A talk with political scientist Leonie Huddy about research into American racism and prejudice. Transcript is below. I wanted to talk with Huddy about headlines like this 2012 one from USA Today: “U.S. majority have prejudice against blacks.” I wanted to ask her if such framings were justified based on the research, or if they were, as it seemed to me from looking at the research, over-stated and irresponsible. Other topics discussed include:
- An overview of studies of racism/prejudice, with a focus on America.
- The ambiguity that can be present when attempting to study prejudice, especially for research that seeks to measure it in less direct and explicit ways.
- How worst-case and pessimistic framings and interpretations of studies can contribute to us-versus-them political animosity and polarization
Other resources related to or mentioned in our talk:
- Leonie Huddy’s Wikipedia page
- 2012 USA Today article titled AP poll: U.S. majority have prejudice against blacks
- Huddy and Feldman’s paper On Assessing the Political Effects of Racial Prejudice that examined challenges in reaching firm conclusions about the prevalence of “new racism” (e.g., racial resentment)
- Research by Carney et al Conservatism and Fairness in Contemporary Politics: Unpacking the Psychological Underpinnings of Modern Racism that substituted different ethnic groups (like Lithuanians) for blacks when asking questions typically used to determine “racial resentment”
- Research by Kam and Burge Racial Resentment and Public Opinion across the Racial Divide on measuring black Americans’ levels of “racial resentment”
Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding other people and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com.
In this episode, I interview political scientist Leonie Huddy on the topic of studying racism, and especially about studying racism in America.
The reason I was interested in talking about this topic is that it’s obviously a big factor in our polarization problems in America. There are many people on the left who believe and promote an extremely pessimistic view of race and racism in America. I was thinking about this recently when I was reading Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized, and the narrative he was promoting was largely the often-heard one that Trump support is largely about race; that many white conservatives are either racist or else resentful about America’s growing diversity and the idea that white people, as a group, are losing power. As someone who’s spent a good deal of time researching our divides, these narratives strike me as simplistic and as taking the worst-possible interpretation of various things that could have multiple interpretations.
For one thing: clearly there are a significant number of Trump supporters who are in racial minority groups. 12% or so of black voters voted for Trump in 2020, as did roughly 40% of Hispanic voters, as did roughly 30% of Muslim American voters, and 30% of Asian-American voters. To give a few example figures. And those numbers increased substantially from 2016. If you can wrap your mind around how it’s possible to be in a racial minority and not find Trump or the GOP bigoted or racist, you can also see how it can be possible to be white and support Trump for reasons not related to bigotry.
One of the studies referenced in Ezra Klein’s book to support the ‘Trump support is largely about bigotry’ narrative was an Associated Press study from 2012. To give you a sense of how this study was largely interpreted in the mainstream, a USA Today headline about it was titled “U.S. majority have prejudice against blacks,” and that was roughly how Ezra Klein interpreted that study. And many other news sources and pundits have taken that study and other similar studies and made similar interpretations with them, to make the case that a very large swath of Americans are prejudiced.
But when you actually take some time to delve into this area, you’ll find that there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about such interpretations. There is plenty of respected work showing why much of this data is quite complex and ambiguous, and showing why academics and journalists should be cautious and careful when talking about these topics. And this would seem to be especially the case considering how divisive we know these topics are.
One of the people who’s researched and written about the complexity and ambiguity in this area is Leonie Huddy. A 2009 paper Leonie wrote with Stanley Feldman was titled On Assessing the Political Effects of Racial Prejudice. Part of that paper delved into the difficulty of reaching firm conclusions from the data gleaned from so-called “racial resentment” research.
A little bit about Leonie Huddy from her professor page on Stony Brook University’s site: “She’s a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She studies political behavior in the United States and elsewhere through the lens of intergroup relations, with a special focus on gender, race, and ethnic relations. Her recent work extends that focus to the study of partisan identities in the United States and Western Europe.”
The following is from her wikipedia page: Huddy has been involved in the leadership of several major organizations and journals in political psychology and public opinion. From 2005 until 2010, she was the co-editor of the journal Political Psychology, and she has also served on the editorial boards of other major journals like the American Political Science Review and the American Journal of Political Science.
Before starting the interview, I also want to make clear: questioning some of the more pessimistic narratives about racism in America doesn’t mean that I or Leonie are saying that racism doesn’t exist or that it’s not a problem. But it’s just asking the question: how much of a problem is it? What does the research actually tell us? Because clearly there will always be a spectrum of people’s perceptions about race and racism, or about any topic, and some people will have inaccurate perceptions at various places along that spectrum, and the truth of the matter will lie somewhere on that spectrum, probably somewhere between the more extreme perceptions. And I’d say that the more polarized a society becomes, the more people will hold inaccurate and distorted perceptions of what the truth is about many hot-button topics.
And I think these conversations are very important. Because if our goal is reducing our visceral us-versus-them animosity, which is the root cause of our polarization and our dysfunction, then we must be willing to dispassionately examine the narratives that cause us to hate each other and be disgusted with each other. We must be willing to question the narratives that emotionally appeal to us, the tempting narratives that whisper in our ear “the other side are all bad and gross people.” We must be willing to examine nuance and complexity, and try to avoid simplistic “the other group is all the same” types of narratives.
Okay, here’s the interview with Leonie Huddy. Hi, Leonie. Thanks for coming on.
Leonie: Great to be here, Zach.
Zach: So maybe a good place to start is what led me to being interested in talking with you. I was reading Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized which is about polarization, and specifically American polarization. And he quoted some studies and interpretations of studies that expressed a pretty confident view that a large percentage of Americans are racist. And to give a sense of this kind of take, there’s a headline from USA Today in 2012 that read, “US majority have prejudice against Blacks.” And then to quote from the first paragraph in that article, “Racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president, an Associated Press poll finds, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.” End quote. And you can find similar views based on assorted studies that purport to find either explicit racism, the more obvious direct forms of racism, or more subtle and hidden forms of racism. So maybe we can start with the question; what are your thoughts when you see a news headline that says something like more than half of Americans are racist?
Leonie: Well, you know, I’m a social scientist and we try to stay away from these labels. I mean, we do a lot of work trying to pick up negative attitudes. And it’s a scale. Some people do, I think we both agree, some people have what we would both consider to be pretty strong prejudicial attitudes. But our job in social science is to try and engage these continuums. And one thing that I’ll say is that I’m a social psychologist and a political scientist, I look at both of these things. And it’s very human for us to like our own groups a little bit better than others. It’s pervasive, it’s almost universal. So if I asked you, how much do you like your whatever group it is; your religious group, your racial-ethnic group, I’ll always say I like it a little bit more than outsiders. So the question is, really, when does this spill over into a problem? When do we think that these negative attitudes turn into something that’s problematic or divisive? So I don’t think using labels is particularly helpful, but in our research we’ll try to grade people. Try to take them from those who really are very even-handed in the way they rate these groups to others on a continuum that really are further out on the negativity scale. And then we try to understand what are the consequences of holding those attitudes? I don’t think you’ll find many people in social science who’ll say, “This person is a racist,” but we can scale people on some sort of continuum that ranges from more or less racial negativity. Now, I don’t know if that’s a great answer to your question but I think we’d avoid the labels. And we try to gauge this continuum. Again, people vary. And this kind of human, you know, it is what we call the ingroup bias phenomena. It’s very, very pervasive.
Zach: And then there’s the question of how much of the things that are judged to be racist or interpreted as racist are actually due to just political sentiment. That was the subject of your paper with Stanley Feldman that interested me in talking to you because you talk about sometimes there’s difficulty of distinguishing between answers to surveys about racial resentment, for example, that can be seen as being due to just political sentiment versus racism. I’m wondering if you could maybe give an overview of how you view that separation and that ambiguity.
Leonie: I think the audit, again, is on us as social scientists to do good research. And we should poke out measures, poke the questions we ask people, and make sure that we’re getting at what we say we’re getting at. We should be held to a high level of scrutiny about this. You mentioned this concept of racial resentment, which is basically holding some negative attitudes along with some level of resentment that perhaps another group is getting special treatment in American society. We see a lot of these grudges on all sides, right? Lots of people have grudges against other groups. So that’s one issue. And another is, some of the questions in that particular scale touch on views that let’s say, a conservative or someone who’s very supportive of an individualistic view of humans and how they should behave would be more likely to endorse. So in my view, we have to work a bit harder at this. Yes, we can take statements that we might see in the press or that people make– and I think that’s how that scale got developed, was just picking up language that people were using. But there’s a higher bar to say that this in fact is is prejudicial or discriminatory, you know, that it’s a view that would lead to some of these discriminatory consequences. So I think that we have to think a little bit about the consequences of holding the attitude. Maybe we’ll get into the content of that particular scale but I will say in the history of measuring these concepts, in the beginning people would be asked really about outright bias, the view that another group was inherently inferior. Those were some of the kinds of attitudes that were being measured in let’s say, at the beginning of the 20th century. And people would acknowledge that they harbored them. They thought, for example, that Black Americans were less intelligent than Whites. And I think we’d all agree that that’s a strong prejudicial view. But we’ve moved away from that, that is sort of the history of these concepts. So it became less likely that people would endorse those views, especially in the wake of the civil rights movement. And so these new measures were developed to try and pick up what people thought was sort of discriminatory standpoint. And it’s complicated but some of that was related to what they saw as resistance to policies that would try and improve the position of Black Americans in everyday life and people are asking- Well, in principle, they seemed to support equality and they believed in the value of racial equality, but they’re opposed to these particular remedies. And so they developed this racial resentment scale to try, in their view, to think “Oh, maybe this is the way we now detect racial bias in some ways, to help us explain why people are opposed to programs like busing or affirmative action, which we all may agree may have other problems associated with them.” So there is a long history to this where we’ve moved away from purely discriminatory statements that people would make to more subtle sorts of statements. And I think that’s where we can bring in questions about, is this really racial discrimination?
Zach: Yeah. It seems like there’s a few problems in that area which you talk about and other people have talked about in various papers. For one, it’s hard to separate some conservative views from views that some would categorize as racist or racial resentment. For example, if you’re a conservative who believes in a small government and believes in personal responsibility, that’s going to overlap with things that could be interpreted as racial resentment, the kinds of questions they asked to determine racial resentment. The other related problem is the more indirect an approach you take for measuring racism or anything, the more open to interpretation and ambiguous and noisy the findings can be. Would you agree with both of those?
Leonie: No, I think that’s correct. I think that’s absolutely correct. We, again, as social scientists we have to work hard at this. If it is a difficult concept to measure, we’ve got to work harder at it and make sure that we are not using labels that are incorrect for a response that people make to a particular question. So if we’re talking about this racial resentment scale, one of the questions is people should try harder. If Blacks would try harder, they can be just as well off as Whites. There is some research where you substitute Blacks for other groups and people will just simply agree, “Yes. Yeah, if you work harder you can get ahead!” That’s part of the problem. That it may not be a racial view, it may simply be the view that you think if people work hard they can in fact be just as wealthy as anyone else in the society. And so I think it’s our job to try and make sure that we’re not measuring a support for that sort of hard-work principle as opposed to something that’s more prejudicial attitudes towards a particular group of people.
Zach: Yeah, that was- Speaking of other studies, you mentioned that study which was a study by Riley Kearney and Ryan. It was about substituting Blacks– they substituted Lithuanians for Blacks in these same surveys, and found the same patterns which suggests that these studies were largely studying views about the role of government and how much any individual group should be helped. Then there was another study by Cindy D. Kam titled Racial Resentment and Public Opinion across the Racial Divide. And in that one, they studied the responses of Black Americans to these kinds of questions and found it was largely about politics where Black Republicans would answer in similar ways to White Republicans on these answers and in the same ways that have been interpreted as representing racial resentment. Are there many studies that kind of criticize some of the harder more certain interpretations of these things?
Leonie: I would say among researchers, it is an ongoing debate. One of the things that we’ve tried to do in our research is try to find evidence of actual discrimination. What I mean by that is, let’s say there’s a survey, we’re conducting a survey… We might describe a person– one of my current studies is about immigration so it is whether or not someone would be prejudicial to [woods] somebody who is dark-skinned versus someone who is white-skinned with the same qualities who wishes to come to the United States. And so if we find that the person who’s described identically with same qualifications, same background, same capability of assimilating into American life… If there is a penalty for your skin color, then that’s fairly clear-cut, I guess. And we can take some of our questions such as this racial resentment scale which I don’t really use or other questions that are more blatant, and say it’s the person who holds the more blatant prejudicial attitude less likely to support a person who seems qualified to come to the country just because of their skin color. And we do find evidence of that. In our recent research, yes, there’s a penalty if you harbor the most extreme of these negative attitudes. You will be more likely to reject someone who is let’s say, a Nigerian, than a guy in our last study was who was from Russia described exactly the same way. [unintelligible 00:16:25] an evidence of prejudice or discrimination in action. And I think in some ways that’s more clear cut. And we’ve tried that kind of thing with the racial resentment scale. This was asking about a program that would take top high school scores and allow them free entry into this state college, and the program was described as either benefiting Black or White students. And there was discrimination. People were more likely to support the program when it seemed to benefit White than Black students even though it’s described the same way. But we also look to see across this range of racial resentment, is that helping us to understand who is less likely to support a program for black teenagers? And it didn’t work very well for conservatives who were perhaps not very enthusiastic about the program in general, and it didn’t really matter if it was described for Whites or Blacks. Those who scored highly were just like, “No, we don’t really like this program.” That’s telling me that it’s not discriminating on the basis of race, it’s just telling me something about the reaction to the program, if that makes sense. It’s trying to see discrimination in action, in combination with the scale as a kind of test of the scale. That’s what I mean by we have to work a little bit harder to show that the scale is picking up, something that we think is a problem. Just pure discrimination against something or a policy, purely because it’s directed at one group versus another.
Zach: Right. And you write in your papers and work, and others have too, that academics may be too quick to dismiss the fact that there is actual explicit racism that we can measure and there seems to be a reaching for these more indirect findings or ambiguous findings, when there seems to be so much you could do even with just very explicit direct forms of racism. For example, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz who wrote the book Everybody Lies, which was about examining Google search results for various findings. He found the correlation between Google searches for the N word and related negative racial search engine results and the political activity of specific regions. In other words, there seems to be a lot of interesting research one can do even just for explicit racism without getting into the more ambiguous areas. Which I think is the point you’re making, and also the fact that I agree with you is like we seem to be so often focused on these ambiguous or like trying to read people’s minds, when it seems much more worthwhile to focus on what are the actual implications and consequences when it comes to specific policies and things like this.
Leonie: Yeah. Because I think we just get into trouble with people taking issue with our claims. And so I think it benefits the enterprise if we’re able to show clearly some of these issues that people won’t dispute. And so I’d say it’s a lot older now but in the 2000s, we conducted large national survey. And the questions were about why are there economic differences, let’s say between Blacks and Whites? Or why are test scores different between kids who are black and white in schools? And we gave people different kinds of reasons, and one was that basically the other group is genetically inferior. Now, this would seem to be a version of fairly blatant prejudice against a group, right? I think we’d agree in this day and age not many of us believe that. And I’d say, you know, people are allowed to say, “Whoa, no. That’s absolutely not a reason. It might be a bit, or something.” People who said, “Yes, this greatly explains it or explains it somewhat.” There was about 25% of people in this national survey who said, “Yeah, you know, that could be one of the reasons.” So it’s not so difficult to ask the questions. We think, “Oh, no, you couldn’t possibly raise those issues.” But there are people out there who really, you know, perhaps live in a context where this is the way they talk about the other group. And we shouldn’t be afraid to find that out. I mean, it’s possible to ask these questions. What I will say, at that time I was running a survey research centre, and the interviewers don’t want to ask the question. And I kept saying, “It’s okay, there are people out there that don’t mind telling you. This is what they think. We’re just listening. We’re just trying to understand what’s going on.” So I think our own concerns, our own views colour our perception of what things like out there in the world.
Zach: To get back to that, the reason I wanted to talk to you was these headlines and these framings that, you know, for example the the USA Today headline that said US Majority Have Prejudice Against Blacks, which was based on a specific survey that asked the kind of typical racial resentment questions. The thing that strikes me there is, would you agree it seems that that kind of confident framing seems irresponsible, considering the ambiguity we’ve talked about and considering how divisive these topics are?
Leonie: Again, I don’t think us social scientists would ever say X percentage is racist. We’re just not in that kind of business. And the problem with this is that it does harden perceptions on either side. It is never a good idea when you have some divisions to throw a fire bomb at the other side. It doesn’t help our relationships. So I think it would be much more satisfying if that language is more guarded and more qualified. It’s a complaint that we often have as researchers or social scientists, that some of our research is heavily simplified for headline purposes, right? So if you are interested in social science, it’s really good. I know some of it is complex but it’s really good to try and dig into the complexity of these studies yourself to understand what’s going on if you can. It’s good to have a long-form format such as ours now on a podcast to talk about these issues, because I think social scientists generally think with greater nuance about this. Maybe not everyone, but I think we are beholden to that sort of concept that we’ve got to be clear and straight ahead in what we’re doing if we want other people to believe us.
Zach: I’m someone who’s interested in the political polarisation, dynamics and the psychology behind that, and I talk about that on this podcast a good amount. One thing that strikes me about America’s race-related divides and our divides in general is that there can be these various feedback mechanisms that amplify these conflicts. For example, the more that liberals promote worst-case interpretations about both race relations in America and about conservatives’ views being indicators of hidden racism, the more anger that generates in conservatives and the more that anger on the conservative side will manifest in ways that will be then interpreted even more as so-called racial resentment or racism. In other words, there can be this view amongst conservatives, but not only conservatives, that many liberals are being unreasonable and divisive on matters of race and that liberals focus too much on race and racism to the exclusion of more important things like helping struggling people in general. And the more that that perception grows, the more people will be likely to vent their frustration about these things in surveys related to race and racism. There just seems to be these various feedback mechanisms at work. And I see this not just in racial things, but pretty much any topic we could pick that’s a contentious topic. I’m wondering if that’s something you’ve thought about these kinds of feedback mechanisms.
Leonie: Well, I think about group conflicts very generally. One of the things that can happen is if I think the other side hates me, it will not improve matters. And so some of these accusations, the hurling of insults, will never improve the situation and basically people will just stop listening to each other. And I think we’re sort of in that situation, for some people at least, with partisan polarisation. So it is important to listen to understand each other that unfortunately, forces, greater listening. When it comes to racial matters, we would say or social scientists say there is racial inequity in this country. I think it’s clear cut with, I think for example, on Long Island where I live, we have a lot of school districts. We have 126 school districts and we have some minority districts that are the poorest performing, they’re the smallest, they have the weakest tax base, we have a large differential in terms of spending per child on these different kinds of children in school districts. And most people are unaware of that. I’ve done polling on this, so they don’t know. So it would be helpful if we could educate each other about where the sources of problems are in our society without getting hot under the collar about such insult, because it doesn’t help matters. I personally think politics is not a religion, it is a practical exercise. [laughs] And we often lose sight of that. We have to compromise. Politics is inherently about compromise. We have to listen, and without that we’re really not going to solve the problems. We’re not gonna see the problem. That, I think, is bothersome. It is worrying to me because if we want to be clear-sighted, for me as an educator, one of the things and the places we get started is with education. And equal educational access would seem pretty important. That’s at least a beginning place where we can start to perhaps have that conversation. I’ll just say one of the difficulties that we have is understanding the difference between individual merit– so, you know, I should get rewarded for the things that I do– and then how do we reconcile that with the fact that we have group inequities in our society? I think we have to acknowledge that we do. If we look across different racial and ethnic groups, there are different outcomes on average. Some of that may be baked, it may not be anything to do with people’s attitudes. It may be baked into other aspects of our institutions that need some examination. But that’s a more complex way of thinking about things. We have to understand a place like Long Island, “Well, why are those school districts like that?” Part of it is residential segregation for us as a history. We are one of the most segregated suburban places in the country, and the tax base is very different in the school districts and so you can spill it out, you can play it out. There’s a long story in there. And it isn’t just about people’s attitudes towards each other, although that doesn’t help those attitudes. That’s a long way of getting back to saying it would be really good to have a sort of rational assessment of what these problems are without yelling and screaming at each other.
Zach: Right. That’s what strikes me about polarisation. Extreme polarisation is just so bad because it kind of prevents solving problems, you know? It prevents us from having nuanced conversations. It leads so many people to take simplistic views of things or just views that are pushing against the extremity perceived on the other side. It all sets up to just prevent anyone from solving an actual problem.
Leonie: Yeah, definitely bothers me. [laughs] I get very exercised about that because I think people just don’t understand politics. Politics is always about compromise, we’re never going to get exactly what we want. We live in a diverse society and so it’s really about listening and understanding. And I do think that this name-calling, hurling things at each other across these divides is completely counterproductive. It would be good if we can take the temperature down and listen to each other more. One thing that I’ll say about that is I think that the younger generation of let’s say, younger White Americans have grown up in a more diverse society. And when I look at their attitudes, and again not calling anyone racist but on the scales and so on, they tend to show more tolerant attitudes than older generations. In that sense, there may be greater capacity to listen to what’s going on on both sides of these debates, and maybe more open-mindedness. I think of that generation as one, let’s say the under 30s, as having grown up in a more diverse society in the US with more diverse students in schools and so on. And so they’ve had more contact and harbor less of these prejudices towards people of other groups. It sometimes helps to know people from another background, that seems to be one of the things that helps tamp down this name-calling and heated opposition.
Zach: I was going to go back down to a granular level, you had briefly touched on the specific questions about some of these kinds of surveys that we’re talking about but the thing that strikes me in that area is that even at this very specific question level on these surveys, there’s just so much room for ambiguity and different interpretations of the questions and different interpretations of the answers to the questions. I’ll take one example here. Let’s see. There’s often a question about agreeing or disagreeing with a statement like, “Racial problems in the US are rare, isolated occasions.” Another one is, “Government officials pay less attention to a complaint from a Black person than from a White person.” The assumption often is that people’s inability to recognize that racism is a problem or a big problem, or their unwillingness to say it’s a big problem is itself a sign of racism. But that strikes me is just such a big assumption because it’s possible to imagine people living in areas or environments where they simply don’t perceive that racism is a problem, or they watch the news that doesn’t present racism as a problem. Or even as having different definitions of what rare or isolated occasions mean in a country of 300 million people. That’s just one example but it strikes me with all these questions that there’s so much room for interpretation and what kind of strikes me with some of the interpretations like for example, the USA Today headline article that I mentioned. It’s like there’s often these filtering of all these things to the worst-case interpretation. I’m wondering if you see some of that ambiguity in the questions themselves?
Leonie: Let me draw a distinction that I think is an important one in some of our work when we’ve asked these questions. And we’ve posed, you know, what’s the explanation for, let’s say, these differences in economic outcomes? We divide those explanations up into what we will call internal attributions. In other words, we blame people themselves for their failures and say that there is a weakness of character or so on, leading towards a more prejudicial judgment about a group of people, and distinguish that from societal explanations. So in other words, there’s been a history of discrimination in our country or discrimination exists. Those are two very different things. And it’s hard to say that this perception of the current existence of discrimination has anything to do with other aspects of a prejudicial judgment about the group. I think discrimination is really hard for people to see. I mean, if you live in a certain area, maybe you never seen it, you don’t know it, you haven’t experienced it, you’re unaware of it. I think it’s very difficult to call that racial prejudice. These judgments about whether discrimination exists or hard to make. Even a person who experiences it isn’t sure if they were disadvantaged because they were a woman or somebody from a particular group. We could reflexively say it’s that, but it turns out that when we look at people’s attitudes, those judgments about whether society discriminates are very different from saying that there is a deficient character to a group of people or that they are inferior in some ways.
That tells me that discrimination is something else. It’s got to do with perhaps where we live, what we experience, how we understand the world. And that, again, is different from judging a group of people negatively or saying that they’re all terrible people. I would prefer to say prejudice against a group of people is the ladder that I’m making very broad, negative generalizations about them as people. “I don’t like them, I think they’re inferior perhaps, I think they’ve got really negative attributes, and I’ve labeled them all the same.” That’s closer to our concept, I think, of group prejudice. But acknowledging that or knowing or even being aware of discrimination is much more complex. It isn’t the same thing and I think that’s where we’ve gotten tangled up to some degree. And I think that where you were pointing a little bit.
Zach: I want to ask you too about something I’ve, in previous recent episodes, I’ve talked about examining survey results and interpretations of survey results. One factor that seems relatively unexamined to me is there can be in very polarised societies on these surveys, I feel like that can be a venting factor where people are just using the surveys to kind of vent frustration at the other side. I wonder if you’ve seen any examination of that or think that can be a factor in making people more likely to answer survey questions in a way that’s just like venting, “I want to make a point against the other side by answering this in a way that may not even reflect the way they really feel.”
Leonie: It’s hard to say, that’s really difficult to get at. One of the things that we can do is try to look at how their answer goes with other attitudes that they have in a survey. When people answer these questions, we’re taking them at face value to some extent. We can’t hook them up to something and say, “Lie detector test. Are they lying? Is this real?” We can’t really do that. It’s very, very difficult. But what we can do is sort of see well, how does that go along with their other positions? Is there a consistency? Does this seem out of line with the other things that we were saying. One thing that we tend to forget is that there are gradations in all things. We talked about how positive or negatively someone feels about another group, but it’s also true for how they feel about the political parties. So while we have a small group on both sides that are very intense and hold very negative attitudes towards each other, there’s a whole bunch of people in the middle who don’t do that. We tend to lose sight of them because they’re quiet. So what I would say is when I ask people how strongly they identify with a political party, how much it means to them and so on, they’ll be the ones that express the most negativity towards the other side. I think if we look at their behavior, it might be consistent with their behavior as well. Again, it’s a small group of people but it’s very hard to say they may actually feel this kind of negativity towards the other side. It may be moderated when they actually meet someone, they might have to tone it down, so that’s another matter. We all know that our behavior has to be conditioned to some extent on circumstances and context. We can’t always just express our attitudes if it results in someone punching you, you know? There are constraints on our behavior. But I don’t see any reason in this case, I think that when people say those things– and we’ve done some experimentation by let’s say grading someone in terms of how strongly they identify with their political party and then making them read something that is threatening towards the political party. Typically, the strongest identifiers will say the most angry about these things. That seems to be consistent with the behavior, they’re more likely to do things. Anger seems to be motivating them to take actions. So I don’t really have any reason to think that it’s fake. I actually think some people feel pretty strongly about this. But again, it’s a minority. The strongest are a small group on both political sides, and then we have gradations and people in the middle.
Zach: Yeah. And I know people who say some pretty extreme things like all cops are Nazis. They might vent these kinds of things on social media but then when you actually talk to them, of course they don’t actually believe that. That’s the kind of thing I was thinking. But yeah, not to say that there’s, you know, clearly there are things to study there. I guess that’s the kind of dynamic I was thinking of in these areas of people just being very angry, and also the fact that a lot of these surveys tend to happen more and more online these days as opposed to in-person, which I think somebody studied that, that people can have different responses online than they would in person for social reasons and things like that.
Leonie: Yeah. We have to remember that there’s a range, even though I might hold a particular attitude, I can say different things in different contexts. And so if possible, then online makes me more inflamed in general because that’s where I’d spout off on social media. What we would think is that typically, the social desirability pressures are less intense online. Now, that’s based on research concerning sensitive topics like sexual behavior, other things that people don’t want to move to, they’re more likely to be honest when they’re asked without a person. So I think it depends on who you think you’re talking to, if there is an interview and someone’s asking that question. The person’s thinking, “Who am I talking to?” And if they think they’re talking to someone who agrees with them, maybe they express stronger positions. The general notion is that online should get rid of some of that. I guess we need to do more research on that to figure that out. It’s an interesting proposition.
Zach: Do you want to mention anything else that you wanted to say that we didn’t get around to?
Leonie: I’ll say one thing about polarisation, because this is some of the work that I have been doing more recently, looking at these partisan identities. I’m just interested in what I’d call intergroup relations, so that just means that there are some common concepts, explanations, processes that cut across all of these different group relations. And so recently, we were doing some work looking at how we can decrease negative feelings about the other political party. Basically, this is back to the idea that if we don’t think the other side hates us, we can calm things down a bit. In that particular study, there were several studies where people read about Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell in a restaurant where they were either nice to each other or they were insulting each other. And then independently were agreeing or disagreeing on immigration matters. And we found that their agreement or disagreement didn’t really matter that much, what helped to make us more positive towards the other side was the fact that they were nice to each other. So showing that our leaders can actually be warm and have a pleasant and congenial relationship helps to decrease this idea that the other side hates us. The takeaway here is if we could see some better behavior from our leaders or people on either side of these political divides, it would help to take the temperature down a little bit and make it easier to, “Listen, we can disagree, we have to disagree. We will always disagree. This is the nature of politics. We will never all agree about things.” But the question is, can we do that in a way that results in us listening to each other and making concessions and compromising or not? And I think we’ve reached a bad place in American politics where that is increasingly unlikely.
Zach: Thank you, Leonie. This has been great. Thanks for coming on and talking about this.
Leonie: My pleasure, Zach. Pleasure to be here.
Zach: That was a talk with political scientist, Leonie Huddy. You can learn more about her work by searching for her name and finding her Google Scholar page, or her StonyBrook University professor page.
If you’d like to read the paper that initially interested me in interviewing Leonie, that paper is titled “On Assessing the Political Effects of Racial Prejudice”.
One thing that we didn’t get to discuss, but which was discussed in that paper, was the ambiguity that’s also present for some of the ‘unconscious racism’ or ‘unconscious bias’ types of tests. This is another area where there has been a mainstream interest in these tests, and an understanding that such tests reveal prejudice and racism in people that people aren’t aware of. But the reality is that these kinds of tests are much less revealing and much less accurate than is widely perceived in the mainstream.
If you’re interested in learning more about this, I’d recommend as a starting point a Vox article by German Lopez titled “For years, this popular test measured anyone’s racial bias. But it might not work after all.” The synopsis for that piece reads: “People took the implicit association test to gauge their subconscious racism. Now the researchers behind the test admit it can’t always do that.”
To quote from one paragraph in that: “The research so far comes down somewhere in the middle of the debate. It seems like the IAT predicts some variance in discriminatory behaviors, but its predictive power to this end seems to be quite small: Depending on the study, the estimate ranges from less than 1 percent to 5.5 percent. With percentages so small, it’s questionable just how useful the IAT really is for predicting biased behavior — even in the aggregate.” end quote
If you’d like to see some of these resources, I’ll have some of the ones discussed at the entry for this episode at my behavior-podcast.com site.
If I had one point I hope you take with you from this episode, it’s that we should be more skeptical of people and media that use the kinds of research discussed here to support their claims that a large swath of America is racist.
I think we should all try to aim for nuance on this topic, and on all topics that feed into our us-versus-them divides. We should attempt to question and push back when people and media make over-confident assertions that we see as relying on weak or ambiguous data. I think the more we do that, the more we’ll combat false and exaggerated us-versus-them narratives and the more we’ll reduce animosity.
I’m currently working on a book aimed at healing American divides and reducing polarization. If you’d like to read some of the kinds of ideas I’ll be talking about in that book, you can check out a piece I just wrote: it’s on my Medium blog and it’s called “The importance of criticizing your own political side in reducing political polarization.” To find it, you can search for “medium zach elwood political polarization” and you’ll probably find it. That piece discusses an idea that I believe is one of our major paths out of polarization: convincing more people to criticize bad and polarized thinking they see in their own political group. So if you care about American stability and reducing dysfunction, I hope you check it out.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com. If you appreciate my work, please leave me a review on iTunes; it’s the most popular podcast platform so it’s definitely the place where a review is most appreciated. I make no money on this podcast and spend a good deal of time on it. So if you think I’m doing good things and want to send me some financial support to encourage me to do this more, you can send money to my Patreon, at patreon.com/zachelwood, that’s zach elwood.