Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Don't be a sheep...or a donkey or an elephant

As election season approaches, many of us are deciding how to vote on policies that will influence our country and communities. How do we make these important choices? What sources do we turn to when deciding how to vote? We certainly can and do seek out objective information, listen to educated opinions, and consult our own values. However, it might surprise you to learn that what other people think makes the largest impact on our own policy attitudes.

People are surprisingly susceptible to the influence of others and the voting booth is no exception. In fact, one classic paper in political psychology (Cohen, 2003) shows that what other Democrats or Republicans think influences our opinions much more than the actual content of a policy. The paper has a few important lessons we should all keep in mind as we begin to formulate our opinions about candidates and policies.

1. It doesn't matter what the policy is, we tend to vote how our party votes.

What other Democrats or Republicans think about a policy makes the largest impact on attitudes. When participants in several studies were presented with two different welfare policies (one very generous and one very stringent) they tended to vote along party lines, as one would expect. Republicans preferred the stringent policy and Democrats preferred the generous policy.

What is surprising, is that when participants received information about how other members of their party voted, the content of the policy mattered very little. Republicans far preferred a very generous welfare policy, when they thought other Republicans did so too. Democrats far preferred a very stringent welfare policy, when they though other Democrats preferred it. It seems that in light of new social information, individuals’ attitudes changed enough to vote counter to the overall philosophy of their party.

2. It doesn’t matter how knowledgeable you are.

Knowledge about welfare policies in general did not dampen this effect. It was not the case that only those people without knowledge of the topic looked to their peers and in-group to help them shape their attitudes. Everyone did so.

3. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.

Yes, it may be easy to say that this is something “those other people” do, but both sides of the aisle were guilty.

4. We don’t know we’re doing it.

When asked how they made their choices, people were very unlikely to report that the opinion of other party members mattered. While this could be a self-presentation effect, participants were equally blind to their biases when their responses were anonymous.

5. We think other people are doing it.

People thought that other participants in this study were influenced by social information about how other members of their party voted.

6. It's not that we're less attentive.

If we know that all Republicans like this policy, then we might not even have to read it too carefully or think about its details. Surprisingly, this was not the case. Participants were no worse at remembering the details of each policy when they were given additional information about other Republicans/ Democrats than without this information. Furthermore when asked to write their reactions to the policies, they wrote equally long and well-thought-out explanations in both conditions. People aren’t just spacing out and using party preferences as a shortcut.

7. Knowing how others vote focuses our attention on different details and alters which personal values seem important.

While participants weren’t overall less attentive to details, knowing their party’s stance influenced which details caught their attention. When asked to write about a policy, participants wrote about different aspects of the same policy depending on whether their own party members supported it.  For example, when Democrats were told about a policy, which includes mandatory job-training program for welfare recipients, they wrote prolifically about this aspect and their negative attitudes towards it. When told that other Democrats support this program, they wrote much less about the job-training component and focused more on other components.

Additionally learning that other Democrats supported the mandatory job training component shifted Democratic participants' emphasis from values of universal humanitarianism to individualism.

As you shape your political opinions in the next few months, be careful about the sources of your information and how you formulate your attitudes. Ask yourself, "Would I still vote for this, if I heard that a member of the opposite party supported it?" Try your best to stay objective and true to your own personal values.

Cohen, G.L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85 (5), 808-22 PMID: 14599246


  1. Excellent Post, Olga! We are so convinced that we are the "ones" who are objective and not easily influenced by rhetoric and emotional arguments like "those other guys."

    I wonder, what purpose is served by humans evolving to a stage where we are more likely to make deeply intellectual judgments on external events without balancing those judgments against our own internal emotional and intellectual dynamics (schemas/reactive responses, etc.)? Is there some evolutionary benefit, or is this some maladaptive response to an underlying pathology in the society we've established?

    Great, now you've got me worried and it's not even 10AM.



  2. I can see how this would lead to stress and emotions. if a person is concemplating on who to vote for, it might eventually cause stress. Not to mention, people from both party sides are trying to persuade that subject to vote a certain person so its up to that person to decide which group he/she is going to conform to.

  3. Excellent post. As someone who used to be big into party politics, I've been guilty of this behavior, both as a Democrat and as a Republican. So I agree that it doesn't matter which party you're a part of. I've seen firsthand that both sides do it.

    I do think I had a way bigger blind spot to the behavior when I was a Democrat though, because as a Democrat one of the central conceits in how I viewed myself was that I was part of the "party of the tolerant." "Tolerance" was a key component of my idealized, self image, and the media and general pop culture reinforced that image for me, so it became really hard to consider that Republicans didn't have a monopoly on close-mindedness.

    When I engaged in your described behavior as a Republican, I did find it harder to avoid opposing viewpoints or construct echo chambers as well as I could as a Democrat, so I was able to self-correct and deprogram easier when in that camp.

  4. D.K.M. - Great question. I think we are probably wired to perceive information in a similar way as our in-group. I think this does and has served us so well in the past that it's a strong motivation.

    Luke - This is a good point. However, many of the subjects saw only one side or the other and the results were similar.

    Ricky - That's a very very interesting point. I wonder if someone has tested this. I do wonder if identifying as "tolerant" actually makes one less tolerant! Could it be the reason we often hear about Republicans switching camps and rarely about Democrats doing so?