Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Psychology and Politics

Sullivan links to this article in Psychology Today about the intersection of psychology and politics. Four points I'd like to highlight:

1. There's a connection between certain personality traits and political outlooks:
The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers—John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley—found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.
2. Fear, or morespecifically, thinking about death ("mortalitiy salience") makes everyone across the political spectrum more conservative, even on areas unrelated to national security:
As a follow-up, Solomon primed one group of subjects to think about death, a state of mind called "mortality salience." A second group was primed to think about 9/11. And a third was induced to think about pain—something unpleasant but non-deadly. When people were in a benign state of mind, they tended to oppose Bush and his policies in Iraq. But after thinking about either death or 9/11, they tended to favor him. Such findings were further corroborated by Cornell sociologist Robert Willer, who found that whenever the color-coded terror alert level was raised, support for Bush increased significantly, not only on domestic security but also in unrelated domains, such as the economy. [emphasis added]
3. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that people can overcome the effects of mortality salience merely by concentrating on being rational:
But the second time, one group was asked to make gut-level decisions about the two authors, while the other group was asked to consider carefully and be as rational as possible. The results were astonishing. In the rational group, the effects of mortality salience were entirely eliminated. Asking people to be rational was enough to neutralize the effects of reminders of death. Preliminary research shows that reminding people that as human beings, the things we have in common eclipse our differences—what psychologists call a "common humanity prime"—has the same effect. [emphasis added]
4. Travel and education make you more liberal (to a point: once you have a lot of status to defend, you can get more conservative):
Professors at major universities are more liberal than their counterparts at less acclaimed institutions. What travel and education have in common is that they make the differences between people seem less threatening. "You become less bothered by the idea that there is uncertainty in the world," explains Jost.
Given these realities, it shouldn't be surprising that Republicans push anti-intellectualism, fear of death, irrationality, etc., since all these things make you more conservative. It makes strategic sense for them to push the country in this direction. (This article equates conservatism and Republicanism, something many would dispute.) Interestingly enough, making travel more difficult also plays into this mindset, as does making student loans more difficult to obtain.

It would be interesting to see more cross-cultural data on this subject. Do the same rules apply outside the US?


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