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Psychological Foundations of Political Belief

By Matthew Yglesias on October 25, 2010 at 11:15 am

"Psychological Foundations of Political Belief"

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(cc photo by moira)

The political science literature about what drives election outcomes is kind of at odds with the conventional wisdom among campaign operatives and reporters. But the emerging research on the psychological foundations of individual political belief is downright weird. Peter Liberman and David Pizarro, for example, have a good piece in the NYT about the link between disgust and conservatism:

Subtle cues about disgust and cleanliness can affect social and political judgments as well. In an experiment conducted recently by Erik Helzer, a Cornell Ph.D. student, and one of us (David Pizarro), merely standing near a hand-sanitizing dispenser led people to report more conservative political beliefs. Participants who were randomly positioned in front of a hand sanitizer gave more conservative responses to a survey about their moral, social and fiscal attitudes than those individuals assigned to complete the questionnaire at the other end of the hallway.

In another experiment one of us (Dr. Pizarro) was involved in, a foul ambient smell — emitted, unbeknownst to test subjects, by a novelty spray — caused people answering a questionnaire to report more negative attitudes toward gay men than did people who responded in the absence of the stench. Apparently, the slightest signal that germs might be present is enough to shift political attitudes toward the right.

I think it remains to be seen how these kind of dynamics play into macro-scale political phenomena, but suffice it to say that people aren’t making up their minds about political issues based purely on judicious consideration of the evidence.

Update

Looks like Van Tran is trying to put this insight to work as a practical campaign tactic.

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