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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Over at the eminently useful blog consortium ScienceBlogs, Chris of the Mixing Memory blog has begun reviewing George Lakoff’s The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. Lakoff’s fundamental argument (in this and earlier books) is that liberals continue to rely on a rational conceptualisation of mind and try to sway voters through logical argument, whereas conservatives succeed by appealing to values and emotion.  While there is plenty of evidence to support the general notion that humans are not as rational as we like to think and that affect can play a substantial role in shaping our judgments and attitudes, Chris’s review is doing a good job of identifying the areas where Lakoff drifts into pseudoscience and rampant generalisations. The parts of the review are available at these links:

NB: I will continue updating this post with links to the other parts of the review as they appear.

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A report on some recent psychology research tells us that an opinion that is consistently repeated by a small number of people can be misperceived as representative of the majority view. The finding is consistent with a cognitive bias known as the ‘availability heuristic’ – our tendency to estimate the prevalence of something based on how readily we can recollect instances of that thing. Since repetition improves the accessibility of information in memory, even having one person repeat the same thing multiple times increases its availability.

Jonah Lehrer relates this finding to a recent rumour about Michelle Obama. Commenters on the linked posts propose that these findings help to explain the principles behind Fox News. Perhaps it helps to account for why our local politicians are drumming away at the same points over and over, or why Shanahan tells us several times a week that the honeymoon is over and the people have turned on Rudd, or why the denialists like Bolt post so incessantly about their opposition to global warming.

The best way to counter this technique is a vocal opposition, even when it might involve stating what appears obvious to many. This does not mean that minority opinions should not be heard – as the holder of opinions that might sometimes place me in the minority, I say this from personal interest as well as principled belief. The whole range of opinions on an issue should be represented, but moreover they should be debated. Robust debate gives us all the best opportunity to form our own opinion based on consideration of the arguments, rather than based just on what appears to be the consensus.

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All in the Mind did a show about political psychology last weekend. It had a few interesting bits and pieces that give a basic overview of some of the ways that psychological work is being applied to studying political judgments. I was a bit disappointed that much of the time was devoted to David Amodio’s work, which has already received extensive attention in the media, and to neuroscientific work. I would have liked to hear Jeff Greenberg talk more about his work on how reminding people of the risk of terrorism, etc., can change their attitudes – it seems especially relevant to the way the classic Howard fear campaigns have worked. But check it out if you have an interest in the area – the web page has links to some additional resources.

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