What Makes People Vote Republican? Futile Exercises?

If Obama were still leading in all the polls beyond the margin of error, I don't believe we'd be having such a serious discussion about what makes people vote Republican or Democratic.

Rather, we'd be discussing Republicans the dying breed; that a material majority of America has chosen a path toward true enlightenment and goodwill toward fellow man.

The fact is, that Republicans have been losing ground since 2005 when they controlled the white house and both sides of congress.  Under their watch, the presidency has reached lows not seen since disgraced Nixon and the decline in Congressional approval rates accelerated under the Republicans.  They lost both sides of Congress and the majority of governorships for the first time in 12 years.  And were in defend mode to avoid losing super majorities in this 2008 election in the face of economic woes, unpopular war and newly energized Democratic voter surges.

There stood the literal state of the union prior to the end of the DNC. And then the RNC happened -- and in one tiny period of 4 days, three years of Republican decline reversed in the face of a swing reversal in the polls

Interesting how a shift in the polls causes so much introspective analysis about "what is the true underlying cause that they vote the other guy" and we pull out our psychological neuroscience to make sense of why we've had this bout of misfortune believing that if we can understand, it might alleviate some of our distress or that if we could glean the insight, we could stop it.  

The man said, "Doc, it hurts when I do that." Doc said, "well, don't do that".  Could the reason for our misfortune be as simple as something we did or something that was done to us that is the root of our woes?  

No doubt this dem brain/repub brain is an interesting exercise but, the reality is that there was a game changing shift that caused shoppers (voters) whose complex brains could be sympathetic to both republican markers and democratic markers to switch from a preference to picking the blue shirt over the red shirt.

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Sarah Palin: Alaskans "desperate for glamor and culture"

Before she was the GOP Vice-Presidential candidate, before she was Governor of Alaska, and even before she was Mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin was quoted in the Anchorage Daily News, and this quote gives us an insight into her psychology and her desires.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, in April, 1996, Ivana Trump visited Anchorage, Alaska, and Sarah Palin was there to get Ms. Trump's autograph:

Sarah Palin, a commercial fisherman from Wasilla, told her husband on Tuesday she was driving to Anchorage to shop at Costco. Instead, she headed straight for Ivana.

And there, at J.C. Penney's cosmetic department, was Ivana, the former Mrs. Donald Trump, sitting at a table next to a photograph of herself. She wore a light-colored pantsuit and pink fingernail polish. Her blonde hair was coiffed in a bouffant French twist.

''We want to see Ivana,'' said Palin, who admittedly smells like salmon for a large part of the summer, ''because we are so desperate in Alaska for any semblance of glamour and culture.''

Imagine the reaction if someone from California or New York said this.  This would seem to be a knock at Alaskans (and, probably by extension, rural people everywhere), suggesting that they are neither glamorous enough nor cultured enough for Sarah Palin's tastes.  This is the same Sarah Palin who is now being positioned against "the cultural elite" of Washington, New York, and California--the very same cultural elite she appears to have been starstruck about twelve years ago.

Of course, her December, 2007 photoshoot in Vogue Magazine suggests the same thing: she wants to be part of the cultural elite that she criticizes.  She wants to be glamorous.

This is the same campaign that mocked Senator Obama, comparing him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears as "celebrities".  Ivana Trump is a celebrity in much the same way Paris Hilton is--for her marriage and subsequent divorce from Donald Trump than anything else.  Both are famous for being famous, and not much more.

I get the feeling that Sarah Palin 1996 would have been as starstruck if Paris Hilton 2007 had visited as if Ivana Trump 1996 did.  Now wouldn't that make an interesting episode of "The Simple Life"?

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What Makes People Vote Republican?

(cross posted at kickin it with cg)

Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies?  Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, examines why.  With the seemingly return of the culture wars and general hate being flung from across both sides of the aisle in recent days, this essay might be intriguing to some.

For my dissertation research, I made up stories about people who did things that were disgusting or disrespectful yet perfectly harmless. For example, what do you think about a woman who can't find any rags in her house so she cuts up an old American flag and uses the pieces to clean her toilet, in private? Or how about a family whose dog is killed by a car, so they dismember the body and cook it for dinner? I read these stories to 180 young adults and 180 eleven-year-old children, half from higher social classes and half from lower, in the USA and in Brazil. I found that most of the people I interviewed said that the actions in these stories were morally wrong, even when nobody was harmed. Only one group--college students at Penn--consistently exemplified Turiel's definition of morality and overrode their own feelings of disgust to say that harmless acts were not wrong. (A few even praised the efficiency of recycling the flag and the dog).

This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like "it's wrong because... um...eating dog meat would make you sick" or "it's wrong to use the flag because... um... the rags might clog the toilet." These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume's dictum that reason is "the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them." This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel's description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups--the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. ("Your dog is family, and you just don't eat family.") From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder's ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label "elitist." But how can Democrats learn to see--let alone respect--a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?

In today's New York Times, In No Laughing Matter Judith Warner adds:

Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view. "Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger," he told me in a phone interview.

Haidt also explores the meaning of morality and describes his experiences in a Hindu community in the early 90's, in which a he witnessed a hierarchical society with clearly defined gender and class roles. This gave him insight into why some in his own country might be attracted to similarly ordered social structures.

It really is a good read and I think helpful to framing the conversation in the upcoming weeks.

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American Psychological Association Turns Blind Eye To Psychologists' Aid in Torture Programs

[cross-posted from www.progressivefuture.org]

This weekend, the American Psychological Association will be holding their annual conference, but it won't be as harmonious as you would think: a group of psychologists are organizing to change the association's position on the presence of psychologists during interrogations of Guantanamo detainees. It's ironic that the ethics code of the APA explicitly states: "Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm." Yet this organization has taken the controversial stance that the presence of psychologists makes the detainees at Guantanamo safer during interrogations.

And yet the evidence points in the other direction:

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The Extinction Burst

If you study behavioral psychology, you'll learn about a concept called "the extinction burst." 

The specific example I use when I teach is this:

You've got a child who is throwing tantrums.  In the past, the tantrums have gotten the child attention, which is exactly what the child wants.  Therefore, you have been providing positive reinforcement to that child's behavior.  It's "positive" because you're adding something (attention), not because it's good.  It's "reinforcement" because it increases the behavior.

The much more effective approach to reducing tantrums is negative punishment.  "Negative" because you're removing something and "punishment" because it reduces the behavior.  When we talk about "punishment" in behavioral psychology we don't necessarily mean anything specific; it's just any act in a behavioral context which reduces the frequency of a given behavior.

But here's why many parents don't use negative punishment: the extinction burst.

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