Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Posts Tagged news commentary

On Hyperpartisanship, Hypermoralism, and the Supernormal Stimuli of Modern Politics

Today’s lead story from Politico, The Age of Rage, probably summarizes a lot of what people think is wrong with politics. Rather than make good policy, politicians and media are more concerned with scoring points for their political ideology (hyperpartisanship). However, as the Politico article points out, their actions are largely driven by the general populace. Politicians and media reflect what people respond to, which happens to be hyperpartisanship, rather than causing the incivility we see.

…there are two big incentives that drive behavior at the intersection where politics meets media. One is public attention. The other is money. Experience shows there’s lots more of both to be had by engaging in extreme partisan behavior.

Fox News has soared on the strength of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom fanned the Sherrod story on the strength of the misleading Breitbart video. (A Fox senior executive, by contrast, urged the news side of the operation to get Sherrod’s response before going with the story, The Washington Post reported.) On the left, MSNBC is trying to emulate the success of primetime partisanship. Meanwhile, CNN, which has largely strived toward a neutral ideological posture, is battling steady relative declines in its audience.

If media executives hunger for ratings, politicians hunger for campaign cash and fame.

Obama put it best earlier this year, after Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “you lie” during the president’s State of the Union speech. “The easiest way to get on television right now is to be really rude,” the president told ABC News.

Indeed, at first Wilson seemed embarrassed and apologized for his outburst. But within days, Wilson and his opponent were both flooded with campaign contributions; Wilson took in more than $700,000 in the immediate aftermath of his outburst and was a guest of honor on Hannity’s show and Fox News Sunday.

We reward politicians and news organizations, with our attention and our money, that engage in the very incivility that makes politics so ugly. This is true on both sides of the aisle.

At the recent meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Linda Skitka gave a talk which puts a lot of this in perspective for me. Her lab studies the dark side of moral conviction, which I call hypermoralism in the hope that the term catches on. Roy Baumeister studies a similar concept, idealistic evil. In Skitka’s talk, she demonstrates in a Chinese sample that political intolerance (e.g. “people with different positions than your own about this issue should be allowed to have their phones tapped by the Chinese government”) and social intolerance (e.g. “How willing would you be to have someone who did not share your views on this issue as a close personal friend?”) were best predicted by moral conviction (e.g. “To what extent are your feelings about this issue or policy based on your fundamental beliefs about right and wrong?”).  When controlling for moral conviction, all other variables (e.g. demographics, political position, attitude importance, and attitude strength) were all insignificant predictors of social and political intolerance. I look forward to seeing how this replicates on a US sample and how political intolerance is operationalized. Perhaps something along the lines of liberal consideration of censoring Fox news or conservative publication of what many would consider private discussion would make good operationalizations of political intolerance as they mirror what we see in reality, where considerations of privacy, context, and free speech are considered secondary to partisanship. Moral conviction may underlie the hyperpartisanship that Politico talks about.

Hyperpartisanship and hypermoralism may be another instance of the effects of what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls “Supernormal Stimuli”. As the Wall Street Journal writes about her book:

As Ms. Barrett notes, modern life surrounds us with supernormal stimuli. An example: Humans evolved strong tastes for fats and sweets, tastes that conferred a reproductive advantage in the days when starvation was common. But these tastes can be a burden when we’re confronted with such supernormal stimuli as the 400-calorie Frappuccino at Starbucks. An evolutionary adaptation that once promised survival is more likely nowadays to produce Type 2 diabetes.

Ms. Barrett pushes her thesis too far at times, but her plain-spoken disquisition makes a strong case that supernormal stimuli “can help us understand the problems of modern civilization.”

One might even argue that supernormal stimuli—or perhaps our reactions to them—are the biggest problems faced by affluent societies.

In the case of hyperpartisanship and hypermoralism, our evolved moral senses, which allow human beings to cooperate, are now subject to the stimulus which is the 24 hour news cycle and the non-stop political campaign. Moral emotions are powerful forces, which are now activated routinely, rather than rarely.

If anybody has ideas on how to escape this cycle, I would love to hear them. Humanizing and getting to know the opposition, along the lines of intergroup contact theory, is an idea. Perhaps moral emotions can be activated against hyperpartisanship itself, rather than against individual ideologies. Or maybe with greater understanding, we can all learn to recognize supernormal moral stimuli and give them less power in our lives. Ideas welcome and I’m open to operationalizing particularly promising ideas as studies to be run on

– Ravi Iyer

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The Psychology of the JournoList “Scandal”: Mirror Image Stereotypes

As a regular reader of political blogs, I could not help but notice that a number of my favorite sites were writing about the same thing, specifically, their participation in a discussion group called JournoList, which included numerous media members such as Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight and Politico writer Ben Smith, both of whom I read with some regularity. These posts were prompted by the publication of numerous emails from this largely liberal group by a conservative blog, the Daily Caller, which recently ran this story (one of many on this topic):

On Journolist, there was rarely such thing as an honorable political disagreement between the left and right, though there were many disagreements on the left. In the view of many who’ve posted to the list-serv, conservatives aren’t simply wrong, they are evil. And while journalists are trained never to presume motive, Journolist members tend to assume that the other side is acting out of the darkest and most dishonorable motives.

Reading other people’s private emails evokes an embodied moral reaction in me. Maybe it’s motivated reasoning as a liberal myself, but I would hope that I’d find it similarly distasteful for a business to make money by posting the private emails of conservatives. Still, I think that the above paragraph is likely correct for some (not all) members of the list, along the lines of this wonderful post by Peter Ditto of UC-Irvine, concerning the ways that liberals and conservatives mirror each other in their negative attributions.  In it, he notes that a “mirror image pattern, two opposing sides in an ideological struggle having virtually identical stereotypes of each other, is a common characteristic in intergroup relations.” The idea is that when you find these mirror image perceptions, they are often more a function of partisanship and group conflict than reality.

It’s not hard to find quotes from conservatives that mirror the above observation of journolist members.  Consider this article entitled “Why does Obama hate America so badly?” My guess is that Democrats don’t hate the economy and Republicans don’t hate poor people, yet these mirror image negative attributions of malicious intent exist.

Here is the same story in graph form, using our data, where liberals and conservatives rate both republicans and democrats on “warmth”…

and on “competence”….

Hardly surprising, but liberals think Republicans are cold and incompetent, while conservatives think Democrats are cold and incompetent.  (strangely, we generally think that we ourselves are both more warm and more competent than the average member of either party..:))

I’m sure that cherry picking any person’s email archive would lead to embarrassing material, but I would agree with Andrew Sullivan’s take on JournoList:

The far right is right on this: this collusion is corruption. It is no less corrupt than the comically propagandistic Fox News and the lock-step orthodoxy on the partisan right in journalism – but it is nonetheless corrupt…….

…..I’m glad Journo-list is over. It should never have been begun. I know many of its members are good and decent and fair-minded writers. But socialized groupthink is not the answer to what’s wrong with the media. It’s what’s already wrong with the media.

These mirror image negative perceptions are an inevitable part of intergroup conflict, so rather than morally judging the individuals involved for behavior that is likely quite common, I prefer to take this as a cautionary tale for all who want better policy. On both sides of the aisle, we should be seeking to recognize and reduce these biases, not amplify them through ideologically homogeneous discussions, such as what appeared to occur on JournoList.

– Ravi Iyer

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Perceptions of Civility in America

A recent Zogby International poll found that 95% of Americans believe that civility is important for a healthy democracy and that citizens are "turned off" when politics become "rude and nasty." With these alarming numbers, it is no surprise that three out of four Americans believe that, "Right now, Washington is broken." This bipartisan agreement on the incivility afflicting today's politics leads us to two questions:

1) Who is being blamed for this incivility? Our data at suggest that liberals are, not surprisingly, more likely to blame the Republican Party than moderates or conservatives are. However and possibly more importantly, we see that many liberals, moderates, and conservatives believe both parties are at fault. In other words, people across the political spectrum are willing to admit that people in their own parties are somewhat at fault. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot and allude to the addiction treatment program slogan, let's hope that "acceptance is the first step to recovery."


2) What can people do to help bring civility back into American politics? A KRC Research poll demonstrates that 87% of those questioned believe that the general American public is responsible for improving civility. A full 85% of Democrats and Republicans believe that one action they could take to foster more civility is by voting against candidates who are uncivil. Between two-thirds and three-fourths of those surveyed also suggested that they, as consumers, could stop buying products from companies that promote hostile political discussions or display uncivil advertising. These poll numbers showing that people believe they can bring about civility by their own actions are encouraging, but should be taken with a grain of salt. Social psychological research informs us that attitudes are not always very good predictors of people’s behavior. This finding may partially explain the "Bradley Effect," which theorizes that people inaccurately respond to questions in ways that seem more socially desirable, yet still behave in less socially desirable ways. Might people simply be saying they desire civility while stoking the flames of incivility? Let's hope not.

– Matt Motyl

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Green Economics that Values Liberalism and Conservatism

Paul Krugman’s recent article on climate change in the NYT Sunday magazine has what one would expect from the Nobel Prize-winning economist and pundit: forceful writing grounded in economic analysis along with sharp-elbowed partisanship.*  After reading it, I started thinking how an article on green economics would be written by someone committed to the yin-yang position that conservative as well as liberal perspectives will have value in moving us forward on the climate change issue.  

A starting point for a yin-yang approach is valuing the emotion-laden moral foundations of both sides.   Support by liberals for limiting carbon emissions has visceral grounds–“deniers are deluded!”; “this is the great cause of our era!”; “the environment is sacred!”–that are likely far more important for most advocates than a cool calculation of costs and benefits.  Similarly, resistance to carbon controls by conservatives is likely based on foundations much more visceral than neoclassical economics–“don’t regulate!”; “America first!”; “what the liberals think is right is wrong!”  The strong feelings on matters such as fairness, freedom, and loyalty that animate both supporters and opponents of carbon controls are rooted in defensible moral principles; neither side has a monopoly on virtue at that broad level.

A next step in a yin-yang analysis–an important one if the analysis is to have real potential to affect policy proposals as well as to enhance empathy–is to examine the efforts of both sides to support their moral intuitions with rational arguments.  A green economics article along those lines would acknowledge the value of the basic position taken by Krugman in favor of political action to lower carbon emissions.  Economically sophisticated liberals are right to be concerned that carbon emissions are associated with significant negative externalities–that is, costs to third parties not directly borne by emitters, notably the costs of warmer temperatures.  Carbon consumers bear the costs collectively, but not as the result of their own individual consumption, and hence have an incentive to overconsume carbon.

At the same time, a yin-yang green economics article would also acknowledge the value of the basic position taken by Jim Manzi against a carbon tax or cap and trade in his articles for the National Review, the National Review Online, the Cato Institute, and the American Scene blog.  Economically sophisticated conservatives like Manzi are right to worry that for people in wealthy and developing nations to incur high costs in the present to lower carbon levels in a much wealthier future is economically and ethically questionable.  Manzi is also logically right in his argument that for policy purposes the negative externalities of carbon use need to be balanced against the positive externalities–the benefits not captured by users.  Taking into account the positive externalities of transportation, heating, and cooling, it is logically possible that the market will overprice rather than underprice carbon.  Carbon may in fact be underpriced as Krugman maintains—but that is an empirical question rather than a matter of economic logic.

The same point about both sides having a rational logic applies to the “insurance policy” issue of how to respond to the possibility of a catastrophic increase in global temperatures.   Both Krugman’s case for increasing carbon taxes and Manzi’s case for a more limited effort to foster geo-engineering and other emergency responses have merit at the broad level of rational calculation of costs and benefits.

My personal take at a yin-yang analysis that draws from both the liberal/Krugman and conservative/Manzi arguments would go like this: First, Manzi’s analysis, not just Krugman’s, suggests that we should try harder than we are now doing to insure against the chance, slim or not, of climate catastrophe.   In that sense, the liberal side of the debate is right, and we should at the very least be offering large prizes for innovation, along the lines of Manzi’s suggestion of a billion-dollar reward for a successful carbon-reducing technology that does not have market potential. 

Second, twentieth century affluence in all the nations that achieved it went along with home and office heating and cooling, extensive highway systems, large-scale private ownership of cars, and the large-scale use of trucking, all fueled largely by carbon.  True, all of these benefits can in theory be attained through an infrastructure based on substances other than carbon–but carbon is what has actually worked, and may well be all that will realistically work in the coming decades for China, India, and other developing nations.  Given that, Krugman’s argument in favor of tariffs on imported goods from China, India, Brazil, or other nations that refuse to control carbon emissions is dubious, even apart from its potential to provoke a trade war.  But so is the conservative argument against any unilateral action by the U.S. or other wealthy nations.   Some wealthy country actions—if we follow Manzi, prize funds and other well-thought out incentives for green innovation–make sense whether or not developing nations join in.

Another person committed to yin-yang green economics might come up with quite a different account from mine—an epistemic sympathy for both the liberal and conservative sides does not equate with a “both sides are equally right” stance, nor with one particular reaction as to the way forward.  It does suggest that progress on global warming is likely to result from a back-and-forth between liberal and conservative sides that both have merit, with both sides refining their positions and proposals to accommodate the best parts of the other side, rather than through the forces of enlightenment slaying the dragons of ignorance and reaction. 

Would a yin-yang analysis of green economics make as punchy a piece as those by Krugman and Manzi?  Krugman’s and Manzi’s articles are lively as well as thoughtful and useful pieces of work.  Yin-yang analyses may equal or even exceed their work on the thoughtfulness dimension–but whether they can be accessible and useful in the way that global warming arguments on behalf of liberals and conservatives are is another matter.  It would be very nice indeed if yin-yang analyses can be made popularly accessible rather than being the property of a small number of people–but in any case, they are worth doing.  Along with the constantly roaring streams of liberal and conservative advocacy, we need a quieter, more reflective, more empathetic yin-yang stream.**

*For example, Krugman asserts that recent climate change models based on current trends “cluster around” a 9oF increase in world temperature from 2000-2100.  That’s a bold assertion, given that only the very highest estimates of CO2 levels in 2100 in the Stern Report and the 2007 IPCC report are associated with that high a temperature increase.

**Is a yin-yang stream on climate change already flowing?  If defined in terms of work that directly tries to take into account the value of both liberal and conservative arguments such as Krugman’s and Manzi’s, I didn’t see any clear evidence of it in a recent series of Google searches.   I found a limited body of work that sympathetically considers cultural and political disagreement over climate change, notably climatologist Mike Hulme’s 2009 book, and a large body of work, such as that by Willam Nordhaus, that tries to engage in cost-benefit analysis without either Krugman’s liberal tilt or Manzi’s conservative-libertarian tilt.  But I didn’t turn up work that uses both liberal and conservative advocacy on climate change to try to come up with a rationally persuasive synthesis.

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