Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Scriber University: Tribalism and Political Psychology 101

If I had to redo my academic career, I think I would do research on, and teach about, political psychology. In that alternate academic universe, my first course would be titled something like Tribalism and Political Partisanship. Naturally, the students are assigned a required reading list emphasizing empirical research. The list would include the target article of Scriber's post today by Ezra Klein and Alvin Yang at vox.com: "Political identity is fair game for hatred": how Republicans and Democrats discriminate.

Conventional thinking about partisanship ties it to politics, plain and simple. Democrats believe one set of things, Republicans another.

But Klein and Yang cover a report out of Stanford University's political communications lab that upends conventional thinking. Partisanship now extends into aspects or our daily lives that one would not believe to be political. Consider first who you would like to have your children marry - or not.

In 1960, Americans were asked whether they would be pleased, displeased, or unmoved if their son or daughter married a member of the other political party.

Respondents reacted with a shrug. Only 5 percent of Republicans, and only 4 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset by the cross-party union. On the list of things you might care about in child's partner — are they kind, smart, successful, supportive? — which political party they voted for just didn't rate.

Fast forward to 2008. The polling firm YouGov asked Democrats and Republicans the same question — and got very different results. This time, 27 percent of Republicans, and 20 percent of Democrats, said they would be upset if their son or daughter married a member of the opposite party. In 2010, YouGov asked the question again; this time, 49 percent of Republicans, and 33 percent of Democrats, professed concern at interparty marriage.

Is that some isolated case? Consider an experiment in which the authors of the research, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, asked a different question. They simulated a college admissions process in which participants in the experiment were asked to decide case by case which applicants would receive a scholarship. The (bogus) applicants varied in Grade Point Average, political background, and race. Here are more details and the outcome.

The experiment was simple. Working with Dartmouth College political scientist Sean Westwood, Iyengar asked about 1,000 people to decide between the résumés of two high school seniors who were competing for a scholarship.

The resumes could differ in three ways: First, the senior could have either a 3.5 or 4.0 GPA; second, the senior could have been the president of the Young Democrats or Young Republicans club; third, the senior could have a stereotypically African-American name and have been president of the African-American Student Association or could have a stereotypically European-American name.

The point of the project was to see how political and cues affected a nonpolitical task — and to compare the effect with race. The results were startling.

When the résumé included a political identity cue, about 80 percent of Democrats and Republicans awarded the scholarship to their co-partisan. This held true whether or not the co-partisan had the highest GPA — when the Republican student was more qualified, Democrats only chose him 30 percent of the time, and when the Democrat was more qualified, Republicans only chose him 15 percent of the time.

Think about that for a moment: When awarding a college scholarship— a task that should be completely nonpolitical — Republicans and Democrats cared more about the political party of the student than the student's GPA. As Iyengar and Westwood wrote, "Partisanship simply trumped academic excellence."

It also trumped race. When the candidates were equally qualified, about 78 percent of African Americans chose the candidate of the same race, and 42 percent of European Americans did the same. When the candidate of the other race had a higher GPA, 45 percent of African Americans chose him, and 71 percent of European Americans chose him.

That's just one example that lead to the conclusion.

Together, the ... experiments suggest that partisanship now extends beyond politics — it's becoming a fundamental identity in American life, and may well lead to discrimination in completely apolitical contexts.

Iyengar's hypothesis is that partisan animosity is one of the few forms of discrimination that contemporary American society not only permits but actively encourages.

"Political identity is fair game for hatred," he says. "Racial identity is not. Gender identity is not. You cannot express negative sentiments about social groups in this day and age. But political identities are not protected by these constraints. A Republican is someone who chooses to be Republican, so I can say whatever I want about them."

You can see an example when you look at the media, Westwood observes. There are no major cable channels devoted to making people of other races look bad. But there are cable channels that seem devoted to making members of the other party look bad. "The media has become tribal leaders," he says. "They’re telling the tribe how to identify and behave, and we’re following along."

What Iyengar and Westwood's research shows, however, is that partisanship is no longer just a political phenomenon. Party and ideology have become powerful forms of personal identity, and the way they inform our lives — who we listen to, who we help, even who we love — now stretches far beyond the political realm.

And party and ideology might even extend to shaping who and what we worship, I submit. I haven't started to think about the conjunction of this tribalism and religion. I invite ideas.

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