Political Psychology–How the gut, head, and heart decide our political views

David Moscrop of Maclean’s magazine, has been writing a series of articles on the psychology of politics. Why do we have the political opinions that we do? The answer, as you now know, is a combination of environmental, demographic, and personal characteristics. More and more, political scientists and psychologists have been researching the importance of psychology as a factor that influences political beliefs and behaviours.


At the beginning of his article, Moscrop reveals the inspiration behind the series:

But the truth is that your gut is as much a source of your political decisions as your rational brain, and much of the time your gut—emotions, feelings, intuition—does its work outside of your awareness.

Yep. The faces of the candidates, the pitch of their voices, their gender and ethnicity and height; whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you’re hungry, whether you’re a lawyer or dock worker or school teacher; the effects of political advertising, the effects of issue framing or priming, the effects of your peer group; your partisanship, your family, your fears.

Here we see an image taken from the article, that demonstrates the various parts of our bodies that are involved in the making of political decisions.


More on Representation and Electoral Systems

Prompted by a comment on a previous post regarding how voter representation would be different if Canada had a proportional representation system, I decided to do some reading on the Fair Vote website and stumbled upon some interesting facts. The first is an illuminating quote regarding the difference between decision-making (rule) and representation by somebody named Ernest Haville:

 “In a democratic government, the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.”

As we noted in class earlier today, many of the votes cast in our elections are wasted as a result of our first-past-the-post system. Below is a screenshot from the website wastedvotes.ca, which shows that in the 2008 federal election in Gatineau, QC, fully 70% of the voters were not represented. This is because the Bloc Quebecois candidate, Richard Nadeau, won a tight four-way battle, garnering a plurality of the vote at 29.2%.

This is just the most egregious example of wasted votes (and, thereby, of non-representation), but every Canadian election and electoral district sees wasted votes. Indeed, the folks at wastedvote.ca have calculated that of the more than 14 million votes cast during Canada’s last federal election (2011) only slightly more than half (50.4%) were effective, while 49.6% were wasted.

Why is this bad for democracy? Well, here is another excerpt from fairvote.ca:

Does Canada actually have representative democracy? In the 2008 federal election:

  • 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.
  • In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.
  • Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.
  • New Democrats: The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37.

What about majority rule? Canadians are usually ruled by majority governments that the majority voted against. In some provincial elections, parties coming in second in the popular vote have won majority control of the legislature.

In class, we noted the irony of the part above that is in bold font! The 1988 federal election was fought primarily on the basis of a pending free trade agreement amongst Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In Canada, the Progressive Conservatives (led by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney) were in favour of (what would become) NAFTA, while the NDP and the Liberal Party were against. In the end, a majority of Canadians voted for parties that were against NAFTA, yet the PCs won a majority of seats in parliament, enabling them to push through the necessary legislation.

Great Post on Political Ideology from a Student of Mine

Here’s a link to a great blog post from a POLI 1100 student of mine about political ideology and the role of the family as an agent of political socialization. Here’s an excerpt:

When I got my mother to take the political compass test I was sure her result was going to show that she was much more conservative that I was. I believe I thought this because whenever my older coworkers and I discuss issues that are being highlighted in the media, most of their views on those issues seem extremely conservative to me. Or at least, more conservative than that of my own…

…My mother’s ranking on the political compass, and my ranking on the political compass turned out to be almost the same. This was interesting to me because for the 18 years of my life I spent living with her, we barely said three words to each other everyday, much less discuss politics. So my political opinions were formed from other adults around me, such as teachers and my friends parents.

This is a very interesting observation. In a book I co-authored with Alan Zuckerman and Jennifer Fitzgerald, data analysis of panel surveys in Great Britain and Germany, led to some intriguing results. One of the more interesting was the role of the family matriarch–the mother–as the lynchpin in the familial political socialization process. While it is conventionally believed that the patriarch is more influential in a child’s political socialization, this was not true in our study. Mothers spent much more time with their children than did fathers (the data sets tracked this phenomenon), and it should not be surprising that, while often mothers don’t talk about politics with their children explicitly, their quotidian interactions with their children leave the latter with all sorts of clues and cues about the way to think and act about issues that are foundationally political. For example, where to school one’s child–public secular versus private parochial school–is a fundamentally political decision, yet parents may not express their reasoning for this in explicitly political terms.

Go read the rest of the blog post, and check out our book as well.

Does Political Ideology Change as we Age?

It has long been accepted conventional wisdom that as we age we become more conservative in our political views. Remember the quote that has been (allegedly) wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill:

“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”

But as with many things, conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to be very wise. According to recent research, individuals do not become more conservative as they age. In fact, just the opposite may be true. From an article on the Discovery magazine website, we learn:

Ongoing research, however, fails to back up the stereotype [about age and conservatism]. While there is some evidence that today’s seniors may be more conservative than today’s youth, that’s not because older folks are more conservative than they use to be. Instead, our modern elders likely came of age at a time when the political situation favored more conservative views.

In fact, studies show that people may actually get more liberal over time when it comes to certain kinds of beliefs. That suggests that we are not pre-determined to get stodgy, set in our ways or otherwise more inflexible in our retirement years. [emphasis added]

The studies do reference data collected in the United States, but there’s no reason to think that the same phenomenon wouldn’t apply in other advanced capitalist democracies.

How do your political beliefs compare to those of your parents? What was the political climate like at the time your parents were becoming politically aware? In which country (if it wasn’t Canada) did your parents come of political age?

Are your Political Attitudes and Ideologies Biologically Determined?

Next week (January 31) in POLI 1100, we’ll be discussing political attitudes and political ideologies. The conclusion of Chapter 5 in Dyck summarizes political ideologies nicely:

Conflicting ideologies offer us a means of understanding our society, situating ourselves in the political world, and participating in actions intended to advance our interests and those of our communities.

What is the source of any individual’s political ideological leanings? A common answer is that we are politically socialized into our ideologies. Agents of political socialization such as families, churches, educational institutions, and the media play prominent roles in the process of an individual’s ideological development. But what if we were biologically pre-disposed to our ideological views. Is there a chance that some of us are more conservative, and others more liberal, from birth, and the role that agents of political socialization is negligible? According to recent research, the answer to that question may be ‘yes’. How much of the developmental process of political ideology is nature and how much is nurture?

As much as we stake our identity on such core beliefs, it’s unlikely we emerged from the womb as little liberals or libertarians. This raises a fundamental question: At what point in our development did such predispositions begin to form, to coalesce and to harden? What is it about our biology and/or psychology that propels us toward a liberal or conservative mindset?

The question has long intrigued social psychologists such as John Jost of New York University. In a 2003 meta-analysis of 50 years of research, he summarizes the overwhelming evidence that political ideologies, “like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs.” Jost quickly adds that this “is not to say they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence” — only that the underlying motivation to believe in them emerges from somewhere other than the rational, conscious mind.

According to Jost, political ideologies derive from our effort to “satisfy…psychological needs.” What, though, gives rise to these psychological needs? It could very well be our biology/physiology:

Researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln showed people a series of photos — some endearing, some disgusting — and then measured their physiological and cognitive reactions. Conservatives, in keeping with past literature, reacted more strongly to the negative images, and liberals strongly to the positive ones…

…“I figured because conservatives reacted more strongly to negative things, they’d be more likely to avoid them,” said Mike Dodd, an assistant professor of psychology and the study’s lead author. “That ended up not being the case. They ended up locking onto them quicker and taking more time on them, which makes sense from a policy perspective. Oftentimes they end up confronting things that they think of as threats.” [emphasis added]

Are these findings consistent with your personal experience? Are they plausible explanations for the political ideological leanings of your friends and family?

Do you even know your political ideology? Here’s a relatively painless online test you can take that summarizes political ideologies in a two-dimensional (left-right; authoritarian-libertarian) scale.

Support for Capital Punishment

On Thursday in POLI 1100, a general discussion about the distinctions between democratic and non-democratic regimes focused on the use(s) of violence by governments as a means of control. This led to a discussion of the use of, and support for, the death penalty. As many of my students knew, the death penalty is not used in Canada or Europe (with the exception of Belarus) but is used in the United States. Most of the class, however, was surprised to learn that, despite the differences in policy, until quite recently a majority of both Canadians and Americans supported the death penalty. The graphic below shows the supports of a Gallup-Ipsos survey carried out in 2004, in which Canadians just barely oppose the death penalty (although, as you can see, it is not a majority), while Great Britons (55%) and US Americans (64%) both have majorities supporting the death penalty.

Although support for capital punishment is decreasing in many countries, in many European countries a majority of the population still is in favour of the death penalty for those convicted of murder. What about Japan? In a poll released in February 2010, a record 85% of Japanese supported the death penalty!

What do you think about these results? Are they as you expected? What does this say about the political culture of the countries in question?

Political Ideology/Attitudes and Happiness

Are individuals of a certain political attitude orientation more likely to be happy than those with competing political attitudes?  The short answer, in the United States at least, may be yes; moreover, self-defined conservatives seem to be much happier (or at least claim they are) than are liberals, and extremists of either group are happier than moderates.  From the Economist:

economist_happiness.jpgIn 2004 Americans who called themselves “conservative” or “very conservative” were nearly twice as likely to tell pollsters they were “very happy” as those who considered themselves “liberal” or “very liberal” (44% versus 25%). One might think this was because liberals were made wretched by George Bush. But the data show that American conservatives have been consistently happier than liberals for at least 35 years.

This is not because they are richer; they are not. Mr Brooks thinks three factors are important. Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to be married and twice as likely to attend church every week. Married, religious people are more likely than secular singles to be happy. They are also more likely to have children, which makes Mr Brooks confident that the next generation will be at least as happy as the current one.

When religious and political differences are combined, the results are striking. Secular liberals are as likely to say they are “not too happy” as to say they are very happy (22% to 22%). Religious conservatives are ten times more likely to report being very happy than not too happy (50% to 5%). Religious liberals are about as happy as secular conservatives.

Why should this be so? Mr Brooks proposes that whatever their respective merits, the conservative world view is more conducive to happiness than the liberal one (in the American sense of both words). American conservatives tend to believe that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can succeed. This makes them more optimistic than liberals, more likely to feel in control of their lives and therefore happier. American liberals, at their most pessimistic, stress the injustice of the economic system, the crushing impersonal forces that keep the little guy down and what David Mamet, a playwright, recently summed up as the belief that “everything is always wrong”. Emphasising victimhood was noble during the 1950s and 1960s, says Mr Brooks. By overturning Jim Crow laws, liberals gave the victims of foul injustice greater control over their lives. But in as much as the American left is now a coalition of groups that define themselves as the victims of social and economic forces, and in as much as its leaders encourage people to feel helpless and aggrieved, he thinks they make America a glummer place.