That Red and Blue divide in our national politics may be more of a Black and White one, suggest studies of political behavior. Society for Personality and Social Psychology had a conference last week that showcased several provocative psychological studies about the nature of political belief.
Some highlights from the studies:
Emory University psychologist Drew Westen put self-identified Democratic and Republican partisans in brain scanners and asked them to evaluate negative information about various candidates. Both groups were quick to spot inconsistency and hypocrisy -- but only in candidates they opposed.When presented with negative information about the candidates they liked, partisans of all stripes found ways to discount it, Westen said.
Another study presented at the conference, which was in Palm Springs, Calif., explored relationships between racial bias and political affiliation by analyzing self-reported beliefs, voting patterns and the results of psychological tests that measure implicit attitudes -- subtle stereotypes people hold about various groups.
That study found that supporters of President Bush and other conservatives had stronger self-admitted and implicit biases against blacks than liberals did.
Republicans are not happy of course.
Brian Jones, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said he disagreed with the study's conclusions but that it was difficult to offer a detailed critique, as the research had not yet been published and he could not review the methodology. He also questioned whether the researchers themselves had implicit biases -- against Republicans -- noting that Nosek (University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek) and Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji had given campaign contributions to Democrats.
"There are a lot of factors that go into political affiliation, and snap determinations may be interesting for an academic study, but the real-world application seems somewhat murky," Jones said.
Nosek said that though the risk of bias among researchers was "a reasonable question," the study provided empirical results that could -- and would -- be tested by other groups: "All we did was compare questions that people could answer any way they wanted," Nosek said, as he explained why he felt personal views could not have influenced the outcome. "We had no direct contact with participants."
The analysis found that substantial majorities of Americans, liberals and conservatives, found it more difficult to associate black faces with positive concepts than white faces -- evidence of implicit bias. But districts that registered higher levels of bias systematically produced more votes for Bush.
"Obviously, such research does not speak at all to the question of the prejudice level of the president," said Banaji, "but it does show that George W. Bush is appealing as a leader to those Americans who harbor greater anti-black prejudice."
"If anyone in Washington is skeptical about these findings, they are in denial," he (Jon Krosnick, a psychologist and political scientist at Stanford University) said. "We have 50 years of evidence that racial prejudice predicts voting. Republicans are supported by whites with prejudice against blacks. If people say, 'This takes me aback,' they are ignoring a huge volume of research."