A critical literature review of political ignorance among the public. This section briefly (though not exhaustively) shows how political knowledge affects political preferences and, therefore, potential policy outcomes.
The Stuff I Said
Somin writes, “Ignorance of the structure of government suggests that voters often not only cannot choose between specific competing policy programs but also cannot easily assign credit and blame for policy outcomes to the right officeholders.” As discussed earlier, Lupia is skeptical of the common measurements of political knowledge, arguing that the ability to recall particulars on a survey is not necessary to achieve “high-value social outcomes.” However, this is an empirical question. The summary of Caplan’s work in a previous section has already shown that economic information and education changes one’s views about economic issues. Summarizing the work of Martin Gilens and Scott Althaus, Brennan demonstrates that political knowledge influences policy preferences. As noted above, high-income is strongly correlated with high degrees of political knowledge. Compared to wealthier Democrats, low-income Democrats “more strongly approved of invading Iraq in 2003. They more strongly favored the Patriot Act, invasions of civil liberty torture, protectionism, and restricting abortion rights and access to birth control. They are less tolerant of homosexuals and more opposed to gay rights.” When demographic factors like race, income, and gender are controlled for, high-information voters “favor overall less government intervention and control of the economy…They are more in favor of free trade and less in favor of protectionism. They are more pro-choice. They favor using tax increases to offset the deficit and debt. They favor less punitive and harsh measures on crime, and are less hawkish on military policy, although they favor other forms of intervention. They are more accepting of affirmative action. They are less supportive of prayer in public schools. They are more supportive of market solutions to health care problems. They are less moralistic in law; they don’t want government to impose morality on the population.”
Relying on a 2017 survey, Oxford economist Max Roser finds “a connection between our perception of the past and our hope for the future.” The numbers suggest “that the degree of optimism about the future differs hugely by the level of people’s knowledge about global development. Those that were most pessimistic about the future tended to have the least basic knowledge on how the world has changed.”
At first blush, this may seem unrelated to policy. However, recent evidence suggests that declinism—a negative view of the state and evolution of society—and nostalgia for a supposedly better past are predictive of populist support.
Even though the data suggest more knowledgeable citizens are more likely to vote, there is also evidence that “more knowledgeable citizens are far more likely to falsely report voting than less knowledgeable ones…People who are knowledgeable and interested in politics but still choose not to vote are more likely to feel guilty for doing so, and therefore less willing to admit their nonvoting to the pollsters. As a result, the voting population is probably significantly closer in knowledge level to the general public than might be supposed.”
While all policy decisions ultimately rely on value judgments (which go beyond the blunt empirics), the evidence in this section suggests that degrees of political knowledge do influence policy preferences. If one is concerned about policy outcomes, one should also be concerned about voter knowledge.
A critical literature review of political ignorance among the public. This section summarizes the scholarly explanations for the lack of political knowledge among the average citizen.
The Stuff I Said
Though political ignorance is rampant among American citizens, scholars are quick to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity. Despite rising educational attainment and IQ scores, political knowledge among the general public has remained largely stagnant since the 1930s. In fact, Somin determines (in agreement with previous economic theories of democracy) that most political ignorance is rational. Political knowledge is costly in time and effort with little payoff in terms of political influence. At best, an American voter has a 1-in-10 million chance of changing the outcome of a presidential election. This optimistic number occurs only within a few swing states and only if the voter votes for one of the candidates in the two major parties. On average, however, the chance is 1-in-60 million. Numbers improve when it comes to U.S. Congressional elections (1-in-89,000) and state legislator elections (1-in-15,000), but the probability of changing the outcome still remains insanely low. Brennan argues that, from a strictly mathematical standpoint, the disutility of merely driving to the polls (i.e., the probability and cost of getting into an auto accident) is higher than the utility of the vote cast upon arrival. Given these hard data, political ignorance appears to be a rational trade-off. As Somin puts it, “Even a 100 percent altruistic person—someone who always chooses to prioritize the welfare of others over his own whenever the two conflict—would not rationally devote much of his time to acquiring political information for the sake of casting an informed vote. No matter how great the benefits to others of a “correct” electoral outcome, the altruist’s ballot has almost no chance of bringing it about; in a large electorate the change that his vote will be decisive is vanishingly small.”
Caplan’s explanation for voter ignorance extends beyond rational ignorance to what he calls rational irrationality: “Since delusional political beliefs are free, the voter consumes until he reaches his “satiation point,” believing whatever makes him feel best. When a person puts on his voting hat, he does not have to give up practical efficacy in exchange for self-image, because he has no practical efficacy to give up in the first place.” Not only does the acquisition of political knowledge provide a low return on investment, but irrationality can provide self-satisfaction at virtually no cost. This makes the choice to be seemingly irrational when it comes to politics understandable and arguably—if paradoxically—rational.
Caplan elsewhere provides another likely explanation for voter ignorance: poor information retention. Drawing on literature in educational psychology, Caplan finds the “transfer of learning” in our educational systems to be less than impressive. Most students are unable to retain or apply their newfound methodological reasoning outside of the classroom and can usually only do so within the classroom after being instructed to apply a particular principle to their problem-solving. “Telling subjects to use a principle is not transfer,” says psychologist Douglas Detterman. “It is following instructions.” This insight complements the rational ignorance theory by demonstrating the difficult and costly nature of true education. This lack of transfer in learning shows up in various surveys of American adults who typically received public K-12 education:
The American Revolution Center tested 1,001 adult Americans’ knowledge of the American Revolution. Eighty-three percent earned failing grades. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute tested over 2,500 adult Americans’ knowledge of American government and American history. Seventy-one percent earned failing grades. Newsweek magazine gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. Citizenship Test. Thirty-eight percent scored too low to become citizens of their own country. On the 2000 American National Election Study, the typical person got 48% of the factual questions right; you would expect 28% by guessing…How many American adults know the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution? The American Revolution Center reports a dismal 57%, but the truth is far worse. Since there were only four response options, you would expect roughly 25% of the ignorant to guess the right answer by chance…Not knowing the three branches of government isn’t like not knowing Hamlet; it’s like not knowing the letter “h.” If you don’t know that the Civil War came after the Declaration of Independence, you don’t understand American history. If you don’t know which parties control the House and the Senate, you don’t understand American politics.
Ian Anson of the University of Maryland introduces a more disturbing angle on the persistence of voter ignorance. In a 2018 study, Anson points to what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: “[a] widely cited phenomenon in social psychology [that] holds that individuals with low levels of competence will judge themselves to be more competent than they really are, while those with high levels of competence will underestimate their excellence.” This overestimation of one’s abilities and/or knowledge “affect[s] the ability of low achievers to overcome their incompetence because they are unaware that they lag behind others until their objective performance is measured and reported to them.” After surveying two groups (a total of 2,606 American adults) on political knowledge, Anson had participants evaluate their performance after priming them with partisan cues. The results showed that the worst performers (i.e., the most politically ignorant) were more likely to overestimate their performance. What’s worse, this overconfidence was exacerbated by partisanship. “This result is normatively worrying from the perspective of citizens’ ability to self-correct,” writes Anson, “as it may be that rationally ignorant Americans are especially confident that they are better informed than many of their (partisan) peers. The rationally ignorant fail to overcome their ignorance not just because they face steep costs and lack incentives to improve, but because they are unaware that they are relatively ignorant. They become increasingly hardened to the possibility that they are uninformed when partisan identities are activated, a commonplace feature of most contemporary political discussion.” Anson’s findings are bolstered by a recent study, which found that (1) “people choose to hear from those who are politically like-minded on topics that have nothing to do with politics…in preference to those with greater expertise on the topic but have different political views,” (2) “all else being equal, people are more influenced by politically like-minded others on nonpolitical issues,” and (3) “people are biased to believe that others who share their political opinions are better at tasks that have nothing to do with politics, even when they have all information they need to make an accurate assessment about who is the expert in the room.” This partisan selection process lowers the quality of the obtained information, further inflaming voter tendency toward ignorance and misinformation. Most scholars adhere to a theory of rational ignorance among voters: due to the poor incentives provided by a democratic system, most citizens determine that the costs of political knowledge (including the difficulty of making it stick) outweigh its benefits. Furthermore, the poorly informed suffer from “the double burden of incompetence” due to ignorance of their own ignorance, making change unlikely.
Although scholars generally agree on the timing of of the first few critical elections/realignments, consensus breaks down on the timing of the 6th and 7th party systems. Do you think the 6th party system began in 1968, 1980, or sometime later? What about the 7th party system? Please think critically and resist giving the answer you hope to be true.
The Stuff I Said
Political psychologist Lilliana Mason argues that over the last 50 years or so, parties have become “more homogeneous in ideology, race, class, geography, and religion,” causing “partisans on both sides [to feel] increasingly connected to the groups that [divide] them” (pg. 40). In other words, political partisanship has become associated with other forms of social identity and therefore has itself become an identity. For example, “party identity is strongly predicted by racial identity, not racial-policy positions (Mangum 2013). The parties have grown so divided by race that simple racial identity, without policy content, is enough to predict party identity. The policy division that began the process of racial sorting is no longer necessary for Democrats and Republicans to be divided by race. Their partisan identities have become firmly aligned with their racial identities, and decoupled from their racial-policy positions” (pg. 33, italics mine). It is this fusion of social and political identity that leads me to lean in favor of those scholars that identify the 1980s with the emergence of the 6th party system. I lean this way largely due to the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s (I’d add the rise of “neoliberal” ideology associated with Reagan and Thatcher and solidified by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ending of the Cold War). While Jimmy Carter was popular among religious conservatives, many of his policy stances alienated these same voters, paving the way for Reagan and the Republican identification with conservative Christians. By 1992, the religious divide between Democrats and Republicans had, in Mason’s words, “cracked open…The difference between the parties on the percentage of weekly churchgoers had increased to an 11 percentage point gap, with Republicans more churchgoing than Democrats. Connected to this new divide, Democrats in 1992 were only 2 percent more Catholic than Republicans. Twenty years earlier the difference had been 13 percentage points. The conservative religious were moving toward the Republican Party” (pg. 36). By 2012, “parties differed by 14 percentage points in how many attend religious services each week” (pg. 37).
I’m unsure if a firm 7th political system has arisen. However, I think we’re beginning to see the crumbling of the 6th party system. The identity politics mentioned above will likely increase in the era of globalization and social media. The election of Trump may be the first inklings of an identity politics party system, along with the recent uptick in student activism and fragility on college campuses. What’s worse, having more extreme political views actually increases one’s happiness. From a recent study:
Results show that congruence of political affiliations of national politicians, especially the president, with individual party affiliation has an effect on reported happiness while there is no effect of state, gubernatorial or legislative, party congruence. Individuals report being happier when the president is a member of their own party. Throughout all specifications, republicans and those holding conservative political values report higher happiness. Shockingly, regardless of liberal or conservative political values, those who hold extreme political values report higher levels of happiness. The large effect of partisanship and extreme views on reported happiness support the view that partisanship is a result of social identity and provides a psychological need for certainty and structure (pg. 10).
Economist Arthur Brooks, current president of the American Enterprise Institute, made this point years ago in his book Gross National Happiness:
Americans who describe themselves as holding extreme political views–somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population–are among the happiest people in America. All of those angry protesters who denounce Dick Cheney as a murderer; all of the professional political pundits who use the rhetoric of rage and misery to get on cable television–it turns out they’re not miserable at all. On the contrary, they’re enjoying themselves rather a lot.
In 2004, 35 percent of people who said they were extremely liberal were very happy (versus 22 percent of people who were just liberal). At the same time, a whopping 48 percent of people who were extremely conservative gave this response (compared with 43 percent of nonextreme conservatives). Indeed, the gusto with which Bill Clinton’s attackers in 1998 went after him was really a clue that they were having a grand old time. George W. Bush’s harshest critics–those who have felt the predations of the Bush administration to the very depths of their soul–are quite likely to be a great deal happier than more moderate liberals.
Why are ideologues so happy? The most plausible reason is religion–not real religion, but rather, a secular substitute in which they believe with perfect certainty in the correctness of their political dogmas. People want to hold the truth; questioning is uncomfortable. It is easy to live by the creed that our nation’s ills are because of George W. Bush; it is much harder to acknowledge that no administration is perfect–or perfectly awful. True political believers are martyrs after a fashion willing to shout slogans in public for causes they are sure are good, or against causes they are convinced are evil. They are happy because–unlike you, probably–they are positive they are right. No data could change their minds (pgs. 33-34).
In other words, being a political hooligan feels really good, which makes change unlikely once you’ve discovered the One True Party. Unfortunately, as Brooks points out,
the happiness of political extremists is an unhappy fact for America. They may themselves be happy, but they make others unhappy–that is, they actually lower our gross national happiness. In many cases, extremists actually intend to upset people–it is part of their strategy…Extremists are happy to stir up their own ranks, but they are even happier when they cause misery for their political opponents. For people on the far left and right, people who do not share their views are not just mistaken, but bad people, who are also stupid and selfish. They deserve to be unhappy…Extremists thrive on dehumanizing their opponents (pgs. 34-35).
After listening to [Benjamin] Ginsberg‘s lecture, do you agree with his assessment that politics is all about interests and power?
The Stuff I Said
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s recent book The Elephant in the Brain demonstrates that these underlying desires for power and status inform many of our decisions and behaviors in everyday life. Politicians certainly do not transcend these selfish motives by virtue of their office. I would actually add a subcategory to “status”: moral grandstanding. We want to paint ourselves as “good people” by signaling to others our superior moral quality. This allows us to enjoy the social capital that comes along with the improved reputation. We not only gain status, but we can also think of ourselves as do-gooders; crusaders who fight the good fight. Unsurprisingly, evidence suggests that we have inflatedviews of our own moral character and that acts of moral outrage are largely self-serving. What’s unfortunate is that social media may be exacerbating moral outrage by making signaling both easier and less costly to the individual.
I think the rise of populism in both America and Europe is a timely example of interests at play. While various elements contribute to the populist mindset, economic insecurity is the water it swims in. And this insecurity has been exploited by politicians of more extreme ideologies across multiple countries. For example, the Great Recession eroded European trust in mainstream political parties: a one percentage point increase in unemployment was associated with a 2 to 4 percentage point increase in the populist vote. A 2016 study looked at the political results of financial crises in Europe from 1870 to 2014 and found that far-right parties were the typical outcome. In America, President Trump made “Make America Great Again” his rallying cry, feeding off the public’s distrust of “the Establishment” during the post-crisis years. In doing so, he advocated protectionism and tighter borders. Oddly enough, you find comparable populist sentiments on the Left: Bernie Sanders has been very anti-trade and iffy on liberalized immigration (open borders is “a Koch Brothers proposal“), all in the name of helping the American worker. One of his former campaign organizers–the newly-elected Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez–has also expressed similar concerns over trade deals (especially NAFTA). This is why The Economist sees less of a left/right divide today and more of an open/close divide. Skepticism of trade and immigration wrapped in “power to the people” sentiments may be invigorating in rhetoric, but it’s asinine in practice. And it’s doing nothing more than riding the wave of voter anxiety. What’s worse, it’s hiding these politicians’ accumulation of power, attainment of status, and moral self-aggrandizement behind what Ginsberg so aptly calls “the veneer of public spiritedness.”
A classmate asked if I believed that politicians always acted in self-interest or if there were moral lines that some would not cross. In response, I pointed out that Simler and Hanson are largely arguing against what they see as the tendency for people to tiptoe around hidden motives and self-deception. It’s not that we’re only motivated by selfish motives. We just tend to gloss over them. But they are deeply embedded. Failing to acknowledge them not only has personal consequences, but public ones as well (their chapter on medicine is especially on point). I think we should consider moral motivations through all possible means available, including life experience and behavior. However, I think a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary. It can certainly help protect us against intentional deception. But perhaps more importantly, it helps protect us against unintentional deception. It’s easy to give more weight to life experience, moral principles, and the like when it’s a politician on “our side,” all while harshly judging those on “the other side” as unscrupulous. Political skepticism or cynicism can aid in keeping our own selfish motives and emotional highs in check. And it can lead us to seek out more information, improve our understanding, and refine our beliefs. Otherwise, we end up being consumed by our own good intentions and moral principles without actually learning how to implement these principles.
My classmate also put forth a hypothetical to get a feel for my position: if legislative districts were redrawn so that legislators now represented districts with a different ideological makeup, how many would change their positions on issues just to stay in power? Personally, I think we would see a fair number of politicians shift their position because it is more advantageous. However, there is considerable evidence that political deliberation with ideological opposites actually backfires. Political philosopher Jason Brennan reviews the evidence in chapter 3 of his book Against Democracyand finds that political deliberation:
Exacerbates conflict when groups are different sizes
Avoids debates about facts and is instead driven by status-seeking and positions of influence
Uses language in biased and manipulative ways, usually by painting the opposition as intrinsically bad
Avoids controversial topics and sticks to safe subjects
Amplifies intellectual biases
There’s more, but that should make my point. So even if some politicians did not flip flop in their newly-drawn districts, the above list should give us pause before we conclude that their doubling down is proof of disinterest in status or moral grandstanding.
I certainly believe that people have moral limits and lines they will not cross. My skepticism (which I prefer to the word cynicism, but I’m fine with interchanging them) is largely about honest self-examination and the examination of others. For example, consider something that is generally of no consequence: Facebook status updates. My Facebook feed is often full of political rants, social commentaries, and cultural critiques. Why do we do that? Why post a political tract as a status? It can’t be because of utility. A single Facebook status isn’t going to fix Washington or shift the course of society. It’s unlikely to persuade the unsaved among your Facebook friends. In fact, it’s probably counterproductive given our tendency for motivated reasoning. When we finally rid ourselves of the high-minded rationales that make next to zero sense, we find that it boils down to signaling: we are signaling our tribe. And that feels good. We get “Likes.” We get our worldview confirmed by others. We gain more social capital as a member of the group. We even get to moral grandstand in the face of that friend or two who hold (obviously) wrong, immoral beliefs. Sure, some of it may be about moral conviction and taking a stand. That certainly sounds and feels better. But I think we will all be better off if we realize that’s really what those behaviors are about: sounding and feeling good. And I think our politics will be better off if we apply a similar lens to it.
And More Stuff
A classmate drew on Dan Ariely’s work to argue that people–including politicians–have a “personal fudge factor“: most people will cheat a little bit without feeling they’ve compromised their sense that they are a “good person.” When people are reminded of moral values (in the case of the experiments, the honor code or 10 commandments), they don’t cheat, including atheists. So while politicians may compromise their values here and there, they still have a moral sense of self that they are unlikely to violate.
In response, I pointed out that a registered replication report last year was unable to reproduce Ariely’s results. That doesn’t mean his results were wrong, just that we need to be cautious in drawing any strong conclusions from them.
When discussing his priming with the 10 Commandments on pg. 635, Ariely references Shariff and Norenzayan’s well-known 2007 study. This found that people behave more prosocially (in this case, generosity in experimental economic games) when primed with religious concepts. They offered a couple explanations for this. One hypothesis suggested that “the religious prime aroused an imagined presence of supernatural watchers…Generosity in cooperative games has been shown to be sensitive to even minor changes that compromise anonymity and activate reputational concerns” (pg. 807). They then cite studies (which later studies confirm) that found people behaving more prosocially in the presence of eye images. “In sum,” the authors write, “we are suggesting that activation of God concepts, even outside of reflective awareness, matches the input conditions of an agency detector and, as a result, triggers this hyperactive tendency to infer the presence of an intentional watcher. This sense of being watched then activates reputational concerns, undermines the anonymity of the situation, and, as a result, curbs selfish behavior” (pg. 807-808). In short, religious priming makes us think someone upstairs is watching us. This has more to do with being seen as good.
However, religious priming obviously doesn’t work for the honor code portion. Yet, Shariff and Norenzayan’s other explanation is actually quite helpful in this regard: “the activation of perceptual conceptual representations increases the likelihood of goals, plans, and motor behavior consistent with those representations…Irrespective of any attempt to manage their reputations, subjects may have automatically behaved more generously when these concepts were activated, much as subjects are more likely to interrupt a conversation when the trait construct ‘‘rude’’ is primed, or much as university students walk more slowly when the ‘‘elderly’’ stereotype is activated (Bargh et al., 1996)” (pg. 807). Being primed with the “honorable student” stereotype, students were more likely to behave honorably (or honestly).
In short, Ariely’s study I think shows a mix of motivations when it comes to behaving morally: (1) maintaining our self-concept as a good person, (2) fear of being caught and having our reputation (and the benefits that come with along with it) damaged, and (3) our susceptibility to outside influence.
My point about moral grandstanding is not that we should interpret all behaviors by politicians through the lens of self-delusion and status seeking. But being aware of it can help us cut through a lot of nonsense and avoid being swept up in a collective self-congratulation. To quote Tosi and Warmke, “thinking about grandstanding is a cause for self-reflection, not a call to arms. An argument against grandstanding shouldn’t be used as a cudgel to attack people who say things we dislike. Rather, it’s an encouragement to reassess why and how we speak to one another about moral and political issues. Are we doing good with our moral talk? Or are we trying to convince others that we are good?” And as philosopher David Schmidtz is said to have quipped, if your main goal is to show that your heart is in the right place, then your heart is not in the right place.
Innovation is a must for both organizations and economies. At least, if one cares about the continued well-being of both. When it comes to creating an innovative organizational culture, several factors stand out. Gary P. Pisano at Harvard Business School lists some of the more popular ones:
Tolerance for failure: “Given that innovation involves the exploration of uncertain and unknown terrain, it is not surprising that a tolerance for failure is an important characteristic of innovative cultures. Some of the most highly touted innovators have had their share of failures.”
Willingness to experiment: “Organizations that embrace experimentation are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They do not pretend to know all the answers up front or to be able to analyze their way to insight. They experiment to learn rather than to produce an immediately marketable product or service.”
Psychological safety: “Psychological safety is an organizational climate in which individuals feel they can speak truthfully and openly about problems without fear of reprisal. Decades of research on this concept by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson indicate that psychologically safe environments not only help organizations avoid catastrophic errors but also support learning and innovation. For instance, when Edmondson, health care expert Richard Bohmer, and I conducted research on the adoption of a novel minimally invasive surgical technology by cardiac surgical teams, we found that teams with nurses who felt safe speaking up about problems mastered the new technology faster. If people are afraid to criticize, openly challenge superiors’ views, debate the ideas of others, and raise counterperspectives, innovation can be crushed.”
Collaboration: “Well-functioning innovation systems need information, input, and significant integration of effort from a diverse array of contributors. People who work in a collaborative culture view seeking help from colleagues as natural, regardless of whether providing such help is within their colleagues’ formal job descriptions. They have a sense of collective responsibility.”
Flat hierarchy: “In culturally flat organizations, people are given wide latitude to take actions, make decisions, and voice their opinions. Deference is granted on the basis of competence, not title. Culturally flat organizations can typically respond more quickly to rapidly changing circumstances because decision making is decentralized and closer to the sources of relevant information. They tend to generate a richer diversity of ideas than hierarchical ones, because they tap the knowledge, expertise, and perspectives of a broader community of contributors.”
Much of this is appealing to the liberal mind. It touches on a number of Western democratic values: tolerance, openness to new experience, equality. One might even see echoes of social justice activism: “come as you are,” safe spaces, communalism, anti-establishment. However, Pisano couples these elements with others that may seem rather old school:
Intolerance for Incompetence: “[Innovative organizations] set exceptionally high performance standards for their people. They recruit the best talent they can. Exploring risky ideas that ultimately fail is fine, but mediocre technical skills, sloppy thinking, bad work habits, and poor management are not. People who don’t meet expectations are either let go or moved into roles that better fit their abilities…The truth is that a tolerance for failure requires having extremely competent people. Attempts to create novel technological or business models are fraught with uncertainty. You often don’t know what you don’t know, and you have to learn as you go. “Failures” under these circumstances provide valuable lessons about paths forward. But failure can also result from poorly thought-out designs, flawed analyses, lack of transparency, and bad management.”
Highly Disciplined: “A willingness to experiment…does not mean working like some third-rate abstract painter who randomly throws paint at a canvas. Without discipline, almost anything can be justified as an experiment. Discipline-oriented cultures select experiments carefully on the basis of their potential learning value, and they design them rigorously to yield as much information as possible relative to the costs. They establish clear criteria at the outset for deciding whether to move forward with, modify, or kill an idea. And they face the facts generated by experiments. This may mean admitting that an initial hypothesis was wrong and that a project that once seemed promising must be killed or significantly redirected. Being more disciplined about killing losing projects makes it less risky to try new things.”
Brutal Candidness: “We all love the freedom to speak our minds without fear—we all want to be heard—but psychological safety is a two-way street. If it is safe for me to criticize your ideas, it must also be safe for you to criticize mine—whether you’re higher or lower in the organization than I am. Unvarnished candor is critical to innovation because it is the means by which ideas evolve and improve. Having observed or participated in numerous R&D project team meetings, project review sessions, and board of directors meetings, I can attest that comfort with candor varies dramatically. In some organizations, people are very comfortable confronting one another about their ideas, methods, and results. Criticism is sharp. People are expected to be able to defend their proposals with data or logic…When it comes to innovation, the candid organization will outperform the nice one every time. The latter confuses politeness and niceness with respect. There is nothing inconsistent about being frank and respectful. In fact, I would argue that providing and accepting frank criticism is one of the hallmarks of respect. Accepting a devastating critique of your idea is possible only if you respect the opinion of the person providing that feedback.”
Individual Accountability: “[T]oo often, collaboration gets confused with consensus. And consensus is poison for rapid decision making and navigating the complex problems associated with transformational innovation. Ultimately, someone has to make a decision and be accountable for it. An accountability culture is one where individuals are expected to make decisions and own the consequences…Accountability and collaboration can be complementary, and accountability can drive collaboration. Consider an organization where you personally will be held accountable for specific decisions. There is no hiding. You own the decisions you make, for better or worse. The last thing you would do is shut yourself off from feedback or from enlisting the cooperation and collaboration of people inside and outside the organization who can help you.”
Strong Leadership: “Lack of hierarchy…does not mean lack of leadership. Paradoxically, flat organizations require stronger leadership than hierarchical ones. Flat organizations often devolve into chaos when leadership fails to set clear strategic priorities and directions. Amazon and Google are very flat organizations in which decision making and accountability are pushed down and employees at all levels enjoy a high degree of autonomy to pursue innovative ideas. Yet both companies have incredibly strong and visionary leaders who communicate goals and articulate key principles about how their respective organizations should operate.”
I remember making a point to my therapist–who uses a lot of Brene Brown’s work–that authenticity can be easily warped. “You are enough” is absolutely true if we are talking about the inherent dignity of people. However, when it used as license for “take me as I am” and “I don’t have to change,” it becomes a moral cancer. The same can be said of concepts like empathy or mindfulness. Similarly, focusing on only a few select traits of an innovative culture can be undermine the very innovation they are meant to promote.
Transformation is a balancing act. And a hard one at that.
Earlier this year, political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe presented a paper at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, titled “Lethal Mass Partisanship.” With data from two different national surveys, they found that 24 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats believe that it is occasionally acceptable to send threatening messages to public officials. Fifteen percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats agree that the country would be better if large numbers of opposing partisans in the public today “just died,” which the authors call a “shockingly brutal sentiment.” Nine percent of both Democrats and Republicans agree that violence would be acceptable if their opponents won the 2020 presidential election.
So drives political violence? First and foremost, aggression:
By far the biggest predictor of lethal partisanship across the board was having aggressiveness as a personality trait. This isn’t surprising, of course—aggression and violence go hand in hand. But a deeper look at aggression reveals how it fits together with other traits and shapes human behavior. Aggression all by itself is not good or bad; any of us can become aggressive when we face a direct threat. But aggression can go too far when inner and outer restraints are absent.
In neurological studies, more aggressive people tend to show less activation of the default mode brain network, which is associated with empathy and emotion regulation, which in turn helps suppress aggressive impulses. As psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman notes in Scientific American, aggressive people are more likely to retaliate when treated unfairly by others, which is not necessarily a bad thing (“although they tend to care much less about whether others are treated unfairly”).
After aggressiveness, Mason and Kalmoe found that “partisan identity strength”—how much being Democrat or Republican is part of who they are—is the most important factor in endorsing violence.
There are many studies—mostly from political science and sociology—showing that more Americans are using their political party affiliation as a source of meaning and social identity, with these identities linked to differences in “leisure activities, consumption, aesthetic taste, and personal morality,” as Daniel DellaPosta and colleagues write in their 2015 paper, “Why Do Liberals Drinks Lattes?”
Worse, the Republican Party has become whiter in recent decades, while the Democratic Party has become more racially diverse—which could be intensifying party antagonism. A recent study of survey data by political scientist Diana Mutz found that nothing predicted support for Donald Trump more than a feeling of threatened status among white Christians—an insight ratified by several studies from Robb Willer at Stanford Universityand the Public Religion Research Institute.
…“All of the research to date was pointing in this direction,” adds Mason in an interview. “But we have a long tradition of treating partisanship like a largely benevolent force. It makes sense that as an identity grows stronger, and conflict intensifies, people will begin to approve of violence.”
Third, emotions like anger, contempt, and disgust:
While Mason and Kalmoe’s study gives us some sense of how common the tendency to accept political violence is—and some of the personality traits and belief structures that may be associated with it—a 2015 study points us in the direction of the emotions involved. In “The Role of Intergroup Emotions in Political Violence,” San Francisco State University researchers David Matsumoto and Hyisung C. Hwang and the University at Buffalo’s Mark G. Frank tried to figure out which emotions can drive violence by a group against an outgroup.
They examined the emotional tone of major political speeches that occurred prior to political events throughout history, looking at the emotions expressed in words, the judgments underlying the emotions, and the nonverbal expression of the emotions that could be seen in video form.
They also examined speeches made by “ideologically driven” leaders who despised opponent outgroups that resulted in violence, such as Hitler’s; and they studied those that did not, like Gandhi’s Salt March and pro-Tibet protests at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
They found that speeches which preceded violent events tended to express more anger, contempt, and disgust (ANCODI)—but not fear, happiness, sadness, or surprise. These negative emotions tended to target specific “outgroups”—Jews, in the case of Hitler’s speeches.
Fourth, moralizing language:
Earlier this year, a team of five researchers searched the popular social media platform Twitter for tweets about the Baltimore protests. They wanted to investigate “moralizing” tweets—that is, tweets that viewed the protests as a moral issue rather than as a political disagreement. A moralizing tweet might, for example, refer to people as “disgusting” or “evil” or “traitorous.”
In fact, they did find a positive association between the number of moral tweets and the occurrence of violent protests (gauged with arrest data). “The days in which there were violent protests, we saw that there was a lot more moral language being used,” says study co-author and University of Southern California Ph.D. student Joe Hoover. “Which was consistent with the idea that morality and violence in these contexts might be linked.”
The team also ran an experiment using another prominent protest marred by violence: the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Respondents were asked to what extent they thought protesting against the far-right demonstrators was a moral issue; they were then asked how acceptable it was to use violence against these far-right activists. What they found is that people were more likely to embrace violence the more they saw it as a moral issue.
In an additional experiment, the participants were given the same prompts, but they were told either that the majority of Americans agreed with their view of the protest, or that few Americans agreed with their view. They found that “moralization predicted violence only when participants perceived that they shared their moralized attitudes with others.”
In other words, when it comes to violence, there’s validation and safety in numbers. The researchers dubbed this phenomenon “moral convergence,” when many people come together around a strong idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. The “risk of violent protest, in other words, may not be simply a function of moralization, but also the perception that others agree with one’s moral position, which can strongly be influenced by social media dynamics,” they write.
Finally, group leadership:
There are many, many studies—starting with Stanley Milgram’s classic electric-shock experiments—which show that people are much more likely to inflict pain on others when an authority figure tells them to. When leaders engage in violent rhetoric, so do their followers; when they urge calm, people do calm down. Research has documented that words do have an impact on both beliefs and behaviors.
For example, a 2017 Polish study found “frequent and repetitive exposure to hate speech leads to desensitization to this form of verbal violence and subsequently to lower evaluations of the victims and greater distancing, thus increasing outgroup prejudice.” As part of the study, researchers surveyed participants on how frequently they encountered hate speech against refugees; they found that those who were more exposed to hateful words were more prejudiced against the group and more accepting of restrictive immigration policy.
Taken together, these studies suggest that our political leadership—everyone from pundits on cable news to the President of the United States—would do well to avoid promoting the political tribalism that leads people to strongly identify with one group and demonize the other.
In short, watch your aggression, avoid identity politics, keep your emotions in check, lay off the moral grandstanding, and quit putting so much stock into political leaders and pundits.
I’ve already provided the actual data on a single vote’s value (reminder: it’s virtually zilch). Despite this fact, plenty of people still vote. Why? The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has an insightful article on the emotions involved with voting:
Voting is an act of altruism. When you vote, you are taking your personal time and effort to advance the collective good, without any guarantee of personal reward—the very heart of what it means to be altruistic.
…In one study, Panagopoulos sent postcards to a subset of random voters before a special election in New York and before a gubernatorial election in New Jersey. The postcards contained either a message encouraging people to vote or a message thanking them for having voted in a recent election. Then, he compared voting percentages for those two groups to a control group who received no postcards.
His findings showed that voters receiving the gratitude postcard voted significantly more—two to three percentage points more—than those not receiving postcards.
…“Making people feel good by reinforcing the notion that society is grateful for their participation in the political process reminds people that they have a role to play and reinforces their willingness to be responsive,” says Panagopoulos.
…[I]n another experiment, he sent postcards thanking people for political participation, in general—without reference to past voting—while others received either the thanks for voting or the reminder postcards used in the other experiments.
In the Georgia primary election that followed, Panagopoulos found that people who received the generic thank-you postcard were more likely to vote—as much or more so than people being specifically thanked for voting, and much more than those who got the simple reminders. To Panagopoulos, this confirms the idea that gratitude was key.
…In one study, people who received information about their own voting behavior in the past seemed to increase their propensity to vote in an upcoming election. Another study found that people will vote more in an election when they see that people they are close to are voting, and that this behavior can spread through social networks.
These kinds of studies add to a body of research showing that our social relationships and emotions play a significant role in how we vote. For example, one study found that when people are told that they might be recognized for voting in a local newspaper or put on an honor roll of voters—to induce feelings of pride—they vote in higher numbers.
Alternatively, when people are warned that their name will be published in a local newspaper for not voting—to induce feelings of shame—this also increases voting. Shame seems to have even more impact than pride.
Altruism, gratitude, friendships, pride, and shame are just a few reasons people go to the polls.
Political institutions, ranging from autocratic regimes to inclusive, democratic ones, are widely acknowledged as a critical determinant of economic prosperity (e.g. Acemoglu and Robinson 2012, North, Wallis, and Weingast 2009). They create incentives that foster or inhibit economic growth. Yet, the emergence and global variation of growth-enhancing, inclusive political institutions in which people broadly participate in the governing process and the power of the elite is constrained, are not well understood. Initially, inclusive institutions were largely confined to the West. How and why did those institutions emerge in Europe?
This article contributes to the debate on the formation and global variation of inclusive institutions by combining and empirically testing two long-standing hypotheses. First, anthropologist Jack Goody (1983) hypothesized that, motivated by financial gains, the medieval Catholic Church implemented marriage policies—most prominently, prohibitions on cousin marriage—that destroyed the existing European clan-based kin networks. This created an almost unique European family system where, still today, the nuclear family dominates and marriage among blood relatives is virtually absent. This contrasts with many parts of the world, where first- and second-cousin marriages are common (Bittles and Black 2010). Second, several scholars have hypothesized that strong extended kin networks are detrimental to the formation of social cohesion and affect institutional outcomes (Weber, 1958; Todd, 1987; Augustine, 1998). Theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430) pointed out that marrying outside the kin group enlarges the range of social relations and “should thereby bind social life more effectively by involving a greater number of people in them” (Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 / 1998, p. 665). More recently, Greif (2005), Greif and Tabellini (2017), Mitterauer (2010), and Henrich (forthcoming) combined these two hypotheses and emphasized the critical role of the Church’s marriage prohibitions for Europe’s institutional development (pg. 2).
The analysis demonstrates that already before the year 1500 AD, Church exposure and its marriage regulations are predictive of the formation of communes—self-governed cities that put constraints on the executive. The difference-in-difference analysis does not reveal pre-trends and results are robust to many specifications. They hold within historic political entities addressing concerns that the relation is driven by other institutional factors and when exploiting quasi-natural experiments where Church exposure was determined by the random outcomes of medieval warfare. Moreover, exploiting regional and temporal variation in marriage regulations suggests that the dissolution of kin networks was decisive for the formation of communes.
The study also empirically establishes a robust link between Church exposure and dissolution of extended kin networks at the country, ethnicity and European regional level. A language-based proxy for cousin marriage—cousin terms—offers a window into the past and rules out that the dissolution was driven by more recent events like the Industrial Revolution or modernization. Moreover, the study reports a robust link between kin networks, civicness and inclusive institutions. The link between kin networks and civicness holds within countries and—getting closer to causality—among children of immigrants, who grew up in the same country but vary in their vertically transmitted preference for cousin marriage. Kin networks predict regional institutional failure within Italy, ethnicities’ local-level democratic traditions and modern-day democratic institutions at the country level. Measures for the strength of pre-industrial kin networks rule out contemporary reverse causality or the possibility that the estimates are driven by contemporary omitted variables. The analysis also demonstrates that the association between kin networks and the formation of inclusive institutions holds universally—both within Europe and when excluding Europe and countries with a large European ancestry. This universal link strengthens the hypothesis that the Church’s marriage regulations, and not some other Church-related factor, were decisive for European development.
Underlying these early institutional developments was most likely a psychology that, as a consequence of dissolved kin networks, reflects greater individualism and a more generalized, impartial morality (Schulz et al. 2018). This is a building block not only for inclusive institutions but also for economic development more generally. For example, transmission of knowledge across kin networks and the shift away from a collectivistic culture toward an individualistic one, a culture of growth, may have further contributed to Europe’s economic development (Mokyr, 2016; de la Croix, 2018).
…To build strong, functional, inclusive institutions and to foster democracy, the potentially deleterious effect of dense kin networks must be considered. Also, simply exporting established formal institutions to other societies without considering existing kin networks will likely fail. Policies that foster cooperation beyond the boundaries of one’s kin group, however, have a strong potential to successfully diminish the fractionalization of societies. These can be policies that encouraging marriages across kin groups. More generally, policies that foster interactions that go beyond the boundaries of in-groups such as family, close friends, social class, political affiliation or ethnicity are likely to increase social cohesion (pg. 41-42).
It’s a common assertion by some people that the rich are obviously awful people. Some psychology research (especially that of Paul Piff) seems to confirm that wealth makes us worse people. However, a new study casts doubt on some of these findings, demonstrating that the field of psychology is still having replication problems. “In contrast [to Piff’s work],” write the authors,
The authors “attempted to directly replicate Piff et al.’s Study 5 (2012),” which tested individuals’ willingness to lie in a negotiation task.
In an effort to increase experimental power, the present studies sought to increase sample size from 108 to 270 (i.e., 2.5 times larger), which is considered the current standard for replication protocols (Simonsohn, 2015). We collected two independent samples in an effort to provide more opportunity to replicate the original results (e.g., larger number of participants across samples helps mitigate issues associated with sampling error).
Some of our findings were consistent with those of Piff et al., such as the significant relations between attitudes toward greed and unethical behaviour (i.e., dishonesty) as well as between social class and greed (in sample 2 only), but we did not obtain any evidence of a positive association between social class and unethical behaviour in either sample. Further, we found inconclusive evidence for the mediation model proposed by Piff et al. across the two samples.
Perhaps the crucifixion of the rich isn’t the most empirically-based idea.
Previousresearch has found that the greater the gender equality, the greater the differences between genders. A brand new article in Science heaps on more evidence. Testing 80,000 individuals in 76 countries on preferences such as risk-taking, patience, altruism, positive and negative reciprocity, and trust, the authors found,
Gender differences were found to be strongly positively associated with economic development as well as gender equality. These relationships held for each preference separately as well as for a summary index of differences in all preferences jointly. Quantitatively, this summary index exhibited correlations of 0.67 (P < 0.0001) with log GDP per capita and 0.56 (P < 0.0001) with a Gender Equality Index (a joint measure of four indices of gender equality), respectively. To isolate the separate impacts of economic development and gender equality, we conducted a conditional analysis, finding a quantitatively large and statistically significant association between gender differences and log GDP per capita conditional on the Gender Equality Index, and vice versa. These findings remained robust in several validation tests, such as accounting for potential culture-specific survey response behavior, aggregation bias, and nonlinear relationships.
How do men and women differ?
On the global level, all six preferences featured significant gender differences (fig. S1): Women tended to be more prosocial and less negatively reciprocal than men, with differences in standard deviations of 0.106 for altruism (P < 0.0001), 0.064 for trust (P < 0.0001), 0.055 for positive reciprocity (P < 0.0001), and 0.129 for negative reciprocity (P < 0.0001). Turning to nonsocial preferences, women were less risk-taking by 0.168 standard deviations (P < 0.0001) and less patient by 0.050 standard deviations (P < 0.0001) (26).
The researchers conclude,
The reported evidence indicates that higher levels of economic development and gender equality are associated with stronger gender differentiation in preferences. These findings may also relate to other personality traits, such as the Big Five (34, 35) or value priorities (36). Our findings do not rule out an influence of gender-specific roles that drive gender differences in preferences. They also do not preclude a role for biological or evolutionary determinants of gender differences (37). Our results highlight, however, that theories not attributing a significant role to the social environment are incomplete (38).
In this regard, our findings point toward the critical role of availability of and equal access to material and social resources for both women and men in facilitating the independent formation and expression of gender-specific preferences across countries. As suggested by the resource hypothesis, greater availability of material resources removes the human need of subsistence, and hence provides the scope for attending to gender-specific preferences. A more egalitarian distribution of material and social resources enables women and men to independently express gender-specific preferences.