The point of politics is to make people’s lives better. Liberals and conservatives may disagree about how to do that, but despite the heated rhetoric, there are a number of broad goals that most anyone would agree upon. Consider a survey we recently conducted concerning liberal and conservative preferences about the kind of place they would like to live. While there are differences in terms of priorities, the top 5 desirable attributes are largely the same. Everyone wants a strong economy, safety, clean air and water, and good medical care.
Top 5 Desirable attributes in a city by ideology:
Unfortunately, roughly half of the country is going to be disappointed by the results of the next presidential election. Both history and psychology tell us that this disappointment will likely lead to some amount of demonization of whomever wins, reflexive opposition, and incivility. This may lead to outcomes that nobody wants, such as what occurred during the debt ceiling negotiations.
Thoughtful liberals, conservatives, and both presidential candidates have talked about the need to transcend partisanship in order to attempt to create better policy and a better country. The results of the next election are likely to disappoint some of these thoughtful people, yet it also represents an opportunity for them to be the change they wish to see in the world, by consciously resisting the impulse toward demonization and reflexive opposition. It represents an opportunity to back up words of bipartisanship with action, at a powerful moment when everybody will expect the opposite.
Supporting our next president does not mean that you need to support their policies. We can disagree without being disagreeable. But supporting our next president does mean that we hope they succeed at goals that we all share such as creating a safer, cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous world. It means hoping that the unemployment rate goes down, not up. It means hoping that the poor receive the help they need, whether by charity or government, and that terrorism is stopped, whether by military or diplomatic means. Whomever wins, let’s support them by truly hoping they succeed at our shared goals.
If this resonates with you, consider joining our facebook group and pass this message on to your friends. Positive change always starts with small groups of people who believe in something.
Recently, President Obama appointed Richard Cordray to be the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created in the wake of the financial crisis to protect consumers. What exactly does it mean to 'protect consumers'?
To some, the goal of the agency is to protect the poor, by regulating companies that provide "payday loans" to poor consumers, often charging extremely high interest rates. I recently listened to an old episode of This American Life, entitled The Giant Pool of Money, which detailed the struggles of some who were given loans that they couldn't pay and the resulting human cost. As a liberal, I am prone to be sympathetic to whatever we can do to improve the lives of the lease fortunate among us.
However, the thing that angered me most in the episode was the story of a veteran who qualified for a Veteran's Home Administration loan, but was instead given a loan for which the mortgage broker received a higher commission, and now pays a 10% interest rate. This veteran has a job and continues to pay his mortgage, but clearly was taken advantage of by someone who likely presented themselves as working on his behalf, but instead wanted a better commission. According to the episode, the commission for this purchase was $18,000 and mortgage brokers at the time were earning $75-100 thousand dollars per month (for a job with little societal benefit).
There will always be a way for people to take advantage of others, whether due to the desperation/need of others or due to their lack of understanding. However, not all immoral ways of making a living are necessarily illegal. Republicans have been consistent in their criticism of the Dodd-Frank law which created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Mitt Romney has promised to repeal it. There is something to be said for the idea that sometimes protecting the poor can cause inefficiencies in the economy and there is no doubt that the liberal impulse to help the poor, and extend them credit, was one of a number of contributing factors to the financial crisis, in that incentives were created to loan money to those who could not afford it. However, I think both liberals and conservatives would agree that when financial negotiations take place, steps should at least be taken to ensure that everyone understands the process.
Below is some data that is suggestive, though not definitive, that liberals and conservatives (as well as moderates and libertarians) might agree more about ensuring a fair process, as opposed to making sure that the poor are protected from predatory lenders. While liberals might feel that protecting the poor is a more immediate concern, the most consensus exists (higher wrongness scores for conservatives/libertarians) for ensuring that everyone completely understands the process when a negotiation occurs.
In the wake of his controversial nomination, Cordray himself positioned the agency as ensuring a fair process, rather than a fair outcome.
The battle between liberal and conservative ideas can be seen as the battle between the balance between ensuring a prosperous society and ensuring a society that cares for the least fortunate in it. Both goals are served by fair, open negotiations where all parties understand what is agreed to, and where people earn a living through activities that add societal value. Whether it is via Dodd-Frank, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or some other means devised by Republicans, I'm hopeful that a consensus can occur around protecting consumers from those who might take advantage of their relative lack of information.
- Ravi Iyer
Recently, Jon Haidt wrote a an opinion piece about the death of Bin Laden, which points out that people are expressing love for their ingroup, it does not necessarily translate to hate of other groups. As I've said before, few things in psychology are categorically one thing or the other, and certainly there is a minority who will use the death of Bin Laden to express dislike of Islam. Testosterone, that accompanies winning, can have that effect. However, several research studies have shown that ingroup love and outgroup hate are indeed separable, and that if you give people a chance to separate the two, they are often feeling ingroup love, not outgroup hate.
When does ingroup love lead to outgroup hate and when does it not? The simple answer (see this review article for more detail), is that when people think of a situation in competitive zero-sum terms, they are likely to highly correlate. Think of the difference between a rock concert and a baseball game. If you are at a Prince concert, you don't shout slogans about how much Madonna sucks. There is no competitive frame. But a "yankees suck" chant can occur anywhere in Boston or inside the men's room of Comerica Park.
Politics is certainly a zero-sum game and for some liberals and conservatives, anything which is a congruent with either the politicians or beliefs of the other side is seen as bad. So some conservatives have been reluctant to credit Obama and some liberals are reluctant to endorse patriotic zeal. Indeed, in our yourmorals.org data, identification with your country (using a subscale of Sam McFarland's Identification with All Humanity scale) is negatively correlated with liberal identification.
However, given that ingroup love and outgroup hate are not always correlated, and in this case, Bin Laden is not popular in the Arab world, cases where ingroup love leads to outgroup hate are likely to be outliers. Most people see it as love for their country, justice, and/or a blow for terrorists, not as a win in a larger battle against non-Americans. One could see it as a victory for the type of universalism that liberals desire, given that what Bin Laden wanted most was a competitive zero-sum conflict with the west. Indeed, patriotism itself has an empathic component to it, correlating with Empathic Concern (e.g. "I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person", Davis, 1983) scores (see below).
I am generally liberal and have prototypically liberal angst about celebrating any death. But in the case of the collective unity we are seeing, I think liberals should take yes for an answer to our universalist impulses and appreciate the resulting unity. There are forces in the world (e.g. selfishness, competition, or threat) that cause us to restrict our circle of concern to ourselves and those immediately around us and there are forces in the world that cause us to expand our circle of concern and care. I welcome the celebrations, because I'm hopeful this is a case of the latter.
- Ravi Iyer
I was recently asked about the psychology of scarcity and it gave me an excuse to revisit an old paper by Skitka and Tetlock (1992, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology) that contains a more complex version of the model I depict below. Like many who are interested in politics, I've been following the recent budget debates with interest. Beyond the issue specific partisanship (e.g. defunding NPR or Planned Parenthood), there is the larger issue of how much government can afford to provide a social safety net. As the simplified model based on this paper argues, the desire to help others is based in large part on appraisals of how scarce resources are and how deserving people are of those resources.
This is basically common sense, but the interesting part is when we combine the model with research suggesting that conservatives are more likely than liberals to react to threats and avoid negative outcomes, suggesting that in the first decision box, even given the same facts, conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that scarce resources(e.g. the budget deficit) are likely to lead to ruin and therefore cut public assistance. For example, this might explain why a recent Pew Research Poll found that Republicans feel that the deficit is a bigger economic priority than adding more jobs (37% vs 22%), while the numbers were reversed for Democrats (41% think jobs is the most important economic concern vs. 15% for the deficit).
Further, when you get to the second decision box (appraising deservingness), conservatives are more likely to attribute success and failure to internal-controllable causes vs. liberals. For example, this is a graph of yourmorals.org data and you'll notice that conservatives are more likely to attribute their success at work and in relationships to effort (an internal-controllable trait) versus ability (internal, but not necessarily controllable) or context/luck (external). This attributional divide has been documented in other published research.
When you combine these two factors, it is no surprise that liberals and conservatives have very different ideas about a social safety net. Each group may be psychologically predisposed to believing in more or less scarcity and more or less personal responsibility for outcomes, even given the same information about the world.
These dispositions may actually also cause people to be more liberal or conservative, or to support such policies, as research on mortality salience has succeeded in increasing support for conservative candidates. There is a lack of research on causes of liberalism, but anecdotally, Michael Moore recently told a liberal audience that "America is not broke." and in my anecdotal experience of religion, one of the main principles of many liberal churches is the idea that we need to think of the world as full of abundance, not scarcity. The ironic thing is that just when people need help most (conditions of scarcity) and Keynesian economics would suggest we should spend more, the psychology of the situation predisposes us to be less generous. Of course, that's from my liberal point of view, where I'm predisposed to such beliefs.
- Ravi Iyer
ps If anyone knows of studies where an abundance mentality leads to liberal beliefs, I'd love to hear from you.
I was recently forwarded a question about the differences that exist between Democrats and Republicans amongst white men. The question was framed by the fact that white men appear to be leaving the Democratic party at fairly high rates and it would be useful to pinpoint the variables that lead some white men to desert the Democratic party while others remain.
Individual researchers have individual answers to this question. David Pizarro might focus on the emotion of disgust. At YourMorals, we've focused on moral opinions. Others might focus on approach-avoidance or on basic physiological differences between liberals and conservatives. Jon Jost does a wonderful job summarizing the importance of ideology in helping organize our beliefs to satisfy motivational needs, and then focuses on two organizing principles, resistance to change and acceptance of inequality. All of this research is well done and true, but I think we all suffer (my group included) from an over reliance on our particular perspective. I believe that Jost is correct in pointing out how ideology allows us to make sense of conflicting beliefs, and I would extend that more explicitly to our feelings, intuitions, and goals. Having conflicting beliefs or feelings (e.g. I believe in abortion, but it disgusts me) leads to unpleasant dissonance, and ideology represents a narrative that we can use to resolve this dissonance, as relayed by Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann.
From that perspective, there is no one answer to what causes some white men to grativate toward the Republican party and not others. Rather, it might be useful to look at the bigger picture.
To do this, I created the below table of effect sizes (the mean difference between liberals and conservatives, divided by the standard deviation), using only US white male respondents, sorted from those characteristics that are most characteristic of liberals to those that are more characteristic of conservatives. We have better data on liberal-conservative identification than party identification, so we have to use this as a proxy, but we will have analyses in the future concerning party identification specifically.
There is too much here to really address in one post. I did the same thing for women and the pattern is very similar, so it doesn't appear there are many gender interactions, though maybe someone will point something out. My main reaction is that it confirms my initial idea that all researchers are finding very real differences, but that no line of research has a monopoly on explaining differences. There is replication and support for a number of lines of research on ideological differences. Rather, ideology is a network of ideas, beliefs, and dispositions that encompasses all these findings.
Finding out what made white male liberals vote for McCain might be an even more interesting question, and perhaps I'll do that analysis next as we do have some of that data. I did this previously to examine supporters of Obama vs. Clinton within the Democratic party and feel that examining within party psychological (as opposed to demographic) differences is a vast untapped area for political psychologists. Indeed, if I had to point out one interesting thing in the above graph, it would be the relatively small effect sizes of demographics like age compared to personality variables like neuroticism. It might make just as much sense for Obama to target the "empathic" vote as it does to target the "youth" vote.
- Ravi Iyer
My last post concerned moral maximizing and I believe the issue of migrant labor is one which relates. As Stephen Colbert uses satire to relate in the below video, the pragmatic reality is that vegetables are not going to be picked by Americans in the United States through the invisible hand of the free market.
Want proof of this reality? In June, the United Farm Workers union attempted an interesting experiment whereby it offered to train American citizens to replace migrant labor. Colbert testifies that 16 people took them up on the offer (him included) and press reports indicate that only 7 people took the offer. Whichever number it is, it seems fairly low. Still, immigration reform seems unlikely to pass anytime soon as it seems to stimulate conflicting ideas of what is 'fair'. Migrant workers are virtually powerless and easily taken advantage of....but they are also breaking the law by coming to this country, and these conflicting considerations are differentially appealing to liberals and conservatives.
The below graph illustrates this differential appeal with data from yourmorals.org. I asked individuals how 'wrong' different situations felt to them. Some concerned equity ("A person who contributes more to society is not rewarded.), equality ("A bonus is given to a work team for good performance and the money is not divided equally."), need("'A free meal is given to the rich, rather than to the hungry."), retribution ("A person commits a crime and goes unpunished."), and procedures ("A negotiation occurs without everyone completely understanding the process."). These situations may all be of varying severity, so it is difficult to interpret differences between dimensions, but one can make inferences about liberals and conservatives within dimensions. Specifically, liberals (in blue below) felt that violations of equality and need (which formed one factor) were more wrong than did conservatives. Similarly, conservatives (in red below) felt that violations of retributive justice principles were more wrong than did liberals.
Fair policies toward migrant workers depend on what you want to focus on....their lack of equal status, equal opportunity and need (which liberals seem to care about more). Or their illegal entry into the United States (which conservatives care more about). Colbert says as much in a rare break of character when responding to questions during the congressional hearing.
- Ravi Iyer
We recently submitted a paper for publication about libertarian morality, along with co-authors Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Jonathan Haidt. The paper leverages our broad set of measures to tell a story about libertarians, which converges with previously reported findings about liberals and conservatives. Specifically, all ideological groups demonstrate the same patterns whereby preferences, emotions and dispositions lead to an attraction to corresponding values and ideological narratives. For example, liberals have greater feelings of empathy and are therefore more likely to moralize harm and be attracted to an ideology which prioritizes this moralization. Libertarians moralize liberty, both economic liberty, similar to conservatives, and lifestyle liberty, similar to liberals.
Libertarians believe in the importance of individual liberty, a belief that may be related to lower levels of agreeableness and higher scores on a measure of psychological reactance (e.g. “regulations trigger a sense of resistance in me”). They moralize concerns about harm less than liberals, in part because they have lower levels of empathy . They moralize principles concerning being a group member (obeying authority and being loyal) less than conservatives in part because they have less attachment to the groups around them.
If you want to read more about what the paper, says, you can click here or download the paper here, but right now, I’d like to focus on why we wrote the paper, as I have previously written about how people are attracted to why you write things as much as what you write.
Of course, some part of paper writing is driven by curiosity and the practical desire to publish. But in writing this paper, I have undergone my own personal intellectual journey, and I’m hopeful that others may have a similar experience. A lot of my impression of libertarianism was previously shaped by images of the Tea Party (who aren’t necessarily libertarians after all) and I thought of libertarians as uncaring, from my liberal perspective, in that they typically don't support progressive taxes and social programs. The original title of the paper was “the Search for Libertarian Morality”, implying that libertarians are potentially amoral, and in retrospect showing my own ideological bias.
But as I read more about libertarian philosophy and looked more carefully at the data, I found that libertarians do indeed have a coherent moral code, that simply differs from my own. Like my liberal leanings, which have some relation to my dispositions and preferences, libertarians also moralize their preferences and dispositions, in ways that mirror my own processes. For example, liberals and libertarians both score high on desire for new experiences and stimulation, which may be a common reason why both groups tend to emphasize individual choice over group solidarity, compared to conservatives, as cohesive groups can limit choice. Libertarians may be less moved by emotions such as disgust and empathy, which may lead them to moralize certain situations less than others. But who am I to say that my moral compass is any better or worse than theirs, given my view that at some level, the basis for my liberal moral compass is driven by subjective sentiment. I previously wrote about the dangers of liberal moral absolutism, and villainizing libertarians for not sharing my particular vision of morality would be a step down that road.
Why do we seek to publicize this paper? In a time when partisanship dominates, policy suffers, and people on both sides of the aisle villainize the other side, it is our hope that with greater understanding comes greater acceptance. We may not all agree about the relative merits of empathy, disgust, or reactance as moral emotions…but we all have some level of all of these emotions and can respect principles born out of these. Even liberals can find things so disgusting that they are seen as wrong, and conservatives actually give a lot of money to the poor. In attributing moral disagreements to dispositions, largely out of our control, perhaps we can learn to see others as different and attracted to other positive moral principles, rather than amoral and oblivious to the moral principles that are important to us.
- Ravi Iyer