Friday, February 14, 2014

Academic Studies about Right-Wing and Tea Party Voters Reach Interesting Conclusions

by Nomad

Several   academic research studies about the minds of right-wing supporters, the power of fear to warp our thinking and the intelligence of the Tea Party offer some surprising insights to the present state of US politics. 

If accurate, the studies also provide some depressing news about the possibility that the great divide between left and right can ever be bridged.

Canadian Study: Are Right Wingers Naturally Less Intelligent?
newspaper article in the UK Daily Mail, has information, which might- or might not surprise you:
Right-wingers tend to be less intelligent than left-wingers, and people with low childhood intelligence tend to grow up to have racist and anti-gay views, says a controversial new study.
According to Canadian academics, conservative politics work almost as a 'gateway' into prejudice against others. The Canadian study reviewed large studies from the UK which made a comparison between childhood intelligence and political views in adulthood across more than 15,000 people.
Their conclusion? People with low intelligence gravitate towards right-wing views because these views make them feel safe. In addition to that, children with low intelligence tend to grow up to be prejudiced.

Both educational level and social status seem to play no role in whether a person is prejudiced or racist. It is, they insist, related to innate intelligence, rather than acquired knowledge.
The study, published in Psychological Science, claims that right-wing ideology forms a 'pathway' for people with low reasoning ability to become prejudiced against groups such as other races and gay people.
There are good reasons for this. Cognitive ability-that is, the ability to think - allows us to form impressions of other people and to be open-minded, say the researchers.
'Individuals with lower cognitive abilities may gravitate towards more socially conservative right-wing ideologies that maintain the status quo. The status quo is a more friendly environment to those with less cognitive abilities. 'It provides a sense of order.'
Those right-wing ideologies are all about order, not diversity. Such ideologies generally stress hierarchy and resistance to change, attitudes that can contribute to prejudice, said lead researcher Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario.   

Of course, it is easy to exaggerate these kinds of studies. We can certainly question its accuracy or lack of bias. It just seems a little too inclusive. And how do we define what is and what is not a right-wing voter?

However, it would explain a lot. For example, it would explain why the Republican Party- which is as far right on the political spectrum as it has ever been- is in such a mess. It would also explain the rise of the Tea Party movement and how it could have drawn the least intellectually-gifted members of the Republican party.

It might explain why Fox can broadcast blatantly false news night after night without any of its viewers challenging it. But most of all, it explains how easily the Tea Party voters could be fooled into voting against their own interests over and over again.

The Role of Fear
If, as the Canadian study suggests, people vote conservatively because it makes them feel safe, then what is the role of fear in decision-making?
According a 2008 New York Times article by Gregory Berns, a professor at the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy.
The most concrete thing that neuroscience tells us is that when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off....while fear is a deep-seated and adaptive evolutionary drive for self-preservation, it makes it impossible to concentrate on anything.
Fear prompts retreat. It is the antipode to progress. Just when we need new ideas most, everyone is seized up in fear, trying to prevent losing what we have left.
In order to break the cycle of fear, Berns has some suggestions:
It means avoiding people who are overly pessimistic about the economy. It means tuning out media that fan emotional flames. Unless you are a day-trader, it means closing the Web page with the market ticker. It does mean being prepared, but not being a hyper-vigilant, everyone-in-the-bunker type.
Where Fear Can Be Found
Fear is and always has been a great motivator. That comes as no surprise to one news channel.
In a fascinating article, Tom Dickinson, writing for the Rolling Stone, notes that Fox News built its profitable media empire on fear-mongering. It's something that Roger Ailes, onetime Nixon aide and president of Fox News Channel, excels at doing.
Fear, in fact, is precisely what Ailes is selling: His network has relentlessly hyped phantom menaces like the planned “terror mosque” near Ground Zero, inspiring Florida pastor Terry Jones to torch the Koran....
Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann and a parade of other fear-mongers  all have found a warm and cozy home at Fox News. In an unchallenged forum, these people get their cherished face-time as they scare the easily-frightened, easily-riled literally out of their wits.
Ailes knows exactly who is watching Fox News each day, and he is adept at playing to their darkest fears in the age of Obama.
The typical viewer is white and male with a median age of 65. Most importantly, they are afraid. Afraid of progress, of change and  afraid of a world in which America is led by a black man. The people at Fox News validate this fear and stoke it as much as possible.
"He’s got a niche audience and he’s programmed to it beautifully,” says a former News Corp. colleague. “He feeds them exactly what they want to hear.”
What they wanted to hear is confirmation of their fears about Obama, the president of the nation; that he is dangerous and an enemy of the people. And the programming ladles it out generously.
From the time Obama began contemplating his candidacy, Fox News went all-out to convince its white viewers that he was a Marxist, a Muslim, a black nationalist and a 1960s radical.
(Not to mention Kenyan. For the moment, they seem to have given up on those labels and seem stuck on an imperial image.)

There are two results of all this fear-mongering and lies. One, because of all of this disinformation, Fox News viewers know almost nothing about what’s going on in the world. Two, Fox News has become of the most powerful- some would say destructive- political machines in US history. It has played a major role in defining GOP talking points and advancing the right wing agenda. 

When you take a hard look at the unraveling Republican party, much of the blame for its present state has to fall on the shoulder of fear-mongers.

Yale Law Study: The Surprise
But before we get too far in this analysis of all those "stupid" right wingers out there, there's something more to report. As opposed to the Canadian study, this research  is related acquired knowledge, not to innate knowledge. More precisely, we are speaking about scientific information.

A Yale University study found, much to the researchers' surprise, that Tea Party voters were slightly more scientifically literate than the non-tea party population. (Read that carefully because we will come back to that.)

According to comments made by Yale Law professor Dan M. Kahan  who conducted the study,
I’ve got to confess, though, I found this result surprising. As I pushed the button to run the analysis on my computer, I fully expected I’d be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension.
Not surprisingly every conservative blog picked up on this study, and relayed the information. To paraphrase: that elitist Yale professor got a surprise when he misunderestimated the Tea Party. Articles also included the slightly smug question, "Maybe they’re just ahead of the curve?
It was to be expected. To his dismay, Kahan soon realized how his study was like gasoline to the culture flames. It was a hard lesson for a academic. He later said,
I .. pointed out that this association was far too trivial to be afforded any practical significance whatsoever....
It was way too late to add qualifying remarks like that.
Anyone who might be tempted to beat his or her chest in a triumphal tribal howl over the practically meaningless correlation between right-left political outlooks & science comprehension could thus expect to find him- or herself fatally impaled the very next instant on the sharp spear tip of simple, unassailable logic.
This, by the way, is just a taste of the good professor's writing style.
But despite all this, many many many tea-party partisans succumbed to politically biased reasoning in their assessment of the evidence in my post.
Before that time, of course, the discussion had moved on. Conservatives hailed the study- even if it did come from Yale. Liberals grumbled. Both sides ignored a more important finding.

Firstly, the conservative reports about the study failed to mention was that liberals scored higher than conservatives- which included Tea Party supporters- on the same measure and in the same data set.
Time to wave our flag? No, you'd better not.

The Hidden Truth
It was another conclusion that Kahan reached after studying the data that seemed more notable.
He found that Tea Party members are just about like everyone else when it comes to science comprehension. Some had a great deal of scientific understanding while others had very little. Being like "everybody else" in the case may not necessarily be anything to be proud of. Everybody else is a pretty low average, since that includes the few Einsteins and the many ignoramuses.

The professor adds a important point about how that information is actually processed:
..Because they are like everyone else, these high "science comprehending" tea-party members will be more likely to display politically biased misinterpretations of empirical data than people who display a lower "science comprehension" apptitude. The greater their capacity to engage in analytical thinking, the more systematically they will use that capacity to ferret out evidence congenial to their predispositions and block out and rationalize away everything else.
Back up there. Say what?
Let's see if we can make any sense of this. Those Tea Party members who had slightly higher science comprehension were, according to what the professor found, more likely to make politically-biased wrong interpretations of the information.
Bias, it would seem, will generally overpower whatever scientific comprehension a Tea Party supporter may have. The more informed they are, the more systematically they will use only that evidence that supports their point of view and to ignore anything that conflicts with that view.

As if to prove his conclusions, the way this data was re-packaged by the conservative media was exactly what the study predicted. Only that information that backed up their views- that Tea Party supporters were smarter- was promoted and broadcast. The rest of the story, the gray areas and the details, were filtered out. But especially the parts that contradicted the thrust of the article. 

Ironically, that's exactly what the professor said.

Combining the conclusions of the various studies, it would seem that right wing supporters may be next to impossible to reach on an intellectual level. Fear and a lack of innate intelligence prevents this.

Furthermore, expressing the need for change is also unlikely to do much good since they tend value structure and order over change or progress. They can only see progress as frightening disorder. Even when armed with science, they tend to reach the wrong conclusions. On the other hand, conservatives also seem to be very gullible- or susceptible- when it comes to lies that support their prejudices.

All this is something Fox News has known for a long time, I suppose. Roger Ailes has spun his entire career based on exactly what these studies suggest.