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.