Opening Minds

Kevin Lewis

May 15, 2020

Political depression? A big-data, multimethod investigation of Americans’ emotional response to the Trump presidency
Almog Simchon et al.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, forthcoming


Previous studies suggested that the 2016 presidential elections gave rise to pathological levels of election-related distress in liberal Americans; however, it has also been suggested that the public discourse and the professional discourse have increasingly overgeneralized concepts of trauma and psychopathology. In light of this, in the current research, we utilized an array of big data measures and asked whether a political loss in a participatory democracy can indeed lead to psychopathology. We observed that liberals report being more depressed when asked directly about the effects of the election; however, more indirect measures show a short-lived or nonexistent effect. We examined self-report measures of clinical depression with and without a reference to the election (Studies 1A & 1B), analyzed Twitter discourse and measured users’ levels of depression using a machine-learning-based model (Study 2), conducted time-series analysis of depression-related search behavior on Google (Study 3), examined the proportion of antidepressants consumption in Medicaid data (Study 4), and analyzed daily surveys of hundreds of thousands of Americans (Study 5), and saw that at the aggregate level, empirical data reject the accounts of “Trump Depression.” We discuss possible interpretations of the discrepancies between the direct and indirect measures. The current investigation demonstrates how big-data sources can provide an unprecedented view of the psychological consequences of political events and sheds light on the complex relationship between the political and the personal spheres.

Polarization and Public Health: Partisan Differences in Social Distancing during the Coronavirus Pandemic
Hunt Allcott et al.
NBER Working Paper, April 2020


We study partisan differences in Americans’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Political leaders and media outlets on the right and left have sent divergent messages about the severity of the crisis, which could impact the extent to which Republicans and Democrats engage in social distancing and other efforts to reduce disease transmission. We develop a simple model of a pandemic response with heterogeneous agents that clarifies the causes and consequences of heterogeneous responses. We use location data from a large sample of smartphones to show that areas with more Republicans engage in less social distancing, controlling for other factors including state policies, population density, and local COVID cases and deaths. We then present new survey evidence of significant gaps between Republicans and Democrats in beliefs about personal risk and the future path of the pandemic.

The Declining Middle: Occupational Change, Social Status, and the Populist Right
Thomas Kurer
Comparative Political Studies, forthcoming


This article investigates the political consequences of occupational change in times of rapid technological advancement and sheds light on the economic and cultural roots of right-wing populism. A growing body of research shows that the disadvantages of a transforming employment structure are strongly concentrated among semiskilled routine workers in the lower middle class. I argue that individual employment trajectories and relative shifts in the social hierarchy are key to better understand recent political disruptions. A perception of relative economic decline among politically powerful groups — not their impoverishment — drives support for conservative and, especially, right-wing populist parties. Individual-level panel data from three postindustrial democracies and original survey data demonstrate this relationship. A possible interpretation of the findings is that traditional welfare policy might be an ineffective remedy against the ascent of right-wing populism.

Stereotypes and Politics
Pedro Bordalo, Marco Tabellini & David Yang
Harvard Working Paper, April 2020


We examine US voters’ beliefs about views held by Republicans and Democrats. While individuals exaggerate partisan differences on a range of socioeconomic and political issues, we document that belief distortions are larger on issues that individuals consider more important. We organize these facts using a model of stereotypes where distortions are stronger for issues that are more salient to voters. In line with the model, belief distortions are predictable from the differences across parties, in particular the relative prevalence of extreme attitudes. To assess the impact of issue salience, we show that the end of the Cold War in 1991, which shifted US voters’ attention away from external threats and towards domestic issues, led to an increase in perceived polarization in the latter, and more so for issues with more stereotypical partisan differences. The reverse pattern occurred after the terrorist attacks in 2001, when attention swung back towards external threats. The distortions we identify are quantitatively significant, and could have important consequences for political engagement as such distortions strongly predict voting turnout.

Political differences in free will belief are associated with differences in moralization
Jim Everett et al.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming


In 14 studies, we tested whether political conservatives’ stronger free will beliefs were linked to stronger and broader tendencies to moralize and, thus, a greater motivation to assign blame. In Study 1 (meta-analysis of 5 studies, n = 308,499) we show that conservatives have stronger tendencies to moralize than liberals, even for moralization measures containing zero political content (e.g., moral badness ratings of faces and personality traits). In Study 2, we show that conservatives report higher free will belief, and this is statistically mediated by the belief that people should be held morally responsible for their bad behavior (n = 14,707). In Study 3, we show that political conservatism is associated with higher attributions of free will for specific events. Turning to experimental manipulations to test our hypotheses, we show the following: when conservatives and liberals see an action as equally wrong there is no difference in free will attributions (Study 4); when conservatives see an action as less wrong than liberals, they attribute less free will (Study 5); and specific perceptions of wrongness account for the relation between political ideology and free will attributions (Study 6a and 6b). Finally, we show that political conservatives and liberals even differentially attribute free will for the same action depending on who performed it (Studies 7a–d). These results are consistent with our theory that political differences in free will belief are at least partly explicable by conservatives’ tendency to moralize, which strengthens motivation to justify blame with stronger belief in free will and personal accountability.

Political Ideology and Executive Functioning: The Effect of Conservatism and Liberalism on Cognitive Flexibility and Working Memory Performance
Bryan Buechner et al.
Social Psychological and Personality Science, forthcoming


Although models of political ideology traditionally focus on the motivations that separate conservatives and liberals, a growing body of research is directly exploring the cognitive factors that vary due to political ideology. Consistent with this emerging literature, the present research proposes that conservatives and liberals excel at tasks of distinct working memory processes (i.e., inhibition and updating, respectively). Consistent with this hypothesis, three studies demonstrate that conservatives are more likely to succeed at response inhibition and liberals are more likely to succeed at response updating. Moreover, this effect is rooted in different levels of cognitive flexibility and independent of respondents’ demographics, intelligence, religiosity, and motivation. Collectively, these findings offer an important perspective on the cognitive factors that delineate conservatism and liberalism, the role of cognitive flexibility in specific working memory processes, and the impact of political ideology on a multitude of behaviors linked to inhibition and updating (e.g., creativity, problem-solving, self-control).

Demographic change and political polarization in the United States
Levi Boxell
Economics Letters, forthcoming


I construct an index of political polarization using seven previously used measures. I estimate the relative propensity for polarization across demographic groups and examine the extent to which demographic change can explain recent trends in polarization. Assuming fixed propensities for polarization across groups, 34 percent of the change in polarization between 1984 and 2016 can be attributed to demographic change in the United States. Shifts in the educational, religious, and age compositions of the United States are the main contributing factors.

How Do Partisans Navigate Elite Intra-group Dissent? Leadership, Partisanship, and the Limits of Democratic Accountability
Alexandra Filindra & Laurel Harbridge
University of Illinois Working Paper, April 2020


Democratic erosion has led scholars to query how voters respond to leaders who violate norms. Given polarization and the centrality of identity in partisan affiliations, criticism by co-partisan elites may be crucial to checking party leaders. We draw on theories of partisanship as a social identity as well as perspectives on leadership and dissent to theorize how partisans respond to misbehavior by an ingroup leader, and to criticism of the leader by a co-partisan. We test our expectations through multiple survey experiments. We find evidence of ingroup bias in evaluations of the misbehaving leader and little evidence that ingroup dissent is an effective constraint on leaders. Except in the most serious leadership transgressions of ‘hard’ norms, people rally around leaders when confronted with dissent by co-partisan elites. Overall, the results suggest that ingroup dissent may not lead to leader accountability.

“Escape from Freedom”: Authoritarianism-related traits, political ideology, personality, and belief in free will/determinism
Thomas Costello, Shauna Bowes & Scott Lilienfeld
Journal of Research in Personality, forthcoming


Philosophers have long speculated that authoritarianism and belief in determinism are functionally related. To evaluate this hypothesis, we assessed whether authoritarianism and allied personality and political variables predict varieties of belief in determinism in three community samples (N1 = 566 to 20,010; N2 = 500; N3 = 419). Authoritarianism and allied variables manifested moderate to large positive correlations with both fatalistic and genetic determinism beliefs. Controlling for political conservatism did not meaningfully attenuate these relations. Further, openness was negatively related to fatalistic determinism beliefs and agreeableness was negatively related to genetic determinism beliefs. Taken together, our findings clarify the nature of relations between authoritarianism and general personality, on the one hand, and free will/determinism beliefs, on the other, and suggest intriguing intersections between worldviews and personality traits.

The ABC of society: Perceived similarity in agency/socioeconomic success and conservative-progressive beliefs increases intergroup cooperation
Alex Koch et al.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, forthcoming


The dimensions that explain which societal groups cooperate more with which other groups remain unclear. We predicted that perceived similarity in agency/socioeconomic success and conservative-progressive beliefs increases cooperation across groups. Self-identified members (N = 583) of 30 society-representative U.S. groups (gays, Muslims, Blacks, upper class, women, Democrats, conservatives etc.) played an incentivized one-time continuous prisoner's dilemma game with one self-identified member of each of these groups. Players knew nothing of each other except one group membership. Consistent with the ABC (agency-beliefs-communion) model of spontaneous stereotypes, perceived self-group similarity in agency and beliefs independently increased expected and actual cooperation across groups, controlling for shared group membership. Similarity in conservative-progressive beliefs had a stronger effect on cooperation than similarity in agency, and this effect of similarity in beliefs was stronger for individuals with extreme (progressive or conservative) compared to moderate beliefs.

Talking Politics: The Relationship Between Supportive and Opposing Discussion With Partisan Media Credibility and Use
Jay Hmielowski et al.
Communication Research, forthcoming


In this article, we test a dynamic intracommunication process looking at the relationships between interpersonal discussion, perceived credibility of partisan media, and partisan media use. Using the theoretical foundation of hostile media perceptions, with a specific focus on relative hostile media, we examine whether interpersonal communication affects perceived credibility of liberal and conservative media outlets and whether these effects translate into increased use or avoidance of partisan media outlets. Using data collected during the 2016 U.S. election, we find that supportive interpersonal discussion is associated with greater perceived credibility of liberal media outlets (e.g., MSNBC) among liberals, which results in increased use of liberal leaning news outlets. In addition, we find that discussion with those who hold opposing views is associated with increased perceived credibility of conservative media outlets (e.g., Fox News) among conservatives, which translates into greater use of conservative leaning outlets. Similarly, talking to those who hold opposing views decreases perceived credibility of liberal media outlets (e.g., MSNBC) among conservatives, resulting in decreased use of liberal leaning outlets.

The supply of media slant across outlets and demand for slant within outlets: Evidence from US presidential campaign news
Marcel Garz et al.
European Journal of Political Economy, forthcoming


We conduct across-outlet and within-outlet (and within-topic) analyses of “congenially” slanted news. We study “horse race” news (news on candidates' chances in an upcoming election) from six major online outlets for the 2012 and 2016 US presidential campaigns. We find robust evidence that horse race headlines were slanted congenially with respect to the preferences of the outlets' typical readers. However, evidence of congenial slant in the timing and frequency of horse race stories is weaker. We also find very limited evidence of greater within-outlet demand for headlines most congenial to outlets' typical readers, and somewhat stronger evidence of greater demand for relatively uncongenial headlines. We discuss how various aspects of our results are consistent with each of the major mechanisms driving slant studied in the theoretical literature, and may help explain when each mechanism is more likely to come into play. In particular, readers may be more likely to click on uncongenial headlines due to inferring that these stories are particularly informative when they stand in contrast to an outlet's typically congenial slant.



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