Many of us get the sense that our elected politicians are out of touch, that they are somehow different from the everyman or woman on the street. A new study in Personality and Individual Differences offers at least part of an explanation. Richard Hanania at the University of California, Los Angeles, emailed a personality questionnaire to thousands of US state politicians. Two hundred and seventy-eight of them sent their answers back and Hanania compared their average scores with the averages recorded by 2586 members of the US public, matched with the politicians for age, and who’d completed the same questionnaire online. Continue reading “US politicians differed from the public on each of the five main personality traits”
When all around us feels like chaos, it’s human instinct to cling to the rocks of dogma, and woe betide anyone who tries to loosen our grip. Previous studies, usually involving strong religious believers, have shown how dogmatic beliefs allay the anxiety brought on by feelings of uncertainty. In turn, any groups with opposing views are treated with suspicion and prejudice. A new study in the British Journal of Psychology broadens this out, showing these processes aren’t unique to religious believers. Dogmatic atheists too seem to be motivated by the need to cope with uncertainty, and they too are prejudiced towards threatening groups, especially during times of uncertainty. The researchers at Jagiellonian University, led by Małgorzata Kossowska, suggest their findings have interesting implications for understanding political orientations and prejudices. The world feels especially unpredictable right now. Are we all, whatever our politics, clinging to our rocks more strongly than ever?
Our political leanings to the right or left reveal a fundamental aspect of our psyche: how much we’re drawn to stability and security versus change and uncertainty. This manifests in our attitudes and personality traits. For instance, on average, conservatives tend to prefer established hierarchy and are more conscientious. Liberals favour equality and are more open to new experiences. Now in the journal Political Psychology a group led by Aleksandra Cichocka at the University of Kent has extended this line of work by showing the link between political orientation and desire for certainty is reflected at even the most basic of levels: how much we like to use nouns.
Across two initial studies, featuring Polish-speaking survey participants in Poland and Arabic-speaking participants in the Lebanon, the research showed that people with more socially conservative leanings tended to favour nouns over adjectives. For instance, participants with a conservative orientation were more likely to say they’d choose to end the sentence “Magda had no doubts about the success of her business. Magda …” with the noun phrase “is an optimist” than with the adjective phrase “is optimistic”.
This fits with the established link between having a conservative orientation and desiring stability because using a noun to describe someone implies more certainty and permanence about their state of being (past research has shown that even five-year-olds infer more permanence from noun descriptions than adjectival descriptions). Indeed, in the new surveys, the link between conservatism and noun preference seemed to be explained by participants’ relative “need for structure” with high scorers on this measure expressing a dislike of ambiguity.
Cichocka and her colleagues, including John Jost at New York University who is responsible for much of the research in this field, also analysed 101 key speeches delivered by 13 US Presidents, from Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address through to Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2014. They found speeches by Republican presidents featured a greater proportion of nouns compared with their Democrat counterparts.
Overall, the researchers said their results “are compatible with previous work suggesting that language reflects, among other things, the individual’s goals and motives, including his or her political goals.”
It feels like this year there has been a big increase in people’s tendency to make a show of their political allegiance, to believe passionately in the superiority of their chosen group’s position, and to be ultra-vigilant to any potential incoming slight or insult toward the group. This kind of behaviour shows signs of “collective narcissism”, which like individual narcissism, is characterised by outward confidence compensating for deep-rooted insecurity.
Collective narcissists say they believe that their group is special and superior, yet when asked what others think of their group, or when tested on implicit measures, such as how quickly they associate in-group symbols with positive words, there is evidence of collective doubt. Worryingly, a series of new studies in the European Journal of Personality shows how collective narcissism can foster inter-group conflict. The results suggest it is important that responsible politicians and journalists do what they can to prevent rather than encourage this dangerous group mentality.
By Alex Fradera
“How did our politics get so poisonous? We drank too much of the poison. There’s a gentle high to the condemnation. And you know you’re right, right? You know you’re right.” Steven Colbert
Wrapping up his coverage of the US election, Colbert touched on something that may hold true even beyond partisan politics: most of us seem to think we’re more moral than other people. Now a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science has provided fresh evidence supporting Colbert’s observation. Our tendency to see ourselves as better than average – already well-established in psychology in relation to things like driving ability and attractiveness – applies to our sense of our own morality, more strongly than it does to other aspects of ourselves. And the new research shows just how irrational this really is.
Today the American people are voting to choose between two of the most unpopular Presidential candidates in history. Commentators have speculated that part of the reason for the candidates’ unpopularity is their personality profiles. Clinton and Trump would seem to agree – both have repeatedly attacked each other’s characters and temperaments. But what exactly are their personality profiles, as judged as objectively as possible by personality psychologists?
For a paper published online at Personality and Individual Differences – and spotted by psychology writer Rolf Degan – 10 experts in the HEXACO method of measuring personality (7 men, 3 women, all avid followers of the election) completed a 100-item profile of each candidate. Distilling the findings, Beth Visser and her colleagues conclude that voters effectively have a choice between a bold and narcissistic, antisocial leader willing to make dramatic changes, and a Machiavellian but highly conscientious leader with a steady hand – Trump or Clinton. “Ultimately, this is a decision that voters, and not academics, will have to decide,” they write. Continue reading “Clinton’s and Trump’s personality profiles, according to psychologists”
By Alex Fradera
The Great Depression gives us a vivid picture of a time when economic hardship rekindled a sense of the collective. Politics took on a greater obligation to common welfare, new workers’ institutions sprang up, and society developed through charitable movements and new habits. More broadly, we know that as societies grow richer, they tend to focus on the individual more than on the community. These trends are fed by political decisions, institutions, and indeed new generations born into the times, but is there also a psychological component to this, operating at the level of individuals? New research in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Emily Bianchi at Emory University suggests the answer is yes – subtle fluctuations in American national economic health, too brief for society to change wholesale, nonetheless push each one of us between We and Me. Continue reading “In it together: How we become less individualistic during harsh economic times”
By Alex Fradera
What makes us stand up and advocate for what we believe? Whether denouncing the tyranny of taxation or making a plea for the necessity of universal health care, we’re surely driven by our conviction and the urgency of the situation. But how about what we believe about belief itself, whether it is fixed or malleable? Work in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology untangles the previously invisible effect of our belief in human certainty. Continue reading “What are the implications of believing it’s impossible to alter other people’s beliefs?”
It’s becoming easier than ever to research the genetic roots of different ethnic groups and these findings can be framed differently to either emphasise that groups are similar or different. For example, a BBC headline from 2000 stated “Jews and Arabs are ‘genetic brothers’” while a 2013 Medical Daily headline claimed “Genes of most Ashkenazi Jews trace back to indigenous Europe, not Middle East“. As political leaders have started citing this kind of evidence to promote their particular agenda, be that to unite or divide peoples, a new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has investigated whether genetic information could be a tool for promoting peace or a weapon to stir conflict.
Sasha Kimel and her colleagues began by asking 123 Jewish and 57 Arab participants in the US to read either the BBC “genetic siblings” article from 2000 or an adapted “genetic strangers” version which reversed the findings to suggest that Arabs and Jews are genetically very dissimilar. The participants had no idea that they’d been recruited based on their ethnicity, and to further disguise the aims of the research they were told that they would be tested on their memory of the article after completing a series of distracting psychological tests. In reality, some of these tests were used to reveal any effects of the articles on the participants’ attitudes and this included a measure of their views of a typical Arab- or Jewish-American and a test of their implicit (subconscious) attitudes towards Arabs and Jews.
As the researchers expected, Jews and Arabs rated each other more positively after reading about their genetic similarities compared with reading about their differences, although there were no effects on implicit attitudes.
A second study was similar but involved Jewish participants only, and this time the researchers showed that reading about genetic similarities between Jews and Arabs led the participants to display less aggression towards an Arab opponent called Mohammed in a reaction time contest. That is, on winning trials, the Jewish participants had the chance to blast their Arab opponent with white noise, and those participants who’d read about genetic similarities chose weaker noise blasts than those who’d read about genetic differences.
A third study with more Jewish participants was also similar but added a third baseline neutral condition in which participants read an article that had nothing to do with genetics or ethnic groups. This time the main outcome measure was support for Israeli peacekeeping. These results suggested that the “genetics strangers” article wasn’t having much influence on participants compared with the neutral condition, but that the “genetic siblings” article was boosting support for peacekeeping via its effect of improving attitudes towards Arabs.
Based on these initial results the researchers said that they “encourage interventions that create greater awareness of the considerable amount of genetic overlap that exists between all of the world’s ethnic and racial groups”.
But would these benefits translate to Israel, a nation that lives with ongoing interethnic conflict? The fourth and arguably most important study tested the effects of the same three news articles (“genetic siblings”, “genetic strangers” and a neutral story) translated into Hebrew and adapted so they appeared to have been published in the Israeli newspaper Ynet. The researchers recruited nearly 200 Jewish Israeli’s on commuter trains in North and South Israel and had them read one of these three stories before completing tests of their attitudes towards Palestinians and their support for different policies. The worrying finding this time was that the “genetic siblings” article appeared to have no benefit, but that the “genetic strangers” article reduced support for peaceful policies via increasing antipathy towards Palestinians.
Based on their last study, the researchers warned that “…learning about how you are genetically different from an enemy group may have a particularly menacing effect in the contexts of war”. They added: “Based on our findings, we suggest that crisis-monitoring organisations (e.g. International Crisis Group, Genocide Watch) go on heightened alert when conflict-rhetoric begins emphasising genetic differences.”
Kimel, S., Huesmann, R., Kunst, J., & Halperin, E. (2016). Living in a Genetic World: How Learning About Interethnic Genetic Similarities and Differences Affects Peace and Conflict Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42 (5), 688-700 DOI: 10.1177/0146167216642196
Could lessons in genetic variation help reduce racial prejudice?
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It often feels as though political liberals and conservatives are from different planets – whatever the issue, they come at it from a completely different angle. A new study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology confirms this impression, finding that liberals and conservatives even take a different approach when confronted with non-political word puzzles.
Carola Salvi and her colleagues at Northwestern University asked 22 liberal and 22 conservative students to try to solve several examples of the Remote Associates Task – this simply involves looking at word triplets (e.g. pine/crab/sauce) and identifying the one word that goes with each of them (in this case APPLE). After each problem, the students stated whether they’d arrived at the solution through insight (suddenly realising the answer without knowing how) or analysis (thinking through the problem logically).
The liberal participants solved more problems by insight (29 per cent) than by analysis (15 per cent) whereas there was no statistically significant difference in the proportion of problems that the conservatives solved by insight or analysis (21 per cent by insight vs. 17.9 per cent by analysis). Moreover, the liberals solved more problems by insight than the conservatives did.
“Our study provides novel evidence that political orientation is associated with problem-solving strategy,” the researchers said. “A better understanding of differences in cognitive strategies between individuals holding different social/political orientations may benefit efforts to help them reconcile differences in dealing with social concerns,” they concluded, perhaps a little optimistically.
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