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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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]