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

Posts Tagged political psychology

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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How did Liberals become Democrats and Conservatives Become Republicans? Levendusky Explains in “The Partisan Sort”


Book Review

For much of America’s history, political parties consisted of liberal and conservative elected officials and voters. In the 1970s, however, this ideological heterogeneity began a marked shift where liberals sorted into the Democratic party and conservatives sorted into the Republican party. Matthew Levendusky presents data in The Partisan Sort: How Liberals Became Democrats and Conservatives Became Republicans suggesting that this began following the decentralization of the primary election process—that is, taking the nomination process out of the hands of party bosses and letting the passionate, activists and extremists within each party vote for their preferred candidate. This change in the nomination process led to the parties running increasingly extreme candidates in general elections. Thus, as the elite became more polarized, voters became better able to distinguish between the parties and were able to better sort themselves according to their beliefs. Levendusky argues that this tendency is both good and bad, as it makes voters better informed, but can invite close-mindedness and hostility on contentious issues.

Application to Civil Politics

We at CivilPolitics agree that having engaged and informed voters is good for democracy, but see many potential negatives to having people divided into groups and sorted in such a way that sacred values enflame the competition between the groups. For instance, as people sort themselves into segregated groups, they begin to surround themselves with people with similar political beliefs as them. In doing so, we activate “group polarization” where the disagreement between the groups becomes even wider as members of each group become more extreme. Social psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper (1979) found that this polarization leads people on both sides of an issue to engage in the confirmation bias, accepting evidence in support of one’s belief at face value, while applying strict scrutiny to any evidence in opposition to one’s belief. In their experiments, they looked at groups of people who favored and opposed the death penalty. Consistent with this attitude polarization hypothesis, they found that supporters of capital punishment found evidence in support of the death penalty more convincing than evidence in opposition to it. The reverse pattern was true for opponents of capital punishment; opponents of capital punishment found arguments against the death penalty as more convincing than evidence in favor of it. Sorting may also lead to less contact with people who belong to different political parties. Less contact may prevent the development of relationships and respect for people with these discrepant views. Classic social psychological research shows us that without positive intergroup contact, group relations may become increasingly hostile. The lack of contact can be illustrated by the recurring statement, “I don’t know how Reagan[/Clinton/Bush/Obama] won – I don’t know a soul who voted for him.” This research finding makes sense in light of the disrespectful vitriol being spewed at Republicans by Democrats and at Democrats by Republicans. It’s easier to label something as evil if you are not friends with him/her. Muzafer Sherif’s famous Robbers Cave research, in addition to decades of confirming experiments, suggest that even though groups can get pretty nasty with each other in competitive contexts, there are ways besides developing personal relationships that may civilize these interactions. For instance, if there is some greater goal that allows the groups to cooperate, the intergroup friction is temporarily reduced. Perhaps if politicians in America recognized the importance of civil debate in a healthy democracy, they might be more inclined to cooperate… or at least less likely to call each other names.

Detailed Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: The Transformation of the American Electorate

In the mid-twentieth century, Democratic and Republican officials were much more ideologically heterogeneous than they are today. By the 2000s, “Rockefeller Republicans” and conservative southern Democrats had vanished from public office. In this time span, these political elites became more polarized with Democrats shifting to the left and Republicans shifting to the right. This polarization of the elites makes distinguishing between the parties easier for voters to determine which party best represents their beliefs. In other words, as the elites polarized, it became easier for the ordinary citizens to sort into the two major parties.

Chapter 2: Why Voters Sort

During the 1950s and 1960s, candidates from both parties generally accepted the New Deal government established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, when Barry Goldwater received the Republican Party’s nomination to run for president, this consensus on the New Deal began to falter. Goldwater advocated privatizing social security, selling the Tennessee Valley Authority, strengthening right-to-work legislation, and perhaps most importantly, emphasizing the States’, and not the Federal government’s, responsibility to address racism. This helped create a schism between the parties over the question of race. Later, in the 1970s, both parties began to reform their nomination process by reducing the power of the party bosses and increasing power of the primary election voters—the people who tend to be the most passionate and extreme in their beliefs. This reform forces candidates to stake out increasingly extreme positions on issues to gain the support of the primary voters who are more likely to reject more moderate candidates than are the general election voters.

Chapter 3: Have Voters Sorted?

Levendusky presents data supporting his basic argument that voters have become more sorted than they have been at any point in history. When comparing the percentage of Americans who reported having liberal or conservative beliefs and identifying as Democrats or Republicans, respectively, we a marked increase from 28% in1972 to 46% in 2004. This number may be artificially low because it does not take into account the people who cannot identify themselves on the liberal-to-conservative continuum. In addition to sorting, there is some evidence suggesting voters have also become more polarized. This finding is not due to an increasing number of people identifying as extreme liberals or extreme conservatives. Rather, this finding is due to moderate voters starting to lean slightly toward liberalism or conservatism.

Chapters 4 and 5: Testing Competing Explanations for Sorting and Untangling the Causes of Sorting

In these chapters, Levendusky first provides correlational data demonstrating that increased elite polarization corresponds to increased mass sorting. However, as all good statistics students know, correlation does not mean causation. Thus, in order to argue that increased polarization is the factor causing increased mass sorting, he must demonstrate the correlation while controlling for the temporal sequence of the variables and other variables that could be causing the sorting. In these chapters, he does this supporting his hypothesis that changes in elite polarization predict changes in mass sorting. This relationship holds even after controlling for alternative explanations (e.g., the changing “Southern Democrat,” birth cohort variation, race, gender, and income).

Chapter 6: How Voters Sort

Partisan identification is a source of a more general identity that biases people’s interpretation of the world to fit with their partisan worldview. In other words, political parties provide people with a heuristic to understand their political worlds allowing them to sort according to their party’s stances on the issues. This is especially true for issues which voters have not invested much time into developing a particular opinion. So, if the Republican Party supports X and I am a Republican, I am significantly more likely to align my view with the Republican view. This partisan identity is remarkably stable across time. While this pattern may be the most common, occasionally, voters will shift their partisan identification to fit with their positions on the issues. As one example, Levendusky points to the conservative Democrats who became Republicans after the Democratic Party shifted left in the 1970s.

Chapter 7: The Impact of the Sorted

As sorting increases, we see that partisans on both ends of the spectrum become more emotionally polarized leading to a widespread belief that my party consists of the “good guys” and the other party is the “bad guys,” regardless of which party I belong to. This affective polarization is problematic because it may make it more difficult for legislators in one party to discuss and compromise on issues with legislators in another party. This observation may have played a part in the changing campaign philosophies over time. For many years political candidates adopted the “Downsian” model of campaigning where they believed that targeting the moderate, centrist voters would tip the electoral scale their way. Until the 1990s, campaigns spent proportionally more money targeting these “swing” voters than any other group. However, beginning in the 1990s and exponentially increasing through George Bush’s two elections (and in the 2008 Obama-McCain election, but this was not covered by Levendusky), Huntington’s “base-mobilization” campaign strategy became the focus. In this strategy, each candidate focuses on making sure their loyal supporters within their own party turn out to the polls and cast their ballot, paying little attention to the swing voters and people who typically vote for the other party.

Author Info

Matthew Levendusky obtained his doctorate in political science from Stanford University in 2006, did postdoctoral work at the Center for the Study of American Politics at Yale, and is now a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies how political institutions affect political behavior of citizens. The Partisan Sort is his first published book. His peer-reviewed research is published in some of the top journals in the field of political science including the Journal of Politics and Political Analysis.

— Matt Motyl

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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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On the Morality of Torture & Utilitarianism

I personally do not believe in torture, but I have to admit that when I think of it, my mind prototypically thinks of the potential harm that might befall an innocent person caught by an unscrupulous policeman who is all too sure of his moral superiority. What would I do if I knew with 100% certainty that torture of a known murderer/rapist would save countless lives, including the lives of many people I knew and loved?

Is support for torture restricted to the evil among us (e.g. liberals who think that Dick Cheney = Darth Vader)? When individuals say that they are torturing an evil few in order to save many innocents (an argument based in Utilitarianism), are they lying about their noble goals? A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that individuals may not be honest about their utilitarian motives. From the abstract:

The use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects is typically justified on utilitarian grounds. The present research suggests, however, that those who support such techniques are fuelled by retributive motives.

This is a very well done experimental study, which illustrates an important point about other potential motives for torture, specifically a desire for retribution or vengeance. However, it may be nitpicking or splitting hairs, but I might instead have written “those who support such techniques may also be fuelled by retributive motives.” Indeed, in the study itself, there is an increase in support for severe interrogation techniques when there is a greater likelihood that the suspect is withholding information that may save lives, especially among Republicans, the group most likely to be “those who support such techniques.” The fact that retributive motives exist, does not necessarily mean that utilitarian motives do not. One could probably design a study that shows the opposite, where utilitarian motives dominate, given the total control one has in a lab environment.

Our data suggests that utilitarian motives are indeed important in predicting attitudes toward torture. There are a number of measures that tap utilitarian thinking, but the most convincing to me are the classic moral dilemmas that ask people if they are willing to take some action (e.g. flipping a switch) to save 5 innocent people at the cost of 1 innocent life. They are convincing because they are generally free of any political content or judgment about the worth or guilt of individuals.  Below is a graph relating responses to these dilemmas to attitudes toward torture.  Higher scores on the Y axis indicate more willingness to sacrifice 1 life for 5.  Higher scores on the X axis indicate willingness to support torture in more situations.

Torture and Utilitarian Moral Judgments are positively correlated

There is a fairly robust positive correlation between utilitarian judgments on these dilemmas and support for torture (the dip on the far right for liberals is likely due to there being such a small number of liberals who think torture is often justified).

If I look at other utilitarian measures such as moral idealism (using the Ethics Position Questionnaire – e.g. “The existence of potential harm to others is always wrong, irrespective of the benefits to be gained.”, r=-.35) or moral maximizing (using an adapted version of Schwartz’s maximizing-satisficing scale – e.g. “In choosing a moral action, one should never settle for a morallyimperfect action.”, r=-.15), you find the same relationship. Controlling for political affiliation and beliefs about punishment and disposition toward vengeance, one still finds significant relationships between utilitarianism and support for torture.

My take home. Part of promoting civil politics is to take people at their word for their motives, rather than questioning them. There may indeed be some vengeful motive behind torture…but there are utilitarian motives as well and those of us who dislike torture might actually get further confronting torture on utilitarian grounds rather than attempting to question the motives of those who believe in torture.

– Ravi Iyer

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.