
- Ravi Iyer