SPSP 2012: Political Polarization

What’s that?

This is some sort of big year for American politics?

Ah, yes – it’s 2012. We’re in the middle of the Republican primaries, there’s a presidential election in 9 months, and political psychology was all over this year’s SPSP conference, including a symposium on Friday morning titled “Political Polarization.”

First, Dena Gromet spoke about how liberals and conservatives respond differently to the role of “luck” in people’s success. Specifically, conservatives in particular seem to be really opposed to the idea that people’s outcomes could simply be due to good (or bad) luck. Gromet discussed research where participants read an account of Mayor Bloomberg’s success; this account either attributed his success to effort & hard work, or to luck and chance. According to her talk, the more conservative a participant was, the less credit he/she was willing to give to the importance of luck. Specifically, even when luck was explicitly described as part of his success story, conservatives didn’t weight its importance as highly as the liberals did, but both conservatives and liberals rated the importance of hard work equally. When it comes to success, conservatives don’t seem to want to see “luck” as having anything to do with it! In the end, Gromet claimed that drawing attention to luck can actually be polarizing and increase the political divide between liberals and conservatives. With this knowledge, it should be fun to watch the eventual presidential debates and see how many times Obama and the yet-to-be-determined Republican presidential nominee talk about good (or bad) luck.

Next, John Chambers spoke about the American public’s perception of political polarization. Many people believe that Republicans and Democrats have become more polarized in recent years, but this may not actually be true. After polling a bunch of Republicans and Democrats on ten political issues (e.g. women’s equality and defense spending), researchers then asked the participants to estimate how the other party feels about those same issues. As it turns out, all groups overestimate the size of the difference between the two parties. However, this effect is particularly pronounced in one group: Strongly identified party members. When people note that they identify as “Strongly Democrat/Republican” (as opposed to “Moderately” or “Weakly”), they are more likely to perceive the level of polarization as much higher. This has some important behavioral outcomes, too; participants who perceived higher levels of polarization were more likely to vote and become politically involved.

Third, Jon Krosnick had a really interesting talk about when exactly the polarization between Democrats and Republicans on the topic of climate change began. According to Krosnick, it can be traced back to the 1997 White House conference on global climate change, during which there was a big message from the Democratic White House about the serious problem of global warming. The research team collected surveys from people before the conference and afterwards, and what they found was pretty interesting. Apparently, before the conference occurred, a huge majority of Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) recognized that climate change was a major problem; 78% of Americans said they thought global warming had been happening, 74% thought if nothing was done to stop it, it would continue, 63% said it would be bad for people, 80% thought reducing air pollution would help, and a whopping 91% of study participants thought that it should be required for the federal government to limit air pollution.

After the conference, nothing changed in terms of exposure; people reported being just as likely to see news stories about climate change in their local papers and on TV. But what did change was the speed with which they reported their attitudes about global warming when asked. This is typically used as a measure of how strong attitudes are, and the increase in reporting speed suggests that something happened to help “crystallize” people’s opinions. Yet the country didn’t actually become more green. So what happened?

As it turns out, although the Democrats’ opinions stayed fairly constant, the Republicans’ opinions about climate change seemed to boomerang. After the Democratic White House’s conference, polarization started happening “beneath the surface” as Republicans began shifting their opinions away from those of the Democratic leaders and becoming progressively less likely to view global warming as a serious problem. That’s a pretty dismal finding.

Finally, Leaf Van Boven gave a talk on the perception of political polarization, and why some people are more likely to see a divide. In an October 2008 National Survey, the researchers gathered a representative sample of 848 people and asked them to indicate their levels of support for McCain and Obama, in addition to their perceptions of what they think the distribution of the rest of the country’s support looks like. As it turns out, people not only project their attitudes onto others, they can also project attitude extremity. Similar to what John Chambers reported, people with particularly extreme attitudes were most likely to perceive high levels of polarization in the rest of the country as well.

What can we take away from this? Making “luck” salient might push conservatives away from a message and make their attitudes more polarized. If people from one political party endorse something, it might make people from the other party change their opinions in the opposite direction, even if they previously agreed with those stances. And finally, extreme people will see extreme attitudes all around them, which might make certain groups more likely to overestimate how different our country’s political opinions really are.





Krosnick, J. A., Holbrook, A. L., & Visser, P. S. (2000). The impact of the Fall 1997 debate about global warming on American public opinion. Public Understanding of Science

USA flag/map image from Lokal_Profil via Wikimedia Commons

Four Leaf Clover image from Хацкер via Wikimedia Commons

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