If you follow mainstream science coverage, you have likely heard by now that many scientists believe that the differences between liberals and conservatives aren’t just ideological, but biological or neurological. That is, these differences are driven by deeply-seated features of our bodies and minds which exist prior to any sort of conscious evaluation of a given issue.
Lately, though, follow-up research has been poking some holes in this general theory. In November, for example, Emma Young wrote about findings which undermined past suggestions that conservatives are more readily disgusted than liberals. More broadly, as I wrote in 2018, there’s a burgeoning movement in social and political psychology to re-evaluate some of the strongest claims about liberal-conservative personality differences, with at least some evidence to suggest that the nature and magnitude of these differences has been overblown by shoddy or biased research.
Now, a new study set to appear in the Journal of Politics and available in preprint here suggests that another key claim about liberal-conservative differences may be less sturdy than it appears.
If you are left revolted by the sight of someone failing to wash their hands after visiting the bathroom, or by the idea of people engaging in sexual acts that you consider unacceptable, you’re more likely to be politically conservative than liberal, according to previous research. But now a new study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, challenges the idea that disgust is an especially conservative emotion.
Julia Elad-Strenger at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and her colleagues found that some scenarios in fact make liberals more disgusted than conservatives. “Taken together, our findings suggest that the differences between conservatives and liberals in disgust sensitivity are context-dependent rather than a stable personality difference,” the team writes.
Public apologies for misdeeds can be tricky. The usual advice to companies, politicians or celebrities is to acknowledge what you’ve done wrong, express regret, and promise never to do it again. However, the public can still often be sceptical and not particularly forgiving. Matthew Hornsey at the University of Queensland and colleagues wondered if it makes a difference if remorse is also conveyed non-verbally — by dropping to the knees, perhaps, or wiping away tears, as for example when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a “tearful” apology to indigenous Canadians in 2017.
The team’s set of six studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, shows that such “embodied remorse” can go down quite well — at least, among some groups. However, a consistent finding across the studies was that such gestures don’t actually improve levels of public forgiveness.
These results are important in part because while some public apologies are minor — of the “TV star admits drug use” type — they are also considered to be an essential part of the process of reconciliation after gross violations of human rights, and even genocide. The public response to such apologies can clearly have huge ongoing implications.
According to a new study on Canadian political candidates, there are. Successful candidates scored lower on one particular personality trait, openness to experience, the researchers report in Personality and Individual Differences. However, it seems too early to say whether this effect generalises to politicians elsewhere in the world.
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.”
So said then-candidate Donald J Trump during a US presidential debate in 2015. Trump may have strong feelings on the matter, but he’s not alone. “Dozens of articles are written about political correctness every month in [US-based] media outlets spanning the political spectrum,” note the authors of a new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. However, surprisingly little psychological research has looked at the consequences of using politically incorrect versus correct language — does it make a real difference to a listener or reader’s perceptions of that person, and if so, in what way?
Randomised experiments (also known as A/B testing) are an absolutely critical tool for evaluating everything from online marketing campaigns to new pharmaceutical drugs to school curricula. Rather than making decisions based on ideology, intuition or educated guess-work, you randomise people to one of two groups and expose one group to intervention A (one version of a social media headline, a new drug, or whatever, depending on the context ), one group to intervention B (a different version of the headline, a different drug etc), and compare outcomes for the two groups.
To anyone who believes in evidence-based decision making, medicine and policy, randomised tests make sense. But as a team led by Michelle N. Meyer at the Center for Translational Bioethics and Health Care Policy at the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, write in PNAS, for some reason A/B testing sometimes elicits moral outrage. As an example, they point to the anger that ensued when Pearson Education “randomized math and computer science students at different schools to receive one of three versions of its instructional software: two versions displayed different encouraging messages as students attempted to solve problems, while a third displayed no messages.” The goal had been to test objectively whether the encouraging messages would, well, encourage students to do more problems, yet for this, the company received much criticism, including accusations that they’d treated students like guinea pigs, and failed to obtain their consent.
Political partisanship can be a major driving force behind many thoughts and behaviours, affecting obvious things like who to vote for, but also more tangential outcomes, such as how you interpret scientific evidence (liberals and conservatives alike tend to see evidence as more credible when it supports their ideological viewpoint).
But the situation is more complicated than that, as people’s actions are not always consistent with their political identity. What determines why about 8 per cent of Republicans voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election, for example, rather than Donald Trump?
According to a paper published recently in Cognition, the answer may lie in how central an individual’s political affiliation is in the tangled web of features that make up their self-concept. A person’s identity contains a range of features, from characteristics like gender and age to political beliefs and moral principles. One feature can be caused by another: for example, someone might believe that they are an honest person as a direct result of the fact that they are also Christian. Previous research has suggested that the more “causally central” a feature is – that is, the more of these kinds of links that it has – the more fundamental it is to a person’s identity.
Stephanie Chen at London Business School and Oleg Urminsky at the University of Chicago wondered whether a person may be more likely to act in ways consistent with their political beliefs if they see their political identity as “causally central” to their self-concept, and they investigated this in an American and then a British context.
There’s no simple explanation for why psychology has been hit so hard by the replication crisis – it’s the result of a complicated mix of professional incentives, questionable research practices, and other factors, including the sheer popularity of the sorts of sexy, counterintuitive findings that make for great TED Talk fodder.
But that might not be the entire story. Some have also posited a more sociological explanation: political bias. After all, psychology is overwhelmingly liberal. Estimates vary and depend on the methodology used to generate them, but among professional psychologists the ratio of liberals to conservatives is something like 14:1. A new PsyArXiv preprint first-authored by Diego Reinero at New York University – and involving an “adversarial collaboration” in which “ two sets of authors were simultaneously testing the same question with different theoretical commitments” – has looked for evidence to support this explanation, and found that while liberal bias per se is not associated with research replicability, highly politically biased findings of either slant (liberal or conservative) are less robust.
There are few subjects where a larger gap exists between public opinion and expert opinion than people’s views on foods, like corn or wheat, that have been genetically manipulated to, for example, increase crop yields or bolster pest-resistance. Experts generally view so-called GM foods as totally safe to consume, while the public is suspicious of them — and this divide is massive. One Pew Research Center survey found that just 37 per cent of the American public believed GM foods are safe to eat, compared with 88 per cent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (public attitudes are similarly negative in the UK, with a 2014 poll finding that 40 per cent of adults felt the government should not promote GM foods, compared with 22 per cent in favour, and the rest unsure).
Unlike some subjects where this divide between layperson and expert opinion is heavily mediated by politics, such as climate change caused by human activity — in the U.S. and elsewhere, conservatives are far less likely to believe in it than are liberals and climate scientists — the GM-food divide doesn’t really have a political dimension: Liberals, centrists, and conservatives are all about equally likely to have what are, from the point of view of experts, unfounded fears about the safety of GM foods.
To better understand the source of these fears, a team led by Philip M. Fernbach, a professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, surveyed nationally representative samples in America, Germany and France, and other online participants, about their views on both GM foods and climate change, tested their knowledge on these subjects by asking them to answer factual questions, and also asked them to gauge their perceived level of knowledge on those subjects.
Talk of personality in politics is often dismissed as idle gossip, but politicians’ personalities inform their policy choices, shape their campaigning style and predict their chances of electoral success.
A new open-access paper in Presidential Studies Quarterly addressed this lack of evidence, surveying 875 international experts about the personality traits of 103 political leaders, including Trump and 20 other populists, who took part in 47 elections in 40 countries around the world between 2015 and 2016. Alessandro Nai and his colleagues found that Trump’s traits were rated at the extremes even in comparison to other populist leaders, suggesting a “truly unique and off-the-charts public persona”.