Monday, July 31, 2006

What A Psych BA Is Good For

Jonathan Alter on the animus the netroots are engendering against Lieberman:
But if the blogs aren't a force on the ground, they are becoming a powerful factor in directing the passions (and pocketbooks) of far-flung Democratic activists. They're helping fuel a collective version of what shrinks call "projection," where the anger of Democrats at Bush is projected on a handy target, in this case Lieberman.
He must have skipped the relevant lecture in Psych 101, because that's not what "projection" is. Projection, in psycholanalysis, is the act of imputing undesirable traits in one's own personality to someone else, such as when conservatives denounce liberals as racist. Alter is thinking of transference, wherein a particular emotion originally felt toward one person is directed toward someone else, usually on the basis of resemblance or convenience. It's always comforting to discover that my six-figure education is good for something.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Classic Media-Bias Chestnut Finds New Relevance

The media-bias debate traces its history back to long before the advent of the blogosphere, as Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam details in a profile of a 1985 psychological study investigating perceptions of bias in news coverage of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war. Pro- and anti-Israeli partisans were shown identical feeds of televised war coverage and asked, among other things, to judge its objectivity and estimate its persuasive strength among hypothesized neutral viewers. The former group judged the coverage as significantly biased against Israel and more likely to sway undecided parties against the state's actions, while the latter group expressed the exact opposite points of view. The study found further that the more knowledgeable a partisan was regarding the facts of the war, the stronger her allegations of bias were. The researchers concluded that this was because an expert command of the facts allows tendentious individuals to find more specific instances where journalists fail to offer illuminating context that might justify their preferred side's actions. The full study is available here courtesy of Kevin Drum at Political Animal.

This research confirms once again that political diehards only feign interest in evenhandedness when news stories contradict their existing opinions: what they really look for in the news is pure confirmation varnished with the reassuring sheen of journalistic objectivity (think "fair and balanced"). But in all our travels throughout the blogosphere, we must never forget that at present, a plurality of Americans do not identify strongly as "liberal" or "conservative" and consequently still look to the media to offer coverage without an agenda. Blog traffic reports have shown that the market for slanted journalism is robust but still lags far behind demand for traditional media, and that's counting print, TV, and online sources. Whether or not the press incumbents will continue to dominate in the future turns on the extent to which Americans will converge or diverge in their political beliefs: more convergence will lead to the preservation of the status quo, while less will give the advantage to news sources nimble enough to capitalize on a fracturing set of assumptions. Personally, my money's on the latter situation, but only time will tell.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Who Did Dean's Research?

Nixon-era "master manipulator" John Dean dropped by Olbermann's Monday evening and Stewart's last night to talk up his recently-released dressing-down of the GOP's new school, Conservatives Without Conscience, to sympathetic audiences. In the book, he draws on a little-known but far-reaching line of psychological research to claim that modern conservatives, significantly moreso than centrists or liberals, are dangerously susceptible to authoritarian manipulation. This thesis, most effectively articulated and substantiated up to now by Glenn Greenwald (but echoed by scores of other liberal bloggers), now boasts the legitimizing imprimatur of rigorous social science.

But does it really? In both interviews Dean remained mum on the identity of the researchers running the project on which he bases his conclusions. He didn't tell Olbermann much, explaining only that the "ongoing" study spans over 50 years and draws on "hundreds of thousands" of subjects, and he told Stewart even less. But I wanted to pore over the academic raw material myself, so I took to Google to discover who's behind the study and whether they've made any of their results available online, fully expecting to find what I sought in short order. But an exhaustive (IMO) search turned up nothing, not even a single review, on both regular Google and Google Scholar. I surmised that a project of such magnitude would be pretty tough to hide, since it probably involves at least a couple generations of researchers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. The only items I found that even came close were several references to the Frankfurt School's pioneering but flawed study of political obedience, "The Authoritarian Personality" (which was published in 1950), and a meta-analysis of predicting factors for conservatism from 2003 that, while thorough and well-constructed, offers no original research.

So I guess I'll just have to buy the book (or wait for the online reviews) to find out who these mystery scholars are. Strange that I wouldn't be able to find any references on my own—I find it very difficult to believe that such a large research project wouldn't have caught the attention of anyone other than John Dean at some point over the past 50 years.