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Knee-Jerk Gridlock

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Perhaps fueled by increasing gridlock in Washington, lately there have been a lot of studies published on why people form and keep the political beliefs that they do. While none are particularly encouraging for those who want to see government work, the findings offer some insight on why politicians reaching agreement is tougher than it sounds. A couple of weeks ago, Psychology Today reported that researchers at the University of Nebraska have pointed to a biological basis for ideology. In general, they reported, liberals have a deep psychological propensity to focus more on positive forces and outcomes, while conservative minds are more occupied by what is potentially threatening. These tendencies, the researchers said, may go beyond environmental factors like geography or parenting styles.

Psychologist Jonathon Haidt agrees that deeper forces are at play. Earlier this year, he told Bill Moyers (and Company) that human beings are not well designed for objective or rational analysis. It turns out we’re much better at choosing a side, and finding evidence and arguments to support it. In other words, cognitive dissonance plays a much bigger role in how we understand politics than we may have thought. In a recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt outlines his view that conscious reasoning has very little to do with how we form our ideas about the world.    

This would certainly concur with new research from Duke University. There, psychologists found that potential voters consistently prefer candidates with deeper voices. As Futurity reports, participants were asked to choose between a number of voices saying “I urge you to vote for me this November.” The participants consistently preferred the deepest voices, and that was true whether the choices were male or female. Participants also chose the deeper voices when asked to identify voices with traits like strength, competence, or trustworthiness. This was especially true of men, leading researcher Rindy Anderson to speculate on whether women’s higher voice pitch had something to do with the glass ceiling.

Of course, none of this bodes well for actually getting things done, but does help clarify the past several years of partisan bickering. We tend to blame ideology for a lot of political problems, but it’s hard to see how we could escape it.  

But here’s my favorite explanation: a study by Scott Eidelman, a University of Arkansas psychologist, recently found that conservatism may be most people’s first instinct in how they view the world. According to Miller-McCune, when distracted or performing more than one complicated task, participants were more likely to express conservative ideas and beliefs. These included, according to Eidelman, “an emphasis on personal responsibility, an acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo.”

In another portion of the study, Eidelman asked participants to drink heavily before completing a survey measuring their politics. Amazingly (read: wonderfully), this experiment produced the same results, as did pressuring participants with time constraints, and distracting them with repetitive tape loops.  

What this exactly means is hard to say. Eidelman argues that the results will satisfy no one: the research implies that conservative ideas are instinctual, but also somewhat knee-jerk. And of course, it’s just as likely that a liberal will hold hasty or unexamined beliefs, whether or not they’re inebriated or their favorite candidate has a deep voice. What these findings may speak to, then, is a growing fascination with ideology at a psychological or biological level—a sense that gridlock in Washington, like say over transportation policy, must have some deeper explanation.   

Sources: Psychology Today, Moyers & Company, Futurity, Miller-McCune (now Pacific Standard).  

Image by Tom Arthur, licensed under Creative Commons