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 CivilPolitics.org, 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 CivilPolitics.org is to find ways to encourage the growth of this civil public square.

Perceptions of Civility in America

A recent Zogby International poll found that 95% of Americans believe that civility is important for a healthy democracy and that citizens are "turned off" when politics become "rude and nasty." With these alarming numbers, it is no surprise that three out of four Americans believe that, "Right now, Washington is broken." This bipartisan agreement on the incivility afflicting today's politics leads us to two questions:
1) Who is being blamed for this incivility? Our data at YourMorals.org suggest that liberals are, not surprisingly, more likely to blame the Republican Party than moderates or conservatives are. However and possibly more importantly, we see that many liberals, moderates, and conservatives believe both parties are at fault. In other words, people across the political spectrum are willing to admit that people in their own parties are somewhat at fault. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot and allude to the addiction treatment program slogan, let's hope that "acceptance is the first step to recovery."

2) What can people do to help bring civility back into American politics? A KRC Research polldemonstrates that 87% of those questioned believe that the general American public is responsible for improving civility. A full 85% of Democrats and Republicans believe that one action they could take to foster more civility is by voting against candidates who are uncivil. Between two-thirds and three-fourths of those surveyed also suggested that they, as consumers, could stop buying products from companies that promote hostile political discussions or display uncivil advertising. These poll numbers showing that people believe they can bring about civility by their own actions are encouraging, but should be taken with a grain of salt. Social psychological research informs us that attitudes are not always very good predictors of people’s behavior. This finding may partially explain the "Bradley Effect," which theorizes that people inaccurately respond to questions in ways that seem more socially desirable, yet still behave in less socially desirable ways. Might people simply be saying they desire civility while stoking the flames of incivility? Let's hope not.

Political Mavericks: Conscientious or Treasonous?

In James Thurber’s Further Fables for Our Time, he writes the tale of “The Peacelike Mongoose.”
In cobra country a mongoose was born one day who didn't want to fight cobras or anything else. The word spread from mongoose to mongoose that there was a mongoose who didn't want to fight cobras. If he didn't want to fight anything else, it was his own business, but it was the duty of every mongoose to kill cobras or be killed by cobras.
""Why?" asked the peacelike mongoose, and the word went around that the strange new mongoose was not only pro-cobra and anti-mongoose but intellectually curious and against the ideals and traditions of mongoosism.
"He is crazy," cried the young mongoose's father.
"He is sick," said his mother.
"He is a coward," shouted his brothers.
"He is a mongoosexual," whispered his sisters.
Strangers who had never laid eyes on the peacelike mongoose remembered that they had seen him crawling on his stomach, or trying on cobra hoods, or plotting the violent overthrow of Mongoosia.
"I am trying to use reason and intelligence," said the strange new mongoose.
"Reason is six-sevenths of treason," said one of his neighbors.
"Intelligence is what the enemy uses," said another.
Finally, the rumor spread that the mongoose had venom in his sting, like a cobra, and he was tried, convicted by a show of paws, and condemned to banishment.
Moral: Ashes to ashes, and clay to clay, if the enemy doesn't get you your own folks may.
This fable was written denouncing the McCarthyist paranoia that led to the blacklisting of fellow American citizens out of suspicion that they may be communist sympathizers, but the message of this tale extends well beyond the Red Scare. Today, we see that “maverick” (or, perhaps, “mongoose”) politicians who do not vote the party line are often ostracized as “black sheep” and attacked by their own folks, as Thurber suggests.

Consider Democrats’ reactions to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) running for office as an Independent after losing the Democratic Primary. Former Clinton adviser Paul Begala nicknamed him “Traitor Joe,”journalist Ari Berman described him as a “back stabber,” and television show host Rachel Maddow proclaimed him to be a “wrench in the works.” On the other side of the aisle, though, Republicans celebrated Lieberman as “a really exceptional senator” and “a national treasure.” Conservative pundits Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck all supported his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Similarly, consider Republicans’ reactions to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) after she voted in favor of the 2009 stimulus package and the Senate Finance Committee’s healthcare reform bill. Republicans lambasted her as one of three then-Republican Senators who did not vote the party line as the “Traitor Trio”. At the same time, Democrats heralded Snowe for her willingness to compromise and leadership in doing what is best for the country.

Social psychologist Pete Ditto and graduate student Andrew Mastronarde published experimental evidence supporting this phenomenon in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Across three studies, they found that although participants generally liked the idea of a political maverick, participants viewed mavericks of their own party more negatively than their party-line counterparts. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the long-self-pronounced political maverick Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is now renouncing the idea that he ever was a maverick.

From ashes to ashes, and clay to clay, if the other party doesn’t get you, extremists within your own party may. 

-- Matt Motyl