Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Diagnosing Democracy

Sam walked into the doctor's office complaining. "I'm not feeling so well. I feel torn. I am of two minds and am unable to decide which actions to take. This indecision has me in a state of gridlock. I couldn't balance my budget, resulting in a big hit to my credit score. I couldn't hold my tongue and find myself calling people who disagree with me crazy or ignorant or liars. I know I have to make some big changes to my life, but I just can't decide how to move forward. What's wrong with me, doc?"

The Institute for Emerging Issues asked me to come and diagnose Sam, also known as American democracy, at the Redesigning Democracy Summit.

After looking at her chart, I have come to the conclusion that the syndrome causing Sam's problem stem from a longstanding, untreated case of political segregation. Moralized migration patterns where liberals are moving to liberal enclaves and conservatives are moving to conservative enclaves lead to political segregation. People on the left literally have less contact with people on the right; and, people on the right literally have less contact with people on the right. When people do not have contact with members of other groups, it becomes much easier to think ill of them. As former Representative Jim Leach (R-IA) said, "it's a whole lot easier to call someone a dumb liar if you know you don't have to face that person's family over the dinner table later that day." With this political segregation, the norms of politeness and respect change, and may even be irrelevant for dealing with people of divergent political perspectives. So, politicos now face little repercussions for calling someone a liar, a fascist, a communist, or, in some cases, "the Anti-Christ." In some cases, this disrespect may benefit them and provide a boost to their fundraising.

Further complicating political segregation is that liberals and conservatives now live in communities that are very different from one another and face different problems. These different communities create different social realities for their inhabitants. For example, people living in more conservative rural farming towns have a dramatically different experience of the current economic downtown than people living in more liberal urban manufacturing cities. These diverse places suffer in unique ways and demand different remedies to their economic hardships. People in farming communities are unlikely to need extensions of unemployment benefits, as unemployment has not increased as much in these communities. Rather, they may need subsidies or tax breaks to help them cover the increased cost of fuel for the equipment on their farms. In contrast, urban liberals are unlikely to desire, or even see the relevance of, giving tax breaks to farmers in this time of economic turmoil. Rather, they may desire extensions of unemployment benefits to help people survive while they acquire skills needed for jobs of the future. Anyone advocating for one of these programs will be seen in a positive light by one of these communities and out-of-touch by the other community. Thus, it is no surprise that representatives of these communities cannot compromise to address the country's economic problems.

So, my diagnosis is that our political segregation is giving way to the growing incivility and partisan gridlock in America. It is natural for people to want to be around others who share their values, but if we are to address our most pressing issues and move America forward, we need to step outside of our comfort zone. You may not know many people who hold different values, but if you do, try talking with them with an open-mind; try to understand them, rather than just trying to persuade them to agree with you. Through this, you just might make a new friend who will help you to better understand the world around you. Oh, and over time, this may give way to a more pleasant America where people can disagree without demonizing each other, and where our government is less prone to gridlock.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Redesigning Democracy

I have been invited to sit on a panel comprised of Grover Norquist (founder of Americans for Tax Reform and author of the No Taxes Pledge) and Lee Rainey (director of Pew Internet Research, author of five books, and former editor of US News & World report) at the Redesigning Democracy Summit this weekend. On this panel, we will be discussing the state of American democracy in the wake of the 2012 presidential election. The organizers have asked us to consider the following questions:

1) "Redesigning Democracy" implies that something is wrong with the status quo. Thinking about 2012, what is currently wrong with the state of our democracy? (focused on topics such as civic infrastructure, hyper-segregation based on political beliefs)
2) How important is it to reverse our current trajectory? (Focused on topics such as polarization, disengagement)
3) What are the most promising strategies to be employed in the redesign? (Internet/technologically based engagement, in person conversations, etc.)
4) What is working best in our democracy?
5) What is the greatest challenge facing our democracy?
6) How can we encourage people to participate in our political system and communities?
7) How can we use online tools to engage people of different viewpoints and backgrounds?
8) Who is melding face-to-face and online civic engagement to address community challenges?
If you have any thoughts about any of these questions, please feel free to comment on this blog, email me, or submit them directly to the organizers of the summit via their Qualtrics survey or by tweeting your response with the hashtag #RDS12.

I will be posting my responses on here as I assemble them. If you would like to watch the event, you can see it on WRAL, or on the Emerging Issues Institute's website, beginning tomorrow (12/9/12) at 7:00pm until 8:30, and then on Monday (12/10/12) from 8:00-9:30am.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Open Science Framework Launches its Public Beta

The Open Science Framework has launched its public beta version. If you do science, want a way to catalog your study ideas and materials, want to simply copy other people's materials rather than having to recreate them as you interpret them from the published manuscript, and want t practice open science, this is a great resource for you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What Is Social Capital?

Human beings may be smart, but some scholars suggest that it may be our incredible need to be social and connect with others that has allowed us to take over the world. Some evolutionary biologists, like Edward O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson (among others), argue that people who bind together into groups that are better able to cooperate with each other will outlast groups less successful in cooperating with each other. The debate on this idea of group-level selection is on-going, but raises a question that is not contingent on group-level selection being empirically-confirmed.

What makes some groups better at promoting cooperation between and well-being among its members? Or, more simply, what makes some groups better for people than others?

Many people throughout history have mused on this idea, but only in the 19th century did scholars interested in the human community start conducting scientific studies to test their theories.

Alexis de Tocqueville studied the young United States of America and stated that "America is an exceptional country where people are engaged and participate in their government in ways that even people in other democracies around the world do not; Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations... In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others." Here, de Tocqueville is suggesting that the US is a remarkable place because of the culture of cooperation and civic participation that seemed greater than in other democratic countries.

Later, French sociologist Emile Durkheim theorized that communities that are socially integrated and that create a moral order where members are connected to each other will be the most cooperative with the happiest citizens. In the book On Suicide, Durkheim reported findings on how Catholics had lower suicide rates than Protestants. He explains that this may be because Catholics have stronger social communities because they are more integrated and that social integration improves well-being.

Durkheim reports that other less-integrated people had higher suicide rates than more integrated people, too. Adults without children commit suicide more than adults with children. Single adults commit suicide more than married adults. Individualistic (Scandinavian) countries have higher suicide rates than more group-oriented countries (e.g., France, Italy). More recent work suggests that conservatives are happier than liberals, and that this may be due to conservatives being more group-focused and liberals being more individual-focused.

Research on the idea of social integration and connection to one's community grew rapidly following the publication of Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, Putnam describes the basic ideas proposed by de Tocqueville and Durkheim as "social capital."

Social capital, still loosely defined here, is more or less people's engagement in their community and their trust in each other.

When people are engaged in their communities, perhaps by being active members of voluntary social organizations like bowling leagues (hence the book's title), the communities tend to have lower mortality and suicide rates, higher education levels, better physical and mental health, and more trust in fellow community members. In other words, communities with a lot of social capital tend to be great in promoting the citizens' well-being and improving cooperation among citizens. (Although, as would be expected from the group-level selection-based evolutionary theories, high social capital may also negatively impact interactions among people who belong to different communities. Putnam does not focus much on this, but in Bowling Alone he does present some evidence showing that the communities with the highest social capital are ethnically-homogeneous / segregated. For an interesting take on how to build social capital even across ethnic and other group boundaries, check out Putnam's new book Better Together: Restoring the American Community)

At the Stanford University Summer Institute in Political Psychology, Laura Stoker leveled two strong critiques of social capital research.

First, social capital is measured in lots of ways. Putnam often assesses social capital by asking about people's participation in voluntary social organizations. Others, though, infer it by examining network density, or trust of people in a given community. Some even argue that social capital cannot be assessed at any single level of analysis by asking individuals about how they relate to people in their communities or by looking at aggregate levels of participation in organizations based on community-level census data. Rather, these latter researchers suggest that social capital is an emergent phenomenon that happens between levels of analysis (see this paper for more). According to Stoker, these diverse measurement approaches suggest that the concept is not adequately defined.

Second, Stoker points to problems with some of Putnam's analyses. One issue in them, is that they tend to treat the country as the primary unit of analysis and fail to consider the diversity of communities within a country. This aggregation issue calls into question the validity of his transnational studies comparing countries with varying degrees of social capital. Yet, in other studies, Putnam treats the "state" as the primary unit of analysis and shows substantial variability between states (providing support for Stoker's claim that aggregating across states is inappropriate). Stoker also points out that although Putnam highlights the positive relationship between education and social capital (that is, more educated people have more social capital), yet most of his analyses statistically control for education. When re-running some of his analyses, she claims that the downward trend in social capital (as measured by membership in voluntary organizations) in the United States is only downward when controlling for education. If this is the case, there is some sort of interesting statistical suppression occurring that muddies the story on the importance of social capital.

So, social capital seems to be an important topic to study, as it may help people to find communities where they can satisfy their need to belong and connect with others who share their values, but it is one that needs more specificity. Researchers need to review the methods of the many studies done on this topic and figure out what measurement approaches predict what outcomes. Researchers then need to organize this into a clearer theoretical framework, so that others may contribute to our understanding of human communities and use these findings to improve our communities.

Let's start with you. What do you think social capital is? How should it be measured?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Dirty Rats: How Feelings Drive Political Thinking

For a long time, people reasoned their way to the conclusion that they are rational beings who only make decisions after considering the pros and cons of each option. Over the past several decades, though, scientists have found limited support for this intuitive theory.

Rather, we have more immediate, gut-level emotional reactions to stimuli before we think about the stimuli's characteristics. Social psychologist Bob Zajonc demonstrated support for this hypothesis by flashing smiling or frowning faces on a computer screen faster than the human eye could notice and then asking people to rate how positive or negative Chinese ideographs were. Participants who rated ideographs after being subliminally primed with smiling faces evaluated the ideographs more positively than after being subliminally primed with the frowning faces.

Moral psychologist, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt conducted similar studies. Instead of priming people with frowning faces, he and his colleagues primed people to associate the feeling of disgust with different stimuli. Again, when people were primed with disgust, their evaluations became more negative. However, Haidt and colleagues went further. They found that negative feelings led to harsher moral judgments

Machiavellian campaign strategists raise their eyebrows at findings like these. They see a potential tool to help win some votes. Perhaps strategists were aware of this body of research and design ads trying to get voters to associate negative things, like Rats, with opposition candidates, like Al Gore in 2000.

And, associating a violent criminal with Michael Dukakis in 1988. Or, associating nuclear war with Barry Goldwater in 1964.

It's not clear that any of these ads were effective (or not), but there is psychological evidence suggesting that they could lead voters to have more negative feelings towards the targeted candidate. Furthermore, it's not clear that some negative feelings associated with one candidate will do anything to change someone's preference in the voting booth.

At the Stanford Summer Institute in Political Psychology, political scientist Milt Lodge presented research addressing these very questions. In a series of studies, he and his colleagues subliminally primed participants with positive, negative, or neutral words (much like that in the Zajonc studies, and possibly similar to the Al Gore BureaucRATS ad) before asking participants to read a strong argument about a specific issue, and then later asked them to report their attitude on that issue.

When people were primed with the positive words, they evaluated the argument more favorably. If they agreed with the argument prior to the priming, they agreed even more after the priming. When people were primed with the negative words, they evaluated the argument less favorably. If they agreed with the argument prior to the priming, they agreed less after the priming. Furthermore, these subliminal primes had lasting effects, too, suggesting that commercials shown well before people ever get into a voting booth may affect their behavior once they do enter the voting booth.

So, what Machiavellians need to know from this work is that if they can just manipulate people's emotions so that they associate "good" with the people on Team Machiavelli and "bad" with all others, then they can win friends and influence people.

Wait. Not so fast. The manipulation of the sort used in the studies described here are of dubious legality. At present (August 17, 2012), there are no federal laws banning subliminal priming in advertisements in the United States, but there are a number of private-sector regulating bodies that prohibit it.

That doesn't mean you can't use this affective primacy principle to your advantage. It just means you need to be more creative. Consider adding a smiling face to your commercials, images from some widely loved cartoons (ahem!), and a few jokes at the beginning of any speeches you may be giving. Perhaps, you'll warm up your audience and use a basic component of your audience's psychology to help the presentation go a little more enjoyably for the both of you.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Cost of Flip-Flops: The Electoral Consequences of Candidate Ambiguity

Campaign politics are kind of like a box of chocolates. You never really know what you're going to get, but you can be pretty sure that you'll get a few of the same pieces in each box. 

In the United States, one of these pieces that we get every two or four years is the flip-flop (sometimes called a waffle). A flip-flop is not merely a breakfast food, but can also be when someone holds one policy position before holding a different policy position. The more the latter position contradicts the former position, the bigger the flip-flop (see this website that has a rating system for degree of flipping and flopping). 

Accusing one's opponent of flip-flopping has become the dominant candy in the box of chocolates. For evidence of this, just google "political flip-flop." You'll see 3.53 MILLION pages returned. 

For some bipartisan examples, let's recall President (then Governor) Bill Clinton's 1992 attacks on President George H. W. Bush for flip-flopping on taxes.

And, President George W. Bush's comical attack on Senator John F. Kerry's flip-flopping on a number of issues.

And, the newly available flip-flop footwear with the opposition candidate's face and name on them.

So, it's clear that attacking one's opponent by calling them a flip-flopper or a waffler is common. But, do those attacks work? And, is there some reason why candidates choose to flip-flop on some issues?

At the Summer Institute in Political Psychology, Michael Tomz presented the findings from a paper he and Robert van Houweling published in the 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review in which they try to answer these questions.

These researchers hypothesized that flip-flopping could lead voters to have positive OR negative perceptions of the candidates. Flip-flopping might actually lead people to think that the inconsistent candidate is open-minded, flexible, and responsive to new data. Alternately, voters may come to view the inconsistent candidate as lacking integrity and honesty, and perceive the candidate as willing to say anything to get elected. This negative effect should dissuade candidates from changing their views, lest they suffer the wrath of countless attack ads.

In Tomz and van Houweling's research, they had participants read about two fictitious candidates, one of whom had flip-flopped on an issue. After reading about the candidates, the  participants evaluated the character of the candidates and their confidence in how the candidate would stand on issues if s/he was elected.

Holding all other variables constant, randomized flip-flopping led to an 11% penalty in the polls. However, the story gets more complicated. This effect is particularly true for partisans and when the flip-flop is on an issue that some bloc of voters deems important.

If this is the case, then it would be most sensible for candidates to stay consistent on issues that have appeal across the aisle and be ambiguous about the key issues for one's own party, because members of the candidate's party assume that the candidate shares their view regardless of any clear statement of that view.

Thus, ambiguity can be strategically used by candidates to appeal to specific groups that might not ordinarily support them. If done inappropriately, it can ring the final bell and effectively bring a campaign to its knees... unless it can also frame the other candidate as an ambiguous flip-flopper.

With these implications, we should expect to see a growing barrage of flip-flopper attacks as the 2012 US Presidential Election approaches.

Does Democracy Cause Peace?

Democratic countries go to war less than their non-democratic counterparts.

Immanuel Kant proposed that countries ruled by the people would be reluctant to go to war, except in cases of self-defense, because the people know that they would be the ones who might die on the battlefield. Kant, continued, arguing that if all countries were ruled by the people, a "perpetual peace" would emerge and persist.

Later, Thomas Paine argued that autocratic countries would be more likely to go to war because kings feared that their legacies and pride were at stake. In countries ruled by the people, the people would prevent rulers from taking rash, violent action. This, Paine said, was Common Sense.

These ideas came to be called democratic peace theory and were assumed true for more than a century, before being put under the microscope by scientists in the 1960s.

In the first scientific study of democratic peace theory, Dean Babst calculated the probability that any two countries would declare war against each other. Then, he compared whether the countries he deemed democratic (places where citizens have choices between opposing parties and can vote at regular intervals for members of a legislature and executive branch) were less likely to go to war than non-democratic countries. He found that the overall probability of any two randomly selected countries would go to war was 8%. When looking only at the democratic countries and their historic declarations of war, he found ZERO pairs of democratic countries declaring war on each other. In other words, in this data set, there was 0% probability of democratic countries declaring war on each other.

This research provided evidence suggesting that democracy may cause peace. As with all research, though, there are a number of issues with this single study.

One of the biggest issues is that most of research on democratic peace theory relies on correlational historical reports. Correlation cannot demonstrate causation. It may be that democracy is not actually causing peace, but rather some other variables that tend to co-occur with democracy. For example, democracies tend to have higher gross domestic products per capita and stronger militaries. So, maybe rich countries are less violent. Or, maybe countries build strong militaries to deter others from wanting to fight with them.

Another issue with this research is that all of the data are at the nation-level and do not look at the psychology of the decision-makers who choose to enter conflicts (or not).

At the Summer Institute in Political Psychology, Stanford University Professor Michael Tomz reported findings from two experiments designed to get around the problems of the past studies of democratic peace theory that relied on the aggregated correlational data. In these studies, participants read short descriptions of different countries with key factors like gross domestic product, military strength, and how leaders gain power (elected or not) systematically varied so that they could look at how each of those variables uniquely affect their participants' perceptions. After reading about these countries, participants indicated their support for using military action against each of the countries. In support of democratic peace theory, people were less likely to attack the countries described as democratic, regardless of the country's other characteristics.

But, these data do not tell us the psychological mechanisms why people in democracies are less likely to support conflicts with other democracies. Thus, Tomz conducted another study in which he assessed people's perceptions of other fictitious countries that might be relevant in deciding to go to war with them. Specifically, he asked participants:

  1. How threatening is the opponent?
  2. How costly would an armed conflict with the opponent be?
  3. What is the likelihood of success?
  4. Would it be moral to attack them?
Not surprisingly, people support war against threatening countries. And when war is expected to be less costly. And when there is a high probability of success. And, when war against a specific opponent would be moral.

Importantly, though, these perceptions eliminated the effect of democracy on support for peace. Specifically, people presume democratic countries to have more similar morals, be less threatening, and less likely to be successfully defeated. When examined individually, perceptions of threat and morality were most important in understanding the relationship between democracy and peace. 

Radical dovish liberals may point to recent military endeavors led by the United States and its coalition of the willing and disagree with this assertion. If they can set aside their motivated reasoning, to reject information inconsistent with their desired conclusions (like, the idea that America is a war-mongering nation responsible for countless atrocities abroad and deserving of any horrible terror attacks it receives), they may see how democracies are typically less violent than their autocratic counterparts. 

On the other hand, radical hawkish conservatives may take this evidence that democracies are more peaceful as a justification for going to war with autocratic regimes, thinking that will make those countries more peaceful in the future. Supporters of going to war with Iraq often made this argument. While the evidence seems to suggest democratic countries are less likely to go to war, trying to force a democracy upon a country may not be sufficient for it to really embrace democratic ideals.

In sum, democracy may not directly cause peace, but it can reduce how threatening people feel other countries are and how moral a war against other countries would be. There's still much research to be done on democratic peace theory, but the ever-improving methodological techniques used in the examination of it leads to increased confidence that democracy leads to a reduction in international conflict.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What's the matter with voters?

What's the matter with voters?

"Nothing," says University of Michigan political scientist Skip Lupia.

Citizens are often accused of voting against their interests. In What's the Matter With Kansas?Thomas Frank speculates about why lower-income voters appear to vote against the financial self-interest by voting disproportionately for the Republican Party, which tends to support policies beneficial to the wealthier classes and corporations, and not for the Democratic Party, which tends to support tax cuts and social safety nets for lower-income groups.

One possible explanation is that voters just do not know any better and that if Democrats would just educate them of their electoral ignorance, then they would rush to the Democratic Party. This is, to some extent, an instance of naive realism. There is, however, some truth to at least the first half of that statement.

Voters tend to lack much political knowledge. For examples:

  • 77% of Americans cannot name one member of the United States House of Representatives (even the person representing their community). 
  • 76% of Americans do not know the unemployment rate.
  • 85% of Americans do not know what the New Deal was.
  • Between 50 and 65% of Americans do not know what the 1st and 5th amendments to the US Constitution entail.
Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter have studied this for the past 20 years and have come to the conclusion that Americans are poorly informed. This lack of political knowledge may be problematic, as knowledge correlates with many characteristics deemed necessary for "good citizenship" (e.g., voting for candidates who support one's position, holding elected officials accountable for their actions, having informed opinions supported by sound evidence).

Skip Lupia, though, questions whether knowing historical facts about government institutions or what all of the contents of a specific amendment actually constitutes political knowledge, or political intelligence. In The Democratic Dilemma, Lupia argues that voters may not be as poorly informed as many scholars suggest. He reviews evidence showing that less-informed people scoring low on these traditional measures of knowledge can vote in ways that appear informed. Specifically, if trusted sources (be it elected officials that one likes, newspapers, or media) endorse a specific issue, then these low knowledge voters will use that as a heuristic to determine their position on complicated issues (e.g., insurance reform in California). In another study with his colleague Markus Prior, they find that giving apparent low knowledge voters an incentive to have knowledge and time to learn about issues, can lead them to appear more knowledgeable (although, these data are less compelling to me).

Despite the frequent cries of an under-informed citizenry, Americans do seem capable of voting in ways that support their beliefs, even if outside observers (like, Thomas Frank) think otherwise. The lower-income citizens described by Frank who vote for Republicans may be voting against their economic best interest, but are voting in favor of the moral and social values, which tend to trump economic concerns at the polls. And, as Jon Krosnick's research on attitude strength shows us, strength of attitude is essential in predicting attitude-congruent behavior.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Shark Attacks and College Sporting Events Can Decide Elections

Leading up to each election, voters are called to assess the performance of their elected officials since the previous election and then decide whether their performance merits another term in office. Political talking heads seem to think that the majority of voters are deliberating over quarter-to-quarter changes in the gross domestic product, number of construction permits granted, and the consumer price index inflation. At some level, people may consider these indicators and use them to inform their vote. Yet, people consider a bunch of other factors that may surprise you.

Political scientists hypothesized that real-world events that evoke negative feelings, like shark attacks, droughts, and various "acts of God," would lead voters to punish incumbents on election day. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels report that in counties where shark attacks occurred, President Woodrow Wilson lost as much as 8% of the vote he was projected to receive in such counties in 1912 and 1916. In other elections, droughts would dampen (pun intended) support for the incumbent by several percentage points. 

Informed of this, incumbent's political consultants may be starting their rain dances. Don't rain dance, too well or too much, though. Floods can also lead voters to wash incumbents right out of office. 

Well, the clever readers of this blog may be scratching their head asking the question, "Might voters be voting against the incumbent not because of these events, but rather because of how the incumbents failed to satisfactorily respond to these tragedies?" 

Stanford University professor Neil Maholtra asked the same question. He and his colleagues decided to test whether these effects existed for negative real-world events that are entirely outside of the control of the locally elected officials -- the outcomes of college basketball and football games in the 10 days before an election

Again,when a negative event happened people penalized the incumbents in their community. Specifically, when the local college football teams lost, the vote total received by the incumbent was 1.6% lower than if there was no college football game played or if the local college football team won. This effect was even larger when the team was popular and tended to sell out all of the seats in their stadium. 

In a follow-up test of this hypothesis, they looked at perceptions of the health of the country and President Obama's approval ratings in the counties which were the homes to the teams in the final 3 rounds of the annual March Madness college basketball tournament. This should be no surprise by now, but people living nearby colleges with basketball teams beating expectations and winning games that the Vegas odds-makers did not predict they would, led to more optimistic evaluations of the nation's health and of the job President Obama was doing.  

So, it appears that real-world events that are largely outside of the control of elected officials can have a surprising impact at the polls. These effects are small, generally a 1-2% of the vote. But, in competitive elections, 1-2% may be enough of a boost to shift the election in one candidate's favor.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why do Islamic Terrorists Hate Us? Rose McDermott's Unique Perspective

After 9/11, Al Gore called together a number of scientists who might be able to help him understand "why they hate us?" Generally, scholars believe that terrorism is driven by collective humiliation, a sense of disrespect, and existential desires to defend one's way of life. One scholar, however, presented a dramatically different perspective.

When Rose McDermott's advisor Richard Wrangham was asked "Why do they hate us?" He responded: "Polygamy... specifically polygyny." (Polygyny is a form of polygamy where one man has many wives.)

To support this argument in her presentation at the Stanford Summer Institute in Political Psychology, McDermott presented an immense quantity of correlational data. She showed correlations between the proportion of single males to females in a society (which is high in polygynous countries as many women are monopolized by a a few men, leaving many men single) and the rate of violent crimes against women, gang membership, and support for aggressive militarism, presumably all in pursuit of finding women to pass one's genes onto subsequent generations. Further, she shows relationships between polygyny and proportions of terrorists coming from those countries. Ergo, polygyny causes terrorism and causes polygynous countries, like many of those in the Middle East to hate the United States, right?

Not so fast, my friends. (* this is my personal opinion; not Rose McDermott's; I find this argument to be unconvincing *)

Correlation does not imply causation. It may be unfeasible to experimentally manipulate the legality and prevalence of polygyny in different cultures, but there are ways to strengthen a claim. When claims are as radical as this one, it is especially important to stand on firm empirical ground. In order to claim that polygyny causes terrorism, it'd be useful to conduct cross-cultural, cross-historical analyses and test whether societies become less violent as the prevalence of polygyny decreases. The converse should also be tested; do societies also become more violent as the prevalence of polygyny increases?

This all assumes that the factor driving violence is polygyny, but that is a big assumption. Polygyny tends to be higher in non-western, poorer, more religious, and less educated societies. In order to defend the claim that polygyny is the driving factor, these variables should be assessed in tandem with the prevalence of polygyny; they should not simply be "statistically controlled for." Much research (for example, see Rothschild's research) shows that religious fundamentalism drives support for violent action against other cultures. Other work suggests that perhaps relative economic deprivation drives disorder and increased rates of violence (for example, see Broken Windows Theory, and some of my own research). If religious belief and these other factors lead to differing rates of polygyny, then a fundamental statistical assumption of these tests is violated and artificially distort the results, potentially rendering them meaningless (for fellow stats geeks, this violation is known as heterogeneity of regression slopes). If these variables were included in the model as factors, then we could get a better sense of the unique relationship between polygyny and violence.

Still. Even if these more comprehensive techniques were adopted, these data are correlational and incapable of demonstrating a causal relationship. Again, this is my critique, not hers. At the end of McDermott's lecture when I asked what we could do to reduce worldwide terrorism, her response was, "Ban polygyny."

She remarked that Al Gore sent letters of gratitude to 11 of the 12 attendees of the conference he organized following 9/11. The one person who did not get a letter of gratitude was Rose McDermott's advisor Richard Wrangham. Later in the week, I asked terrorism scholar Jerrold Post if Gore was wrong in not sending a letter of gratitude for Wrangham and McDermott's theory of terrorism. He shook his head and said he had "no knowledge of any link between sex and terrorism."

What do you think?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

It's a Group-Eat-Group World: Social Dominance Theory in a Nutshell (aka a blog)

Countless theories focus on ways to reduce group inequalities (usually racism), but few try to explain why these inequalities, or hierarchies, exist.

Social Dominance Theory (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999) takes a dynamic stab at the difficult question: Why are hierarchies present in all societies at all points in human history?

Sidanius and his colleagues first distinguish between the three basic types of hierarchies: age-based (where the very young and very old have disproportionately less power than people in mid-adulthood), gender-based (in all species where there is sexual dimorphism with males being physically larger than females, males hold more power than females), and arbitrary set-based hierarchies (basically all other types of hierarchies where the different groups are not dependent on each other for continued survival).

Part of what makes Social Dominance Theory so dynamic is that it views hierarchy as emerging from an interaction between people in social contexts (otherwise described as a socioecological approach), rather than assuming relative independence of the individual from the situation.

At the individual level, the theory proposes there are predispositions toward viewing the world in dog-eat-dog, zero sum terms, where some people succeed and many fail; some groups dominate other groups. People who hold these beliefs tend to be more likely to tolerate and potentially promote group-based competition and inequality. This predisposition is often measured with the Social Dominance Orientation scale.

At the societal level, the theory proposes that there are two types of social agents.
  1. Hierarchy-enhancing agents. Institutional agents include internal security forces including police, FBI, KGB, and similar entities, and profit-driven corporations. Individual agents are often the people who hold these occupations (see research showing a tendency for hierarchy-enhancers to choose jobs that promote hierarchy).
  2. Hierarchy-attenuating agents. Institutional agents include charities, civil rights organizations, and public defenders' offices. Again, individual agents are often the people who hold these occupations (see occupational studies).
Hierarchy emerges as a function of these two countervailing forces, which provides one explanation for why some cultures are more hierarchical than others (the hierarchy-attenuating people and institutions are out-performing the hierarchy-enhancing people and institutions).

These components comprise the legitimizing myths that sustain a group hierarchies. Intervening between these myths and the actual construction of hierarchies are three mechanisms:
  1. Aggregated individual discrimination. Individual discrimination appears in sometimes subtle ways like racial micro-aggression and other less subtle ways like choosing to hire someone of the dominant group for a position instead of someone from the subordinate group. When many individuals discriminate in this way, this creates group-based hierarchies. 
  2. Aggregated institutional discrimination. Institutional discrimination appears in ways ranging from the subtle where minorities in the United States attending schools in poorer neighborhoods with less financial support to more extreme where minorities are given the death penalty in the legal system at higher rates than non-minorities even when looking at crimes of identical natures.
  3. Behavioral asymmetry. Subordinate group members limit their behaviors in ways that do not benefit them. For example, minority group members are less likely to follow their doctors' advice and complete their medical treatment in accordance with the doctors' prescription. Subordinate group members also tend to engage in behaviors that make it more likely for them to be incarcerated or wounded (e.g., consuming and selling drugs, participating in gang violence). 

As you can tell, this complicated question has a complicated answer. But, at its most basic level, Social Dominance Theory argues that group-based hierarchies emerge in all cultures from the conflict between individuals and institutions that promote or attenuate hierarchy.

If you don't agree with me there is something wrong with you: An introduction to naive realism

Ever notice that anyone going slower than you is an idiot, and everyone going faster than you is a maniac? 

Is it possible that people driving slower than us are actually idiots and that people driving faster than us are maniacs? Absolutely. Is it possible that we are idiots for driving faster or slower than them? Absolutely... although our brains seem to steer us toward the assumption that we are right and other people acting or thinking differently from us are the deviants.

This phenomenon is called "naive realism." As naive realists, we tend to think that we see events, people, and the world as they really are, free from any distortion due to self-interest, dogma, or ideology. We also tend to assume that other fair-minded people will share our views, as long as they have the same information as I do (also known as the "truth") and that they process that information in the objective, open-minded fashion that we did. Lastly, we generate three possible explanations for why other people might not share our views:
  1. They haven't been told the truth.
  2. They are too lazy or stupid to reach correct interpretations and conclusions, or
  3. They are biased by their self-interest, dogma, or ideology.

An important and related phenomenon is the "false consensus effect." Here, we see that people tend to assume that the decisions that they make are the ones most people would make and that these are the morally-right decisions to make. Because these are the "normal" decisions to make, these decisions reveal less about our idiosyncrasies and individual values. When people make different decisions or take different positions, we assume that it is because of their character and their values (or lack thereof).

Naive realism and false consensus effects are barriers to civil political dialogue and they provide a lens through which we can better understand why liberals and conservatives seem incapable of communicating with one another without calling each other names or assuming that the other side is evil (Hitler-like, the Anti-Christ, or subhuman). 

It is difficult to surmount these seemingly basic human tendencies, and we may not even want to overcome all of them. Vigorous debate and intragroup disagreement is healthy for democracy. Thinking that our views are correct and assuming others would share our views likely serve to promote our defense of our ideals and our preferred policies. The problem, though, emerges when disagreement devolves to demonization. Understanding how to prevent this shift is the central goal of my colleagues and friends at, and the most reliable method to minimize demonization seems to reside in promoting relationships between individuals who disagree. In previous generations, where demonization was less rampant, our elected officials spent time with one another outside of work, interacted with each others' families, and knew each other as people, and not just partisan adversaries. Calling someone evil and a liar is much more difficult and unlikely if you know you must face that person's spouse and children later that night over the dinner table.

So, as you are having discussions with people who hold beliefs different from your own and you are trying to enlighten them with "truth," think about whether you could face that person's family over the dinner table after making your argument. If not, you may want to reconsider your argument and think about whether you're being a dogmatic naive realist.

Are we a nation of flip-floppers? A Brief Review of Attitude Research

As absurd as it sounds, people may not have "attitudes."

For democracy to function, its citizens must hold attitudes and then vote in ways that advance their preferences and hold elected officials accountable for their actions (or inactions, in some cases). Political scientists have long debated whether people actually hold attitudes. The most vocal proponent of this perspective is Phil Converse, co-author of The American Voter. In this seminal text, the authors examined national election study data from 1948 to 1956 and found that the respondents were inconsistent in their policy preferences from year-to-year and these preferences did not predict voting behavior. These findings led Converse to conclude that people did not have attitudes or coherent clusters of attitudes (also known as ideology). 

Social psychologists assumed people held attitudes, but often found that people's attitudes did not predict their behavior. If people's evaluations of activities, beliefs, policies did not predict whether they acted upon them, then the prospect for the existence of attitudes was bleak. Attitude researchers, fearing the absolution of their topic, sought out to squelch this fear by demonstrating that attitudes just weren't being measured right.

Over time, social psychologists found evidence suggesting two measurement-related explanations for the poor behavior prediction of attitudes. First, they found that attitudes can predict behavior, if the measured attitude is very specific to the behavior to be performed. For example, if I ask you how much you like dessert foods, I might be able to predict that you're going to eat chocolate cake when reading my blog, but I am more likely to be wrong in predicting that you're eating cake now than if I had asked you how much you like to eat chocolate cake when reading about political psychology on the internet. Second, they found that social norms and the motivation to appear to hold socially-desirable attitudes (not being racist, for example) can also create the appearance of attitudes being unrelated to behavior. In an attempt to get around biased responding on sensitive subjects, scholars created "implicit" attitude measures that make it difficult (if not impossible) for participants to respond in a socially-desirable way (see some examples of these measures on the Project Implicit website). 

Brian Nosek wrote an excellent summary of the disconnect between implicit and explicit attitudes, showing that the more socially-acceptable it is to hold an attitude, the more implicit and explicit measures converge. For example, people are plenty comfortable reporting their attitudes toward Democrats and Republicans, but less comfortable reporting their attitudes toward thin people and fat people. There are other reasons why implicit and explicit attitudes diverge (e.g., affect, familiarity with attitude objects, etc.), but that is beyond the scope of this post. The key point is that people have some attitudes, but are sometimes unable or unwilling to state what those attitudes are.

So what attitudes do people hold? Which attitudes are they willing to express?

Jon Krosnick presented on his research at the Stanford Summer Institute in Political Psychology suggesting that people tend to hold a few attitudes about issues important to them, and have fickle non-attitudes about issues that are less important. The attitudes people deem important to them usually correspond to values that they learned in their youth (and, potentially inherit via their genetics, although this is still debated). 

As people age into young adulthood they form selective social networks which reinforce their policy preferences and further strengthen the policy attitudes. As attitudes become stronger, they grow increasingly resistant to persuasive attempts and stable over time (that is, less likely to appear as the non-attitudes that Converse described). Attitude strength also predicts the way we process information. When we hold strong attitudes, we are much more likely to process information in a biased and "motivated" way, where we seek out evidence that supports our belief and may not even see disconfirming evidence that is in front of us (Lord, Ross, and Lepper have some very cool research on this phenomenon called "biased assimilation"). And, lastly, attitude strength affects behavior. People with strong attitudes are much more likely to engage in behaviors that will further their cause. Think, for example, of someone with strong attitudes on abortion. They are much more likely to participate in a protest than someone who doesn't have as strong of an attitude.

This theory of attitude strength responds to the threats to democracy highlighted in The American Voter by showing that people do hold attitudes on some issues (even if they couldn't care less about others), important attitudes lead to a more responsible citizenry, and the government does receive feedback on the issues of the day from many different constituents (although this feedback comes from different people on different issues).

Furthermore, these findings have implications for political practice. Specifically, when candidates are speaking about a policy issue, they are really speaking to the small segment of the electorate that deems that policy issue as important while those who view that issue as unimportant tune out. Further, when the majority of voters favor the candidate's policy position, the candidate should openly state the position. However, when the  majority of voters with strong attitudes oppose the candidate's position, the candidate should remain mute. Lastly, politically-minded folks should recognize that trying to change the policy position of someone who already has a strong attitude on that policy is futile. The better tact, according to Krosnick, is trying to persuade potential voters to enhance the importance they attach to issues where the voters and candidates agree.

So, are we a nation of flip-floppers? Of course not. Well, at least not on attitudes that we deem to be important to us. On other matters, though, a coin-flip may be good enough.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

What in the world is political psychology?

One of the first questions people ask each other is, "What do you do?" Some of us have jobs where the answer is simple, and a lengthy discussion is unnecessary. Firefighter. Secretary. Traveling circus clown. One sentence and people generally understand what you do. This is not true for political psychologists.

When we tell people that we are political psychologists, we might as well be telling them that we are Geological Engineers. They haven't got the foggiest idea of what that might mean. If someone says "psychologist," most people tend to think of a guy with a cigar sitting in a leather chair listening to a patient discussing their problems while laying on plush leather couches. If someone says "political scientist," most people tend to think of slick white males yelling about poll numbers on cable news shows. But, when these occupations are combined, most people do not have a readily-accessible stereotype to glean information about their conversation partner. Confounding matters more is the fact that most political psychologists do not have a simple explanation for what they do either.

So, what in the world is a political psychologist?!?

In a recent presentation to the Summer Institute in Political Psychology at Stanford University Jon Krosnick raised this very question and proposed a few ways to find an answer.

Perhaps we can look to the educational and occupational backgrounds of people who claim to be political psychologists. This approach shows us that and 2/3 of political psychologists earned their doctorates in political science and, among those who work in universities, most are listed as core members of the political science departments.

Regardless of the pesky university bureaucracy that may force a mythical segregation between psychologists and political scientists, all political psychologists publish. Where they publish may tell us more about what they are. To examine this, Krosnick looked at who was publishing in edited volumes on political psychology. Across the different series and volumes, he found that generally there were about 2 political scientists for every 1 psychologist, and there were occasional historians and sociologists contributing, too. Krosnick reports that applicants and attendees to this Summer Institute tend to reflect these proportions. About 60% of attendees are political scientists and about 30% are psychologists, with some variation in each of the previous 21 summer institutes.

It sounds like political psychologists are more political and less psychological. The linguistic structure, though, seems inappropriate. The title implies that these people are psychologists who practice psychology in a political way. Would it be better to call them psychological political scientists? Or, maybe there are two approaches to studying psychology and politics. One, preferred by psychologists, tests specific psychological concepts in political contexts, and the other, preferred by political scientists, loosely applies psychological ideas (not necessarily even citing the literature) to understand specific political events.

The majority of political psychology is done using the latter approach. Jamie Druckman co-authored a phenomenal paper (essential reading for anyone interested in doing political psychological research and doing it well) analyzing how this type of research is done. Not surprisingly, he reports that political scientists take more ideas from psychology than psychologists take from political science. He also finds the disturbing trend that political scientists take an idea from psychology and then morph it into something that it is not. This tendency eerily resembles the child's game of telephone, where one participant is given a message and the message is dramatically different by the end of the line.

For example, psychologists think of heuristics as cognitive shortcuts that often lead to bad, faulty, and irrational reasoning (see Gilovich, Griffin, and Kahneman's 2002 work on this). Political scientists took the idea of heuristics and mostly speak of them as good, shortcuts to informed political behavior (see Sniderman and colleagues' 1993 work on this). This loose usage of terms can lead to much confusion for people looking to do crossover research.

Druckman and Krosnick both propose that to avoid this confusion, those of us looking to do truly interdisciplinary work should try collaborating with an expert in the field which we are trying to incorporate into our work. For graduate students looking to get into political psychology, they should immerse themselves in both fields by taking advanced courses in both fields and attending summer workshops like SIPP (although this latter suggestion is a bit self-serving, ahem!). By doing so, political psychologists will be doing better-informed interdisciplinary research and may come to agreement over what in the world a political psychologist is. 

For the time being, though, political psychologists are generally political scientists and psychologists interested in using phenomena and tools from each others' disciplines to answer some question about human social behavior.

Relationships Come First: Insight from the Citizens’ Civility Symposium

The Institute for Civility in Government's Citizens' Civility Symposium brought together people of all political persuasions to discuss the political process--quite civilly, I am pleased to report. While many attendees held different positions on the issues, we came to a consensus that debate in a free democratic republic should be civil. 

As the invited guests spoke, they shared stories of how they had been victims of America's civility deficit. Former House Representative Bill Archer (R-TX) spoke of how Bob Novak called him a communist on the adversarial political news show, Crossfire. Rep. Archer continued by mentioning how a fellow congressperson had called him "Hitler" and a "Nazi" on the House floor. 

Former House Representative Jim Leach (R-IA) shared similar stories including one where he was called a "Fascist" and a "Communist…" by the same person… in the same sentence. Apparently, the irony was lost on the uncivil politico using those epithets, since fascism is typically associated with the far-right and communism is typically associated with the far-left. 

Current House Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) shared his surprise at how soon Democrats and Republicans are segregated once they are elected to office. As they prepare to begin their careers in Washington, D. C., all new congresspeople are invited to attend workshops orienting them to their new jobs. As Rep. Cuellar walked onto one of the buses that would take the newly-elected officials to the orientation, the bus grew silent. Someone stood up and informed him he was on the "wrong bus" and wasn't "wanted there," a scenario reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights' era. It turns out that was the "Republican" bus and that the parties do not intermingle in the orientation process. This experience led Rep. Cuellar to suggest that civility in politics is, in large part, a function of the relationships politicians form with one another. In recent years, the number of congresspeople living in D.C. has decreased, making it more difficult for them to interact and develop personal relationships. 

Years of research document the many effects that this segregation may have on inter-party interactions. For example, Allport (1954) suggested that interacting with people who belong to different groups can sometimes reduce hostility and promote cooperation between groups. More recent research by Bandura (1999) and Haslam (2006) indicates that when people do not develop personal relationships with outgroup members, they are inclined to demonize and dehumanize the members of those other groups. Perhaps this explains why liberals often depicted President Bush as primate-like, and conservatives currently depict President Obama as primate-like. This reduced contact may predispose elected officials to use demonizing language “targeting” political opponents, labeling them “Fascists” and “Communists.” 

The Institute created a civil public square for an afternoon, where shared experiences allowed people with very different political backgrounds to bond and recognize that we, as Americans, benefit from listening to each other’s perspectives. My mission with my colleagues at is to find ways to encourage the growth of this civil public square.