What do we know about Tea Party psychology? In previous blog posts, I have examined the moral underpinnings of Tea Party support and participation. I found that people who attend Tea Party events and rallies express moral values and policy preferences that are generally consistent with libertarianism. I also found that the larger demographic of those who claim to “support the Tea Party movement” appear much more like traditional conservatives in their moral profiles. And, despite some reports that the Tea Party may be evolving into a more socially conservative movement, the patterns described above remain consistent: data collected from YourMorals.org over the past year show nearly identical results among our original and more recent Tea Partiers. So, instead of writing more about the morality of the Tea Party, I’ve focused this article on some other psychological correlates of Tea Party support and how they might relate to the Tea Party’s attitudes toward political compromise.
We all witnessed the Tea Party’s hard-line position on the standoff leading up to the debt ceiling crisis — 68% of Tea Partiers wanted lawmakers to stand firm on their principles, even at the risk of government shut-down. Some have argued that, along with their fiscally conservative values, their willingness to take such a stand, and their unwillingness to compromise, have become the defining features of the entire movement. However, it is not entirely clear why Tea Partiers might be predisposed to these attitudes about compromise. Although it is impossible to say that any one of the following variables caused or even contributed to any specific political behavior, it is nonetheless compelling to examine how a number of psychological variables might be related to Tea Partiers’ hard-line stance on compromise.
Most notably, Tea Party supporters are highly reactant, as measured on the Hong Reactance Scale. Reactance is an emotional resistance to the influence of others, and often manifests as defiance to attempted persuasion. Our data show that Tea Party supporters express consistently high levels of this trait, much like libertarians. They also show low levels of empathy, or the ability to share the feelings of others (much like conservatives and libertarians, as measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index). Taken together, these two traits may preclude one from a willingness to compromise: a reactive person is highly motivated to disagree with threatening others, and a person who lacks empathy is unlikely to fully consider or appreciate his opponents’ point-of-view.
These findings could also be said of libertarians, but unlike libertarians, Tea Party supporters score low on the Need for Cognition Scale. This scale measures the extent to which people engage in and enjoy effortful thinking. Low levels of Need for Cognition are associated with heuristic thinking styles and a lower likelihood of discounting erroneous intuitions and judgments. As a result, groups that rely less on deliberative thinking styles (i.e., groups with lower Need for Cognition) may be more steadfast in their intuitive convictions, and less receptive to reconsideration.
Another interesting finding is that Tea Party supporters are very sensitive to social desirability concerns, as measured by the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale. In other words, when presented with true-false questions about oneself that were either socially acceptable but unlikely, or socially unacceptable but likely, Tea Party supporters responded in the most self-promoting fashion. Their results on the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding also showed relatively high scores on a related measure of self-deceptive enhancement, suggesting that these responses reflected internal beliefs, rather than intentionally over-reported ones.
Along the same lines, Tea Party supporters were also most likely to demonstrate the better-than-average effect. That is, more than other groups, they reported possessing positive traits more than the average person, and negative traits less than the average person. Although this effect is pervasive (e.g., over 93% of people report being above-average drivers), Tea Party supporters demonstrated the highest level of this bias compared to other political groups.
So what does this tell us about Tea Party psychology? Tea Party supporters have a reactant and intuitive reasoning style, low levels of empathy, and they display a self-enhancing/over-confident style of evaluating themselves. Could these psychological predispositions play an important role in Tea Partiers’ political behavior, particularly in their principled stands/resistance to compromise on their core values?
Although certainly possible, it would obviously be unwise and premature to claim a causal connection between these factors and any specific political behaviors. Keep in mind that the analyses reported above were conducted with Tea Party supporters, rather than Tea Party participants, who show a slightly different pattern of results (not reported here). In my next blog post, I’ll go into more detail about a number of other key predictors of Tea Party support that I believe can help inform our understanding of Tea Party psychology. Stay tuned.