Those of you interested in political psychology and data science might enjoy my latest post on the Ranker Data Blog entitled Mitt Romney Should Have Advertised on the X-Files. In it, I explore correlations between liking Mitt Romney and liking various TV Shows on lists on Ranker.com, replicating analyses which the Obama campaign purportedly conducted in the last campaign season, and finding that the X-Files and Mitt Romney have a surprising correlation. From the post:
As you can see, the X-Files appears to be the highest correlated show, by a fair margin. I don’t watch the X-Files, so I wasn’t sure why this correlation exists, but I did a bit of research, and found this article exploring how the X-Files supported a number of conservative themes, such as the persistence of evil, objective truth, and distrust of government (also see here). The article points out that in one episode, right wing militiamen are depicted as being heroic, which never would happen in a more liberal leaning plot. Perhaps if you are a conservative politician seeking to motivate your base, you should consider running ads on reruns of the X-Files, or if you run a television station that shows X-Files reruns, consider contacting your local conservative politicians leveraging this data.
- Ravi Iyer
One of my favorite Mother Theresa quotes is: "I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there."
The current conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Israel requires the thoughtful liberal to navigate a few seemingly conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, liberals generally believe that peaceful means are more effective than military means at achieving long term success. This often manifests itself in opposition to military action, such as the Iraq war, Vietnam war, etc.. On the other hand, there is no country or government that would tolerate missiles being launched at their large civilian populations and the Israeli response to missiles being launched from Gaza is a response that every nation would take if in the shoes of the Israelis. Defending civilians against attack is just.
The point of this blog post is to point out that you don't have to choose between being pro-peace and remaining anti-war, as these attitudes, while related, are not perfectly correlated. In a paper that is forthcoming in the journal Political Psychology, we found that you can find meaningful differences in what being pro-peace and being anti-war predict. Being pro-peace relates to caring about others, while being anti-war is related to attitudes toward authority, for example. The multi-dimensional nature of peace-war attitudes is reflected in the real world in the above quote by Mother Theresa, and by the assertions of soldiers and politicians everywhere that their ultimate goal is peace. In the current conflict, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the Israelis have every right to defend themselves against attack (therefore not being anti-war), while also faulting both Hamas and the current conservative Israeli leadership for not pursuing peace more vigorously (therefore being pro-peace).
Indeed, I'm writing this in part as a response to a beautifully written essay by Jessica Apple, a writer who lives in Tel-Aviv, which ends:
And as Israel pummels the Gaza Strip, there is no Israeli political leader saying, as Rabin did, “Enough of blood and tears.” [the leader of the opposition party] has, in fact, supported the government’s actions as just, without questioning whether they are wise.....I do agree that Israel has the right to protect its citizens. But I condemn Israel’s current leaders for failing to recognize that the best defense is peace.
The full essay is well worth reading. I pray for the welfare of all the innocent people caught between forces beyond their control in the region and hope to see peace prevail before it is too late for both sides' welfare.
- Ravi Iyer
One of the pitfalls in doing political psychology research is that it is tempting to define an ideology using the perspective of whatever you study. Researchers necessarily (and I'm sure I do this too) talk about the novelty and uniqueness of their findings in order to convince editors of journals of the objective importance of their work. In my technology career, we often think of connected variables as part of a "graph", indicating that any individual finding is likely part of a larger pattern. I believe that there are a number of psychology findings and news stories about conservatives that are actually part of a larger pattern, where each finding is actually an example of how conservatism can be defined by a desire for greater coherence.
What is coherence? It is an idea that grows from the common psychological finding that cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, so people seek to create the absence of dissonant thoughts, beliefs, and emotions in their lives. This absence of dissonance is what we can call coherence. My graduate school advisor, Stephen Read, has studied it extensively in a variety of contexts, and, in a project led by my colleague Brian Monroe, modeled a variety of social psychological findings about attitudes. My suggestion in this blog post is that, in a similar fashion, a large number of observations about conservatism can be explained by the idea that conservatives seek more coherence than liberals. Below, I will list these observations and you can judge for yourself whether there is a broader pattern.
- Psychologists have found that conservatives are more likely to create coherence between their factual beliefs and their moral beliefs. While "moral coherence" can be found in liberals and conservatives alike, conservative moral coherence is readily apparent in the news (see Akin, Todd).
- A lack of coherence is unpleasant and greater coherence may explain why conservatives are happier than liberals. This article comes from the perspective of systems justification theory, which has shown rather convincingly that conservatives are more likely to make coherent attributions of wealth (e.g. people who are rich did good things) and justice (e.g. people generally get what they deserve). It is not hard to imagine why people who walk around thinking that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people are less happy than people who think the opposite, an intepretation consistent both with systems justification theory and this article.
- A fair amount of research connects meaning to coherence, and our yourmorals data (in the below graph, using Steger's Meaning in Life Questionnaire), indicates that conservatives report more meaning in life..
- A lot of political psychology work concerns liberals greater "cognitive complexity". A quote from this paper: "There is both survey and content analytic evidence that liberals rely on more integratively complex cognitive strategies in reaching policy conclusions than do conservatives (Tetlock, 1989), suggesting that liberals may be more tolerant of cognitive dissonance...liberals receive higher scores on measures of tolerance of ambiguity..(Stone & Schaffner, 1988)." In political discourse, you can see this division played out in terms of conservative ridicule of Kerry's "for it before I was against it" in favor of the Texas straight shooter. Note that cognitive complexity can be thought of as both an indication of intelligence and an indication of lack of core beliefs.
- It is certainly more coherent to think that the group that you belong to does good things, rather than bad things, and conservatives are more likely to be more patriotic (see their identification with country results in this paper) and display more ingroup bias. In contrast, it would generate cognitive dissonance to believe that your group should apologize for past bad actions and conservatives do not seem eager to apologize.
- There is work suggesting that conservative judgments are more likely to be consistent/coherent with their emotional reactions. Jesse Graham has a number of working papers showing how conservatives are more likely to make moral judgments that are consistent with their emotional reactions, while liberals may at times, override their gut reaction with an intellectual judgment. In the news, we often see conservatives use their gut intuitions, even as liberals second guess basing judgments on coherence with the gut.
It bears noting that most of the above differences can be framed as positive or negative, depending on one's ideological desires. Coherence, by itself, is neither good nor bad, and can be both adaptive and maladaptive in different situations. One of my colleagues once said that there is value in reviewing research from a particular perspective and pushing that review as far as one can go, even if one might be wrong. There is certainly a ton of research I am unaware of and perhaps there is research showing contradictory evidence for my conclusion that conservativism is defined by coherence. Or alternatively, perhaps readers are aware of more research on liberal-conservative differences that can be explained through the lens of coherence. I would appreciate either type of information via comment or email.
- 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