One year ago today, Donald J Trump, a man with no political or military experience, defied expectations, winning the election to become the 45th president of the United States. Nearly 63 million voted for him, including, and in spite of his reputation for sexism, over half of all white women. In an open-access paper in Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, Dan McAdams, one of the world’s leading experts in personality psychology, proposes an explanation for Trump’s popular appeal that is grounded in evolutionary psychology, personality theory and the social psychology of leadership.
By Alex Fradera
Imagine contemplating which treatment to undertake for a health problem. Your specialist explains there are two possibilities, and strongly endorses one as right for you. But when you discuss it with a friend, she suggests that based on what she’s heard, the other would be better. Another friend, the same. And another. Does there come a point where the friends outweigh the expert? Given enough information – the accuracy of the expert in the past, the degree to which the public have any insight on the issue – you can in theory mathematically “solve” this issue with a probabilistic model. In fact, according to new research published in Thinking and Reasoning, that’s exactly what we do intuitively and with a high degree of accuracy.
By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann
Surveys and opinion polls are notoriously bad at predicting election results, as a chain of rather unexpected events last year demonstrated. These instruments usually ask people about their explicit attitudes and opinions. Often, however, these “external” proxies are not entirely representative of what a person is really thinking. For example, several studies have shown that implicit attitudes – that is, subtle preferences or biases outside the realm of our consciousness – can be more useful in predicting our future choices.
As scary as this may sound, there is also mounting evidence that our physiological responses can be even more accurate in revealing how we’re likely to vote. In a new paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers from Kingston University and the University of Essex have taken a closer look at a voting outcome in the UK that, last year, came as a surprise to a lot of people. Their findings suggest that people’s brain responses to statements about the EU were a more accurate predictor of they way they went on to vote in the Brexit referendum than their stated intentions.
By Emma Young
Why are some people willing to risk their own lives – and even their children’s lives – to fight an enemy? An extraordinary study involving interviews with frontline fighters against the Islamic State, as well as IS fighters, finds that three crucial factors are at play. The most important was the strength of commitment to a “sacred” or deeply-held value or idea – but not necessarily a religious one. The findings “may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense,” wrote Ángel Gómez and his colleagues in their new paper in Nature Human Behaviour.
“Harnessing the ‘base’ motive of material self-interest to promote the common good is perhaps the most important social invention mankind has yet achieved,” said the American economist Charles Schultz. And you can see why. While acknowledging its problems, many credit free market capitalism for the dramatic reduction over recent decades in the proportion of people in the world living in extreme poverty, not to mention rising health standards and technological advances. Conversely, according to some commentators, one only has to look to modern-day Venezuela to see the dangers of extreme anti-profit socialism.
And yet, according to a new paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, most of us have an instinctual anti-profit bias. We view for-profit companies and industries – upon which capitalism is based – with inherent distrust, assuming that the more profitable they are, the more harm they do to society. In fact, research shows the opposite is true: companies that make greater profits actually tend to contribute more value to society, for example in terms of their environmental responsibility and corporate philanthropy.
The authors of the new paper, led by Amit Bhattacharjee at Erasmus University, believe this anti-profit bias leads many voters and politicians to endorse anti-profit policies that are likely to lead to the very opposite outcomes for society that they want to achieve. “Erroneous anti-profit beliefs may lead to systematically worse economic policies for society, even as they help people satisfy their social and expressive needs on an individual level” they said.
By Alex Fradera
Evasive politicians tend to pay for their slipperiness, according to new research in Journal of Language and Social Psychology. To study the art of the dodge, David Clementson of Ohio State University created videos of a male politician with no obvious party affiliation (he was played by an actor, but the participants thought he was a real politician), who was quizzed on a number of topics by a news reporter. In some versions of the video the politician played it entirely straight, but in others he dodged one of the questions, either by switching topics, or by giving a terse “no comment”. Either evasion led to the politician being rated as less trustworthy, both by a young group of 200 American university students, and a more seasoned group of 200 US citizens with an average age of 57.
By Alex Fradera
With political tribalism a feature of our times, perhaps science could act as a unifying force. While faith in politicians and journalists is in the doldrums, surveys in countries like Britain, Canada and the US suggest scientists are among the most respected professions, and citizens are appreciative of the contribution science makes to their lives. As the authors of a recent article in Nature Human Behaviour note, it seems that “we may disagree on emotionally charged social issues, but at least we can agree on science”. Sadly, their findings show that it’s not so simple. Although politically diverse people may be fans of science, we’re not fans of the same science.
Officially at least, last week’s global March for Science was politically neutral. However, there’s a massive over-representation of people with liberal, left-leaning views in science, and much of the science community is unhappy, to put it mildly, with the way politics is going, such as the Trump administration’s proposed deep cuts to science funding, and here in the UK, the impact of Brexit on British science.
Against the backdrop of these anxieties, many of the banners on display – such as “Alternative hypotheses, not alternative facts” and “Science reveals the truth” – conveyed a barely concealed message: if only right-wing conservatives could be a little more objective, less biased, more open-minded – you might say a little more “scientific” – then the world would be a better place.
Plenty of past psychology research lends some credence to this perspective: for instance conservatives tend to score lower on the trait of open-mindedness than liberals, and of course conservatives, more often than liberals, are sceptical toward the scientific consensus that human activity has had a significant impact on climate change. But it’s also easy to find psychological evidence of liberals’ bias, and liberals too are often in denial of unwelcome scientific theory, such as evolutionary accounts of sex differences in behaviour.
Now two new articles, published at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) and in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, respectively, provide further compelling evidence that liberals, as much as conservatives, are prone to partisan bias – that is, showing rapid, easy acceptance of evidence that supports their existing beliefs – and that they are just as motivated to avoid hearing viewpoints that differ from their own. Whether we’re liberal or conservative, a first step toward combating our political prejudices, the paper in SSRN concludes, is “to recognize our collective vulnerability to perceiving the world in ways that validate our political beliefs”.
In this era of “fake news” and rising populism, encountering conspiracy theories is becoming a daily phenomenon. Some people usually shrug them off – they find them too simplistic, biased or far-fetched – but others are taken in. And if a person believes one kind of conspiracy theory, they usually believe others.
Psychologists are very interested in why some people are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, especially since the consequences can be harmful: for example, by avoiding getting their kids vaccinated, believers in vaccination conspiracies can harm wider public health; in other cases, a belief in a conspiracy against one’s own ethnic or religious group can foment radicalism.
One of the main differences between conspiracy believers and nonbelievers that’s cropped up in multiple studies is that nonbelievers tend to be more highly educated. For a new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen at VU Amsterdam has conducted two large surveys to try to dig into just what it is about being more educated that seems to inoculate against belief in conspiracy.
Some would say that the political events currently convulsing the globe have been driven, at least in part, by widespread prejudice towards immigrants. To begin healing divisions, it would help if we understood more about how such prejudices can be passed from one generation to the next, so that we might intervene to stop this happening. To that end, a new study in the British Journal of Psychology has tracked the immigrant attitudes of over 500 Swedish teenagers over a six year period, to see how their attitudes changed over time, and if and how they might be related to the prejudices held by their parents and friends.