The Psychology of Political Affiliation

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The Psychology of Political Affiliation

Anyone that uses a social media account nowadays has probably had a few people in their lives that appeared to have shown their true liberal/conservative/libertarian/etc colours. People that you met at a party last week or have grown up with for over a decade are now holding views that you are surprised would even show up on your timeline or are endorsing jokes and memes that seem a little far, even for them. Social media will be a topic for another post but this post is about exploring the psychological depth of political affiliation.

A Washington Post article cites Peter Ditto, professor of social psychology at University of California at Irvine, on a few major concepts on this topic. One prominent concept is how emotions get involved in the way people receive information. In other words, the way we feel changes what we personally consider to be valid evidence. Motivated scepticism refers to being more critical of evidence that doesn’t already support your preconceived notion. This is something frequently applied to political memes on the internet. The research concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that liberals or conservatives are more biased than one another in when it comes to selecting evidence, in fact, they basically showed the same magnitude of bias in different directions.

If you are conservative or know conservatives, you are undoubtedly aware of how the moral fibre of the world is tearing apart and how this generation is ruined. Well research may be able to give some insight into why conservatives may see things this way. According to researchers at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, conservatives put greater weight in memory towards negative bias. This can very well account for why the populist wave surged in 2016. If you combine this predisposition with news outlets that primarily show the bad in the world, there will be a tendency to be passionately conservative because you have a lot of images and stories maintained about the bad or the danger in the world. As additionally stated in the study, negative bias isn’t a bad thing per say, because everyone has it and keeping track of negative stimuli in an environment is actually important for survival. Cognition of negativity bias is still young research topic, so there’ll surely be more on it in the future.

Wired had an article on the difficulty of changing political beliefs. They brought up some interesting research results to show that based on the numerous factors that go into developing a political belief, it is difficult to change them, at least quickly. A number of the studies cited in that article also attribute neurological differences in those that tend to be more conservative versus those more liberal.

More recent findings continue to find that nonpolitical beliefs are more likely to be changed be countering evidence, while political beliefs remain adamant for those who are partisan (in the study cited it was self-declared liberals). The amygdala, an area usually associated with fear and anxiety, shows more activity in those more resistant to change in their beliefs.

The Take Home

I encourage you to check out the articles in this case but in the overarching picture on this topic can be summarised in the following:

  • Partisanship is part of a social identity for most.
  • There are prominent neurological factors that make people partisan and they are relatively equal in magnitude for each end of the spectrum.
  • These neurological factors, however, lead to different traits in different brain areas that can help us explain how when develops their ideology.
    • The main brain areas that differ in activation between conservatives and liberals are very fundamental to basic traits such as perception, memory, and mood.
    •  Conservatives having higher memory capacity for negative bias.
    • Being more adamant about your ideology when the amygdala (fear/anxiety centre) shows greater activation.
  • Emotion and partisanship will always affect how one receives information.
  • Evidence that you may consider objective and fact is not guaranteed to be seen the same way by those of different ideologies.

I hope this was an entertaining article. Furthermore, I hope it allows you to gain a little insight into how you approach politics in your life or your discourse with those of different political stances.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post below or email. And don’t forget to follow on Facebook and Twitter for updates and additional interesting articles.

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Have a great week,


One Response

  1. Flo says:

    DAO , This piece is really helpful not just for the western hemisphere but globally. It encourages us to pause and switch our lenses for a political minute.

    Thanks for drawing attention to this.

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