How Coherence Defines Conservatism

September 21st, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

One of the pitfalls in doing political psychology research is that it is tempting to define an ideology using the perspective of whatever you study.  Researchers necessarily (and I’m sure I do this too) talk about the novelty and uniqueness of their findings in order to convince editors of journals of the objective importance of their work.  In my technology career, we often think of connected variables as part of a “graph”, indicating that any individual finding is likely part of a larger pattern.  I believe that there are a number of psychology findings and news stories about conservatives that are actually part of a larger pattern, where each finding is actually an example of how conservatism can be defined by a desire for greater coherence.

What is coherence?  It is an idea that grows from the common psychological finding that cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, so people seek to create the absence of dissonant thoughts, beliefs, and emotions in their lives.  This absence of dissonance is what we can call coherence.  My graduate school advisor, Stephen Read, has studied it extensively in a variety of contexts, and, in a project led by my colleague Brian Monroe, modeled a variety of social psychological findings about attitudes.  My suggestion in this blog post is that, in a similar fashion, a large number of observations about conservatism can be explained by the idea that conservatives seek more coherence than liberals.  Below, I will list these observations and you can judge for yourself whether there is a broader pattern.

  • A lot of political psychology work concerns liberals greater “cognitive complexity”.  A quote from this paper: “There is both survey and content analytic evidence that liberals rely on more integratively complex cognitive strategies in reaching policy conclusions than do conservatives (Tetlock, 1989), suggesting that liberals may be more tolerant of cognitive dissonance…liberals receive higher scores on measures of tolerance of ambiguity..(Stone & Schaffner, 1988).”  In political discourse, you can see this division played out in terms of conservative ridicule of Kerry’s “for it before I was against it” in favor of the Texas straight shooter.  Note that cognitive complexity can be thought of as both an indication of intelligence and an indication of lack of core beliefs.
  • It is certainly more coherent to think that the group that you belong to does good things, rather than bad things, and conservatives are more likely to be more patriotic (see their identification with country results in this paper) and display more ingroup bias.  In contrast, it would generate cognitive dissonance to believe that your group should apologize for past bad actions and conservatives do not seem eager to apologize.
  • There is work suggesting that conservative judgments are more likely to be consistent/coherent with their emotional reactions.  Jesse Graham has a number of working papers showing how conservatives are more likely to make moral judgments that are consistent with their emotional reactions, while liberals may at times, override their gut reaction with an intellectual judgment.  In the news, we often see conservatives use their gut intuitions, even as liberals second guess basing judgments on coherence with the gut.

It bears noting that most of the above differences can be framed as positive or negative, depending on one’s ideological desires.  Coherence, by itself, is neither good nor bad, and can be both adaptive and maladaptive in different situations.  One of my colleagues once said that there is value in reviewing research from a particular perspective and pushing that review as far as one can go, even if one might be wrong.  There is certainly a ton of research I am unaware of and perhaps there is research showing contradictory evidence for my conclusion that conservativism is defined by coherence.  Or alternatively, perhaps readers are aware of more research on liberal-conservative differences that can be explained through the lens of coherence.  I would appreciate either type of information via comment or email.

- Ravi Iyer

Posted in coherence, conservatives, differences between republicans and democrats, liberals, moral coherence, political psychology, | 13 Comments »

Will Mitt Romney appeal to empathizers or systemizers in his Republican National Convention speech?

August 27th, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

The Republican National Convention is going to take place this week and one of the stated goals of many republicans is to “humanize” Mitt Romney. It reminded me of this graph that I pulled from our database which looks at systemizing vs. empathizing scores.  Based on work by Simon Baron-Cohen, the measure concerns how much one likes to analyze and construct systems as a way of understanding the world (e.g. being fascinated by how machines work) versus trying to understand social situations and empathize with others (e.g. I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward and uncomfortable.).  Men (in general) tend to systemize, while women tend to empathize and this difference tracks rates of autism (Baron-Cohen’s main line of research), which strikes 4 males for every 1 female.  Men also tend to support Romney vs. Obama.

This graph shows the correlation between favorability ratings of potential 2008 presidential candidates and the difference between systemizing and empathizing scores for those candidates’ supporters.

Based on our libertarians research, we would have expected Ron Paul supporters to have the highest systemizing vs. empathizing scores and certainly his supporters do have a positive, and relatively high correlation.  It is similarly unsurprising that Hillary Clinton’s supporters in 2008 tended to be empathizers, or that Democrats generally tend to attract empathizers, rather than systemizers.  What surprised me, however, was that Mitt Romney’s supporters appear to have the highest systemizing vs. empathizing difference.  Does this reflect something intrinsic about Mitt Romney, or at least his image?  After watching some of the Sunday shows today, I think so.

Consider this quote from ABC’s This Week, by George Will, a conservative who observed that “with most politicians, the problem is their inauthenticity.  His (Romney’s) problem is that he is authentically what he is…he has a low emotional metabolism.  That’s who he is.  He can’t turn to the country and say I feel your pain because the pain isn’t his.  It’s other people’s.  What he can say is that I can fix your pain and that should be good enough for most people, unless we are electing a talk show host”.

Mike Huckabee said something similar on Fox News Sunday about likability being less important than technical skill.  These are perhaps inherent admissions by some of Mitt Romney’s supporters that his strength is in appealing to systemizers, and therefore, they would like frame the debate in those terms.  It will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney aims his Republican National Convention nomination acceptance speech at empathizers or at systemizers.

-Ravi Iyer

Posted in empathy, libertarians, mitt romney, news commentary, obama, republican national convention, unpublished results, | 1 Comment »

New Research on the Moral Psychology of Libertarians

August 23rd, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

While some followers of this blog may be familiar with some of the ideas in this paper, the final version of our publication about libertarian morality has just been published in PLOS One.  You can read the full paper here.  In addition, in the spirit of the Khan Academy, I created the below video summary for more casual consumption.

Finally, here is the press release that is accompanying the paper, which is also a reasonable summary for those who do not wish to read the full version.

Press Release for Immediate Release: August 23, 2012

Newly Published Research Illuminates Libertarian Morality

A new set of studies published in PLOS One takes advantage of a unique sample of 11,994 libertarians to explore the psychological dispositions of self-described libertarians.  Compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, libertarians showed 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles; 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style; and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness.

“Data can tell you what is, but not what ought to be,” explained Ravi Iyer, the lead author of the paper.  “This is commonly known as the ‘is-ought’ problem, most clearly defined by Philosopher David Hume.  With data, we can objectively answer what the values that exist in the world are, and what personality traits often accompany those values.  We hope to help people understand why some people are libertarian, while others are liberal or conservative, by showing you what ‘is’ with respect to libertarians.”

Using the writings of libertarian thought leaders such as Ayn Rand and Ron Paul to generate hypotheses, the authors – which included Ravi Iyer, a research scientist at the University of Southern California and data scientist at, Spassena Koleva and Jesse Graham, who are respectively are a post-doctoral researcher and assistant professor in the Values, Ideology, and Morality Lab at USC, Peter Ditto, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, and Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University – found that libertarians were less concerned with being altruistic or loyal, and more concerned with being independent and self-directed.

Convergent with previous research showing the ties between emotion and moral judgment, libertarians displayed a more rational cognitive style, according to a variety of measures.  Asked directly, using a series of standard psychological measures available at, they reported being less neurotic, less disgusted, and less empathic, compared to liberals and conservatives, while also reporting a greater need for cognition and systematic understanding of the world.  When given moral dilemmas – e.g. being asked whether it is ok to sacrifice five people to save one – they reported fewer qualms than other groups, a pattern of responding that is consistent with a rational/utilitarian style.  Libertarians tended to do better on logic problems that included answers designed to fool more intuitive thinkers.

“Ideologies can be thought of as narratives that allow us to make sense of our beliefs, feelings and preferences,” said Iyer. “Naturally, we gravitate towards ideologies that are consistent with these dispositions.  This has been found consistently with liberals and conservatives across many research groups using many different methodologies.  The current research extends these findings to libertarians, which are an increasingly influential group in the US national discourse.”

Previous research has connected moral judgment to social functioning, theorizing that moral judgment arose in order to enable the current ultra-social modern society.  Libertarians, who generally were less morally judgmental, reported a corresponding desire for greater individualism and less attachment to their friends, family, community, and nation.

“This research is strongest when you consider it in context with other research on ideology and the origins or morality, which has found similar ties between emotion, social functioning, and moral judgment,” explained Iyer.  “All social science research methodologies have limitations, but the findings of the current research converge well with research using other methodologies, and the complete picture painted by recent moral psychological research hopefully gives people a greater understanding of the social and emotional origins of their own value systems.”

The paper can be read in its entirety at  More information about the findings, including a video explanation that can be embedded in online media can be found at  For press inquiries, please contact Ravi Iyer,

Posted in conservatives, liberals, libertarians, moral psychology, personality traits, political psychology, ron paul, | 1 Comment »

Fitting Factual Beliefs to Moral Evaluations: How Moral Coherence Explains Todd Akin’s “Legitimate Rape” Position

August 22nd, 2012 by Brittany Liu

The recent firestorm surrounding Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) claims about legitimate or forcible rape and pregnancy are indeed shocking. For those unfamiliar with his remarks, in an August 19, 2012 interview he responded to a question about whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape by saying, “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Later Akin said he misspoke and issued a tv-ad apology saying “The fact is, rape can lead to pregnancy.” Despite his clarification, however, it seems likely that his initial comments reflect his true beliefs that rape rarely causes pregnancy, a view that seems to have little or no empirical support.

The misuse of scientific information in support of one’s moral position is not new. When it comes to controversial and morally-laden issues such as abortion, it is difficult for people to separate their moral intuitions from their factual beliefs. With Akin, for example, his stance that abortion is fundamentally immoral (even in cases of rape and incest) is tightly wrapped up in his beliefs about the consequences of abortion and the science of female reproduction.

In a recent paper my co-author, Peter Ditto, and I have termed this phenomenon moral coherence, and it refers to the power our moral intuitions have to shape beliefs about facts, evidence, and science. Often, our intuitions about right and wrong conflict with well-rehearsed economic intuitions based on a cost-benefit logic. That is, it is often the case that a particular act feels morally wrong even though doing it would maximize positive consequences. Real-world dilemmas like capital punishment and abortion involve a no-win choice between endorsing a morally distasteful act, and rejecting that act and with it the compelling logic of a favorable cost–benefit analysis.

So how do people resolve this kind of moral conflict? We suggest that people’s desire for moral coherences initiates a motivated cost-benefit analysis in which the act that feels the best morally becomes that act that also leads to the best consequences. So, if a particular act feels morally wrong, moral coherence processes lead people to try to maximize the costs and minimize the benefits associated with that act. Likewise, if an act feels morally acceptable, people will minimize the costs and maximize the benefits associated with that act. By changing their factual beliefs about the costs and benefits of various actions, people emerge with a coherent moral picture in which their factual beliefs fit perfectly with their moral evaluations.

Applying this logic to the Akin case, strong opponents of abortion, like Akin, argue that abortion is fundamentally immoral and should be prohibited. But what if the pregnancy results from a rape? This creates a problem for a principled moral position on abortion. Isn’t abortion always wrong? But is it right to make a woman live with a baby conceived in from a violent, traumatic act she did not consent to? One way to resolve the conflict is to convince oneself that pregnancies from “legitimate” rapes are exceedingly rare. If this is true, then prohibiting abortion even in the case of rape really has relatively few costs because it occurs so infrequently. Thus, it is easy to see Rep. Akin’s views about rape and pregnancy (views that are held by many other anti-abortion activists as well) as emerging from his struggle to construct a coherent moral position on abortion that refuses to make exceptions for rape and incest.

This tendency for factual beliefs to cohere with moral sensibilities is not limited to abortion. In our work using data from, we found that people’s beliefs about capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, forceful interrogations, condom promotion as part of sexual education to teens, global warming initiatives, and same-sex marriage all follow the moral coherence pattern. In every case, the more people found an act or policy to be morally wrong, the more costs and fewer benefits they believed to be associated with that act. For instance, the more strongly participants believed that the death penalty was inherently immoral, the less effective they believed it was at deterring future murders (low benefit) and the more often they believed innocent people are wrongly executed (high cost).

These findings are correlational, but in our paper we also describe an experimental study in which we manipulated participants’ beliefs about the inherent morality of a policy (e.g., capital punishment) and found that participants changed their factual beliefs about the costs and benefits associated with that policy. That is, they altered their perceptions of fact to fit their altered moral judgments.

In sum, moral coherence describes the tendency for people to fit their factual beliefs to their moral world-view, so that what is right morally becomes what is right practically as well. Finding political middle-ground is hard enough when policies push people’s moral buttons, but when different factual beliefs arise from different moral evaluations, compromise becomes even more difficult. How do politicians work together when one side believes gun ownership reduces violent crime while the other side believes gun ownership increases violent crime? How can legislation move forward when one side believes legalized abortions save lives and protect victims of sexual assault while the other side believes medical circumstances and rape-related pregnancies are so rare that they cannot justify abortion. Moral coherence between factual and moral beliefs sheds light on why liberals and conservatives seem, at times, to be experiencing completely different realities.

Brittany Liu & Peter Ditto

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments »
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Which party owns which words?

August 20th, 2012 by Jonathan Haidt

[Cross posted from]

I just found a wonderful tool at which shows you the frequency with which any word is used in the congressional record since 1996. (Hat tip to Emily Ekins.) You can see which party uses each word more often, and which Senators and Representatives use the word most often. It offers a quick check on the claims I made in The Righteous Mind about how the Left owns Care and Fairness (as Equality), whereas the Right owns the rest of the moral foundations. I’m ignoring the line graphs plotting changes over time (there are hardly any) and I’ll just present the overall pie charts here:



Pie chart of occurrences of care by party


Pie chart of occurrences of compassion by party

Conclusion: yes, Dems use these words more often.



Pie chart of occurrences of FAIRNESS by party


Pie chart of occurrences of justice by party


Pie chart of occurrences of equality by party

Conclusion: Yes, Dems use these words more, especially “equality.” The words “proportionality” and “equity” rarely occur; there’s no clear word to get at fairness-as-proportionality, which I claim is a concept more valued on the right.



Pie chart of occurrences of liberty by party


Pie chart of occurrences of freedom by party

Conclusion: Yes, Republicans use these words more. It’s a sign of trouble for the liberal party when liberalism forfeits the word liberty.



Pie chart of occurrences of loyalty by party


Pie chart of occurrences of patriotism by party

Conclusion: No, contrary to my prediction, Democrats use the words loyalty and patriotism slightly more often than do Republicans.

5) The Authority/subversion Foundation


Pie chart of occurrences of authority by party


Pie chart of occurrences of obedience by party

Conclusion: No difference on “authority” (which has a great many non-moral uses in a legal and legislative context) but yes on “obedience.”

6) The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation:


Pie chart of occurrences of sanctity by party


Pie chart of occurrences of purity by party

Conclusion: Republicans use these words much more often.

Overall conclusion: This crude measure offers some support for the portrait I painted in chapters 7 and 8 of Righteous Mind: Democrats own the central words of the Care and Fairness foundations, Republicans own the central words of the Liberty and Sanctity foundations. Republicans used one of the two central words of the Authority foundation more than did Democrats, and contrary to my predictions, Democrats used two of the central words of the Loyalty foundations slightly more than did Republicans.

Of course, all of these words are used in many ways, and the next step would be to examine word usage in context. Are Democrats really using the word “authority” in ways that show that they deeply respect authority? For example, the most recent uses in the congressional record on the day I did this analysis are Democrats talking about “a leading authority of Islamic culture” and “Congress has delegated much authority to the D.C. government…” These uses shouldn’t really count. When Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I last did a linguistic analysis of church sermons, we found a similar picture: most of our predictions were supported by raw word counts. But once we analyzed words in context and only counted the cases that truly endorsed a foundation, then all predictions were supported.

Posted in differences between republicans and democrats, moral foundations, political psychology | 1 Comment »

Where to live? Liberal, conservative, & libertarian criteria differ.

July 13th, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

In a line of research led by Matt Motyl, at the University of Virginia, we’ve been exploring ideological differences in preferences for where one lives.  This project is informed by a few ideas already out there.

Given these trends, we would expect liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to differ on what traits are most important in choosing a city to live in.  To test this, we asked participants to allocate 100 importance points to the 10 (out of  46) most important traits that they would use to judge a city.  The idea was to force people to make choices about what is and what is not important as most all of these traits are desirable.  The results, based on over 2000 visitors, largely follow common sense and are shown below with the traits preferred by liberals at the top and by conservatives at the bottom.  For the statistically minded among you, all correlations of .05 or higher are statistically significant.

Where to Live preferences for liberals, conservatives, and libertarians

Perhaps more interesting are the average number of points allocated by liberals, conservatives, moderates, and libertarians to each of these traits.  There is actually a great deal of consensus as to what is important (clean air/water, safety, job opportunities, medical care) even as there are differences (public transportation, family friendly, religiosity).  Also interesting is to note aspects of cities for which libertarians score highest (not too noisy, scientific community, many atheists), which dovetails well with our other research on libertarians.

Average points allocated by ideological group:

Where to Live Points Allocated

There are important plusses and minuses of using non-representative samples.  However, these results generally conform to popular wisdom about these groups, so while the means may differ in the general population, the overall patterns seem likely to generalize.  As with much of our research, the goal isn’t to determine which way of being or which city type is best, but rather to help people more explicitly make choices that may align with their value orientation.  I’m hopeful that the above lists will prove generative when people search the internet for ideas about where to live, a search which apparently is getting more and more common, according to Google Trends.

Where To Live Google Trends

- Ravi Iyer

Posted in conservatives, ideological differences, liberals, libertarians, political psychology, Post Materialism, richard florida, unpublished results, | No Comments »

Positive Emotions and Moral Values

June 23rd, 2012 by frederieke

Positive emotions are nice, we like pursuing them, having them, and sharing them. However, are all positive emotions just as great for other people and the world around us as they are to us? For example, I’ve frequently regretted playing cupid when one of the lovers decided to apply an ‘all fair in love and war’ strategy. Now, I wouldn’t want to argue that positive emotions—especially love—are bad, but I do think it’s interesting and important to consider how the experience of positive emotions influences the people and world around us. Specifically, do some positive emotions have different effects on moral outcomes than other positive emotions?

Research has shown already that positive emotions can influence morality in different ways, even if the emotion is unrelated to the morality situation (e.g., Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Algoe & Haidt, 2009). We (Frederieke van Dongen and Dr. Eric R. Igou) specifically looked at how feelings of love, optimism, relaxation, amusement, compassion, and inspiration influence people’s endorsement of moral values. Based on various studies in which we examined the effects of these emotions on psychological mindsets (i.e., perceived goal fulfillment and globality of perspective), we predicted that love, amusement, and relaxation would lead to less moral outcomes compared to optimism, inspiration, and compassion.

As predicted, we found that when people were experiencing love they indorsed the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity values less than when the experienced optimism, t(55)= 2.12, p = .04.

Also, we found that the feeling of being amused or relaxed led to less endorsement of the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity values than the feeling of inspiration or compassion, t(47) = 2.21, p = .03).

Interestingly, other studies of ours have shown that these different effects of positive emotions on moral values also result in different moral decisions and behaviors in social dilemma situations (Van Dongen & Igou, under review).

Although we focus on the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity moral values, by no means do we mean to deny the existence or importance of the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity moral values. However, so far, we have only found different effects of various positive emotions on the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity moral values.

A possible explanation could be that as the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity moral values are only endorsed by people with a conservative political ideology, and often not understood by people with a liberal political ideology (Haidt & Graham, 2007), a differentiation in people’s political ideology may be necessary to understand the effects of positive emotions. Or, potentially, there may be a different relationship between positive emotions and the conservative values. It would be interesting for future research to further explore this.

– Frederieke van Dongen

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Psychological Differences between Cell Phone and Landline users presents a challenge for polls

May 29th, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

When the NY Times or Gallup reports that Obama or Romney has a lead in the polls, how do they know this?  Typically, they pay people to randomly call people and they extrapolate from this sample, using established statistical methods, to make generalizations to the population.  Some groups won’t respond, especially young adults who often have cellphones and screen their calls.  Many people I know are like this.

Polling guru, Nate Silver, has written about this issue extensively, and Pew has researched it as well.   Cell phone users tend to be younger and more liberal.  Pollsters are used to correcting for such selective non-response (e.g. men selectively non-respond more than women) by weighting their answers.  However, this critically relies on having a variable that you can use to do this weighting.  If cellphone users simply differ on demographic dimensions, weighting should work, but if they differ on other dimensions such as Big 5 personality traits or values, then pollsters will be unable to weight their data.

Do cell phone users differ from landline users on psychological dimensions? The answer is fairly common sense as this is an issue that we all have lots of anecdotal data on.  Of course they do.  The below chart compares cellphone users to landline users based on visitors to who answered a question about their phone usage, with traits related to landline use at the top and traits predicting cellphone use at the bottom.

Psychology of Cell Phone Users

Cellphone users value stimulation, achievement, and hedonism more.  They value tradition, conformity, and security less.  They are less conscientious, more liberal (especially on social issues), and are younger.  Some of these variables are things that pollsters can address by weighting their results (e.g. youth and liberalism), but other variables are things that pollsters do not measure and therefore cannot directly weight for.

Since some of these things vary by ideology, gender and age as well, we can statistically control for these factors and see if we get fewer significant predictors of cellphone usage.  Valuing stimulation and achievement are the remaining significant predictors with valuing tradition and being socially conservative as marginally significant predictors.  Other psychological variables such as being conscientiousness and valuing hedonism are accounted for by controlling for factors that pollsters likely can weight for.  As such, perhaps these psychological variables are less problematic.  It is worth noting that valuing stimulation remains by far the best predictor of cellphone usage (after age) in regression analyses controlling for demographic variables (beta = .13, p<.001).

The sample is not a representative sample, but I think that might be better in this case.  Trying to measure characteristics of people who use cellphones, which I would assume correlates with screening calls and generally being less responsive to surveys, might be better done using non-phone means so that your measurement interacts less with what you are measuring.  The educated, internet savvy users who tend to answer yourmorals surveys are exactly the kind of people you might want to examine and be unlikely to poll via phone.  Further, we aren’t interested in whether the overall population has differences between cellphone users and landline users.  That could be a function of youth (the biggest predictor here).  Rather, we are interested in whether people who have the exact same demographic characteristics and vary only in terms of their cell phone usage may differ in meaningful ways as it is this variance that would confound pollsters.  Using a particular non-representative sample can actually be better for answering questions about the relationship between variables, as certain differences are naturally controlled for with the whole sample being generally internet savvy, educated, and white.  But certainly these findings (like all social science) need to be replicated by others in other datasets to have more confidence.

The take home message?  As noted by Pew and Nate Silver, polls will have to have cellphone samples in order to avoid bias that likely skews against liberal candidates.  Second, if my intuition that heavy cell phone users are unlikely to respond regardless is correct, then even pollsters that poll cellphones may have to start thinking about weighting for non-traditional variables that are a proxy for these psychological variables that predict non-response.  Silver suggests “urban/rural status, technology usage, or perhaps even media consumption habits“.  Third, the psychological profile of cellphone users (seeking novelty, being socially liberal and not valuing tradition) suggests that polls might exhibit more bias on social issues such as gay marriage, and other issues which could reasonably be said to correlate with being a novelty seeker.  These effects aren’t big, but in a world where a few percentage points is big news, they are worth considering when digesting poll results.

- Ravi Iyer

Posted in big 5, cellphone users, news commentary, ny times, obama, personality traits, political psychology, psychological differences, romney, unpublished results, | 6 Comments »

When should we believe social science findings?

May 17th, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

Recently, some colleagues of mine forwarded me this article from the Weekly Standard concerning the use of social science to delegitimize conservatism.  There are some valid points in this article that the author uses to question specific studies.  However, I think the author fails to understand the breadth of evidence that underlies most social science findings.

Social scientists deal with a far more complex subject than scientists who work with rocks or chemicals.  Specifically, human beings have free will.  They can decide to do or not do things in response to a stimulus.  Further, because we care about human beings in a way that we don’t care about rocks, we can’t always design studies perfectly, as we have to respect the wishes of others.  As such, all social science has problems of sampling and generalizability.

But the fact that all social science research has flaws doesn’t mean you should ignore it.  For example, presidential polls have flaws, even with the author’s preferred sampling method, as question wording, non-response, and weighting to correct for non-response all introduce bias.  While each poll is imperfect, each poll still give us some understanding of what is going on in the population.  Perhaps more critically, different polls have different flaws, which means that if you aggregate across measures (e.g. see Nate Silver’s five thirty eight blog), you can get something close to the truth (the same principle underlies the Wisdom of Crowds).  Yes, a survey of volunteers or undergraduates or mechanical turk participants or randomly selected households who will answer a survey, is imperfect.  Yes, artificial experiments, neuroscience correlations, and self-report are all imperfect.  But they are all imperfect in somewhat different ways, and if you find the same thing across each of these samples using a variety of different methodologies, then you can be pretty confident of your findings.

Personally, I don’t believe any single study or paper, and a I wait to see if there is confirmation across research groups, methodologies, and samples before believing any research.  This is true in social science and in other sciences as well.  Andrew Ferguson, who wrote the Weekly Standard piece, is capitalizing on an intuition we all likely share, that so many studies out there report so many facts, many of them contradictory (e.g. is alcohol good for your health?), that we can’t help but question them.  And we should.  Individual studies and papers are not proof, and we probably shouldn’t report them as such.  But much of this research that relates to liberal and conservative differences has many studies using many methodologies and samples behind them, and that is where we can be more confident.  It is for this reason that I increasingly find myself drawn to computer scientists and data scientists who work on questions of aggregation, and as technology starts to pervade social science, my guess is that social science will move more towards aggregation and also place less emphasis on individual papers.

I agree with Ferguson that pathologizing the other side isn’t helpful, but not because the science is wrong, but because the interpretation often is subject to bias.  A lack of empathy can be thought of as an ability to make rational, competent decisions or heartlessness.  Loyalty to one’s family can be thought of as noble or as nepotism.  Reliance on one’s intuition can be thought of as indicative of common sense or of ignorance.  But the fact that these things differ between liberals and conservatives are indeed facts, with as much evidence behind them as facts like cholesterol causes heart disease.  The world’s knowledge graph will eventually encompass not just physical facts, but facts like these as well.

- Ravi Iyer

Posted in business of psychology, generalizability, liberals and conservatives, news commentary, political psychology, ranker, social science research, social scientists, weekly standard, | 3 Comments »

Empathizing vs. Systemizing – A Book Review of Tattoos On The Heart

April 25th, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

I recently read this article from Fast Company about Father Greg Boyle’s work at Homeboy Industries, and just like every other time I’ve encountered stories of this work, it ended with me in tears.  It reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about Tattoos On The Heart, which just might be my favorite book ever.  It certainly is the most moving book I’ve ever read.

Since this is a blog that is largely about psychology, I’d like to frame my discussion of the book in terms of one of my favorite psychological theories of personality, Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing distinction.  Father Boyle is a great empathizer, who seems to “enjoy caring for other people”, is able to “predict how someone will feel”, and knows “what to do in a social situation” (quotes are from Baron-Cohen’s scale).  In contrast, he is a fairly mediocre systemizer (e.g. reading “legal documents very carefully”), if we are to infer that trait from the finance side of Homeboy Industries depicted in Fast Company.  Luckily, he now has help.  This empathizing dimension relates to the two things that I feel are most powerful about Father Boyle.  His ability to forgive and his ability to tell stories.  From the book:

We had lots of enemies in those early days, folks who felt that assisting gang members somehow cosigned on their bad behavior.  Hate mail, death threats, and bomb threats were common…From my office once, I heard a homegirl answer the phone, and say to the caller, “Go ahead and bring that bomb, mutha fucka.  We’re ready for your ass.”…”Uh, Kiddo, um,” I tell her, “Maybe we should just say ‘Have a nice day and God bless you.'”

Some of the gang members have done terrible things, but one of his favorite things to say to those whom most of society would rather ignore is that “you are so much more than the worst thing that you have done.”  In the Fast Company article, they give money to a woman who punched their receptionist in the face.  Sometimes the generosity seems so without limits as to be insane, yet for these youth who have no fear of prison or death, it seems hard to imagine anything but unconditional love being their salvation.  In some ways, Father Greg is giving these youth the unconditional love that many of us take for granted from our parents.

Our data tells a similar story about the characteristics of empathizers.  Empathizers (the blue line) in our dataset, tend to forgive others (as measured by questions like being “understanding of others for the mistakes they’ve made”).

As well, empathizers, in our dataset, also tend to enjoy stories (r=.17, p<.001, N=495), and the second trait that makes Father Boyle unique is his ability to tell stories.  Stories are a way for human beings to communicate not just information, but the feelings that go along with that information.  Indeed, the most common measure of empathy used in psychology, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, uses items like “I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel” and “Becoming extremely involved in a good book or movie is somewhat rare for me” (reverse scored) to measure empathy.  Stories are powerful things.  From the introduction of the book:

I have all these stories and parables locked away in the “Public Storage” of my brain, and I have long wanted to find a permanent home for them.  The usual “containers” for these stories are my homilies at Mass in the twenty-five detention centers where I celebrate the Eucharist…After Mass once, at one of these probation camps, a homie grabbed both my hands and looked me in the eye.  “This is my last Mass at camp.  I go home on Monday.  I’m gonna miss your stories.  You tell good stories.  And I hope….I never have to hear your stories again.”

Father Boyle’s stories really are good and show the polish of years of curation.  They transform me every time I read them, reminding me that while justice may feel good, kindness is far more powerful.

If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.

Food for thought.  Please do read the book and I’ll be quite shocked if you can read the stories in the book without being similarly moved.  I can’t recommend it enough.

- Ravi Iyer

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