Monday, January 30, 2006

Poli-Psych's Day In The Sun

The Washington Post profiles the burgeoning sub-field of political psychology in an article from today's edition that describes several studies covering the effects of unconscious biases on political behavior. One researcher at Emory University found that tenacious partisans exhibit an extraordinary ability to spot logical flaws in political candidates' rhetoric—but the effect only held for candidates from the opposing side, as might be expected. Subjects took great pains to downplay the relevance of evidence inconvenient to their own point of view, and this behavior reminded the researchers of the way drug addicts find ways to mentally reward themselves for patently insalubrious behavior. The NYT spotlit this one study in greater detail last week.

But the study that's likely to stir up the most controversy (at least on the right) reached a not-so-shocking conclusion: that conservatives harbor significantly more latent racial prejudice than liberals. The psychologists probably used something similar to these freely available implicit attitude tests to assess unconscious prejudice and match those results up to self-reported data on political leanings. The Republicans quoted in the article fire back with their own allegations of unconscious anti-conservative bias, but peer reviewer and Stanford political psychologist Jon Krosnick says that the majority of the relevant psychological data support the study's findings:
"If anyone in Washington is skeptical about these findings, they are in denial," he said. "We have 50 years of evidence that racial prejudice predicts voting. Republicans are supported by whites with prejudice against blacks. If people say, 'This takes me aback,' they are ignoring a huge volume of research."
The political tactic of dismissing disagreeable evidence by accusing the offending party of bias or pushing an agenda is starting to get tiresome. It may fly in Red America but it's bad logic and even worse politics, because it allows beneficiaries to continue to deny their own unconscious attitudes even as those attitudes continue to influence democratic and social behavior from beneath the surface. Part of the problem is that there are no culturally safe channels in which to discuss race candidly in this country, and that deficiency causes inchoate prejudice to fester in the dark and manifest itself in other, more destructive ways. Some insensitive opinions will unfortunately prove resistant even to the most assiduous attempts at self-examination, but pushing back unjustifiably at the people who gather and interpret the data gets us nowhere.