The psychology of political parties: Why conservatives fall in line and liberals don’t

Research suggests liberals suffer from a sense of false uniqueness -- and they strive to maintain their difference

Topics: Scientific American, Grand Old Party, Democrats, liberal, consercative, Politics, Psychology, ,

The psychology of political parties: Why conservatives fall in line and liberals don't (Credit: istockphoto \ Iqoncept)
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanWhen he was President, Bill Clinton famously (and perhaps apocryphally) complained that getting Democrats to agree on a course of action was like herding cats, while the Republicans didn’t seem to have this problem. All political parties are large coalitions of people with varied interests and beliefs, but is it possible that ideological differences between the parties could play a decisive role here?

new paper by researchers at New York University, in press at Psychological Science, suggests that the answer is yes. A large body of psychological research has shown that people tend to overestimate how much others share their beliefs, feelings, and practices. But this new research suggests that this is not the case for those on the left end of the political spectrum – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Conservatives and moderates overestimated the degree to which other conservatives and moderates were like them, while liberals assumed they were more unique among party peers than they actually were. This “liberal uniqueness” perceptive bias could help to explain why it’s harder to get Democrats to fall in line than it is for Republicans.

Led by Chadly Stern, the scientists begin by contrasting the conservative Tea Party movement, which has successfully organized its own congressional caucus, with the liberal Occupy Wall Street movement, which was hobbled by its inability to reach consensus on issues both large (what’s our agenda?) and small (how should we respond to the NYPD’s request to take down signs?). While group member similarities (in goals, beliefs, preferences, and personalities) are crucial for organizational success, the authors wondered whether perceptions of in-group similarities were just as important. In other words, maybe if group members only thought they were the same, the group would function better.

In the first study, hundreds of people online answered forty questions about preferences and beliefs, half of them political (“America should strive to strengthen its military”) and half non-political (“I like poetry”). They then estimated what percentage of study participants who share their political beliefs (political in-group members) would agree with them on each item – in other words, if you’re a conservative, and you indicated that you liked poetry, you then estimated what percentage of other conservatives in the study liked poetry as well. Stern and colleagues then compared those estimateswith the actual figues to determine whether each participant overestimated their similarity to their political in-group (false consensus) or underestimated it (false uniqueness).

You Might Also Like

Conservatives overestimated how similar their preferences were to those of other conservatives (false consensus), while liberals underestimated how similar their preferences were to those of other liberals (false uniqueness). Political moderates also overestimated their similarity to other moderates, in line with previous findings that people in general overestimate how much other people share their preferences and beliefs. This was the case for both political (e.g., military spending) and non-political (e.g., poetry) preferences.

The second study replicated the design of the first, with one twist: everyone also filled out the Need for Uniqueness scale, with questions like “If I must die let it be an unusual death rather than an ordinary death in bed.” Again, conservatives and moderates overestimated how similar they were to their political in-group, while liberals underestimated their similarity to their political in-group. Further, these ideological differences were in part accounted for by people’s need for uniqueness – the more you expressed the desire to be different from those around you, the more you underestimated how similar you were. This suggests that liberals think they’re unique among liberals in part because they want to be unique.

Anyone who’s ever been part of a liberal counter-cultural clique will recognize this pressure to be unique, which can easily turn into an arms race. You’ve got a tattoo? Well, my skin is nothing but tattoos. You make artisanal pickles? Well, I make artisanal horseradish. You have a pet ferret? Well, I have a pet camel. And so on. But it’s this motivation to be unique – even among other liberals – that makes liberals alike. It’s a bit like the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where a crowd of hundreds chants in unison: “Yes, we are all individuals! Yes, we are all different!”

While the findings make sense in light of ideological stereotypes like the gotta-be-different liberal hipster, or the conformist conservative soldier, they might not apply as well to contemporary American politics. These days you’re more likely to hear the “herding cats” phrase in reference to John Boehner’s attempts to reconcile the Tea Party faction with the rest of the Republicans in the House. It remains to be seen whether the conservative false consensus effect can lead to any real consensus in the GOP.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...