If You Read Only One Social Psychological Study This Year, This Should Be It!

Michelle Bachmann and Steve King as madonna and child in tinfoil hats

U.S. Reps. Michelle Bachman and Steve King claiming conspiratorial knowledge that justifies their every prejudice. (Note: should not be confused with actual religious figures.)

One of the long list of things that I have intended to do since I returned to Orange County in late 2006, but have not yet done, is to ring up Pete Ditto, the Chair of the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior in UCI’s School of Social Psychology.  I met Pete 28 years ago this month, as I recall, when I was an entering graduate student at Michigan and he was a post-doctoral student at that university’s Research Center for Group Dynamics, a couple of offices down from me.  He was an affable guy in round-rimmed glasses, who if I recall correctly worked on a study with my close friend Ann.  He stood out in the minds of many graduate students because at one point he snapped a tendon in his leg (without apparent cause, as I recall) and spent what seemed like months limping around painfully on crutches.

In grad school I was very enthused about researching the psychology of political issues, which was not so much the favored career path in that department in the middle of the Reagan Administration.  It looks like times have changed since then, and Pete Ditto and doctoral student Brittany Liu of UCI have just come up with a study that truly packs a wallop.

You can read about their study here, in an article that was first published in Salon but can now be accessed without the pay wall.  If you feel intrepid this fine morning, you can read a PDF of the whole article in its native form here.  Everyone should read at least one academic social psychology in their life — why not let this be yours?

Ditto and Liu have been blessed with the sort of luck in the timing of a publication that you just cannot buy.  Their article, which appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, came out hot on the heels of Rep. Todd Akin’s rewriting of the facts of female reproductive biology to suit his ideological slant.  Akin expressed his belief, as a member of the no-I-am-not-kidding-about-this House Committee on Science, that women who were “legitimately raped” (i.e., not faking having been raped to ward off shame or whatever) do not get pregnant because their bodies had a mechanism to shut down the pregnancy.  It follows as night must follow day there is no need for a “rape exception” to laws against abortion.

One serious problem with Akin’s analysis is that his ignorance of reproductive biology is stunning: rape victims are, if anything, more likely to get pregnant, because among other things they are less likely than women who planned a sexual encounter to have used birth control.  This led to Republican politicians all the way down to Rep. Ed Royce condemning Akin’s comments on the basis that — well, that’s unclear.  (Note to self: must explore this.  What exactly is Royce’s objection?  Must find someone to ask him.)

So, in Akin’s wake, Liu and Ditto’s study tested whether, given the opportunity to shape facts to suit an ideological narrative, liberals or conservatives were more likely to do so.  They examined “moral dilemmas,” in which the material consequences of a moral choice (leading to more or less money, happiness, health and safety, etc.) conflicted with its underlying morality.  (The classic example used in the relevant psychology literature is whether a poor person should feel morally justified in stealing a drug needed to save their child’s life.  Stealing is immoral, but the consequences of stealing in this case are positive.  Hence, the dilemma.)

In Akin’s case, he believes that abortion is bad but also that forcing rape victims to bear their rapists’ children is also unsavory, so he resolved the conflict in one fell swoop by generating and adopting the belief that victims of real rape can’t get pregnant.  In that case, getting pregnant is itself proof that one wasn’t raped, so there’s no moral dilemma in eliminating a rape exception.  Convenient!

The Salon/Alternet article describes their results this way:

In their study, Liu and Ditto asked over 1,500 people about their moral and factual views on four highly divisive political issues. Two of them–the death penalty and the forceful interrogation of terrorists using techniques like water-boarding–are ones where liberals tend to think the act in question is morally unacceptableeven if it actually yields benefits (for instance, deterring crime, or providing intelligence that can help prevent further terrorist strikes). The other two–providing information about condoms in the context of sex education, and embryonic stem cell research–are ones where conservatives tend to think the act in question is unacceptable even if it yields benefits (helping to prevent unwanted pregnancies, leading to cures for devastating diseases).

In the experiment, the subjects were first asked about their absolute moral beliefs: For instance, is the death penalty wrongeven if it deters others from committing crimes? But they were also asked about various factual aspects of each topic: Does the death penalty deter crime? Do condoms work to prevent pregnancy? Does embryonic stem cell research hold medical promise? And so on.

If you believe some act is absolutely wrong, period, you shouldn’t actually care about its costs and benefits. Those should be irrelevant to your moral judgment. Yet in analyzing the data, Liu and Ditto found a strong correlation, across all of the issues, between believing something is morally wrong in all case–such as the death penalty–and also believing that it has low benefits (e.g., doesn’t deter crime) or high costs (lots of innocent people getting executed). In other words, liberals and conservatives alike shaded their assessment of the facts so as to align them with their moral convictions–establishing what Liu and Ditto call a “moral coherence” between their ethical and factual views. Neither side was innocent when it came to confusing “is” and “ought” [6] (as moral philosophers might put it).

However, not everyone was equally susceptible to this behavior. Rather, the researchers found three risk factors, so to speak, that seem to worsen the standard human penchant for contorting the facts to one’s moral views. Two those were pretty unsurprising: Having a strong moral view about a topic makes one’s inclination towards “moral coherence” worse, as does knowing a lot about the subject (across studies, knowledge simply seems to make us better at maintaining and defending what we already believe). But the third risk factor is likely to prove quite controversial: political conservatism.

In the study, Liu and Ditto report, conservatives tilted their views of the facts to favor their moral convictions more than liberals did, on every single issue. And that was true whether it was a topic that liberals oppose (the death penalty) or that conservatives oppose (embryonic stem cell research). “Conservatives are doing this to a larger degree across four different issues,” Liu explained in an interview. “Including two that are leaning to the liberal side, not the conservative side.”

I’ll hoist the pirate banner of fair use and quote three paragraphs directly from the paper’s conclusion:

The tendency to harness factual beliefs to support moral commitments has social and political implications. For example ,abstinence-only sexual education programs often yield poor results, producing little or no delay in first sexual intercourse,sometimes accompanied by increased rates of unprotected sex (Rosenbaum, 2009). This is precisely the pattern our analysis predicts. It is difficult to believe that encouraging condom use is both immoral and effective. One way to resolve this conflict is to come to believe that condoms are ineffective, and abstinence-only programs are well known for disparaging condom effectiveness (Santelli et al., 2006). Interestingly, a recent study found that an abstinence-education program that was explicitly nonmoralistic was effective in delaying intercourse with no negative effect on condom use (Jemmott, Jemmott,& Fong, 2010).
More generally, the partisan battles that dominate contemporary American politics are fueled not just by well-documented differences in liberals’ and conservatives’ moral sensibilities (e.g., Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009) but also by huge discrepancies in factual beliefs. Resolving differences of moral opinion is challenging enough, but when these differences align themselves with differing perceptions of fact, fruitful negotiation becomes considerably more difficult. Moreover, it should be particularly disheartening for fans of political compromise that the tendency to recruit facts in support of moral positions is likely to be most pronounced in individuals with strong moral convictions and high opinions about how informed they are about the issues—a reasonable characterization of the psychological state of the political elites who most affect policy decisions.
Politicians and pundits are fond of challenging their ideological opponents with a line usually attributed to former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ‘‘You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.’’  The current research suggests that in the realm of moral reasoning at least, a clean separation of opinion and fact may be difficult to achieve.

Here’s one problem that I found when, in my pre-lawyer years, I was doing experimental and survey-based social and political psychology.  Sometimes the results of a well-done, honestly crafted, theoretically compelling study turn out looking like a political hit job.  The scientist’s job is to describe reality — and the reality may be that liberals and conservatives process the world differently.  Not all the time, not to the maximum possible extent — but differently, enough so to give rise to the stereotype, for example, that liberals are weak because what’s actually true is that liberals are more likely to be conflicted.  If you see both sides of an issue, that morality and cost-benefit may be at odds, it tends to restrain your zeal and your vitriol.

In some countries, where there is a vibrant left-wing ideology roughly as far distant from the theoretical middle as much conservatism is today, maybe the leftists would be as much (or even more) likely to trim the facts to suit their moral ideologies as conservatives are.  But — we don’t live in that world, or at least not in that society.  In our society, the message is to be wary of the facts presented in support of ideological arguments — but, biased as it may sound, to be especially wary when the one presenting an alleged fact is a conservative trying to explain why that which he or she considers moral also has good economic benefits.  The chances are more likely, in such cases, that that reassuring fact buttressing their argument ain’t really a fact at all.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)