Science Asks: Who’s More Pig-Headed, Dems or Republicans?

Duke researchers look at how liberals and conservatives rationalize their inflexible behavior

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Karen BLEIER / AFP/Getty Images

The symbols of the Democratic (donkey) and Republican (elephant) parties are seen on display in Washington, DC on August 25, 2008.

Forget the ancient Greeks’ advice.  In this political climate, it’s more like “nothing in moderation, everything in excess.”

Frank Bruni’s column in Monday’s New York Times highlights some of the cable-TV hyperbole that seems to plague our political discussions these days by asking whether all the Nazi metaphors and lynching references have in fact pulled the right and the left further apart, making compromise impossible.

“When nuance and perspective exit the language, do they exit the conversation as well?” he wrote.  “When you speak in ludicrous extremes, do you think that way, too?

According to science, yes.

If the government shutdown didn’t convince you that extremism is on the rise and that it’s reducing lawmaker’s ability to compromise (or even rationally evaluate the facts,) here’s some cold, hard, data to back it up. A new study by Duke researchers shows that liberals and conservatives have equal amounts of something called “belief superiority” when it comes to political issues.

Belief superiority is the idea that your views are more “right” or true than someone else’s.  “I am good, and therefore everything I think is right,'” explains Dr. Kaitlin E. Toner, one of the study co-authors. “You want to think of yourself in a positive way, and you come up with thoughts and behaviors to rationalize that image.”

The data shows that  belief superiority is strongly correlated to extremist views, and it’s evenly distributed on both sides of the political aisle. “That was not something we necessarily expected to find,” Toner said. And this superiority isn’t just about politics.  It can be applied to everything from Coke to Pepsi.  It’s not just that you know you prefer one type of soda or another, you’re convinced that you’re objective about it. “People who have extreme views about their soda also think their view of soda is superior to everyone else’s,” Toner says.   And that’s a tough attitude to challenge, no matter the facts.

While both extremes were guilty of belief superior, the Duke findings also reinforced the “rigidity of the right” theory, says Toner, a common notion that conservatives are more likely to be set in their ways.  “The more conservative the attitudes were, the more dogmatic they are,” she says.

If you’ve ever watched five minutes of cable news, this is about as shocking as Lance Bass coming out of the closet.

What about moderates? There’s no scientific reason that moderates wouldn’t also be utterly convinced of their own positions.   After all,  Benjamin Franklin famously called himself an “extreme moderate.” And the researchers confirmed that being a moderate isn’t just an in-between position between liberal and conservative, it’s actually a political attitude in itself.    But in this study, moderates showed lower levels of belief superiority.  And this might make it less likely that they’ll stand up to either side of a contentious debate.

“When you’re in the middle, you’re sort of seeing both ends,” said Dr. Mark Leary, another researcher on the study. “You’re a little more constrained in your confidence because you have a balanced view that has a lot more pros and cons in it, and a lot more grey area, and so you realize deep down that there’s a lot more uncertainty.”

The study, which was conducted during the 2012 election, reflected the top issues of that period. For example, liberals had more belief superiority about welfare, torture policy, and the role of religion in government, while conservatives felt more “right” in their beliefs about tax rates, affirmative action, and voter ID laws. “I assume that it has to do with which topics were talked about more on liberal or conservative media,” Toner said.

Surprisingly, neither liberals nor conservatives had extreme belief superiority about abortion or gun control, two hot-button issues.

Although the researchers did not study Congressmen, Toner says she thinks the findings can help us understand the political impasse that led to the government shutdown. “Once people get into a position that they’re feeling superior about, it makes them unable to compromise,” she said. “Because if you believe you’re totally right, then why should you yield on anything?”

Good luck with that stalemate.

[Journal of Psychological Science]

5 comments
drudown
drudown

Unless this "scientific study" incorporated "how campaign contributions from Big Business unduly influence" BOTH parties' decisions...never mind. "Studies" like these are proffered to explain away the aforementioned variable. 

MrObvious
MrObvious

YES! BOTH DO IT!

Okay here's a hint.

When I tell my kids no it's because of a reason. One that either benefits them in the long run, keeps the common sense rules intact or otherwise is for a reason. Sure, there are adults that says no for no other reasons then saying no (like GOP, but I digress).

My kids are stubborn too, but they usually use emotional and fallacy arguments. And if I'm wrong I admit it. It's called leading by example.

Both shows examples of stubbornness. But you know - in most cases only one can be right. Unlike in the world of Media where there's always two sides to a story.

But there's a reason why logic only recognize yes or no and our digital and electronic world, on or off. In a rare few cases do we ever need maybe but it is the goto position of a lazy mind.

MementoMori
MementoMori

"If you’ve ever watched five minutes of cable news, this is about as shocking as Lance Bass coming out of the closet."

Gee, I wonder why cable news is packed with juvenile sensationalism?

Maybe it has something to do with making adolescent gay jokes and wrecking what little credibility you have left by putting false equivalencies above the truth?

Next time - before you complain about the polarized nature of the American discourse - clean your own damn house first.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"For example, liberals had more belief superiority about welfare, torture policy, and the role of religion in government, while conservatives felt more “right” in their beliefs about tax rates, affirmative action, and voter ID laws."

Well isn't that special. Don't tell me, let me guess: liberals had "belief superiority" that welfare was a moral good, torture was a moral evil and that no particular religion had a place in government, and "conservatives" believed in low taxes regardless of what tax levels were appropriate, no leveling of the playing field for minorities and women and that voters should present a driver's license regardless of whether their was any particular need. Meanwhile, moderates (like Belway media hacks) couldn't decide on a position one way or the other and, instead, put a pox on both their houses for taking one, right or wrong. Ain't being "pig-headed" "moderation" social science grand?

http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/


 

jmac
jmac

“Once people get into a position that they’re feeling superior about, it makes them unable to compromise,” she said. “Because if you believe you’re totally right, then why should you yield on anything?”

What a pile of bunk.   Republicans will lose their jobs if they don't cow tow to the extremists that they created in their party.  Even senators.   Just ask the very conservative Utahan that Mike Lee took out.  It's not about feeling superior, it's about Congressmen and Senators wanting to keep a pay check - as they destroy other citizens ability to get a pay check. 

It's about the money.