Posts Tagged ‘political psychology’

That science segment

… you know, the one I talked about doing regularly ages ago?

Well, it’s over here instead.

While some of your more low-brow blogs are busy down in the gutter with Tim Blair and The Australian, we’ll do our bit to get on with the task of writing about scientific evidence and the honest exchange of ideas.

UPDATE: Whaddaya know? It turns out we can multi-task! Jeremy has helped LP out with the blogpaper wars.


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Yes, it’s Saturday – I can only blame the failure to post a freebie yesterday on the holidays completely demolishing my internal sense of weekends and weekdays. That, plus the fact that I’m too immersed in lazy mode to look at a calendar. So, here’s a belated freebie.

The Friday Freebie is where I share an online, open-access resource that I think readers might find interesting and useful. Each week, I will introduce a free resource that I think will be useful to teh angry Leftists – books, podcasts, web sites, etc. The aim is to compile a toolkit for understanding and advancing progressive ideals.

This week’s freebie distills decades of psychological research into a book about the personality type that appears commonly among those who control the modern Republican Party. Bob Altemeyer, a psychology professor at Canada’s University of Manitoba, has conducted a programme of research on a personality construct that he labelled right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). Building on earlier work on authoritarianism, Altemeyer refined the concept of the authoritarian personality to identify just a few core principles (e.g., submissiveness to “legitimate” authority and hostility toward individuals and groups designated as deviant), developed an RWA scale, and investigated the relationship between authoritarian personality traits and specific attitudes and behaviours (e.g., prejudice). Although Altemeyer’s notion of RWA has been criticised by some (including retired academic and noted blogger, Dr John Ray), the majority of research building on Altemeyer’s work has found significant implications of RWA for understanding some negative aspects of human behaviour.

It is important to note that, despite its name, RWA does not correspond directly to political ideology. It is possible for left-wing political ideology to coexist with RWA personality traits (e.g., Stalin) – thus providing the grain of scientific evidence that can be misinterpreted into “horseshoe theory“. Likewise, political conservatism is not necessarily associated with RWA. However, in his latest book – “The Authoritarians” – Altemeyer argues that authoritarianism has taken over conservative politics in the United States, in the form of groups such as the Religious Right with their fundamentalist belief that society as a whole should adhere to a socially conservative form of Christian values, and the neoconservatives who have engineered an unprecedented extension of executive power within the United States and advocated imposing their “approved” sociopolitical model to “improve” and reform other nations.

I intend to return to the concept of RWA when I have the time and planning to start a regular feature on behavioural and social science issues, so this freebie provides a nice preview of the sorts of topics I hope to discuss. Anyone who is interested in learning more about Altemeyer’s work can access these resources:

  • The full book of “The Authoritarians” is available for download in PDF form.
  • There is a Google Group for discussing Altemeyer’s work.
  • NON-FREEBIE ALERT! Although non-PDF versions of the book cost money, Altemeyer has done his best to minimise the cost. You can order a hard copy of the book via Lulu.com for around $US10. An audio version of the book has now been made available too, read by Altemeyer and with a foreword by John Dean. At present, it can be ordered on CD from Cherry Hill Publishing, although an Audible download is in the pipeline as well.

Do you have a tip for future freebies? Contact me with any suggestions or requests.

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Shankar Vedantam has written for the Washington Post about psychological research on the effects of misinformation and how it applies to politics. Media Matters has a nice summary of some of the implications:

If Candidate A lies about Candidate B, for example, the fact that Candidate A is lying should be the lede – otherwise the news report just drills the false claim into readers’ and viewers’ minds, allowing the misinformation to take hold before it is corrected.  As I wrote in my column on Friday, the news media too often privileges lies rather than punishing them.

Lies need to be debunked in the right way, or there can end up being a boomerang effect.

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Here’s another observation relating to the importance of framing and controlling first impressions. Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, has written an article outlining how the Obama campaign needs to get their framing of the McCain-Palin ticket out there before the Republicans are able to deliver their own message at the RNC.

As I have noted previously in talking about the impact of false information, perceptions tend to stick once they have been created, and attempts to amend them can actually have a negative effect when the original information is repeated. While this is true of false propositions (e.g., that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11, or that John McCain had an illegitimate black child) and can be used maliciously, it is also true in terms of framing – the attempt to present factual information to emphasise the issues that are to your advantage and minimise the negative impact of that information. Westen has set out some of the ways that the Democrats can use to frame McCain’s choice of Palin as a bad one – naturally, the Republicans will try to frame them as a strong team. While it is not the only thing, the timing of getting these narratives out there will be an important factor in deciding their effectiveness.

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Matt Yglesias has kicked off a discussion of the apparent dilemma the media comes up against when a campaign lies but rebuttal involves repeating the lie. (NB: Matt has apparently edited his post – the original content is currently reproduced in comment 7 to the post).

I don’t see much of a dilemma. Point out the lie – put the truth ahead of any repetition of the lie itself, establish and elaborate on the context underlying the truth, and then conclude by restating clearly what the truth is. It seems to me that the biggest dilemma the media faces is that it has to accommodate any new material into its pre-existing narrative – and in that narrative, John McCain is a straight-talking maverick.

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I have mentioned this kind of work before, but here is another commentary on research that shows how repeating false information (even in an attempt to correct it) can reinforce the false belief.

It’s particularly pertinent to the Obama campaign’s response to the smear books that are hitting the shelves – by getting the corrections out in advance of people reading Jerome Corsi’s “The Obama Nation”, they have hopefully reduced the impact of his lies and exaggerations.

The commentary suggests that reporters might consider not repeating things that are untrue as a way of preventing manipulation by political campaigns. Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes the reporters themselves are creating the untruths.

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The illusion of rationality

The remaining instalments in the ongoing review of The Political Mind on ScienceBlogs have been delayed, so here’s something on a related note. Jonah Lehrer writes about the implicit assumption we make that voting, and all other decisions we make, are rational. In emphasising the way that factors outside of our awareness can influence our voting, I think Lehrer overstates things – our voting choice is not entirely made on rational grounds, but neither is it purely based on the subconscious effect of news anchors’ nonverbal cues.

There are also some interesting questions to explore about individual differences – does increasing political sophistication and knowledge make it more likely that a person will engage in rational policy analysis, or could it also mean that their ideological preference will be more entrenched? Or to reverse the question, are politically naive voters more likely to be susceptible to influence by non-rational cues? These questions become especially relevant in a country with compulsory voting.

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