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

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
, must have some deeper

Sources: Psychology
, Moyers
& Company
, Futurity,
(now Pacific Standard).

Image by Tom
, licensed under Creative Commons

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