One of the most important and durable findings in moral and political psychology is that there is a tail-wags-the-dog aspect to human morality. Most of us like to think we have carefully thought-through, coherent moral systems that guide our behaviour and judgements. In reality our behaviour and judgements often stem from gut-level impulses, and only after the fact do we build elaborate moral rationales to justify what we believe and do.
A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines this issue through a fascinating lens: free will. Or, more specifically, via people’s judgments about how much free will others had when committing various transgressions. The team, led by Jim A. C. Everett of the University of Kent and Cory J. Clark of Durham University, ran 14 studies geared at evaluating the possibility that at least some of the time the moral tail wags the dog: first people decide whether someone is blameworthy, and then judge how much free will they have, in a way that allows them to justify blaming those they want to blame and excusing those they want to excuse.
There are lots of differences between those who express opposing political affiliations — and they may not just be ideological. Liberals and conservatives have different shopping habits, for instance, with one series of studies finding that liberals preferred products that made them feel unique, whilst conservatives picked brands that made them feel better than others. They even view health risks differently when they’re choosing what to eat.
Photo: The serif font Jubilat was used on signs for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid — though a new study suggests that sans serifs are generally seen as more liberal. Credit: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images.
Fonts can be very distinctive indeed. Even if robbed of their original context, it can be easy to identify the fonts used on the front of a Harry Potter book, adorning a Star Wars poster, or on the side of a Coca-Cola can, to name a few examples.
But particular fonts can also leave us with other impressions: the font used to brand a beloved book, for example, has different emotional connotations to the one you use to type emails. And according to new research in Communication Studies from Katherine Haenschen and Daniel Tamul at Virginia Tech, particular fonts may also carry some political connotations, too.
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.