When news breaks about wrongdoings of our favorite politician, the other side inevitably argues that we have a scandal on our hands. We like to think that our superior grasp of logic is what enables us to reason through and reject the other side’s concerns.
But, a series of three studies I recently published suggest such decisions are not just the result of reasoning. Rather, feeling moral aversion toward political opponents compels us toward positions that help our team “win.” This is true even if it means adopting positions with which we’d otherwise disagree.
Here’s the effect in a nutshell: Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day. You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent. When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.
My studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.
Whatever they think, think the opposite
To understand what’s meant by “urge” here, it helps to understand the Stroop effect. In this classic experiment, people see a single word and are asked to name the color in which the word is printed. When the color and the word match – for example, “red” printed in red – the task is easy. When the color and the word are incongruent – for example, “red” printed in blue – the task is harder. People feel an impulse, or “urge,” to accidentally read the word. This urge interferes with the task of naming the color, and what should be a simple task becomes oddly difficult.
A theory of morality put forth by Jonathan Haidt suggests that morals “blind” people to alternative viewpoints such that even considering the other side’s opinions is taboo. With that theory in mind, I thought that moral aversion might be a social cause of unproductive urges similar to urges experienced in the Stroop task. That is, just as people in the Stroop task feel the impulse to incorrectly read the word, I thought that strong moral beliefs might cause people to feel impulses to make decisions that maximize their distance from people they believe have different morals.
How the test worked
Here’s how I tested it:
I first had people do several Stroop trials to make them aware of what that urge to make an error feels like.
Next, I asked people six fairly trivial consumer choice questions, such as preference for car color (forest green vs. silver) or vacuum brand (Hoover vs. Dirt Devil).
Here’s the twist: After answering each question, participants were told how a majority of other participants answered the same question. The identity of this majority group was random. It could be either a group that everyone belonged to (for example, Americans) or a more politically charged group (for example, Trump supporters, Clinton supporters or white supremacists).
Finally, I showed participants the set of questions a second time, and asked them to simply state their previous answer a second time. I also asked participants to rate their urge to change their answer – similar to the urge to make an error in the Stroop test.
This should have been straightforward.
Participants were not asked to evaluate the majority answer or reconsider their opinion in any way. Still, just like the interference felt in the Stroop task, knowing the majority response caused people to feel an urge to give the wrong answer.
When participants belonged to the majority group, they reported heightened urges to make an error when they had previously disagreed with the majority. Despite just being asked to repeat what they said a moment ago on a fairly trivial opinion question, they felt a conformist urge.
Similarly, when participants had strong moral distaste for the majority group, they reported heightened urges to make an error when they agreed with the group. In other words, participants’ initial responses were now morally “tainted,” and, even for these rather inconsequential questions, they felt an urge to abandon that response and distance themselves from their opponents. This urge made the trivial task of stating their opinion again slightly more difficult.
‘Hive mind’ and passive effects
As America is more ideologically divided now than any other point in history, these results illuminate two things about the psychology behind political polarization.
First, people might think they are able to use their reasoning to decide whether, say, a minimum wage increase will have positive or negative consequences. However, moral impulses have likely already nudged people toward disagreeing with their opponents before any deliberative thinking on the issue has begun.
Second, the effects observed here are likely a passive process. Participants did not want to feel urges to make an error in the Stroop task, and they likely did not want to feel urges to contradict their own opinions in my studies. The urges just happen as a result of a morality-driven psychology.
These results suggest that efforts to bring those on the fringe closer to the middle will likely fall on deaf ears. A more optimistic interpretation is that polarization might have its roots in unintentional partisan urges. While there is no shortage of moral issues that lead to polarization, polarization does not necessarily result from the malice of those involved.
I was frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to get a bunch of pictures in google drive to show up to create an album in google photos. most of the solutions involved downloading the images, unzipping, and uploading them into photos. and, if you are trying to free up space in your google drive, that is the way to do it. in this case, however, I just needed the suckers to show up on my pick list. sometimes the answers are right in front of us. it seems from the comments on the post that the option shown in settings might be recent, but it was there for me.
with all the buzz about mozilla’s announced plans to implement a new, chrome-compatible extension API for add-on developers, I haven’t seen anything about an extension issue that’s happening now.
if you are a dev or nightly track user of the popular browser, you have probably noticed firefox extensions are acting up. add-on publishers are now required to have their extensions signed. while this is a reasonable quality control measure for mozilla to take with publishers developing for its platform, it has unfortunate consequences for users. Continue reading
are you seeing a lot of junk in your twitter direct message folder? a new twitter setting may be at fault. here’s how to fight back.
this just in: advertising is going native. advertising is creeping out of sidebars and banners and perching proudly ‘mongst the stuff we actually read. “sponsored posts” on facebook, twitter and linkedin are a long way from the advertorials of yore. do native advertising, and its kissing cousin sponsored content, work? yes, indeed – if they’re done right. marketers must take care, however, to avoid situations where the audience feels deceived. herein a tale of lost innocence. Continue reading
missing or poor attribution creates confusion and uncertainty. in a knowledge marketplace where many suppliers claim the same expertise (often using identical phrasing), this uncertainty results in delay and (sometimes) flawed choices based on imperfect information.
are you guilty of blurring the lines in building your personal brand or business? Continue reading
for inbound marketers, shared content is the golden snitch,* a rare and elusive signal of value from one’s audience. make sure that if someone wants to share your stuff, you give them the tools to do it right. there are a number of ways to facilitate content sharing, and it’s well worth the few extra seconds needed to give sharers a powerful message to promote your content effectively.
facebook-style twitter image tagging was introduced earlier this year.* can (and should) marketers use the feature for targeting and to expand the reach of select posts?
twitter image tagging
- pro: tagged user gets an alert with link to that post
- pro: tagged handles don’t count against character limit
- con: tweet is (probably) not displayed to tagged user’s followers
- con: only possible (as of fall 2014) using native twitter app
the absence of support for third party social posting managers like hootsuite or my trusty buffer limits the scalability of this tactic, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I think the real value is as a microtargeted outreach effort – for an influencer connection or a top prospect/client – with high value content in combination with the usual channels.
have you used twitter image tagging to to target social posts personally or professionally? share your experience in the comments!
* if you don’t want to be singled out in this way, you can just say no. twitter’s security & privacy settings let users opt out altogether or restrict tagging to users you follow.
are you leveraging every contact to help engage your alumni donors? schools have long recognized the development potential of alumni reunions. they dedicate considerable resources to encourage participation (and associated giving). there is no reason, however, why other events to which alumni are invited cannot also become cultivation opportunities. Continue reading