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Facts and Reason: Quaint Relics of a Bygone Political Era?

The widening rift between the left and right in American politics may be truly visceral in part, driven as much by subconscious predispositions among voters as by examination of the issues, according to a recent AAAS-organized panel discussion.

Researchers have been measuring and probing those hidden tendencies in recent years, speakers said, and political professionals are starting to exploit them in campaigns.

John R. Hibbing

“There are a lot of extraneous factors that influence our decision-making in all kinds of areas, including politics,” said political scientist John R. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a pioneer in exploring whether political preferences may be partially rooted in our biology.

“When we think about politics, we think that human beings are rational,” said Shankar Vedantam, author of “The Hidden Brain” and a correspondent for NPR. “We are creatures of reason. Given the right answers and education, problems will go away.” But he said that view has been “refuted almost completely” by recent research on voter behavior. Attempts to change deeply held positions with presentation of facts leads, instead, to a hardening of attitudes, he said.

Vedantam and Hibbing spoke at a session on “How Voters Actually Think About Issues” during the 37th annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, which convened in Washington, D.C. on 26-27 April. More than 400 elected officials, government and business leaders, researchers, foreign embassy staff, educators, and journalists attended.

Shankar Vedantam

Hibbing outlined some of the biological and cognitive influences that he argues may have contributed to the partisan divide in American politics. Vedantam discussed patterns of human behavior that have helped harden that divide during the past 15 to 20 years, producing a world in which facts are used as cudgels and loyalty to party trumps all. Both speakers agreed that the Jeffersonian ideal—in which reason wins out and facts carry the day—is becoming a quaint relic of a bygone era.

According to Hibbing, subconscious influences on human behavior have been well-documented in both the political and the non-political realm in ways that are sometimes quite startling. He ticked off some of the findings:

  • Ask people to evaluate a person’s job resume, and the evaluation will be more positive depending on the heft of the clipboard to which the resume is attached.
  • People will make harsher moral judgments when given case studies in a messy room than they will in a tidy room.
  • People will vote for causes further to the right on the political spectrum if the polling place is a church than if it is a school.
  • If a subliminal smiley face is flashed briefly on the screen during a survey session, people will list fewer objections to immigration than if a subliminal face with a scowl is flashed.
  • Flashing “mortality pictures” of a graveyard, a hospital or an elderly person in bed will predispose subjects to more conservative responses on a political questionnaire.
  • Respondents will be more inclined to say they believe in global warming if they are interviewed on a hot day, less inclined on a cold day.
  • A study conducted in Israel found that judges who have been in their courtrooms for a lengthy time without a break will tend to impose harsher parole terms on defendants.

While such studies can appear to be a bit of a parlor game, Hibbing said, there are important implications for electoral politics.

“People are not mere rational processors of information,” he said. They are shaped by what he called “sub-threshold physiological responses” that are not necessarily innate and can be influenced by culture and the environment. Those responses can be biologically verified by experiments using tools such as skin conductance sensors that indicate physiological arousal.

Researchers have studied how subjects respond to various images — both political and non-political — and how those responses correlate with their political worldviews. “A lot is going on beneath the surface that people simply cannot reflect on,” Hibbing said. “We don’t know ourselves as well as many survey researchers imply.”

In cognitive studies in which subjects are presented with aversive or negative images, such as a spider crawling on a face or a man eating worms, both liberals and conservatives will have a physiological response as measured by skin conductance sensors, Hibbing said. But conservatives tend to respond much more to the negative images, he said, than to positive images such as a skier in deep powder or an enticing assortment of fruits. Similarly, in tests where subjects are outfitted with devices to track eye movements, conservatives tend to focus on aversive, negative images in a photo collage for a longer period (1600 milliseconds) than do their liberal counterparts (400 milliseconds).

“I’m not saying one way is better than the other,” Hibbing said. “It’s just a different approach to life, and those different ways seem to have something to do with politics.” Paying attention to aversive images may, in fact, be a wise evolutionary course of action, he said. “There’s a word for organisms that don’t pay attention to aversive things in their environment,” he said, “and that word is ‘dead.’”

Still, the conservative attention to negative images suggests they might also be more aroused and persuaded by negative campaign advertising, a dominant feature of the current campaign landscape.

In batteries of psychological tests, researchers also are finding those who describe themselves as conservative tend to see the world in black-and-white terms, with a preference for poetry that rhymes, novels that come to closure, art that is realistic and foods that are familiar. Studies also have shown that conservatives tend to be “hard” categorizers rather than “soft,” Hibbing said. They use the categories offered (say, in sorting animals into either “zoo” animals or “farm” animals) while liberals may balk and ask for additional categories when the choices are ambiguous.

Such research may have particular resonance for supporters of science and its role in providing information—sometimes conflicting and preliminary—that can help inform tough policy choices.

“All this fits a general pattern that is clearly relevant to how people accept the kind of uncertainties that are endemic with the scientific process,” Hibbing said. For some, he said, the probabilistic nature of conclusions in science can be “extremely bothersome” when they would prefer instead “that the truth be revealed.”

Hibbing cautioned that science may be under attack for reasons beyond “a kind of shallow desire for convenience” and the urge to refute an opponent. “I think there is something deeper than that,” Hibbing said. At least in part, he said, “the real issue is epistemological—different visions of the acquisition and value of new knowledge—visions that are traceable to deep-seated psychological, cognitive and physiological orientations.”

Given the depth of those differences, he said, it may not be productive for supporters of the scientific process “to dismiss our opponents as ignorant, obdurate and uninformed. Recognizing that to some extent people experience different worlds may make it easier, though perhaps no less frustrating, to deal with those who disagree with us.”

In case after case, Vedantam said, political disagreements are not just about what to do with facts, but with the facts themselves. “A social scientist would say this is not an accident,” he said. And, indeed, in the last 15 to 20 years the division of the political world into two camps has become so complete that the most liberal Republican senator is now to the right of the most conservative Democrat, Vedantam said. “The two parties have essentially cleaved apart,” he said.

Allegiance to party has become analogous to allegiance to a sports team, Vedantam said, a point made by political scientist Gary Jacobson of the University of California, San Diego. And party members make accommodations, as do football fans. (As a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles in football, Vedantam said, he found himself able to rationalize the team’s acquisition of quarterback Michel Vick despite his earlier conviction for animal cruelty. “I was willing to buy his reformation,” he said.)

The extent of the cleavage is clear in polling on any number of topics, Vedantam said.

A recent poll asked, for example, whether a president can do anything to affect high gasoline prices. Sixty-five percent of Republicans said yes, according to Vedantam, and 45% of Democrats said yes. Asked the same question when George W. Bush was president, Vedantam said, and only 30% of Republicans said the president could affect gas prices, while close to 75% of Democrats said he could do something. Views on an issue can quickly reverse, depending on whether your party holds the White House, he said.

Even when an error is pointed out and refuted with evidence, Vedantam said, party members cling to their views. He cited a Yale University study that polled Democrats regarding their support for Chief Justice John Roberts during his confirmation proceedings for the Supreme Court. When an advocacy group claimed that Roberts supported bombing of abortion clinics, his disapproval among Democrats rose from 55% to 80%. But even after the group retracted its claim, Vedantam said, his disapproval among Democrats still stayed at 72%. “The negative information changed people’s attitudes in a way that was not malleable to refutation,” he said.

In a 2010 study, about 30% of Republican respondents believed that tax cuts can lead to increased government revenue through resulting economic growth. When presented with a refutation by several leading conservative economists who said there is no evidence that tax cuts increase revenue, the percentage of Republicans who believed the opposite actually went up to 70%, Vedantam said. “The refutation increases the number of people who believe in the misinformation,” he said. “In your effort to do good, you are actually compounding the problem.”

Vedantam also noted a study published in February by Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler that found a distinct, though unspoken, racial undertone in attitudes toward President Barack Obama’s health care reform efforts. Tesler presented an identical health care overhaul policy to two groups of white voters. He told one group the policy was advocated by Bill Clinton and the other that it was advocated by Barack Obama. He found that whites with liberal racial attitudes become much more supportive of the policy when they thought it was Obama’s, Vedantam said, while conservative whites become less supportive of the policy when they associated it with Obama.

“Something that we think should be unrelated to the issue of health care reform—our race and our attitudes about race—seem to be playing a role in this very important issue,” Vedantam said. And Tesler found that race made people feel more strongly about their pre-existing views.

“If I believed, on a scale of 1 to 10, that health care reform was a bad idea,” Vedantam said, “when I introduce race into the mix, now I think it is a disastrous idea.” Such polarization makes conversation or compromise difficult, he said, and “it’s happening without anyone being aware of it.”

The research cited by Hibbing and Vedantam is starting to filter into the political arena, and Vedantam said voters, both conservative and liberal, should be aware that some of findings “are going to be used on you and are being used on you as we speak.”


See the full program for the 2012 AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

See more coverage of this year’s Forum.