Whether they are aligned with the the elephant or the donkey, politicians can be equally pig-headed. Duke psychologist Kaitlin Toner and her colleagues published a study (Psychological Science, October 2013) that sheds light on why Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, just can’t get along. Toner’s study was inspired by the polarization of political views during the 2012 election; she explains: “Pundits, politicians, and even commentators on online news articles seemed so confident that their own views were better than everyone else’s. Logic would argue that they couldn’t all be right 100% of the time, so we wondered what was making them so sure of the superiority of their opinions… Given the stalemate in Washington, understanding why people become so entrenched in their views — even when there is not an objectively correct answer — is more important than ever.”
Toner’s study found that the more extreme a conservative’s or liberal’s views are, the more likely they firmly believe they are right, and further, that they are the only correct ones and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong; the researchers call this phenomenon “belief superiority.” The study confirmed previous research that supports the “rigidity-of-the-right” hypothesis; namely, individuals that are more conservative politically tend to demonstrate increased levels of dogmatism, and thus are very inflexible in their ideological beliefs. Toner’s study also provided a very nuanced understanding of belief superiority — conservatives and liberals exhibited higher levels of belief superiority on different issues. Specifically, conservatives believed they are infallible about tax rates, affirmative action, and voter ID laws; whereas liberals believe they are infallible about the role of religion in policymaking, government welfare programs, and the use of torture on terrorists.
Not surprisingly, the study found that people with moderate views tend to be more objective, and don’t believe that their views are superior. In sharp contrast to the extremists, moderate individuals are more interested in solving problems, receptive to different viewpoints and strategies, rather than maintaining ideological unity or superiority. “There’s no logical reason why people who hold moderate, middle-of-the-road attitudes wouldn’t think that their attitudes are superior, ” says Toner. “But they don’t tend to believe that; it’s the people with extreme attitudes who are disproportionately convinced that they are right.” It gets worse when you bring the extremists together, adding the powerful influence of mob psychology, whereby human nature’s foibles and tendencies are magnified exponentially. Consider, for example, the Tea Party, once the darling of the GOP in 2010, that is now a thorn in the side of conservative party leaders. Speaker John Boehner made headlines in December 2013 when he ranted about the Tea Party: “Frankly I think they’re misleading their followers. I think they’re pushing our members in places where they want to be. And frankly I just think they’ve lost all credibility. There comes a point when people step over the line. When you criticize something and you have no idea what you’re criticizing, it undermines your credibility. You know, they pushed us into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government. It wasn’t exactly the strategy I had in mind. But if you recall, the day before the government re-opened, one of the people at one of these groups stood up and said, ‘Well we never really thought it would work.’ Are you kidding me?”
Thanks to Toner’s study now we know why partisan politics is fundamentally flawed: human nature being what it is, we can’t expect the politicians on one side of the aisle, inebriated with their respective belief superiority, to consult with the “morons” sitting on the other side, and vice versa. Sadly the the American taxpayer and the nation pay for all this ineffective ideological infighting. Ted Turner, founder of TBS and CNN, said it best: “I believe in pulling together to make the country better, rather than pulling, tearing it apart for partisan reasons. I think the country comes first.”
If you enjoyed this: I write at Atkins Bookshelf, the blog that explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. The goal of Bookshelf is to educate, entertain, and inspire. At the heart of Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature. Join here: https://atkinsbookshelf.wordpress.com