Sunday, December 27, 2015

Psychology versus Culture, Motivations versus Rationalizations: A Reply to Lumish

Michael Lumish has posted an article at Vocal Europe in which he questions my earlier claim that populist radical right parties in Europe draw support from "individuals who value security and social cohesion over individual autonomy and universal rights." Going on to point out that many of the refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern states hold deeply conservative and religious views, he warns that their illiberalism could (if allowed to settle in large numbers) threaten the liberalism of European society.

There are various points one could make in response to Dr. Lumish's article. But I will keep my response focused on the point that his article raises in response to mine: specifically about how we understand the values of various groups of individuals.

The Psychology of Voters
Dr. Lumish claims that "it is not the least bit clear" that radical right parties draw support from "individuals who value security and social cohesion over individual autonomy and universal rights." To put it bluntly, he is wrong.

Decades of research on radical right parties find that their programmatic appeal focuses heavily on a combination of nationalism, authoritarianism, and populism. Political scientist Cas Mudde (literally) wrote the book on this. When Dr. Mudde describes authoritarianism as one of the three core characteristics of radical right parties, he is referring to the psychological concept rather than the regime type (though there is an obvious relationship). So what is authoritarianism in the sense that social and political psychologists understand it? All sorts of definitions exist in the literature, but they all center on the idea of...you guessed it...prioritizing "security and social cohesion over individual autonomy and universal rights."

Dr. Mudde argues that radical right parties appeal to such authoritarian sentiments. In an ongoing research project, I show that individuals who display a higher tendency towards authoritarianism are more likely to vote for radical right parties in recent years. Here is a paper I recently presented on the subject. Going beyond a simple measure of authoritarianism, I draw on the work of Israeli psychologist Shalom Schwartz, who developed the Human Values Scales. Specifically, I show that individuals who place more emphasis on the Security value and who place less emphasis on the Universalism value are more likely to vote for the radical right.

Motivations versus Rationalizations
My suspicion is that Dr. Lumish's misguided criticism is rooted in a misunderstanding of my analysis. Not understanding that I am making a point about the psychology of radical right voters, he focuses instead on the statements and arguments made by radical right parties.

It is true that radical right parties these days often claim to defend the European liberal tradition, with which they claim Islam is incompatible. Their leaders and members may sincerely believe this about themselves too. But decades of survey research in political science have taught us that people's claims about their beliefs and motivations are often not reliable. Who will admit to being a racist or xenophobe in contemporary society? Not many individuals will do so willingly, particularly to a stranger. We can even deceive ourselves as to our true motivations. Go take an Implicit Association Test, and see if you don't in fact harbor some negative associations towards ethnic or religious minorities.

The point is: Radical right parties claim that they (and their voters) are motivated by a defense of European liberalism. The slightly harsher reality is that many of their voters are motivated by a more basic desire to protect against threats and to maintain social cohesion. As a general pattern, radical right voters do not welcome immigration, whether it is from the Middle East or Romania. The arguments about Islam and liberalism are more post-hoc rationalization than actual motivation. This is what decades of research into political psychology show us.

None of this makes radical right parties, or their supporters, "bad." But nor should we blind ourselves to the reality of much of their electoral support.

Psychology, Culture, and Socialization
Dr. Lumish goes on to raise a separate claim:
One thing that we know with certainty is that the great majority of Middle Eastern immigrants into Europe do not hold liberal values, i.e., the values of minority rights, gender equality, free speech, freedom of religion, and Gay rights.
Unfortunately, Dr. Lumish provides only anecdotal evidence. We do not know enough about this topic, in part because it is more difficult to conduct systematic research into a minority population.

The systematic evidence that we have may back up Dr. Lumish's claims to some extent (see here and here), but it also points to widespread discrimination faced by European Muslims--which may well contribute to hostile attitudes towards non-Muslims and a turn by some individuals to extremism. Indeed, the meaning of answers to questions about hostility towards 'the West' or Jews may difficult to parse out given the present political realities in the Middle East. For example, the Koopmans study asks respondents whether the West is out to destroy Islam. In the present geo-political environment, is answering 'yes' to that question truly an indicator of out-group hostility? This suggests is a confluence of individual psychology and broader political socialization, which can be tough to parse out even in well-designed survey research.

Further, evidence questions both Muslims are particularly 'exceptional' in their levels of outgroup hostility and fundamentalism and whether they are alike. Koopmans finds big attitudinal differences between  Sunni Muslims and Alevi Muslims living in Europe. In a related vein, I find big differences between left-wing and right-wing party supporters in Turkey. Cas Mudde points out that levels of Muslim fundamentalism are not remarkable in comparative perspective.

In short, there is much more that we still need to understand. Importantly, the way forward here is through systematic research, not polemical and anecdotal argumentation.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Political Psychology Readings

As a follow-up to PSC 319, here are some gathered readings on different current events where we can see some of the ideas we discussed in action:

Obama's skin looks a little different in these GOP ads: Oh dear. But read to the end. Remember in the Kahneman reading that he reported on some experiments about having people fill in the blanks for words (e.g., whether one completed "S O _ _" as "soup" or "soap"?). Look what happens when people see images of Obama with darkened skin.

Attacks on Trump just make his supporters like him more: Thinking about the elements of group identity in politics, note how criticisms from outside tend to encourage members to rally around the group and its leader.

How Republicans & Democrats Discriminate: Speaking of group identity... One of the debates in the study of polarization is just how deeply it goes at the mass level. One perspective, noting low levels of political interest among most people, suggests that Americans remain fairly moderate (or unpolarized) in their political attitudes, but polarization as reflected in group identification is strong. So we 'hate' members of the other party more than we actually disagree with them substantively.

Where's the Partisan Polarization on Abortion?  Here is some evidence on that last idea. If we look at  public opinion towards abortion broken down by partisanship, we find that this attitude polarization only really exists among politically-engaged and informed citizens.

Why Mass Shootings Don't Convince Gun Owners to Support Gun Control: This partially reflects the same group identity dynamics (i.e., resistance to criticism from the outside). This also reflects the different personality traits and values of gun owners vs. non-owners. Many people want to own guns because they are more oriented towards security, lower openness, etc.

Views of Government's Handling of Terrorism Fall to Post-9/11 Low: The main point of interest is the dynamics of whether Americans think Islam is inherently more violent than other religions. Notice the major partisan gap that has opened up since 2002; think of the Hetherington & Weiler reading on 'worldview evolution' and party conflict.

How Hostile Are Trump Supporters to Muslims?  Speaking of personality and threat perceptions, we can see this reflected in the Republican primary. Even among the supporters of the party that is presumably more hostile to Muslims, we see that Trump supporters stand out compared to other Republicans. On a broader note, this concern with security is an important driver of Trump support and the debate on Islam and Syrian refugees.


The one weird trait that predicts whether you're a Trump supporter: That trait is authoritarianism!

The Holy Koran Experiment: Kahneman might enjoy this video from the Netherlands. People on the street are read verses purportedly from the Koran (but actually from the Bible). Note the ease of association, and how people react.

Are conservatives more simple-minded that liberals? Part of a new wave of research challenging existing findings by looking to new issue domains. This article suggests that both conservatives and liberals tend to be more 'dogmatic' (i.e., simple-minded) when considering an issue domain that is more central to their worldview.

Why Poland is Turning Away from the West: Is there an element of stealth democracy in these arguments about why voters support parties like Law & Justice?