The Tea Party and Blasi & Jost’s System Justification Motive

February 25, 2010

What’s been fascinating commentators about the Tea Party is the disconnect between its rhetoric and its second coming, the disconnect which seems starkly clear to the commentators, but to which the Tea Partiers themselves seem quite oblivious. Tea Partiers’ most important banner slogan is “Big Government, stay out of our lives” or any variation thereon.  The question is where were our protectors during the Bush administration, which, as a CNN reporter points out, turned a Clinton surplus into a deficit with a nearly $2 trillion swing, sending the cost of government into the $1.2 trillion figure where it stands today? After all, Obama’s contribution to the massive deficit was a drop in the bucket which was already generously filled during the Bush years.

Gary Blasi and John Jost‘s  work on System Justification Theory (aka SJT) might help explain what’s going on here. Blasi & Jost explore the non-rational decision-making that we all (including, admittedly, Blasi and Jost themselves) engage in. Specifically, they provide ample evidence that the typical self-interest and group identification biases do not fully explain our actions. Why, for example, do members of the disadvantaged groups in our society approve of the social order that continues to disadvantage them and their groups? This is the opposite of the result we would expect if we relied on self-interest and group-identification explanations alone (i.e. if self-interests and group-identification were sole drivers of decision-making we would see near-universal disparagement of the current social order among the members of the disadvantaged groups). Blasi & Jost’s argument (backed up by empirical data, of course) is that we are naturally (and unconsciously) very good at accepting the status quo as the “right” status.  Once any particular order is solidified (i.e. there is very little chance of going back to the previous status quo), we accept it as “correct” and see it “desirable.’  A perfect (and very troubling to a Dem) example was a study by Dan Gilbert where a sample of Texan Dems significantly improved their evaluation of George W. Bush only one month following his victory in the gubernatorial race against Democrat Ann Richards.

So what does all this have to do with the Tea Partiers? Let’s see after the jump.

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Jost and Gun Laws and Policy

January 31, 2010

In his article, Jost contends that conservatives, “most of all [venerate] order and authority.” (citing Erikson, Luttbeg, & Tedin, 1988, p. 75, italics added) At first glance, this contention seems difficult to reconcile with what are generally though of as conservative opinions on gun control laws. After all, if conservatives value order and authority, then why would they not support a government with more authority to control guns, thus being better able to impose order.

As I considered the matter further, I realized that Jost’s theory may not have as much trouble with this fact as it may seem. Perhaps Jost would contend that the conservative desire to live without guns control laws is motivated authority, such as the belief that the right to own a gun, as one Arizona Republican State Senator put it, is “god-given.” Or, maybe Jost would contend that without being able to own guns, conservatives feel that they would lose a sense that they could personally impose order on the world. Finally, I thought Jost may contend that owning a gun would make conservatives feel more comfortable that they could maintain their “rigid and closed-minded” ideology as society changes (i.e. gun ownership makes one feel more able to resist things in general or rebel against society).

Despite these responses, I’m not convinced that conservative views on guns can be neatly explained by Jost’s theory. The broader question that I believe conservatives position on guns control laws raises is how do Jost’s notions of psychology and ideology explain the libertarian ideas that exist in the heads of “conservatives”? Can Jost really provide an explanation, or has he greatly oversimplified the political landscape and ideology in general?

Two Views of Gun Control?

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The Ideology of Populism: How the Tea Party Movement Complicates Jost’s Theory of Ideology

January 31, 2010

Ushered in by a wave of caffeinated populism, the Republican Scott Brown—the anointed Tea Party Candidate—upset Martha Coakley, his Democratic rival, in a heated race for the Massachusetts Senate seat.  The passion of the electorate—whether in the form of Republican anger (followed by excitement) or Democratic anxiety (followed by disappointment)—was palpable.  Take Paul Tusini, who recounted at a Brown rally: “I can’t sleep.  It’s all I can think about.”  Or consider Robert Fox, a Brown supporter who traveled from Wisconsin to Boston to participate in his first campaign, not only because he was angry about ObamaCare, but also because he “hate[d] the imbalance of power in Washington” and “the abuse of the system.”  The Massachusetts election demonstrated that ideology remains a vibrant force in the modern political climate.

To be sure, the ideological fervor of U.S. politics is no longer surprising.  Political polarization between liberals and conservatives is humdrum—only newsworthy when it reaches a feverish pitch.  What is noteworthy about Brown’s victory, however, is the brand of ideology that brought him to power: not old-fashioned conservatism and its predilection for the status quo, but anti-establishment Tea Party populism.

The Tea Party movement—and its triumph in Massachusetts—should make us hesitant to organize U.S. political ideologies merely in terms of the warring poles of “liberalism” and “conservatism.”  This simplistic, binary approach fails to account for the rise of the Tea Party—a movement for which, according to a recent poll, 41 percent of Americans have a positive view, compared to 35% for the Democratic Party and 28% for the Republican Party.  (The movement is gaining so much steam that, according to another poll, a Tea Party presidential candidate would beat out both the Democratic and Republican challenger in a vote by an independent polity.)  In fact, excessive emphasis on the U.S. liberal-conservative divide not only blurs political reality, but also lulled the Massachusetts Democratic Party into a false sense of optimism.  Expecting that the Blue State would vote blue, Coakley et al. neglected to run a rigorous campaign.  Matt Bai of the New York Times recently criticized the erroneous dichotomy:

[There is a] fast-growing swath of voters who can summon no affinity for either party. As in other aspects of modern American life, brand allegiance in politics is at an all-time low; more than a third of Americans (and more than half of all Massachusetts voters) identify themselves as independents rather than as members of the blue team or the red. The most prevalent ideology of the era seems to be not liberalism nor conservatism so much as anti-incumbency, a reflexive distrust of whoever has power and a constant rallying cry for systemic reform.

Not even academia is safe from the conventional, binary empahsis.  In the “End of the End of Ideology,” for example, Professor John Jost declares that ideology is far from dead—but employs the liberal-conservative distinction to prove his point.  The “weak” version of his thesis is that political attitudes arise from dispositional factors (e.g., psychological needs and desires) and situational circumstances.  This conclusion is insightful and non-controversial.  As ideology is grounded in human nature, ideology is and will remain a moving political force—a claim to which a restless a Brown supporter, such as Mr. Tusini, would attest.

Nonetheless, Josts’s article appears to stand for a more provocative proposition—i.e., the “strong” version of Jost’s piece: The political ideology of “liberalism” and “conservatism” each has a distinct, social psychological underpinning.  For example, one’s “attitude toward inequality” and “attitude toward social change versus tradition” can explain and predict whether one is likely to identify as a “liberal” or a “conservative”; meanwhile, whether one identifies as liberal or conservative can explain and predict how one is likely to vote or to think.  As Jost declares:

There is now the possibility of explaining ideological differences between right and left in terms of underlying psychological needs for stability versus change, order versus complexity, familiarity versus novelty, conformity versus creativity, and loyalty versus rebellion.

Jost further suggests that the liberal-conservative divide—with its social psychological foundation—is the dominant force in U.S. political culture:

Public opinion polls show the nation to be sharply divided along ideological lines, and these lines predict political outcomes to a remarkable degree. . . . The argument that most of the population is impervious to the liberal–conservative distinction was probably never on solid empirical ground, but it seems increasingly untenable in the current (red state vs. blue state) political climate.

Put crudely, the strong version of Jost’s thesis is that liberals and conservatives think differently.  Jost concedes that a liberal could turn more conservative in a specific situation (e.g., in response to fearful stimuli, such as 9/11); even then, however, the liberal-turned-conservative is now acting in a “conservative” manner—that is, the liberal-conservative dichotomy retains explanatory and predictive power.

Yet, Brown’s election and the Tea Party movement reveal that using “liberalism v. conservatism” as a conceptual starting point to analyze U.S. political ideology is theoretically and practically problematic.  Although the movement corroborates the weak version of Jost’s thesis, the movement undermines the emphasis and the tone of the strong version.

First, consider the theoretical issue.  If the liberal-conservative distinction defines the current political landscape, as Jost implies, on what side of the left-right line should we place the Tea Party movement?  On the one hand, no serious political observer could deny that much of the Tea Party platform falls right of center.  Brown, for his own part, opposes taxes, same-sex marriage, gun control and “lawyering up terrorists.”  On the other hand, the animating ideology of the Tea Party movement is anti-establishment populism—which, according to Jost, is the hallmark of liberalism and the antithesis of conservativism.  Columnist David Brooks notes that the movement is against “big government, big business, big media,” and the “concentrated power of the educated class.”  (And, as the New York Times reported yesterday, the Republic Party itself is uncertain how to handle the Tea Party.)  The movement feeds into the liberal psychological need for “change”; the movement markets itself as force of “complexity,” “novelty,” “creativity,” and “rebellion”—the precise psychological attributes that characterize the typical liberal.  Brown thus ran as a maverick, an “independent voter and an independent thinker” who would “look out for the best interests of the people of Massachusetts”—“it’s not Ted Kennedy’s seat,” he reminded us, “it’s the people’s seat.”

Here’s the problem: If we, like Jost, limit our analysis to the divergent social psychology of liberalism and conservativism, then we give short shrift to the broad, complex, and colorful spectrum of U.S. political ideology.  For the sake of parsimony, we misrepresent the political reality.  Populism cuts across liberalism and conservativism; its cognitive and situational underpinning is, too, worthy of study.  For example, if the ideology of the Tea Party is marked (1) by a psychological preference of social change over tradition (like liberalism, but unlike conservatism) and (2) by a psychological apathy toward inequality (like conservatism, but unlike liberalism), then does the average populist think like a liberal?  Like a conservative?  A bit of both?

Second, consider the strategic angle.  An overly simplistic outlook of political behavior (e.g., full rationality) may cause a politician to make a non-optimal decision; likewise, an overly simplistic outlook of political ideology (e.g., the liberal-conservative distinction) may cause a politician to falter.  In fact, acceptance of the strong version of Jost’s thesis is one reason that Coakley lost.  To explain: If we assume that the average voter has a robust, predictable, and systematic ideological commitment to either liberalism or conservatism, then it is reasonable to infer that a State that is predominantly liberal will most likely go Democrat.  A liberal person has a distinct psychological makeup; unless a situational variable moves her toward acting in a conservative fashion, it is safe to assume that she will act in a liberal way.  So, a deeply blue Massachusetts should go blue.  Casual observers, pundits, politicians, and White House officials alike were operating under the liberal-conservative assumption.  Primed to expect the conventional, binary liberal-conservative divide, we were shocked.  Moreover, the Massachusetts Democratic Party and the national Democratic Party ran a half-hearted campaign against Brown—assuming that victory at the primary level ensured victory at the state level.  Blinded by their faith in the liberal-conservative distinction, Coakley et al. ignored a grassroots weed growing in their blue home field: Tea Party populism.  The political terrain is complex.  Until we release our penchant for parsimony, the Tea Party will grow under the radar—for better or for worse.


Week 1: Jost and Stat

January 31, 2010

Use of Statistical Data in Social Science

Jost dedicates a small section of his article to discuss psychological differences between liberals and conservatives.  His hypothesis is that there are significant differences of cognitive and motivational style between liberals and conservatives.  The nine variables he uses include fear of death/mortality salience, system instability/threat, dogmatism/ambiguity intolerance, openness to experience, uncertainty avoidance, needs for order/structure/closure, integrative complexity, fear of threat and loss, and self-esteem.  Jost claims that there is a “clear tendency for conservatives to score higher on measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, need for order, structure, and closure and to be lower in openness to experience and integrative complexity than moderates and liberals.”  While Jost seems very adamant about his claims, I am not quite convinced.

                A main issue is that statistical significance does not necessarily reflect practical significance.  According to Jost, “all effect sizes are statistically reliable, p < .001.”  This means that there are statistically significant differences of the variables between the samples.  In the referred study, however, the highest effect size listed in Table 2.2 is .50.  According to Cohen’s guideline for t-Test, this size represents a medium effect at best.  In case of self-esteem, the effect size is -.09, and this number represents small effect.  These numbers represent that the significance of the differences among variables is not big in a practical sense.  Although it is quite common that effect sizes of many educational studies are in the small to medium range, the writer is obliged to carefully state the meanings of the numbers.  Jost, however, seems to be busy solidifying his claims. 

              Assuming that his study was carefully conducted, I agree that the results may convey some meaning.  I actually would have completely believed his claim if I had not seen the appendix.  In fact, Jost’s idea is complex enough that many readers may be too exhausted to scrutinize his claims before finishing a few pages.  But, at this point, I am afraid to say that I am skeptical about the validity and reliability of his study as well as his claim about psychological differences between two different types of people.  I really need to see the details of the studies mentioned in the article.


Jost & Causality

January 31, 2010

While I found Jost’s discussion of the connection between ideology, psychology, decision-making, and identity compelling, I also believed he skimmed over one of the most important underlying issues. Namely, what factors influence or cause an individual to identify with a certain party versus the characteristics that emerge as a result of their affiliation. I am trying to differentiate causation and correlation.

Jost brings this in briefly at the end:

Many other discoveries concerning the causes and consequences of left–right ideological differences await psychologists and other social and behavioral scientists but only if we accept that the differences exist and can be studied scientifically. (Jost, 20)

I am definitely intrigued by Jost’s argument and look forward to further studies in the area that can link ideology in adult life with influences earlier on.

Yes Peeps Can


Political Ideology in the Popular Press

February 15, 2010

This past weekend, in Our Politics May Be All in Our Head, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times presented research on the psychological (and even physiological) differences between liberals and conservatives — a topic which directly relates to our discussion three weeks ago about Professor Jost’s theory of political ideology.

We all know that liberals and conservatives are far apart on health care. But in the way their brains work? Even in automatic reflexes, like blinking? Or the way their glands secrete moisture?

Although Kristof initially finds the research “utterly dispiriting” — given the difficulty of moving ideological opponents who “may not even share our hard-wiring” — he notes that the research could illuminate how to frame political arguments persuasively.


Sample of Situationist Posts

January 25, 2010

Below you’ll find a sample of blog posts from The Situationist.  Take a look at a few of them for a sense of some of the ways legal scholars and social psychologists have been blogging.

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Reporting Social Facts vs. Pining for Jim Crow: No Comparison Between Reid and Lott (by Eric Knowles)

A Convenient Fiction (by Peter Ditto)

Think you’ve got magical powers? (by Emily Pronin)

Situational Sources of Evil – Part I, Part II, & Part III (by Phil Zimbardo)

Why Do Lawyers Acquiesce In Their Clients’ Misconduct? – Part I & Part II (by Sung Hui Kim)

From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part I & Part II (by Phil Zimbardo)

The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent – Part I & Part II (by Mahzarin Banaji)

Too Many To Care (by Paul Slovic)

Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas (by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann)

Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation (by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann)

Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I, Part II, and Part III

Negative Press: Is ESPN Killing the National Hockey League by Influencing Public Attitudes? (by Jason Chung)

David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Jon Ensign, and Now Mark Sanford: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation (by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann)

Person X Situation X System Dynamics (by Phil Zimbardo)

Rent this Space (by Adam Benforado)

“Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II (by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann)

Ideology is Back! (by John Jost)

Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part I, Part II, & Part III (by Jon Hanson & Goutam Jois)

Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green (by Dan Kahan)

Why We Punish (by John Darley & Pam Mueller)

I’m Objective, You’re Biased (by Emily Pronin)

Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent! (by Jon Hanson)

Judging One by the Actions of Another (by Brian Nosek & Kate Ranganath)

Another Century of Genocide? (by Paul Slovic)

The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”? (by Jon Hanson)

Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t (by Jon Hanson)


The Situationist Blog

January 25, 2010

From The Situationist:

The Situationist is a forum for scholars, students, lawyers, policymakers, and interested citizens to examine, discuss, and debate the effect of situational forces – that is, non-salient factors around and within us – on law, policy, politics, policy theory, and our social, political, and economic institutions.

Contributors to The Situationist include the following:

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The Situationist is associated with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School. To visit the Project’s website, click here.