Thursday, November 5, 2009

It's a Competitive Jungle
and a Dangerous World

Where do our ideological preferences come from?  Why do we think of ourselves as a conservative or liberal? 

This study attempts to get at the psychological foundations of our "ideological affinities" and one of the keys to understanding this, they argue, is expertise.  Or, as they say:
In this study, we examined the role of expertise with respect to two pre-political worldviews, i.e., competitive-jungle beliefs and dangerous-world beliefs; and three ideological attitude systems, i.e., social dominance orientation, right-wing authoritarianism, and the general left–right dimension.
Scary stuff, full of academic jargon and cruel-sounding labels. Let's break down the key terms:
  • Competitive Jungle -- do you see the world as a ruthless, competitive place.  A jungle.  Dog eat dog.  Insert your favorite cliche here, but I think you get the idea.  Measured on a 13-item scale that includes such statements for agreement as "It’s a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times."  Told you, cliches even find their way into questionnaires.
  • Dangerous World -- is the world a dangerous and threatening place?  Measured by a 10-item scale with such statements as "There are many dangerous people in our society who will attack somebody out of pure meanness, for no reason at all."  I'm scared just typing this.
  • Social Dominance Orientation -- sixteen items with such statements as "Some groups of people are
    simply inferior to other groups" to tap how much you see dominance as a role in society.
  • Right-wing Authoritarianism -- a 12-item index, including such gems as "Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children can learn" that attempts to measure, you got it, authoritarianism from the right (versus the left, but that's a big theoretical debate for another day).
  • General left-right dimension -- just what it says, the classic ideology measure, but they ask two questions, one about social and one about economic issues, which is good.  The two are highly correlated and combined for an overall measure.
  • Expertise -- Eleven factual questions of political knowledge, what people know, such as "What job or political office does Dick Cheney hold." 
Okay, I've spent more time than I should describing this, but at least I saved you the time of wading through the methods section and teasing it out yourself.  So what'd they find?  That expertise strengthens the relationship between the two pre-political worldviews of Competitive Jungle and Dangerous World beliefs.  So what?
Rather, the relationship between psychological variables and ideological affinity is notably stronger among those with an expert understanding of politics and abstract political ideas.  While experts have the information and understanding needed to choose ideological positions maximally consistent with their underlying needs and views of social life, those who lack political expertise appear to make ‘‘noisier’’ choices among the various ideological options on offer in any given political environment.

Simply put, if I'm getting this right, people with little expertise struggle to align their worldviews with their political ideology.  But more broadly, the point is that political ideology is formed by people's needs and  worldviews, and expertise -- what people know -- plays a part in making these more consistent.

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