Political Psychology Conference Amsterdam 2015

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I have arrived in Amsterdam for the Political Psychology Conference. I'm super stoked about this conference as it has a really great line-up of speakers. And on the subject of great speakers*, I'll be presenting later today on some of my work on free will, so if anyone who is at the conference is reading this, I look forward to seeing you there!

*I jest. I'm a barely adequate speaker, but I think the work I'm presenting is interesting.

Keynote: Michael Bang Petersen


The Political Psychology Conference in Amsterdam kicked off with an excellent keynote by Michael Bang Petersen from Aarhus University. I’m a huge fan of Petersen’s work, and so it was great to hear him in person. Petersen applies a distinctively evolutionary lens to understand the political mind. From an evolutionary perspective “function determines form”, and so by knowing the function of the political mind we can build predictions about its structure. This is a core insight that a lot of my own work in intergroup moral psychology draws on, and it’s great to see this evolutionary perspective used to understand political psychology. Petersen argued that our political cognition should be guided by features relevant to our evolutionary history – and indeed his work has shown that such features, like strength, or the motivation to avoid free-riders, are important.

Petersen used two illustrations from his own work. First, he considered hunger. The need for food is – of course – a critical motivation in human psychology given the scarcity of food in evolutionary history and the very real risk that one could starve to death. One of the ways that we dealt with our need for food in our evolutionary history was to form coalitions to hunt and forage for food. Given this, Petersen asked whether hunger might make people more willing to share, and whether this might also influence support for the modem welfare state. Petersen then described a really great study in which he tested this. And this point, I’d like to note that this post is based on the notes I made during the talk, and so any and all errors are entirely my fault for not typing quick enough. That said, I think I managed to get down the general gist. Aarøe and Petersen recruited 104 university students at a Danish university and asked them to not eat food for 4 hours prior to the testing session. This ensured low blood glucose levels, which were then measured at the very start of the testing session. Participants were then randomly assigned to one of two groups – one group drank Sprite, and one group drank Sprite Zero. The former has more sugar than Santa Claus’ larder, but the latter has none at all – despite being similar colours and similar tastes. Participants then indicated their support for social welfare, played a Dictator Game, and had their blood glucose level measured again. Interesting, they found that participants in the group that drank Sprite Zero were more supportive of the welfare state (this was a fairly small difference of 5%, but was significantly different). This seemed driven by differences in blood glucose level. But even more interestingly, they found that while low blood glucose predicted more support for social welfare, it also predicted less sharing behavior in the DG. It seems that hunger encourages support for overall welfare, but not uni-directional prosocial behavior. One thing that I thought, though, was why the DG was used and not another game that measures bidirectional prosocial behavior – cooperation (see this paper of mine for a discussion on these games and how they measure prosocial behavior). The example of forming coalitions and hunting seems more analogous to a Public Goods Game, because one receives the benefit (i.e. food) even if one doesn’t fully pull one’s weight in, for example, hunting or foraging. At one level, then, such cooperation does have some individual benefits as everyone is better off if they cooperate. The DG, in contrast, taps more altruistic prosocial behavior that has no benefit for the individual. I’d be interested in whether the same results would happen when using other games. I might predict you’d see more sharing in these games than the DG.

Petersen’s next illustration was about disease avoidance and immigration. An important study by Faulkner et al. (2004) suggested that disease avoidance mechanisms might explain xenophobic attitudes – a finding replicated in some form in around 67 subsequent studies. First, Petersen outlined some methodological limitations of these studies – for example, fairly low sample sizes, convenience student samples, and lack of control for confounding variables. Petersen questions whether we have a hyperactive pathogen detective system that is fooled in modern multicultural environments, where we think of people looking racially or ethnically different as being pathogen related, just as we associate obese people or people with birthmarks as being associated with pathogens. With his colleagues, Petersen explored this in four samples: the first two were nationally representative web surveys in the US (N = 1,321) and Denmark (2,005); the third was a lab study in Denmark (N = 42); and the fourth a socially diverse but non-representative MTurk sample (US, 1,076). They found that across different samples and measures there was a significant effect of disgust sensitivity on attitudes towards refugees. In another study, they looked at intentions. Consider the design of disease avoidance: to avoid disease, you must avoid contact with all carriers, independently of their intentions. It doesn’t matter that that guy who sneezed on me last week on the London Underground was probably a super nice guy – he still gave me his cold virus. They conducted a study in a 2x2 design looking at the roles of intention (good vs. bad) and background (Middle East vs. Europe) of potential immigrants. They found that people preferred European immigrants, but also that people afraid of pathogens still didn’t want the Middle Eastern immigrants even if they had good intentions to cooperate and contribute to society.

Petersen then moved to conclude this fascinating talk, noting that the core message he wanted to convey (and, I say, succeeded) was that we should consider the political mind as a toolbox of mechanisms with specialised functions. We can then learn about the design of our political minds by applying evolutionary theory and constraining our theories to develop predictions with a priori validity. His work suggests that rather the dominant view of voters as just irrational, myopic, and so on, that voters are actually ecologically rational – that is, rational in the context they evolved. Overall, this was a fascinating start to the conference, and I’m looking forward to grabbing Petersen to talk more about this in the next few days!

Session 2: Authoritarianism

After the exciting keynote by Petersen, the next session I attended was on Authoritarianism.

First up, and following on well from Petersen’s talk, was Marco Tullio Liuzza, who gave a talk entitled “Body odor disgust sensitivity predicts authoritarian attitudes”. Liuzza began by discussing how a growing body of evidence suggests that disgust plays a role in socially conservative attitudes, such as an opposition to gay marriage. Now, as anyone who has been on public transport in the summer knows, body odors are a strong trigger of disgust. Moreover, body odors regulate social behavior in a number of species. Interestingly, the relationship between sensitivity to body odors (i.e. disgust sensitivity) and social conservatism hasn’t been studied in depth – something that Liuzza hoped to rectify. Liuzza and colleagues began to fill this gap by exploring whether such a disgust sensitivity to body odors predicted social conservatism. Using a new measure (the Body Odor Disgust Scale, BODS), they showed that such disgust sensitivity explained more variance in authoritarianism than other measures. Liuzza concluded that body odor perception is a primitive sensory system that supports pathogen detection and social regulation.

Next up was a cool talk by Steven Ludeke, who talked about “Authoritarianism as a consequence of low self-efficacy”. In this talk, Ludeke discussed whether authoritarianism in an individual might develop in response to a perception that one is less capable of individual learning (i.e. less efficacy), leading to a greater focus on following the examples set by others. Ludeke discussed results from four studies and found support for their hypotheses. Participant’s who reported less self-efficacy were more authoritarian, even after controlling for conscientiousness (Study 1); controlling for peer reports of an individual’s capabilities (Study 2); or controlling for performance on an intelligence test (Study 3). Finally, Ludeke discussed results in a quasi-experiment where participants who had decreased doubts about their capabilities following an exam were less authoritarian.

Third in the session was Jonas De Keersmaecker, who talked about “Need for Closure and Perceived Threat as Bases of Right-Wing Authoritarianism: A Longitudinal Moderation Approach”. Looking at need for cognition, he reported results from cross-sectional and longitudinal data that high levels of need for cognition predicted more right-wing authoritarianism when threat was low, but in the face of threat even those who were relatively low in need for cognition adopted authoritarian attitudes to the same level as those with higher need for cognition.

Finally, Frank Asbrock talked about “The rediscovered complexity of Right-Wing Authoritarianism”, discussing his work in developing a new construct to measure authoritarianism that distinguishes authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission, and conventionalism. In his talk he presented a new scale consisting of 9 items with three items in each of the sub-dimensions, and then explored how using this new measure could help understand the relationship between social threat and prejudice.

Overall, this was an interesting session. It’s not strictly within my subject area (as I focus more on moral psychology), but it was thought-provoking nonetheless. The one thing I would have liked to see more was a discussion on how authoritarianism might relate to left-wing politically ideology. With the rising prominence of “privilege”, “safe spaces”, and “microagressions” and the high-profile cases at places like Yale and Oxford, it seems that at least some people on the left are also increasingly behaving in an authoritarian manner. I’d like to see some research on this.

Free to Blame? Political differences in free will belief are driven by differences in moralization

"We investigated why liberals and conservatives tend to differ in their endorsement of belief in free will. After showing that conservative ideology was associated that increased free will belief (Studies 1-2), we tested the hypothesis that conservatives report stronger belief in free will than do liberals because conservatives have a broader view of what is morally wrong (and thus a broader need to assign blame). Consistent with predictions, we found that conservatives attribute greater free will to agents for bringing about negative (and hence potentially blameworthy) events than do liberals (Studies 3). For events on which conservatives and liberals do not differ in moral judgments, they also fail to differ in their free will attributions (Study 4), and when political liberals (rather than conservatives) judge an action as more wrong, they also show a (weaker) tendency to attribute more free will (Study 5). Finally, we found that ratings of wrongness for actions mediated the effect of political conservatism on free will beliefs(Study 6). Rather than reflecting a generalized, abstract belief in free will that is greater than that of liberals, conservatives’ greater free will beliefs can be better explained through their tendency to moralize more events, resulting in a greater motivation to believe in free will and (thus) blameworthiness and personal accountability."

Jim A.C. Everett, Cory Clark, Jamie Luguri, Brian Earp, Peter Ditto, and Azim Shariff