The "partisan warrior" effect: A researcher tells Salon how men listen less and talk more -- and what it means for our country

"Men were taking less time to think about the other side’s opinion ... whereas women were the inverse"

Published February 6, 2015 6:42PM (EST)

Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                   (Reuters/Jason Reed/J. Scott Applewhite/photo montage by Salon)
Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Jason Reed/J. Scott Applewhite/photo montage by Salon)

Men are ruining the country, according to science. (Just kidding. Mostly.)

A new study on gender and partisan bias found that when men and women were both asked to read an article they were told was written by a person with an opposing political viewpoint (Democratic or Republican), women were more open to the ideas presented even though they were different from their own. Researchers Patrick Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover also found that, even though they engaged less with the editorial, men were more likely to form a strong opinion on it.

"The men were taking less time to think about the other side’s opinion, but even though they engaged with it less, they were more likely to have an opinion, whereas women were in the inverse of that," Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas, told me over Skype this week. "One of the theories we applied was this idea of intergroup anxiety. Basically the idea that if you expect interacting with someone in an outgroup -- which for Democrats the outgroup is Republicans and vice versa -- will be a negative experience, that will make you angry, upset or anxious, then you tend not to interact with that group."

What Miller found in his research with Johnston Conover was that men "expected that interacting with the other party would be a much more negative experience" more than women, and so further isolate in what is already a very partisan, very isolated political climate.

I talked with Miller about what might explain the gender partisan gap, if more women in Congress could lessen the gridlock and how voters often contribute to the hyper partisan climate they claim to detest. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Why was this a question you wanted to look into?

One thing that other political scientists have found is that the average Democrat and Republican, just on the street, increasingly dislike each other, even though they’re not that far apart on issues. So when Pam and I started this research we wanted to get into the topic of symbolic politics between parties and what partisans think of each other, and how that affects how they interact.

We were applying different psychological theories of intergroup relations to how Democrats and Republicans interact. One of the theories we applied was this idea of intergroup anxiety. Basically the idea that if you expect interacting with someone in an outgroup -- which for Democrats the outgroup is Republicans and vice versa -- will be a negative experience, that will make you angry, upset or anxious, then you tend not to interact with that group. That also tends to make your assessments of that group much more negative, and that really fits with a lot of what we’re seeing in politics today of how evidence suggests that Democrats and Republicans may be socially isolating themselves from one another.

So what we found among the people in the national survey that we did was that most of them were not having regular discussion with people of the other party, but we found an interesting gender difference in that men had higher levels of intergroup anxiety than women. Men expected that interacting with the other party would be a much more negative experience than women did, which we thought was very interesting. This was the first time that anyone had applied this theory to politics. It’s been applied to race-relations and intergroup relations based on religion or ethnicity, but never to politics before.

Other studies have found that women feel less anxiety about interacting with different groups?

In some cases. Whenever a gender difference did exist, particularly in race relations, women did tend to be less negative towards those interactions than men. Again, we’re the first study that’s looked at this in politics, so seeing how much that replicated and plays out in a different context is something that other research will do in the future.

But we did find some interesting effects of that. Particularly men who expected those interactions to be negative were much less likely to talk with the other party, and that was especially true the stronger their partisanship was, but also if they were exposed to competitive elections, which is kind of an interesting phenomenon because it says that partisan elections are not bringing us together as Democrats and Republicans to talk about issues. They’re actually driving us apart and isolating us from each other.

Why is that?

They increase our negative assessments of the other parties, so as a result, we just don’t interact. So that was the first part of the study with the survey, and then we followed that up with an experiment on undergraduates, where we exposed them to just a little fake news story about Democrats and Republicans having a position on Internet sales taxation, an issue that really isn’t that prominent.

We found that when that message was framed as coming from your own party, there wasn’t any kind of gender difference. But when the headline said that it was the other party, the Democrats or Republicans that had a position on that issue, we found a pretty interesting difference. Male partisans paid a lot less attention to the story in terms of how long they spent reading it, but even though they spent less time engaging with that article, they were more likely than the women in the study to form an opinion about the argument and the article.

And they formed a very strong opinion about it. So the men were taking less time to think about the other side’s opinion, but even though they engaged with it less, they were more likely to have an opinion, whereas women were in the inverse of that.

This is not an easily answerable question, but why do you think that is?

This comes to an area of disagreement I think between psychology and some other social sciences when they think about the origin of gender differences and behavior. There is one school of thought that says any gender differences might be biologically driven through brain patterns or hormones. Another school of thought says gender differences are all learned. It could be a bit of both, but we were coming from this theory called the male warrior hypothesis that says whether it be from partly biology, partly socialization, whatever the source, men may be more hard-wired to fight, basically.

Intergroup relations come up, so men are more likely to be conflictual in intergroup instances. If you think about that in the context of partisan politics, our evidence seems to suggest that if men more readily think that cross-party interaction is going to be negative, and if that’s your expectation, how rationally do you approach those situations?

If I’m a strong partisan of one party and you’re a strong partisan of the other party, it’s probably not worth my time to engage with you. I don’t like you. I’ not going to convince you of my opinion. You’re not going to convince me I’m wrong. That’s just not worth my time. What is worth my time is to take the contempt I have towards you and go out and beat you in campaigns.

In other research Pam and I are doing, we’ve actually seen that-- that those partisans who dislike the other side the most are the most motivated to engage in campaign participation and to vote. Coming back to your question, I think it’s very hard to resolve the source of those differences, whether it’s something like learning or biology, but at least in the context of Democrats and Republicans, we are seeing evidence that men may approach it more as a war to some extent than women.

There was a lot of discussion about gender and partisan politics in 2013 when a bipartisan coalition of women in Congress collaborated to help end the shutdown. I remember writing at the time that, rather than some kind of natural instinct, women may experience more pressure to negotiate and succeed through consensus because there are just so few of them in Congress. The consequences of failing seem higher, somehow. 

Possibly, and I think that we’ve heard that sentiment echoed a lot. Susan Collins [Republican senator from Maine] has talked about it in the context of the shut-down. I know I’ve seen Lisa Murkowski, [Republican senator from Alaska] say that women are really turned off by the war and sports analogies in politics.

From her point of view, women just don’t see it that way but men do, and that could be the case. I think that what our research suggests, and we’re just looking at average citizens -- politicians in the context of Congress and institutions with norms, it’s a little bit more of a different situation. But if we’re trying to build a bridge between, say, what we found and between Congress, I think that what our research says is that listening is the first stop to hopefully being more open to compromise.

Compromise requires deliberation and engagement over what you think and what your opponent thinks and where you can come together and what can be sacrificed and what needs to be valued and you can’t have those conversations across partisan lines unless you’re willing to be open minded and to listen. I think that’s certainly what we found in our research.

But it’s not like female partisans don’t have these kinds of negative feelings -- they do. They have fewer of them than men and when they have them, and they’re less likely to be susceptible to the kinds of biases they produce. So some of those negative aspects could still be there for women, but I think that the implication is certainly that women may be better at being open minded and that could be the first step to compromise.

If women really are less partisan, do you think increased voter participation among women could produce a less polarized kind of politics?

It’s possible. You’d really have to see how well that plays out, and not all women are going to be the same. Joni Ernst is new, but I would put money on Joni Ernst not being a Susan Collins or an Olympia Snowe [former Republican senator from Maine], so I wouldn’t put all women in the same box necessarily.

Of course.

It will depend on the context of not only what kind of women come into politics but what are the pressures on them in terms of party loyalty versus wanting to advance policy. It could be something that’s very situational. We could see that women may be more likely to compromise in some situations than others. And you also need a critical mass of women as well for that to really be important.

We have 20 women in the Senate now, and that’s a lot more than we used to have. As those numbers grow, we could go from something like the gang of 14 to maybe a gang of 30 or 40 that might be more effective at building these bridges. So I think there’s a lot of room for speculation there in terms of how that will pan out.

I think one important thing in that though is that if we look at Congress, most of the women in Congress are Democrats. Republicans certainly have a deficit there and the female candidates may have a harder time getting out of Republican primaries because of gender stereotypes than female Democrats. I think if you’re looking for women to make politics less dysfunctional, you not only need more of them but you need more in both parties, especially Republican women. That’s a demographic that is rather lacking comparatively right now.

Are you going to continue to look into these questions with additional research?

Actually, this is just one paper in a series that we’re doing about how citizens play into polarization. What got us started in this is just coming back to that point of what other scholars have shown, that the average Democrat and average Republican are not that far apart on issues but they hate each other a lot of the time, and so I think if there’s anything that I take out of all this research that we’re doing, it’s that as easily and readily as we condemn Washington and condemn politicians for the “mess they created,” citizens have some responsibility in that.

We choose those elected officials. “Partisan Warrior” is part of the title of our paper. It could be the case that politicians go to D.C. and act dysfunctional -- they fight and don’t compromise -- because that’s what partisans are looking for. I think you see some evidence of that in primaries, especially on the Republican side. So I think if we as citizens, regardless of gender, regardless of party, are going to condemn the system, we need to look at the role that we play in that and ask how much are we enabling that dysfunction, and we’re seeing that all throughout our research, not just how we think of the other side, but what we think of compromise, how often we discuss politics with the other side, or any kind of group related phenomenon. We’re disengaging and we’re thinking about partisan politics much more symbolically than we are about issues, and that’s not very healthy.

Renee Ellmer’s recently withdrew her support from a 20-week abortion ban that she had previously voted for, and the bill collapsed as a result. A number of antiabortion organizations have now said that they are planning to primary her from the right as a form of retaliation. So in response to what appeared to be a strategic, even cynical move on a measure that she supported but knew had horrible optics, she very well might be punished -- for the thing that voters say that they want, which is for politicians to compromise and act strategically.

Right. I lived in Chapel Hill at the time, in 2010, when she initially won her seat and I read the stories about her and the abortion bill and I was just shocked because I remember her as being the woman with the victory mosque ad, who ran an incredibly partisan, incredibly negative campaign, and to her credit she won. But she was not someone who campaigned as a moderate or a compromiser.

If you’d asked me at the time I would’ve said that she was a true believer aligned with the Tea Party. And that may or may not be true. You just think that of all the politicians who might gain a primary challenge, she would not be the one. But I think that this demonstrates, and again, you’ve seen this from the republican side, for a lot of republican primary voters, there’s a desire for purity -- 90 percent conservative, 95 percent conservative, may not cut it for a lot of those voters.

If there’s an issue that you’re going to not quite toe the party line, that could be enough to drive them away from you. Again, I would say that voters like that -- it’s easy for you to condemn politicians for engaging in compromising behavior, but average citizens -- and it’s easy for us to throw stones -- don’t have to have any actual responsibility ever for making government work. We can sit here on the sidelines and scream purity, stick to your principles, don’t compromise, as much as we want, but that doesn’t make government run. You see those sentiments on both sides. I think in the primaries, you see it more on Republican side, but it’s an unhealthy phenomenon that we as citizens are driving that I think we bear some responsibility for.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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