Stupid versus evil? The Psychology of American Politics

Last night I dreamed that I was reading the news. Scrolling down the page, I saw a headline saying tactical nuclear weapons were used in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was terrifying, disappointing, shocking and somehow unsurprising. In the dream, I went to show it to my family… unsure of what the future held for me.

We live in a time of absurd and frightening confusion, with political divisions widening every day like a planet splintering into shards in the latest Armageddon-based blockbuster. The relentless advance of technology beyond the human capacity to integrate change, the hyper-connected overload of social media and misinformation, and the rapidly accumulating trauma of history and the recent past conspire to putting ourselves in ever-increasing danger to dissociation and destruction as a result of a bad decision. manufacturing.

The jury is out on how we’re going to doom ourselves: are we going to yell at each other until we can’t take any more, or learn to work together to solve the “collective prisoner’s dilemma” before things get even worse far ?

donkeys and elephants

Recent research on American politics sheds additional light on how Republican and Democratic polarization influences how we see ourselves across the great divide. At the heart of this is how we understand where the other is coming from: are they bad or just ignorant? Journal Search Bulletin of Personality and Social Psychology (2022) tackles this issue head-on, drawing on the political trope that “conservatives think liberals are stupid, and liberals think conservatives are bad”. But is it true?

Authors Hartman, Hester and Gray point out common stereotypes. We tend to see more liberal Americans highlight perceptions of conservatives as racist, sexist, afraid of strangers, closed-minded, or perhaps just malicious, attributing greater intentionality. Conversely, conservatives can be interpreted as “unsophisticated, backward rednecks who vote against their own interests”.

Likewise, liberal views range from being naïve dupes who adhere to stupid policies with unrealistic idealism to willful hypocrites in a political system that espouses egalitarianism while surreptitiously pursuing a more nefarious agenda incorporating horrific accusations of support for “death signs” and “baby murders”. ”.

Psychologically, people generally want to see others as an essential good on the inside. Seeing others as fundamentally and irreversibly evil is the last thing we want to believe. People tend to regard those who agree with their own point of view as smarter and those who differ as dumber. Concluding that others are immoral is a bitter pill to swallow – it may not be a matter of morality, but of intelligence or education.

The research

The study authors conducted four studies with more than 1,600 total participants to examine opponents’ perceptions of immorality and ignorance. The first study found that regardless of their political affiliation, participants viewed people from the other party as more stupid than mean, contrary to stereotypes. In this study, they asked whether people were “conservative” or “liberal”, rather than their party affiliation. Immorality and ignorance turned out to be distinct and different concepts. This may seem obvious, but it is important to show it statistically.

In the second study, participants were interviewed in November 2018 immediately after a vote on amendments to the North Carolina state constitution. Republicans and Democrats tended to see each other as stupid rather than mean. However, conservatives were a bit more inclined to choose evil over stupidity, compared to liberals.

In the third study, researchers asked about explicit party affiliation—Democrat or Republican (other affiliations were excluded from the analysis), then asked participants to rate members of the opposite side on various adjectives. Again, both endorsed the other’s perception as overall more ignorant than immoral.

In the fourth and final study, rather than asking members of one group what they thought of the other group, researchers asked a cross-section of U.S. residents about the attitudes they thought Republicans and Democrats had towards each other, to obtain “meta-perceptions”. . Regardless of political affiliation, how do you think Republicans view Democrats, and vice versa? General patterns held: Generally, people understand that Republicans and Democrats are more likely to attribute ignorance of evil to opponents, going against stereotypes.

However, there were some interesting differences in how Republicans and Democrats viewed the attitudes of Republicans versus Democrats. Participants tended to view Republicans as having more negative views of Democrats than they actually do. Additionally, Democratic participants perceived Democrats to view Republicans as more ignorant than immoral; Republican participants had a misperception that Democrats viewed Republicans roughly the same on ignorance and immorality.

Again, Republicans were somewhat more likely to attribute harm than Democrats, perhaps due to underlying differences in authoritarianism and personality, or cultural and religious beliefs. Overall, however, the culprit was more often seen as stupidity rather than evil, regardless of political orientation.

The fate of the Earth is in our hands

While this can be a dark topic with a lot of room for pessimism, understanding attributions within and outside the group is important to determine if and how we can begin to bridge the divisions in our body politic.

If the opponent is absolute evil, there is little room for hope. Ignorance, curiously, brings hope, since it can in principle be fought through education, provided that work is done to establish dialogue and combat the echo chambers of misinformation. Work on conflict resolution shows that dialogue can start with an “alliance of moderates”, because building bridges in the middle can help bring the extremes together.

An intriguing recent study (2022) by Broockman and Kalla highlights the possibility of change through the deprogramming of misinformation. In this study, Fox News viewers were paid to watch CNN for 30 days. Participants “treated” with this intervention were able to reverse false beliefs and realize that important information had been hidden from them by their preferred media. The results also suggest that examining information from diverse and credible sources across the continuum of political beliefs would allow smart and open-minded consumers to triangulate a more accurate view.

Understand key factors, such as cancel culture and big group psychology, the effect of radical belief on the brain, the ways leadership short-circuits reason, how we come to believe lies and other factors, is critically important if we are to leverage knowledge for optimistic and compassionate action. Given the state of the American psyche, fragmented and disintegrated, there is no better time than the present.

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