GOP Anxiety: How Republicans work with worry

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Picture from Slate

We’ve all heard it. Immigrants will undermine the American way of life. Muslims will institute Sharia law and overtake our legal system. Gun control will lead to an imbalance of firearms between law-abiding citizens and criminals. Conservative talking points have long appealed to America’s anxieties. Our anxiety that the country we love will change into something we no longer recognize. Our anxiety that people who aren’t like us are out to hurt us. And our anxiety that those who aim to hurt us may end up with the upper hand.

Anxiety is worry without reason, but it feels all too real. And it motivates us to alleviate our unease, often by avoiding others we find threatening. Appealing to people’s anxieties, as baseless as they may be, is an extremely effective way to encourage social isolation. Anxiety about other groups feeds xenophobia and prejudice, but it also moves people into protection mode, leading to the social exclusion of outgroups.1 Consider conservatives’ protectionist response to the Ebola crisis. When anxiety about disease increased, calls to close our borders rose as well.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to use appeals involving moral outrage. Immigration enforcement is tearing families apart. A religion that is 99.9% peaceful is being grossly mischaracterized by zealots. We are playing fast and loose with our environment and the future of our children. While emotional appeals are cheap on all fronts, anger is the only approach-oriented negative emotion.2 Sadness, fear and anxiety all make you want to lay in your bed alone and cower; anger has you primed for a fight. In this way, anger appeals are motivating, but they aren’t isolating. This is in keeping with the globalist leanings of liberals. They are outraged about various problems, and they want to engage with others to solve them. It makes sense why liberals are known as progressive policy-makers, because anger creates forward momentum. But what happens when liberals are anxious, not outraged?

In their book Anxious Politics, Albertson and Gadarian conduct an experiment to investigate who the public trusts when anxieties are high.3 They found that people react differently to internal threats where the US government is at least somewhat accountable for outcomes than they do to external threats, where the government has no control over the threat.3 In order to test this concept, they conducted two experiments, one about swine flu, which was an external public health threat, and one about illegal immigration, which was an internal threat that the government could control.3 They found that anxiety over swine flu increased trust in experts like personal doctors, as well as in government agencies, like the CDC, relative to people who were not anxious about swine flu.3 Interestingly, though, it does not appear to influence trust in partisan actors like the Surgeon General as much as non-partisan actors, like the FDA.3 But for participants who were made to feel anxious about illegal immigrants, liberals and conservatives alike increased trust in republican partisans.3 It wasn’t that liberals endorsed republicans over their own partisan actors, but compared to controls, anxious liberals were more trusting of republican politicians to make decisions related to immigration.

Simply appealing to people’s anxieties can change the way they feel about a situation, their opinions about the policy that should be made in response to it and the manner in which they treat the people involved. Republicans have made a political killing playing on these anxieties. So much so that the party that offered amnesty to illegal immigrants in the ‘80s has become the same party that insists we need a wall to keep illegal immigrants out. If liberals aren’t careful, more and more democratic voters will warm up to republican talking points. And it’s awfully hard to be outraged about what’s happening when you are huddled under your covers. In fact, the GOP is counting on it.

 

  1. Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (1990). Point-counterpoints: Anxiety and social exclusion. Journal of social and clinical Psychology9(2), 165-195.
  2. Carver, C. S., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Anger is an approach-related affect: evidence and implications. Psychological bulletin135(2), 183.
  3. Albertson, B., & Gadarian, S. K. (2015). Anxious politics: Democratic citizenship in a threatening world. Cambridge University Press.
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Anger: An emotional Trump card

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Image from The New Yorker

It’s safe to say that the outcome of the last night’s presidential election was unexpected. Most polls showed Hillary Clinton with a solid lead for months prior to the election, and many pundits on the right and left had basically handed the victory to Clinton. But, in the light of day, we are faced with President-Elect Trump, and it has come with a significant amount of anger, both leading up to the election, and in its aftermath. Many Americans are afraid; many are truly feeling the meaning of the words “underrepresented group.” As per usual, there are talks of secession, both from states like California who went overwhelmingly for Clinton, handing her the popular vote. And, of course, there are obviously many who rejoice at this outcome, though many psychologists would say that their anger about their relative positions in society is what fueled this victory in the first place.

Anger is its own special kind of thing when it comes to emotion. Most positive emotions, like happiness and delight are approach emotions, meaning that you move towards experiences, things and people that elicit these kinds of emotional states. You are definitely going to move towards that adorable puppy, or that day at the beach. On the other hand, most negative emotions, like fear or shame, are avoidant emotions. We tend to fold into ourselves when we feel negatively, we remove ourselves from situations and from others. There is actually only one negative emotion that is approach oriented: Anger.1 That’s why people fight each other, yell at each other and tear their shirts off when someone challenges them at a tense football game. And man, voters all over American are obviously pretty peeved, albeit for different reasons. I’m glad the Super Bowl isn’t for a few months or we’d be seeing a lot of white beer bellies.

Anger is a universal emotion.2 People in every culture all over the world are hard wired to recognize anger in others, since, you know, it might be directed at us and it is fairly useful to notice that, survival-wise. In many ways, emotions are evolutionarily useful, someone’s face of surprise will tip us off to impending danger before they can produce words to tell us. But they also affect the way we think. The more intense the emotion, the less logical we are.3 That’s why we make dumb decisions when we are infatuated with an unsuitable love interest, or why we say that we “see red” when we are really angry. Added to that, high emotions are likely to evoke system 1 thinking, in which people make decisions based on mental shortcuts, instead of system 2 thinking, in which people methodically compare all alternatives.4 Anger basically creates an emotional version of cognitive load. Anger occupies so much of our thought processes that we don’t have enough attention left over to make good choices. Really. This is a thing.

There are different factors governing the anger expression on the right and on the left. On the right, I believe we are experiencing something similar to the backlash against Bush in 2000. Researchers found that Americans are more likely to back the candidate they see as less “corrupt,” and in the Bush v. Gore matchup, Bush was the political insider whose own father had been president. Voters who viewed this as nepotism cast their ballots for Gore or Nadar.5 For people on the left, many are angry that we are still experiencing serious gender, racial, sexual preference and income inequality and it only seems to matter to a portion of the population. On both sides, people tend to react with anger when they feel that they have behaved the right way, but that others have taken success from them.6 For republicans, a lot of the anger appears to center around the idea that undocumented immigrants are taking American jobs and sowing seeds of terrorism. For democrats, much of it appears to center around the idea that a majority of white people are still able to dictate the state of our union.

Sadly, many of us will be angry for a bit. And that’s okay. But we can choose to wallow in a sense of helplessness, and to mourn the loss of our country to more powerful forces of isolationism and fear than we thought. Or we can choose to get pissed. We can choose to let that angry energy fuel our movement to make America a more tolerant place. To pose a serious, noisy challenge to legislators who seek to pass laws that do not represent us. To protest when the powers that be attempt to shove their opinions and their values down the throats of the American people. To get involved in elections on the local level. To know who our representatives are and what they stand for. To join in races ourselves, and bring our own views into the conversation. The fact is, the presidential election is over. Donald Trump will be our president. We can choose to flee to Canada and lick our wounds, hoping the electorate magically changes in four years. Or we can get pissed enough to stand together and choose to fight.

  1. Carver, C. S., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Anger is an approach-related affect: evidence and implications. Psychological bulletin135(2), 183.
  2. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of personality and social psychology17(2), 124.
  3. Pham, M. T. (2007). Emotion and rationality: A critical review and interpretation of empirical evidence. Review of general psychology11(2), 155.
  4. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
  5. Redlawsk, D. P., & McCann, J. A. (2005). Popular interpretations of ‘corruption’and their partisan consequences. Political Behavior27(3), 261-283.
  6. Huddy, L., Sears, D. O., & Levy, J. S. (Eds.). (2013). The Oxford handbook of political psychology. Oxford University Press.

 

 

Black Votes Matter: Whitewashing the Election

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Image from the ACLU

As this election reaches the lowest depths of hell, I, like many Americans, find myself sucked into the black hole of election coverage. Last night, I was researching an obviously false internet claim from a #stillbernie bro about Bernie winning as many votes as Hillary in the primaries, and I found this statistic from Pew Research Center:

“While Bernie Sanders (50 percent) edged out Hillary Clinton (48 percent) among white voters overall, 77 percent of black Democratic primary voters chose Clinton.”

From a social psychology perspective, this explains so much to me about what I’ve been seeing on my own social media feeds for months. Bernie did win more votes than Hillary…among white people. Many white people see that a lot of their white friends voted for Bernie and he didn’t win, so obviously something is up. In general, people are prone to the false-consensus bias, which leads them to believe that their opinions, values and actions are largely shared and approved of by others.1 And it doesn’t help that we largely surround ourselves with people who are similar to us and share our beliefs anyway.2 But the electorate is not just made up of white people. Clinton crushed Bernie among African-Americans with 77% of the vote. That’s a resounding defeat. An unequivocal statement. Black Americans clearly chose Clinton. This isn’t a history blog, so we won’t deep dive into America’s ugly track record with civil rights, stretching back to slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise, up to present day as 5 states have active law suits alleging minority voter intimidation and suppression by the Republican party during this very election (Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). But, suffice it to say, attempting to downplay the legitimacy of the black vote is not a good look, and, you know, is fundamentally opposed to the ideals of our democracy. White people claiming their voices are being systematically stifled in an American election is laughable at best, and downright insulting at worst.

Which white people on my news feeds have been as passionate about the ongoing voter suppression of black citizens as they were about Bernie’s defeat in the “rigged” primaries? I have yet to see one. I haven’t really seen much among white people in general, because white people associate with other white people, at work, on the internet, at their polling places. They don’t necessarily have significant exposure to issues facing marginalized groups, and therefore they don’t have significant exposure to those groups’ opinions about said issues. The fact is, white people often grow up in predominantly white neighborhoods and go to predominantly white schools. They rarely, if ever, experience race-related discrimination, and the absence of that discrimination creates a space to deny its very existence. For many white Americans, black suffering is not that visible. There are 1,080,000 Google search results for “black voter suppression” and 475,000 Google search results for “Bernie Sanders voter suppression.” One of these issues began in 1619, the other began 9 months ago. Talk about unbalanced media coverage.

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Image from the New York Times

Bernie supporters were quick to point to his past as a civil rights protestor and Hillary’s support for the 1994 Crime Bill as reasons that black Americans should vote for Bernie. Yet, black citizens overwhelmingly supported Clinton over Bernie, making it obvious that white democratic voters may be out of touch with what matters to democrats as a group. Such divides even spawned articles telling people to stop Bernie-splaining to black Americans. Gordan Allport’s Contact Hypothesis suggests that the best way to reduce intergroup prejudice and encourage understanding is for people from both groups to have contact with one another.3 The groups have to have positive contact, work toward a common goal, have equal status, cooperate with one another, have the support of the community at large and actually spend a good amount of time getting to know one another for it to actually work. Why don’t a lot of protest-voting white Americans see that many others have a great deal at stake under a Trump presidency? A lot of it may come down to who they have contact with. Without meaningful intergroup contact, it may be impossible for us to understand the experiences of people outside of our own circles.

Yes, Hillary Clinton barely lost the white vote in the primaries, but to ignore the fact that she garnered the majority of the minority vote among African and Hispanic or Latino Americans is to ignore that Clinton definitively won the primary among American democrats as a whole. She just didn’t win among white democrats. But elections are decided by who shows up to cast their ballot, not whichever race has traditionally held power in a country. When elections don’t go our way, it doesn’t mean that they are rigged. To assume that the average white voter reflects the larger concerns of the American electorate is to assume too much in the 21st century. Black Americans have told us in no uncertain terms that they back Clinton, and they always have. And black votes matter.

  1. Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of experimental social psychology13(3), 279-301.
  2. Byrne, D. (1961). Interpersonal attraction and attitude similarity. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology62(3), 713.
  3. Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2005). Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis: Its history and influence. On the nature of prejudice50, 262-277.

Psych in Sum: Low information voter or cognitive miser?

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Image from CNN

With the presidential election less than a month away, the pressure is on for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to pick up as many undecided voters as they can before November 8th. But how do voters decide who they are voting for and what kinds of information do they consider? David Redlawsk sheds some light on the process.

The ideal way to make this important decision is through a thorough information search that considers all attributes of all possible candidates. However, most people don’t do this, because, well, our brains are lazy. Instead, we develop various information search strategies in deciding who to cast a ballot for. Behavioral Decision Theory suggests that people tend to settle for “good enough” choices once they feel like they have acquired enough information about the decision. We are “cognitive misers,” in the way that we don’t expend cognitive energy when we don’t have to. There tend to be two sets of conditions under which people make decisions between alternatives; compensatory rules, where alternatives are compared on all attributes such that a low score on one attribute may be redeemed with a high score on another attribute, and non-compensatory rules, where people consider each alternative on one attribute in serial and discard inadequate options immediately.

In situations where decisions can be made easily, people are more likely to employ compensatory decision rules, but in situations that are more complex, people tend to go with a single-elimination non-compensatory system. Further, he found that voters who used compensatory rules had more realistic views of the candidates, including lower evaluations of their preferred candidate and high evaluations of rejected candidates than people who use non-compensatory rules. Single issue voters, like people who vote based only on a politician’s stance on gun rights or abortion, are using non-compensatory rules, and the narrowness of their decision-making process leads to worse decisions. It’s always better to have more information than less!

Redlawsk, D. P. (2004). What voters do: Information search during election campaigns. Political Psychology25(4), 595-610.

Psych in Sum: Confirmation Bias in Politics

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Image from Clay Bennett

We saw the first debate between the two major party nominees for president this Monday, and critiques of the candidates’ performances flooded the internet. As with every debate, there are people declaring victory on both sides. Not only did their candidate win, but he/she mopped the floor with the other one! But political experts largely agree that Hillary Clinton won the debate, and polls of likely voters that were conducted offline show the majority of the electorate thinks Clinton won as well. So how do a bunch of people take some unscientific online polls and use them as real evidence that Trump won? Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek out information that supports your position (hello .net web address!) and to interpret information in such a way that it confirms what you already think.1 Everyone is vulnerable to this bias. In fact, scientists regularly try to avoid having their a priori beliefs affect the later interpretation of their data through various techniques, like deciding sample size before looking at the results, or using a blind experimental design. They go through this trouble because we know that people tend to selectively expose themselves to information they agree with, and tend to ignore information they don’t agree with.1 That isn’t good science, and it isn’t the road to good decision-making either.

Thinking your biases are founded in fact can be extremely problematic and lead to overconfidence in judgments, such that you are more certain your judgment is correct than your evidence warrants.And if there’s something worse than someone who is wrong, it’s someone who is desperately trying to convince you they aren’t. Generally, if you look hard enough, you’re going to find something that assures you that you are right. Whether or not that something has any real merit is often another story.

 

  1. Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology2(2), 175.
  2. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1977). Intuitive prediction: Biases and corrective procedures. DECISIONS AND DESIGNS INC MCLEAN VA.

Pernicious personalities: The real threat of narcissistic leadership

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Image from The Independent

Personality traits are often somewhat ambiguous. While it’s good to be agreeable, it’s not good to be TOO agreeable. While it’s good to be conscientious, you can be so conscientious that you never eat that piece of cake or splurge on that great meal. But narcissism, having an overinflated view of the self that leads to a sense of entitlement, self-centeredness and superiority, is pretty clear cut. Narcissism is bad for everyone. Being a narcissist comes with no real long term advantages, though short term advantages might be present. In fact, narcissism is such a bad quality that it’s considered part of the “dark triad” of personality traits, which also includes Machiavellianism (being very manipulative) and psychopathy (being callous and lacking empathy).1 Narcissism is not simply having high self-esteem, it is having a grandiose sense of self that is not grounded in reality.

That description might as well be a description of Donald Trump, former reality star and gold enthusiast and current candidate for the Presidency of the United States. When Donald Trump equates his personal success with the sacrifices of a gold star family, or when he talks about how he alone can fix the problems we face (after all, he knows more about ISIS than the generals and he could deal with thorny issues like illegal immigration and health care during his first 100 days in office), he is displaying a classic example of the narcissistic personality. So why do we care?

Well, psychologists have not only studied how narcissism affects individuals, they have also studied how narcissistic leaders affect their constituency. Jerrold Post has suggested that narcissistic leaders have impaired judgment and decision making.2 Because narcissists tend to think they know best, they are less likely to take criticism or advice from others. This is obviously a terrible leadership quality, as narcissistic leaders are more likely to make uninformed decisions, or to go forward with decisions even once contrary information has come to light. Because narcissists have a grandiose view of themselves, they are more likely to be overly optimistic about the efficacy of their beliefs.2 This problem is compounded by the narcissistic tendency to surround oneself with people who agree with the narcissist.3 In the case of the narcissist, the “best people” to surround himself with are the people who agree with him.

But the problems don’t stop there. Betty Glad finds that narcissistic leaders have an easier time rising to power than they do in actually wielding it.3 Narcissists are charismatic, so it is not surprising that narcissism may sometimes help someone get into a position of power.3 But Glad finds that once that power is attained, narcissists run into some serious problems.3 Oftentimes, narcissists have very bad ideas that cannot be enacted when they don’t have power. But once they do, they are less in touch with reality, more likely to display erratic behavior, have difficulty attaining goals and ultimately become paranoid and defensive.3 And when you surround yourself with people who agree with you, this leads to the perfect storm of malignant narcissistic leadership: Someone who thinks too highly of themselves and their own ideas, running essentially unchecked.

There is one more quality of narcissistic leaders that makes them incredibly dangerous: They have superego deficiencies.3 In other words, narcissistic leaders don’t have a very well developed conscience. The very thing that prompts restraint in our actions, that encourages us to think about how our actions affect others, that tells us to put the brakes on when our ideas are out of control…this basic sense of restraint and morality that children develop early on in life is largely missing from narcissistic leaders. So the next time Donald Trump asks why we can’t use nuclear weapons or vows to deport 11 million people, take him seriously. He has demonstrated that he isn’t a man who can really conceive of the consequences of his actions. But we know better. You cannot declare bankruptcy to get out of nuclear war.

 

  1. Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of research in personality36(6), 556-563.
  1. Post, J.M. (1993). Current concepts of the narcissistic personality: Implications for Political Psychology. Political Psychology, 14(1), 99-121.
  1. Glad, B. (2002). Why tyrants go too far: Malignant narcissism and absolute power. Political Psychology23(1), 1-37.

 

 

Political Psych in Sum: Ideology

This fall, we’ll be breaking down various aspects of the American presidential election, ranging from the psychology of why people support particular candidates to the role of group processes in dismissing people who don’t support your beliefs and everything in between. First up, ideology.

Ideology is a motivation-based orientation of being in favor of or against a social system.1 This orientation breaks down into the right-left spectrum we all know so well in today’s political system (the historical origins of determining right wing and left are quite interesting). Whether people endorse right-wing (conservative) or left-wing (liberal) ideas is typically determined by two fundamental dimensions:

  • advocating versus resisting social change (i.e., do you want to keep the social status quo?)
  • accepting versus resisting inequality2

Generally, although with some exceptions,3 knowing where people exist within these dimensions can predict their explicit political attitudes and opinions. And, as recent research shows, these differences also exist in implicit (i.e., automatic, non-conscious) associations (Side note: if you’re unfamiliar with implicit bias, check out the Implicit Association Test). The figure below shows the results of implicit preferences for five values. Higher scores indicate a greater preference for the first value in each pair.

 

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Jost, Nosek, & Gosling. (2008). Ideology: Its resurgence in social, personality, and political psychology. Perspectives in Psychological Science

 

Jost et al. also suggest that people’s threshold for managing risk or uncertainty, as well as their tendency to justify the current political and social system, predicts their place in the right-left spectrum. So, what does this mean?  Consider this: a conservative’s preference for order and fear of uncertainty translate to wanting to maintain the status quo. In contrast, a liberal’s lack of preference for traditional values (or their preference for feminism) translates to endorsing social change and more progressive ideals.

The more you know!

 


References

1 –  Jost, Nosek, & Gosling. (2008). Ideology: Its resurgence in social, personality, and political psychology. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 3, 126-136.

2,3 – Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway. (2003). Exceptions that prove the rule—Using a theory of motivated social cognition to account for ideological incongruities and political anomalies: Reply to Greenberg and Jonas (2003). Psych Bulletin, 129, 383-393.