My data-driven conversion to (relative) political moderation

Like a good moral intuitionist, I was political before I was politically aware—that is, for example, I supported same-sex marriage before I knew that this was a “liberal” as opposed to a “conservative” belief, or that it put more in step with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. My politicization occurred in 2003 when I was transitioning from an undergraduate to a social psychology graduate student, and the U.S. was transforming its foreign policy to include preemptive war. My moral intuition that the Iraq War was unjust, and my linking it to the policies of a conservative Republican administration, transformed me from a good moral intuitionist into a good liberal.

I then naturally gravitated toward psychological research linking political conservatism to an assortment of nasty dispositions and predilections: rigidity, dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, hypersensitivity to threat, etc. What struck a particularly resonant chord with me was Bob Altemeyer’s (1996) work on right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), which seemed to capture my perceptions of our country’s leaders and followers alike: strict adherence to traditional, religious-based morality, willful submission to established authority, and aggression on behalf of such authority. I was especially interested in his findings that people high in RWA apply many hypocritical double standards in their political judgments, while people low in RWA make such judgments consistently across groups and situations. For example, his research showed that while people high in RWA were far more supportive of Christian than Muslim mandatory school prayer, people low in RWA opposed Christian and Muslim mandatory school prayer equally.

Inspired, I set out to devise other scenarios with which to snare people high in RWA in the web of their own double standards. I was able to reproduce Altemeyer’s findings from his mandatory school prayer scenario. However, in other scenarios, I discovered biases either on both ends of the spectrum, or more surprisingly to me, biases only among people low in RWA. The findings suggested that the right did not have a monopoly on bias—the question was, however, why were these disparate patterns of bias emerging? To answer this question, I reflected on the values of people low in RWA: for such people who prize individual autonomy and freedom of choice, it shouldn’t matter whether the mandated school prayer is Christian, Muslim, or Pastafarian—for them, the very premise of mandatory school prayer is ideologically objectionable. For people high in RWA, their openness to mandatory school prayer makes this an ideologically acceptable premise, and subsequently opens them up to biased judgments.

These insights led me to develop the ideologically objectionable premise model, or IOPM, which assumes that those on the political left and right are equally likely to approach political judgments with their ideological blinders on, but only when the premise of a political judgment is ideologically acceptable. If it’s objectionable, any preferences for one group over another will be short-circuited, and biases won’t emerge. Subsequent experiments supported this model. For example, I took the Christian vs. Muslim comparison and changed it so that the judgment premise was acceptable to both people low and high in RWA. I reasoned that setting aside space in public schools for voluntary prayer would satisfy the individual autonomy values of people low in RWA while simultaneously satisfying the tradition-minded values of people high in RWA. As expected, this change in premise acceptability led to a change in the pattern of biases: while people high in RWA more strongly supported Christian than Muslim school prayer space, people low in RWA now more strongly favored Muslim than Christian school prayer space.

Also, at around this time, General McChrystal had questioned President Obama’s wartime decision-making, which reminded me of General Shinseki’s criticism of the Bush administration’s preparedness prior to the Iraq war. For people high in RWA, deference to authority is paramount—they should therefore find an active military general criticizing his Commander in Chief in wartime to be ideologically objectionable. As predicted by the model, I found in another experiment that while people low in RWA more harshly sanctioned a general who criticized Obama than one who criticized Bush, people high in RWA sanctioned these two generals equally. What’s more, people high in RWA revealed that they liked Bush more than Obama—but the objectionableness of questioning the Commander in Chief short-circuited this preference. The paper reporting the model and the above findings was recently published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Crawford, 2012).

More recently, I’ve turned my attention to people’s biases against the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movements. It’s no secret that these movements stir the emotions of their supporters and opponents alike, and political and media elites on both the left and right have accused the other side of hypocritically supporting one movement while opposing the other. To examine when biases against these movements would (and would not) emerge, I exposed some people to a description of these groups protesting peacefully (which should be acceptable to people low and high in RWA), and others to a description of these groups protesting disruptively (which should be objectionable only to people high in RWA). As expected, when the movements were described as demonstrating peacefully, people low in RWA were biased against the Tea Party, while people high in RWA were biased against OWS. However, when the movements were described as demonstrating disruptively, people low in RWA still were biased against the Tea Party, but people high in RWA did not discriminate between the two (Crawford & Xhambazi, in preparation).

Conducting this research has taught me some important lessons both as a scientist and as a citizen. As a scientist, it’s taught me that we need to ask research questions that might be inconsistent with our own personal political beliefs—it’s no surprise, given the ideological imbalance in our field, that social psychologists rarely explore the biases of people on the political left. As a citizen, it’s pushed me away from a knee-jerk, tribal liberalism to a more reflective examination of my own attitudes. As social and political psychologists, the IOPM provides us a way to systematically examine the conditions that lead to (or foreclose upon) political biases.  As citizens, this research should serve to remind us to reign in our own moral and political righteousness.
Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Crawford, J. T. (2012). The ideologically objectionable premise model: Predicted biased political judgments on the left and right. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 138-151.