Political Identity Divides Us More Than Policy Preferences

Politics is the worst:

Increased sorting could reflect identification with groups that better match our values. Perhaps Republicans and Democrats can’t compromise because their policy preferences are irreconcilable. However, this doesn’t explain why Americans personally dislike political opponents with such intense fervor. U.S. liberals and conservatives not only disagree on policy issues: they are also increasingly unwilling to live near each other, be friends, or get married to members of the other group. 

…Now, surprising new research suggests that what divides us may not just be the issues. In two national surveys, political psychologist Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland measured American’s preferences on six issues such as abortion and gun control, how strongly they identified as liberals and conservatives, and how much they preferred social contact with members of their own ideological groups. Identifying as liberal or conservative only explained a small part of their issue positions. (This is consistent with findings that Americans overestimate the differences in policy preferences between Republicans and Democrats.) Next, Mason analyzed whether the substantial intolerance between liberals and conservatives was due to their political identities (how much they labelled themselves as “liberal” or “conservative”) or to their policy opinions. For example, who would be more opposed to marrying a conservative: a moderate liberal who is pro-choice, or a strong liberal who is pro-life? Across all six issues, identifying as liberal or conservative was a stronger predictor of affective polarization than issue positions. Conservatives appear particularly likely to feel cold towards liberals, even conservatives who hold very liberal issue positions.

…[W]e see that Americans are increasingly divided not just on the issues but also on their willingness to socialize across the political aisle. It is normal that society manifests new social cleavages as it heals old ones. However, when identities are fused with policies that have vast, long-term consequences (e.g., war, taxes, or the Paris Agreement), these divisions imperil our ability to select policies based on their expected outcomes. To paraphrase anthropologist John Tooby, forming coalitions around policy questions is disastrous because it pits our modest urge for truth-seeking against our voracious appetite to be good group members. If Americans slide into seeing all policy debates as battles between Us vs. Them, we stop selecting policies based on their actual content. Ironically, this would lead to choosing policies that don’t match our personal values, because the content and evidence would become less important than the source. In short, seeing politics as a battle may worsen things for everyone.

Once again, politics makes us into worse people.

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Lie To Me…Cause I Probably Can’t Tell

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Over at FiveThirtyEight, there is a nice rundown of the research on detecting liars. “[R]esearch suggests,” it reads,

our interpretations of testimony like Kavanaugh’s, or Christine Blasey Ford’s earlier on Thursday, will be shaped by what we already believe. The Kavanaugh confirmation fight and Ford’s allegation that he sexually assaulted her are taking place in a political context, tapping into partisan identities. But even without those particular biases, humans just aren’t very good at reading people. And that’s why testimony is “no substitute for a good, solid, thorough investigation and finding of the facts,” said Brian Fitch, a psychologist and retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant.

In other words, we were never going to get a better idea of whether Kavanaugh was telling the truth by watching him speak. (He’s denied all the allegations against him.) That’s just not how the human brain works, said Judee Burgoon, director of human communication research at the University of Arizona. That’s because our ability to identify a lie is poor — no betterthan chance, in fact. “The best estimate, and that’s from a lot of studies all accumulated, is that we’re about 54 percent accurate,” she told me. “That’s about equivalent to flipping a coin.”

Both she and Fitch said that there’s no twitchy tell, no revealing behavior, that is indicative of lying or truth-telling. Partly, Fitch said, that’s because behavior is culturally mediated. When we all live in the same culture, people who want to lie know what behaviors might make them look more or less credible, as much as the people who are watching for those behaviors.

How about people who are supposed to detect lies, like judges, police officers, or custom agents? “Studies show they believe themselves to be betterthan chance at spotting liars. But the same studies show they aren’t, Alcock said. And that makes sense, he told me, because the feedback they get misleads them. Customs agents, for instance, correctly pull aside smugglers for searches just often enough to reinforce their sense of their own accuracy. But “they have no idea about the ones they didn’t search who got away,” Alcock said.” It also turns out that “it’s possible to interview someone in a way that creates inconsistencies and credibility issues that weren’t there originally. Because of this potential, there have been efforts to change the way law enforcement officers conduct interviews, particularly of people from vulnerable groups, including victims of traumatic violence.” What’s more, political “bias probably plays a big role in situations where we’re testing the trustworthiness of people under politically charged circumstances, and some studies have shown that it can have as strong an impact as the biases we carry related to race.” 

The article concludes,

Given what we know about how humans interpret the behavior of other humans — and how bad we are at doing that accurately — it should be no surprise that there appears to be a strong partisan split in how both politicians and regular people viewed Kavanaugh’s testimony. In fact, Burgoon said, this is why you generally want more layers of information in an investigation. You’re not going to learn the “truth” based on somebody’s body language. “I think that’s part of the desire for an FBI investigation, because the FBI would produce a more impartial rendering,” she said. Indeed, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a crucial swing vote, asked on Friday for the full Senate vote on Kavanaugh to be delayed a week so that the FBI could produce just such a rendering. Of course, as Burgoon added, not everyone is going to believe the FBI’s findings either.

If you generally identify on the political left and found Ford’s testimony “credible” or if you generally identify on the political right and found Kavanaugh’s testimony “compelling”, then there was likely nothing credible, compelling, or rational about how you came to that conclusion. It was more likely political hooliganism in action.

Is the Politicization of Facebook Making Us More Partisan?

Regarding the claim that political deliberation leads to positive results, philosopher Jason Brennan writes,

In a comprehensive survey of the empirical research on democratic deliberation, political scientist Tali Mendelberg (2002, 154)  concludes that the “empirical evidence for the benefits that deliberative theorists expect” is “thin or non-existent”. Deliberation tends to undermine cooperation among groups (Mendelberg 2002, 156). When groups are of different sizes, deliberation tends to exacerbate conflict rather then mediate it (Mendelberg 2002 158). Status-seeking drives the discussion. Deliberators try to win positions of influence and power over others (Mendelberg 2002, 159). High-status individuals have more influence, regardless of whether the high status individuals actually know more (Mendelberg 2002, 165-7). During deliberation, people use language in biased and manipulative ways (Mendelberg 2002, 170-2). As Mendelberg concludes, “in most deliberations about public matters”, group discussion tends to “amplify” intellectual biases rather than “neutralize” them (Mendelberg 2002, 176, citing Kerr, MacCoun, and Kramer 1996).

…Mendelberg’s take on the empirical literature is not unusual. Other reviews of the extant political literature—including by people who favor deliberative democracy—find similar results (Landemore 2012, 118-19; Pincock, 2012). For instance, deliberation tends to move people toward more extreme versions of their ideologies rather than toward more moderate versions (Sunstein 2002). Deliberation over sensitive matters—such as pornography laws—often leads to “hysteria” and “emotionalism”, with parties to the debate feigning moral emergencies and booing and hissing at one another (Downs, 1989).

Relatedly, political scientist Diana Mutz’s (2006) empirical work shows that deliberation and participation do not come together. The people who are most active in politics tend to be Hooligans. Vulcans tend to stay home.

Mutz finds that being exposed to contrary points of view tends to lessen one’s enthusiasm for one’s own political views. Cross-cutting political exposure decreases the likelihood that a person will vote, reduces the number of political activities a person engages in, and makes people take longer to decide how to vote (Mutz 2006, 92, 110, 112-113). In contrast, active, participatory citizens tend not to engage in much deliberation and tend not to have much cross-cutting political discussion (Mutz 2006, 30). Instead, they seek out and interact only with others with whom they already agree.  When asked why other people hold contrary points of view, participatory citizens tend to respond that others must be stupid or corrupt.

Many political theorists advocate provide more meaningful opportunities for political participation.  Mutz, in effect, finds that the people most likely to take advantage of such opportunities are extremists and partisans (Mutz, 135-6).

Some might wonder, if deliberative democracy does not work, then what does? Unfortunately, the answer might be nothing.

While Mutz’s work finds that positive interpersonal interactions can increase political compromise, a new study suggests that online interactions do quite the opposite:

Social media sites like Facebook are often charged with increasing political polarization by establishing what are called “echo chambers,” places of discourse that prevent people from being exposed to things that contradict their beliefs. It is commonly believed that exposure to opposing opinions is a good thing, as it allows one to empathize with their interlocutors and see the merits of another point of view. A recent study published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences seems to imply the opposite though, increased exposure to opposing political views can actually increase one’s political polarization.

In the published study, the researchers first surveyed 2 large groups of Republicans and Democrats who were frequent Twitter users about a range of policy issues. Then they had each group follow Twitter bots that retweeted content from elected officials and public figures with opposing political views for one month. Afterward, the participants were surveyed again regarding their political opinions. What the researchers found was that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot expressed substantially more conservative opinions than before. Alternatively, they found that Democrats following a conservative Twitter bot expressed slightly more liberal opinions, although not to a statistically significant degree.

Such a study highlights the important (and potentially negative) effects that social media can have on political discourse. It is commonly touted nugget of wisdom that exposure to opposing political beliefs can temper one’s own, causing them to fall closer to the center of the political spectrum. In actuality, sometimes exposure to opposing opinions can have a “backfire effect”—where exposure to foreign ideas actually makes one hold their own ideas more strongly and can push one further to the ends of the political spectrum.

…The results indicated that liberals who had followed a conservative bot showed a slight increase in liberal attitudes, but not to any statistically significant degree. On the contrary, Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot showed a substantial increase in conservative political opinions. Of the Republican respondents who fully completed the ending survey, the researchers measured an average increase in polarization of .60 points, around .59 standard deviations. Even when controlled for both age, and for initial extremeness of position, the results stayed the same; Republicans had a much more pronounced polarizing reaction to exposure to opposing political opinions. Thus, it seems that this “backfire effect” is more likely to be seen and be more pronounced in Republicans than Democrats.

That’s disappointing, if entirely predictable.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Political Edition

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Here’s your daily dose of unsurprising findings in social science:

People who know less about politics are more confident about their political knowledge, according to research published in the scientific journal Political Psychology. The new study found that this effect was exacerbated when partisan identities were activated.

“The Dunning-Kruger effect holds that individuals with little knowledge about a topic will be, paradoxically, the most confident that they know a lot about the topic. Knowledgeable individuals will also discount their knowledgeability,” explained study author Ian Anson, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

…For his study, Anson examined 2,606 American adults using two online surveys. He evaluated the knowledge of the participants by quizzing them regarding the number of years served by a senator, the name of the current Secretary of Energy, the party with more conservative positions regarding health care, the political party currently in control of the House of Representatives, and which of four programs the U.S. federal government spends the least on. Most of the participants performed poorly on the political quiz — and those who performed worse were more likely to overestimate their performance.

“Many Americans appear to be extremely overconfident in their political knowledgeability, because they have no way of knowing how little they actually know about the world of politics (this is the so-called ‘double bind of incompetence’). But there’s a catch: when Republicans and Democrats engage in partisan thought processes, this effect becomes even stronger than before,” Anson explained.

“Partisans with modest factual knowledge about politics become even more convinced that they are savvier than average when they reflect on a world full of members of the opposite party. In fact, when I asked partisans to ‘grade’ political knowledge quizzes filled out by fictional members of the other party, low-skilled respondents gave out scores that reflected party biases much more than actual knowledge.”

“The results seem to indicate the existence of a widespread failure of political discourse in the United States: when a partisan talks to someone of the out-party, they are pretty likely to misjudge the political knowledgeability of themselves and their conversation partner. More often than not, this means that partisans will think of themselves as far more politically knowledgeable than an out-partisan, even when that person is extremely politically knowledgeable,” Anson told PsyPost.

Say it with me again: politics makes us mean and dumb.

The Social Science of Identity Politics

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Political scientist Sheri Berman has an excellent piece in The Guardian that covers some of the most relevant social science on identity politics and its implications:

Rather than being directly translated into behavior, psychologists tell us beliefs can remain latent until “triggered”. In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group … But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”

What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats. In experiments researchers easily shift individuals from indifference, even modest tolerance, to aggressive defenses of their own group by exposing them to such threats. Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, for example, found that simply making white Americans aware that they would soon be a minority increased their propensity to favor their own group and become wary of those outside it. (Similar effects were found among Canadians. Indeed, although this tendency is most dangerous among whites since they are the most powerful group in western societies, researchers have consistently found such propensities in all groups.)

Building on such research, Diana Mutz recently argued that Trump’s stress on themes like growing immigration, the power of minorities and the rise of China highlighted status threats and fears particularly among whites without a college education, prompting a “defensive reaction” that was the most important factor in his election. This “defensive reaction” also explains why Trump’s post-election racist, xenophobic and sexist statements and reversal of traditional Republican positions on trade and other issues have helped him – they keep threats to whites front and center, provoking anger, fear and a strong desire to protect their own group.

Understanding why Trump found it easy to trigger these reactions requires examining broader changes in American society. In an excellent new book, Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason analyzes perhaps the most important of these: a decades-long process of “social sorting”. Mason notes that although racial and religious animosity has been present throughout American history, only recently has it lined up neatly along partisan lines. In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties attracted supporters with different racial, religious, ideological and regional identities, but gradually Republicans became the party of white, evangelical, conservative and rural voters, while the Democrats became associated with non-whites, non-evangelical, liberal and metropolitan voters.

This lining up of identities dramatically changes electoral stakes: previously if your party lost, other parts of your identity were not threatened, but today losing is also a blow to your racial, religious, regional and ideological identity. (Mason cites a study showing that in the week following Obama’s 2012 election, Republicans felt sadder than American parents after the Newtown school shooting or Bostonians after the Boston Marathon bombing.) This social sorting has led partisans of both parties to engage in negative stereotyping and even demonization. (One study found less support for “out-group” marriage among partisan Republicans and Democrats than for interracial marriage among Americans overall.)

Once the other party becomes an enemy rather than an opponent, winning becomes more important than the common good and compromise becomes an anathema. Such situations also promote emotional rather than rational evaluations of policies and evidence. Making matters worse, social scientists consistently find that the most committed partisans, those who are the angriest and have the most negative feelings towards out-groups, are the most politically engaged.

She continues, pointing out that

research suggests that calling people racist when they do not see themselves that way is counterproductive. As noted above, while there surely are true bigots, studies show that not all those who exhibit intolerant behavior harbor extreme racial animus. Moreover, as Stanford psychologist Alana Conner notes, if the goal is to diminish intolerance “telling people they’re racist, sexist and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere. It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.”

This has obvious implications for recent debates about civility. Incivility is central to Trump’s strategy – it helps him galvanize his supporters by reminding them how “bad” and “threatening” the other side is. Since this has become such a hot-button topic on the left, it is worth being clear what incivility is. There is no definition of democracy that does not accept peaceful protest and other forms of vociferous political engagement. Incivility is about form – not substance; it is consistently defined by scholars as including invective, ridicule, emotionality, histrionics and other forms of personal attacks or norm-defying behavior. By engaging in even superficially similar tactics, Democrats abet Trump’s ability to do this – as one Trump supporter put it, every time Democrats attack him “it makes me angry, which causes me to want to defend him more” – potentially alienate wavering Republican-leaning independents, and help divert debate from policies, corruption and other substantive issues.

Of course, there is a double standard here and this, along with the psychic release that comes with venting the anger and grievances that have been building over the past year, are the rationales given by the left for incivility. But against these must be weighed incivility’s impact on upcoming elections as well as the overall health of democracy. (Scholars consistently find that incivility spreads rapidly, generates anger and defensive reactions, demobilizes moderates and activates the strongest partisans, corrodes faith in government, trust in institutions and respect for our fellow citizens.)

Over the long term of course the goal is repairing democracy and diminishing intolerance and for this promoting cross-cutting cleavages within civil society and political organizations is absolutely necessary. (Here, recent debates about ideological diversity and the new grassroots activism within the Democratic party is relevant.) Scholars have long recognized the necessity of cross-cutting cleavages to healthy democracy. In his classic study, the Social Requisites of Democracy, Seymour Martin Lipset, for example, noted that “the available evidence suggests that the chances for stable democracy are enhanced to the extent that groups and individuals have a number of cross-cutting, politically relevant affiliations”.

More specifically, research has linked cross-cutting cleavages with toleration, moderation and conflict prevention. This too has implications for contemporary debates about “identity politics”. Perhaps ironically, identity politics is a both more powerful and efficacious for Republicans (and rightwing populists more generally) than it is for Democrats, since the former are more homogeneous.

…In addition, Americans are more divided socially than they are on the issues; there is significant agreement even on controversial topics like abortion, gun control, immigration and economic policy. Promoting cross-cutting cleavages and diminishing social divisions might therefore help productive policymaking actually occur.

Things to consider the next time you feel the itch to promote or debate party politics.

Are Conservatives More Authoritarian?

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From the abstract of a fairly recent study:

Although past research suggests authoritarianism may be a uniquely right-wing phenomenon, the present two studies tested the hypothesis that authoritarianism exists in both right-wing and left-wing contexts in essentially equal degrees. Across two studies, university (n 5 475) and Mechanical Turk (n 5 298) participants completed either the RWA (right-wing authoritarianism) scale or a newly developed (and parallel) LWA (left-wing authoritarianism) scale. Participants further completed measurements of ideology and three domain-specific scales: prejudice, dogmatism, and attitude strength. Findings from both studies lend support to an authoritarianism symmetry hypothesis: Significant positive correlations emerged between LWA and measurements of liberalism, prejudice, dogmatism, and attitude strength. These results largely paralleled those correlating RWA with identical conservative-focused measurements, and an overall effect-size measurement showed LWA was similarly related to those constructs (compared to RWA) in both Study 1 and Study 2. Taken together, these studies provide evidence that LWA may be a viable construct in ordinary U.S. samples.

Or as the body of the text states,

Taken as a whole, these results suggest that left-wing authoritarianism may prove to be a viable construct in ordinary U.S. samples. Not only did LWA show a significant correlation with liberalism in both a sample of U.S. college students and a separate nationwide sample of U.S. citizens, it also showed overwhelmingly significant correlations with dogmatism, prejudice, and attitude strength. In each case, these relationships paralleled similar relationships between RWA and those constructs—and the overall average effect sizes in both studies were very similar for LWA and RWA. Further, the present results demonstrate that the presence of LWA cannot be attributed to a correlational sleight of hand: Analyses of mean patterns in both studies for liberals and conservatives clearly indicate as much (and indeed, slightly more) LWA on the left than RWA on the right. In short, these results suggest that LWA may in fact be alive and well in ordinary U.S. samples (pg. 15).

This new study reminds me of an article posted by Monica on Facebook on how social psychology misunderstands conservatives (and, consequently, liberals as well):

The [Rigidity of the Right] model posits, as one summary puts it, that “a constellation of psychological attributes and evocable states — including dogmatism, closed-mindedness, intolerance of ambiguity, preference for order and structure, aversion to novelty and stimulation, valuing of conformity and obedience, and relatively strong concern with threat — leads to a preference for right-wing over left-wing political ideology.”

…[A] team led by NYU’s John Jost, a political psychologist, published an important meta-analysis that took a big, sweeping look at decades of prior work on this subject and concluded that, according to the available evidence, “The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.”

According to a chapter in the book The Politics of Social Psychology by the researchers Ariel Malka, Yphtach Lelkes, and Nissan Holzer and published last year, Jost et al.’s meta-analysis effectively resuscitated the rigidity of the right model after a “number of years” in which it “received sporadic attention.” As a result, critiques of the model began bubbling up, too — even as it captured a great deal of mainstream attention. The authors of the chapter are three of the more ardent critics of the model, and they lay out a number of potential flaws with it.

One of their strongest arguments concerns poorly constructed psychological instruments that don’t actually measure what they claim to measure. As they explain, “Scales treated as indicators of conservative vs. liberal ideology often contain content pertaining to religious sentiment, cognitive rigidity, orientation toward authority, and/or intolerance, in addition to (mostly cultural) political content.” That is, these scales in a sense assume that conservatives are more rigid or authoritarian or whatever else — the very thing they are used to test.

…In a paper published in Political Psychology in 2015, they reported on the results of a clever study in which they had respondents fill out either a version of the original scale, a version modified to tap liberal sentiments, or a version modified to tap conservative sentiments. In the original scale, for example, one of the items was: “A group which tolerates too much difference of opinion among its own members cannot exist for long.” In one tweaked version, the word religious was inserted before group; in the other, the word environmental was inserted instead.

As it turned out, these tweaks affected which group responded more “dogmatically” a great deal. Liberals scored as more dogmatic than conservatives when it came to their agreement with sentiments like “When it comes to stopping global warming, it is better to be a dead hero than a live coward” and “A person who thinks primarily of his/her own happiness, and in so doing disregards the health of the environment (for example, trees and other animals), is beneath contempt,” while conservatives, by contrast, scored higher than liberals on items tuned in the opposite political direction. (In fact, there was little difference between how conservatives scored on the original scale and the tweaked-to-be-more-explicitly-conservative version, lending credence to the claim that the original scale was biased in a direction that captured more conservative than liberal dogmatism.) “By making only small adjustments to a popularly used dogmatism scale, results show that liberals can be significantly more dogmatic if a liberal domain is made salient,” explained the authors.

These scales, in short, are all too often structured in a way in which respondents’ tendencies toward dogmatism or close-mindedness or intolerance are ascertained by asking them about issues that are politicized. And while social and political psychologists have sometimes asked about rigidity in ways designed to tap liberal ideas — the famed authoritarianism researcher Bob Altemeyer, for example, did publish a left-wing authoritarianism scale — this has been the exception rather than the norm.

Why this asymmetry? The Malka team carefully states early in its chapter that “[W]e make no claim that ideological bias plays a role” in any of the rigidity of the right model’s shortcomings, and that they “leave that as a matter for other scholars to debate.” But one obvious possibility that other social psychologists have raised, in both this context and others, is that certain weaknesses in the field flow from how ideologically slanted it is: Within social psychology, there is something like a 14-to-1 ratio in favor of liberal-identifying researchers relative to conservative-identifying ones. Even if you’re not broadly sympathetic to the idea that liberal bias in academia is a major problem — and I certainly view that claim as overstated — 14-to-1 is, well, a big gap. That’s how blind spots creep in — that’s how you keeping gauging study subjects’ “sensitivity to threat” by asking them about crime or terrorism, but rarely about climate change or right-wing police violence, and then “discover” that conservatives are more sensitive to threat. “This sort of ‘soft bias’ can be really hard to spot if most or all researchers have the same ideological outlook because it is built into people’s ideologically guided beliefs about reality,” said Yoel Inbar, a psychology researcher at the University of Toronto and a co-author of a key paper that revealed the ideological tilt within social and personality psychology. “Worrying about the threats your side cares about seems entirely well-founded and reasonable, worrying about those the other side cares about demands an explanation.”

The problem is that, if Malka and other critics of the prevailing social-psychological view of conservatism are correct, these soft biases have built up within the field and generated important misconceptions and, in some cases, overgeneralizations about the differences between liberals and conservatives.

One of the most potentially important examples is intolerance. According to the rigidity of the right model, conservatives are more intolerant than liberals. But in a Current Directions in Psychological Science article published in 2014, a team led by Mark J. Brandt of Tilburg University in the Netherlands poked and prodded that idea — and found that it toppled fairly quickly.

WEIRD Origins

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“Thou art weird.”

Anthropologist and cultural psychologist Joseph Henrich has defined our peculiar subset of the world population as WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic. How did this psychological variation arise? A new working paper offers a very interesting answer:

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions, and that people from societies characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual (1–6). Often at the extremes of global distributions, people from WEIRD populations tend to be more individualistic, independent, analytically-minded and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting strangers) while revealing less conformity, obedience, in-group loyalty and nepotism (3, 5–13). While these patterns are now well documented, efforts to explain this variation from a cultural evolutionary and historical perspective have just begun (13–20). Here, we develop and test a cultural evolutionary theory that aims to explain a substantial portion of this psychological variation, both within and across nations. Not only does our approach contribute to explaining global variation and address why WEIRD societies so often occupy the tail ends of global distributions, but it also helps explain the psychological variation within Europe—among countries, across regions within countries and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds within the same country and region.

Our approach integrates three insights. The first, drawing on anthropology, reveals that the institutions built around kinship and marriage vary greatly across societies (21–23) and that much of this variation developed as societies scaled up in size and complexity, especially after the origins of food production 12,000 years ago (22, 24–29). In forging the tightly-knit communities needed to defend agricultural fields and pastures, cultural evolution gradually wove together social norms governing marriage, post-marital residence and in-group identity (descent), leading to a diversity of kin-based institutions, including the organizational forms known as clans, lineages and kindreds (21, 27, 30). The second insight, based on work in psychology, is that people’s motivations, emotions, perceptions, thinking styles and other aspects of cognition are heavily influenced by the social norms, social networks, technologies and linguistic worlds they encounter while growing up (31–38). In particular, with intensive kin-based institutions, people’s psychological processes adapt to the collectivistic demands and the dense social networks that they interweave (39–43). Intensive kinship norms reward greater conformity, obedience, holistic/relational awareness and in-group loyalty but discourage individualism, independence and analytical thinking (41, 44). Since the sociality of intensive kinship is based on people’s interpersonal embeddedness, adapting to these institutions tends to reduce people’s inclinations towards impartiality, universal (non-relational) moral principles and impersonal trust, fairness and cooperation. Finally, based on historical evidence, the third insight suggests that the branch of Western Christianity that eventually evolved into the Roman Catholic Church—hereafter, ‘the Western Church’ or simply ‘the Church’—systematically undermined the intensive kin-based institutions of Europe during the Middle Ages (45–52). The Church’s marriage policies and prohibitions, which we will call the Marriage and Family Program (MFP), meant that by 1500 CE, and likely centuries earlier in some regions, Europe lacked strong kin-based institutions, and was instead dominated by relatively weak, independent and isolated nuclear or stem families (49–51, 53–56). This made people exposed to Western Christendom rather unlike nearly all other populations.

Integrating these insights, we propose that the spread of the Church, specifically through its transformation of kinship and marriage, was a key factor behind a cultural shift towards a WEIRDer psychology in Europe. This shift eventually fostered the creation of new formal institutions, including representative governments, individual rights, commercial law and impersonal markets (17, 57). This theory predicts that (1) societies with less intensive kin-based institutions should have a WEIRDer psychology and (2) historical exposure to the Church’s MFP should predict both less intensive kin-based institutions and, as a consequence, a WEIRDer psychology.

To illuminate these relationships for diverse populations, we (1) developed measures of the intensity of kin-based institutions, (2) created historical databases to estimate the exposure of populations to the Church (along with the MFP) and (3) compiled 20 different psychological outcomes, including laboratory experiments, validated scales, survey questions and ecologically-valid observational data. We examine the predicted relationships from three complementary perspectives. Across countries, we can observe the broadest range of variation in the largest number of psychological outcomes. Across regions, we can track the historical Church as it lumbered across Europe and detect its footprints on the psychological patterns and marital arrangements of modern Europeans. Finally, by comparing second-generation immigrants in Europe based on their links to the kin-based institutions of their ancestral communities around the world, we eliminate many alternative hypotheses for the relationships we’ve illuminated.

Check it out.

Does Loneliness Lead to Pornography Consumption or Vice Versa?

According to a new study, the answer is “yes” to both:

Image result for shame laptop gifOur study suggests a close and painful partnership between pornography and loneliness for some users. From our survey of over 1,000 individuals around the world, we developed a statistical model that suggests an association between pornography use and loneliness, each increasing in tandem with the other. Each incremental increase in loneliness was associated with an increase in pornography use (by a factor of 0.16), and each incremental increase in pornography use predicted a significant increase in loneliness (by a factor of 0.20). While the magnitude of effects was small, they were statistically significant. Interlocking partnerships like this are worrisome since they represent an entrapment template associated with addiction—where the consequences of coping with loneliness through pornography use only increase loneliness, potentially locking the two in a self-fueling cycle.

If loneliness can lead to pornography use, and pornography use may bring about or intensify loneliness, these circular linkages may create a vicious cycle, pulling the user even further from health-promoting relationship connections. In the cultural context of emotionally-disconnected sexual hookups scripted by pornography, loneliness may deepen and become increasingly painful, yet in response, pornography use may only intensify.

While the gender gap in pornography use is closing, men still use pornography more than women, and married persons use pornography less than single persons. The fact that pornography use decreases after marriage may hint at a link between pornography, relational success, and loneliness. Are those who use pornography less likely to achieve relational success and marry? Or does relational success in marriage remove the loneliness trigger for pornography use—or both?

How do porn and loneliness work in tandem?

Image result for shame michael fassbenderPornography triggers the sexual system, providing a physical “feel-good” experience overshadowing negative feelings. Sexual arousal and climax offer a quick “feel-good” fix. Pornography also expands the sexual system’s escape through creating sexual anticipation, bringing a person “under the influence” of sexual arousal for as long as they care to be before acting out.

Additionally, the sexual system is biologically and neurologically tied to a relationship experience. The human sexual system is carefully designed to support both conception and bonding. First, there’s the physical pleasure of arousal, intercourse, and climax—the engine designed to ensure offspring. Then, after climax, partners experience the brain’s “love” plan for pair bonding, when oxytocin (or what researchers refer to as the “cuddle chemical”) is released, producing feelings of comfort, connection, and closeness. In the context of a caring attachment relationship, this release and “after-play” support emotional bonding.

When pornography is used to trigger the sexual system, the biology of the sexual system produces a false relationship experience, offering temporary “relief” from lonely feelings, but soon enough, the user again faces a real-world relationship void. That emptiness may trigger loneliness. Additionally, porn invites the mental fantasy of a relationship experience. Thus, the mind fantasizes and biologically the sexual system tricks the brain into imagining it’s having a relationship experience and can thus mask loneliness—but only temporarily. In this way, pornography exploits the sexual system but only tricks the brain for a while. The user can’t escape the fact that when the experience is over, they’re still alone in an empty room. So, when sexual intoxication wears off, the experience may only end up excavating a deeper emptiness—a setup for a vicious cycle. We hypothesize that this experience could create the potential for getting trapped in the short-term, feel-good escape of pornography joined with long-term loneliness.

Image result for shame crying gif…Recent scholarship suggests that pornography’s sexual scripts of eroticism, objectification, promiscuity, and misogyny (domination) are, on their face, fundamentally anti-relationship and anti-attachment and “conceptually linked to loneliness.” Pornography promotes an understanding of sexuality and relationships that is corrosive to connection because it doesn’t promote people, only parts. Hence, in the most intimate of circumstances, actual intimacy is elusive—because pornography doesn’t support or advocate emotional connection and whole relationships.

…In the recent research conducted with my colleagues, we raise the possibility of pornography use compulsivity or addiction, pointing to how pornography use fits this entrapment template. The potentially habitual “fix” of pornography may consist in using it to relieve loneliness (or other troubling emotions). The sexual system’s combination of two very different rewards—intense sensual gratification during arousal and climax, followed by oxytocin’s relief and comfort during the resolution period—could be thought of like a combined cocaine-valium experience and “hook.”

Sex therapist and friend Mark Bird lists pornography addiction as one of “ways people try to cope ineffectively: [one of] the negative symptoms associated with connective disorders.” The above research seems to back this claim.

Do Individualistic Values Lead to Less Inequality?

That appears to be the case, according to a 2017 paper. From a working paper version,

Our results challenge the conventional view that individualistic societies are more prone to higher levels of income inequality. On the contrary, we find that even if people in more individualistic cultures are more likely to accept and encourage greater individual differences, they end up living in far more equal societies at the end of the day. In our 2SLS analysis, we find that the historical prevalence of infectious diseases is strongly and negatively correlated with individualistic values, which then, in the next stage, are a strong determinant of economic inequality, measured by the net GINI coefficient from the Standardized World Income Inequality Database (SWIID). These results hold even when we control for a number of confounding factors including the level of economic development, social capital, formal institutions, local factor endowments, geographic dummies, and other cultural values. The results are furthermore robust to different sub-samples of countries and alternative measures of income inequality and individualism.

One possible explanation for these findings is that citizens in individualistic cultures favor more inclusive institutions that are characterized by respect for the rights, liberties, and well-being of all members of society, not just their immediate circle. This is consistent with recent empirical findings which show that more individualistic societies are far more likely to develop high quality political and economic institutions including respect for the rule of law, protection of private property and strong democratic institutions (Greif, 1994; Nikolaev and Salahodjaev, 2017; Kyriacou, 2016; Nikolaev and Salahodjaev, 2016; Gorodnichenko and Roland, 2015; Licht et al., 2007; Inglehart and Oyserman, 2004). People in more individualistic cultures are also more likely to tolerate minorities and have higher levels of interpersonal trust and lower levels of corruption (Thornhill and Fincher, 2014; Allik and Realo, 2004), which can further reduce transaction costs and facilitate market exchange leading to higher rates of human and physical capital investment, technological innovation and long-run economic growth (Oyserman et al., 2002; Gorodnichenko and Roland, 2012) and encouraging people to put more effort and get a fairer share of the economic pie (Alesina and Angeletos, 2005). When citizens perceive state institutions to be fair, less corrupt, and more efficient, they are far more likely to tolerate higher taxes and government spending on welfare programs (Dimitrova-Grajzl et al., 2012; Svallfors, 2013; Pitlik and Kouba, 2015; Daniele and Geys, 2015; Pitlik and Rode, 2016). When they trust and care about the wellbeing of their fellow citizens, they will be more inclined to support welfare programs that benefit others. Finally, when people earn higher incomes, they are more likely to be able to bear the burden of higher taxation while still maximizing their own talents through their free choices (pgs. 3-4).


Career, Community, Cause

That’s what most employees want out of their place of work, according to a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. The authors write,

If [Abraham] Maslow were designing his pyramid from scratch today to explain what motivates people at work, beyond the basics, what would it look like? That’s a question we set out to answer at Facebook, in collaboration with our people analytics team.

We survey our workforce twice a year, asking what employees value most. After examining hundreds of thousands of answers over and over again, we identified three big buckets of motivators: career, community, and cause.

Career is about work: having a job that provides autonomy, allows you to use your strengths, and promotes your learning and development. It’s at the heart of intrinsic motivation.

Community is about people: feeling respected, cared about, and recognized by others. It drives our sense of connection and belongingness.

Cause is about purpose: feeling that you make a meaningful impact, identifying with the organization’s mission, and believing that it does some good in the world. It’s a source of pride.

These three buckets make up what’s called the psychological contract — the unwritten expectations and obligations between employees and employers. When that contract is fulfilled, people bring their whole selves to work. But when it’s breached, people become less satisfied and committed. They contribute less. They perform worse.

Here are a few interesting bits from their survey:

  • “Contrary to the belief that Millennials are more concerned with meaning and purpose, we found that younger people cared slightly less about cause — and slightly more about career — than older people. In fact, people ages 55 and above are the only group at Facebook who care significantly more about cause than about career and community. This tracks with evidence that around mid-life, people become more concerned about contributing to society and less focused on individual career enhancement.”
  • “Our engineers care a lot about community, giving it an average rating of 4.18 on a 1-5 scale. And just as we saw with age and location, across functions people rated career, community, and cause as similarly important.”
  • Career ekes out ahead in virtually every group, except among Latin Americans (just barely), Western Europeans (career and community are almost identical), and those 55 and above.