This is the transcript for episode 133 of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.
In this episode, we spend time with political scientist Lilliana Mason who discusses her new book, Uncivil Agreement, in which she says, “Our conflicts are over who we think we are, rather than reasoned differences of opinion.”
Lilliana Mason is professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland where she researches partisan identity, partisan bias, social sorting, and American social polarization. She is the author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, and her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and National Public Radio.
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David McRaney: First of all, tell me what encouraged you to put this into a book.
Lilliana Mason: So, this actually started off as my doctoral dissertation in 2009. So, this has been this has been in the works for a long time. And in fact, 2009 was the hope and change year. It was Obama’s first term; it was Obama’s first year. This stuff wasn’t all as sort of as frothy as it is right now.
I was looking at all these different identities, thinking about partisanship, thinking about polarization, and then there was this argument between these two political scientists, Alan Abramowitz and Morris Fiorina, that was going on, and sort of had been going on for 10 or 15 years, and they were arguing about whether or not Americans are polarized. They kept throwing descriptive statistics back and forth and saying, “Well if you measure it this way they are; if you measure this other way they are not.” But they kept talking about Americans being polarized in a way that meant that people disagree with each other about what the government should do. People have different issue positions, and that’s what they both meant when they said “polarized,” and I was looking around and thinking about what I was seeing in politics and thinking, “Well maybe they don’t have to disagree in order to hate each other.”
We have all of this social psychology literature that talks about intergroup conflict, and almost none of it is about disagreement. Most of it is about just groups hating each other. So, I started thinking, “What if we start thinking about partisanship in that way” as an intergroup conflict problem, and using that literature that historically has looked at racial intergroup conflict or other types of intergroup conflict but apply it to parties. So that’s sort of how the project started. And then, gradually over time, the things in the world started happening that started confirming these ideas that I had.
David McRaney: There is something that you bring up that… I put it down, and I like, “I’m going to say this to people everywhere and bring it to their attention,” and that’s that dinner parties used to be where you avoided politics. Now we find ourselves talking about politics at dinner parties as the norm. We expect that we’re going to have a little a little jam session where we’re going to say, “Hey do you think this is crazy? Me too,” or, “Hey do you think these people are stupid? Yeah I agree.” If you can speak to that, to me that feels like a great indication of something that’s changed.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. So, it used to be that politics and religion were the things you don’t talk about at a dinner party, because you don’t want to offend the people who clearly are going to obviously have different positions than you at your table. And that assumed that you’re going to be sitting at a table full of people who had diverse political identities and religious identities, and so increasingly, and this one of the major influences that I argue in the book on this increasing sense of partisan dislike, is that we have become separated from each other as partisans — not just in terms of what we want the government to do, but geographically and culturally, and in all kinds of ways — so that now the people that we tend to invite over for dinner parties are the people that we agree with. You are right, now at dinner parties there’s always that sort of moment when everyone says, “OK, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Here we go with politics.” And that’s because everyone tends to agree. And in fact, if you know that there’s someone at your table who doesn’t agree with you, you probably won’t have that conversation, unless it’s like Thanksgiving dinner. At Thanksgiving dinner, you are stuck with your family.
David McRaney: I’m realizing the Thanksgiving dinner analogy which comes up a lot in these conversations, comes up a lot because now that’s that one time we don’t get to sort who comes. Like, it’s a throwback to a previous era more than it is something that’s always been true.
Lilliana Mason: And people hate it. People dread going to their Thanksgiving dinner because they know that they’re going to be forced to have a political conversation with someone who sees the world completely differently than they do.
David McRaney: We do this the sorting people into our groups when we decide to go hang out at parties or get togethers or lunches or dinners or whatever. I know plenty of people who do this on their social media as well. They’ve carefully over the last year or two either turned off notifications for the people they disagree with, or they’ve done this pruning thing where they’ve removed everyone who believes differently than them politically from their Facebook, and less-so from Twitter because sometimes I think people want to see what’s going on the other side there. But since Facebook feels more like it’s our identity, I know people who are like, “If you support Trump or if you support Hillary, I’m just going to delete you.” That seems strange. What I’m asking here is that a function of social media or is that a function of something larger than social media?
Lilliana Mason: I think it’s both. In terms of the function of social media, it’s possibly these are people that we would not be running into on a daily basis. As soon as you block them they’re just gone, and that’s one very easy way to remove conflicts for your life. Of course, add onto this, it’s like much more easy to be nasty and mean when you’re typing then it has to be that way to someone’s face. But a lot of this is that you learn you learn your political story and your world is full of people who agree with you. You don’t really come in come in contact with someone who disagrees with you until you’re in a place like Facebook where you have huge numbers of connections to people who are third-degree removed from you, and those people you can get into an argument with. But you’re not very good at it. Right? We haven’t practiced having political conversations with people that we are willing to compromise with. Also, the fact that we have this very different set of understandings of what is real — that’s a major problem for any kind of conversation. So, it’s partially that it’s Facebook, but it also the political moment is so polarized that that we don’t really know how to speak to each other with any sense of common humanity or attempts for understanding.
David McRaney: Let’s get into some of the stuff in the book. I like to talk about this using the term “tribal psychology,” but I know it goes by a number of different terms depending on which discipline is describing it. I’m just wondering what terms do you prefer when we talk about this? Is tribal psychology OK, or is there something that is more specific that is more illustrative of the concepts from your perspective?
Lilliana Mason: I have used the term tribal psychology before. I’m kind of moving away from it now, because I’m not sure that’s exactly the right concept or communicates the right thing. Essentially what it is — is just identity. It can be kind of confusing, because the way that pundits try to talk about identity politics is different than the way that social psychologists and political scientists talk about identity politics, so that part can be confusing, but essentially what this research demonstrates is that everything is identity politics. All politics is rooted in identity. The more isolated we are from our from our social outgroups, the more we’re going to think of our own group as the best and think of our outgroups as terrible. It becomes this either-or, us-versus-them type of politics. In terms of theory that’s just based in social group identity. I tend to call identity-based politics, which then gets confusing when people say, “Politicians need to stop doing identity politics,” which in my world makes no sense at all, because every single every single time a politician talks tends to be using some trope of identity that they’re already sort-of referring to.
David McRaney: So, what is the difference between what pundits say when they use those terms and what people in your world say?
Lilliana Mason: Generally, the way that it tends to be used is to say you are advocating for benefits for one particular, usually marginalized, group of people. The thing that they mean by saying that is you’re trying to get benefits for this one group at the expense of everybody else. The way that I think about identity is every single one of us has multiple social identities. As human beings our identities affect the way that we think and process information and relate to other people in the world. We all do it in exactly the same way, and we’re all vulnerable to this kind of thinking. So, to say that one party or another is using identity politics, is like saying Democrats are constantly using oxygen. It’s the thing that is universal to human beings. We all do it. And if we just understood that from the point of view of basic human psychology, then we could understand: What are these biases that we’re working with? What are the things that we should be looking out for? What are our vulnerabilities to getting in trouble with this with this us-versus-them type thinking? If we can think about it that way, then nobody is using identity politics, because everybody is focusing on their own identities and kind-of being blind to the humanity of people who are not them.
By focusing on particular groups when you say identity politics, you make it sound like there are certain groups of people who don’t have identities. On its face, it’s absurd, if you think about this as just a human psychological process. But also, it reflects this sense of generally white male identity, in American politics, is seen as the baseline. And so anybody who anybody who has neither of those identities or is lacking one of them has identity politics; they do identity politics.
I was interrupted in a conference at one point when I was talking about identity, and I was interrupted by an older an older white gentleman who said, “You are a woman. You have an identity. What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to be?” There’s just this sense of like, “I can’t have an identity. Obviously, I don’t do identity politics.” So, we’re working with that, in all of our assumptions. That’s part of what the punditry is using to talk about identity politics. We all have 100 identities, thousands. But the one that’s the most salient at any given moment is the one that feels threatened. There are these groups of traditionally high-status people who are seeing other people’s status rising relative to theirs. That can feel like a threat. And so they will respond to that by holding onto that threatened identity much more strongly and gathering together with other people who are in the same social group to try to defend it.
David McRaney: That is super fascinating. I mentioned to you before, we had a previous episode, we had some neuroscientists who came in and they put people on a brain scanner, an MRI, and they challenged their positions on a number of things. Some positions were like: Did Thomas Edison invent the light bulb? And you’d tell them all the reasons why that’s not true. And then other things would be about like gun control or something like that. I remember when I interviewed them, they didn’t understand it, and then after I talked to you I totally understood what was going on, because they said for a lot of those positions, the brain scanner showed nothing unusual. But when they when they challenged them on certain political ideas, their brains responded to it as if they were being attacked by a bear. That was what was the actual phrase they used. And I was like, “Why?” And they’re like, “I don’t know.” And it wasn’t until I talked to you and read your book, I realized their identities were under threat. Their self-ness is under threat, and their brains are responding like their body is being attacked, because their self is being attacked.
This is this is an analogy that I think about a lot, especially with the bear. I use a lion. It’s the same example, which is essentially, if you if you are standing in the middle of a prairie or something, and you hear a lion roar, and you don’t know where it is, and you’re all alone, you hide. Right. You don’t try to fight the lion. That would be absurd. But if you’re standing in front of a lion, and you see it, and you hear it roar, and you’re surrounded by your group, you have a strong group identity, and you see a threat, then you’re going to respond with an urge to get ready to fight. Whereas if you have a weak group identity or you feel sort of isolated and alone, you’re not going to respond with such sort-of adrenaline. It’s going to be more about hiding and being quiet and kind of calming down and listening. And so those are kind of the different ways that people respond to threats based on their level of identification with their group.
David McRaney: If we are talking about psychology and social psychology findings. there are two that you talk about in the book that set up a lot of what you have to say. Although we’ve talked about these previously on the show, they’ve been years ago, and I think it would be interesting to just sort-of briefly pass through them by way of your insights into them and how that connects to your work at-large. The first is the Robbers Cave experiment. If you could just sort of briefly take us through what happened there and what that says about the way our brains naturally make sense of things.
Lilliana Mason: This was an experiment done in 1954 outside of Oklahoma City by a bunch of social psychologists trying to understand what makes group conflict. They recruited 24 fifth-grade boys. They try to make sure they were as socially similar as possible. Similar grades in school, similar family structure, similar physical and emotional fitness. They brought them to a three-week-long summer camp. The first week of camp, the boys were separated into two different camps. They didn’t see each other. They came up with names for their camps; they get called themselves the rattlers and the Eagles. And then and then after a week, they were told that there is another camp down the road, and immediately they wanted to meet the other boys and have and have a competition with them.
They started off playing a baseball game, and the first thing that happened once they all got into the same field was they started calling each other names. Ultimately the conflict extended to the point where the experimenters had to shut down the competition between them because they started throwing rocks at each other and getting violent. The boys ended up having to be separated by the end of the second week because they were becoming very violent against each other. Not only were they being violent, they started to perceive reality in a biased way. One group of boys accused the other group of throwing rocks and ice cubes into their swimming hole because it felt a little colder. The other group of boys said that their opponents had left garbage on their beach when in fact it had been the boys themselves, and they just forgotten about it. They were asked to do a task where they picked up beans off the ground, and then the experimenters, who were being the counselors for the camp, placed the beans on an overhead projector and asked the boys to estimate how many beans there were. The boys always estimated more beans for their own team members, but it was the exact same number of beans every single time; it was the same handful of beans every single time. It’s a great way of getting at, in little fifth-grade boy form, the ways that when you separate people into two groups and they create an us and them, not only do they immediately want to have a conflict, but they also start perceiving the world in a biased way.
David McRaney: And we’ve had evidence for this going a long way back. I know you mentioned this when you were last on the show, but it’s worth mentioning alongside Robbers Cave — the Tajfel experiment.
Lilliana Mason: The Tajfel experiment was in a lab, a much more-controlled experiment, and the long-story-short of this is what Tajfel called the “minimal group paradigm experiment because he gave people group identities that were minimal or essentially meaningless. When people estimated the number of dots they saw, he called half of them over-estimators and half of them under-estimators. Or he showed them art and then said, “Well you are a fan of Kandinsky,” So, they formed various different group identities that they had just learned about. They were all alone in the room. They were never going to meet other people who were in their group. Then they were asked to do a money allocation task. The easiest way to describe it is not exactly what happened, but this is the principle. Essentially, he said choose between these two scenarios. Overestimated and underestimaters, let’s say. Both groups can get five dollars, or your group can get four, but the other one gets three. And he was assuming that at this very minimal level of group attachment there would be no bias against the other group. He wanted a start there and then try to add conditions to see where the bias came in. And in fact, what he found was that people consistently preferred to have the win condition over what I call the “greater good condition” where everybody gets the most — even when they had just learned they were in this group, they had never met another group member, and they were sitting there all by themselves. They still preferred to actually spend money in order to beat the other team. (NOTE: Tajfel concluded there was no minimal group paradigm. People will form groups around just about anything salient, and then they will engage in us. vs. them thinking based on membership to that group.)
David McRaney: This sets up this this crazy thing that we do by default, which is this us-versus-them thinking, and it can be activated so easily — in Robbers Cave, these kids were randomly sorted. In the lab, under more controlled conditions, they’re given things that are not really identities. They’ve just been handed them, and they’re meaningless, and they’re alone, and yet still this is introduced. There’s really no baseline. It can be introduced by anything. You talk in the book about how not only are we biologically driven to do this, but there are weird biological effects that happen after we do this. I want to go through both of those briefly. You talk about cohesion, categorization, and some interesting things that were brought out by Marilyn Breuer’s work.
So, I think Marilyn Brewer really said it most succinctly when she said humans have two basic needs, one for inclusion and one for exclusion. What that means is that we want to feel like we’re part of a group. We want to feel included and supported. Right? Because what if a lion comes and we have to fight the lion? We need to feel like we’re part of a group. But there is no meaning to the group unless other people are excluded from it. So, we want to feel special because we get to be in the group and not everybody gets to be in the group. If we don’t feel like there are people who are excluded from the group, then the whole group itself feels less-important. So, we really need — it is not something that we can kind of just like get over — there is a real primal drive for excluding people from the group and defining the group with boundaries.
David McRaney: This need for cohesion, obviously, this makes sense in an evolutionary way, the idea that we form groups. We are primate, and we form groups, and that’s part of our essential nature, and that’s how we survived the tooth and nail environment. But also, from a cognitive psychology standpoint, we have a tendency toward categorization. And you say in the book it’s not just of the outside world, but also of ourselves. How does it work? How those two elements work together?
Lilliana Mason: This is one of those things where, parenting small children, I learned about the need for categorization. It becomes very important for children at a certain age to say either, “I’m a girl and I’m a boy,” or, “Yellow is my favorite color, and it can’t be your favorite color.” There are these things that you can really see in young children. It really is a very basic human thing that we do, to say, “How do I make sense of this whole world of things I see in front of me? Which things are me? Which things are not me? Which things are mine and which things are not mine? How does everything else fit? Where does everything go? What are the categories that I can make to understand not only all of things in the world, but also all the people in the world?”.
You need to figure out first, who you are and what that means about you, and also understand your relationship to other people, and without that sense of categorization, the world feels very chaotic. It’s a really important thing that we have to do for our own psychological well-being. If you can’t categorize things, then then the world is chaos. So, it’s not it’s not an inherently bad thing that we do. It’s just a thing that we have to do to understand the world. This is the way that humans process the amazing complexity of all the cues that we’re seeing out there. So, knowing that, having this need a need for inclusion and exclusion. Essentially what that saying is we need to be able to say, “I’m this, but I’m not that,” and without saying I’m in category A and not category B — those have to be exclusive categories. Otherwise we didn’t categorize anything. So, this is this is a very essential, very root, cerebral need that humans have, just to make sense of the world, before we’re talking about conflict or prejudice or anything. This is how we start understanding things at a very young age. This is the way that children make sense of the world, and we keep doing it throughout the rest of our life.
David McRaney: What really shocked me, reading your book, is that once we have moved from categorization to group-i-ness, and group cohesion, and tribal effects, and all these other things — once we are grouped up, there are these very strange biological effects that come into play. If you don’t have those at the top of your mind, I have them in front of me. But if you do, I’d love you to run through them.
Lilliana Mason: Yes. The one thing that I can recall right now, some of them were neurobiologists who discovered them, they showed someone a picture of a person’s hand who is the same race as them and showed a needle pricking the hand, and the people’s brains responded as if their own hand was being pricked, but if the person’s skin was a different race, they didn’t respond that way. Seeing an ingroup member suffer makes a person’s brain act like they are suffering, but seeing an outgroup member suffer actually activates pleasure parts of the brain. What were the others?
David McRaney: In a group learning task, people learn more slowly if they’re being observed by an outgroup member. In saliva, you secrete higher levels of cortisol whenever your group identity is threatened, which kind of goes back to the other neuroscientists were finding. You write in the book that people’s brains respond similarly when people are sad if the person who is sad is an ingroup member, but if they’re watching out group member they have a more positive emotion when they see that person being sad.
And I actually know from work I did on another project that when people mirror neuron research that when you can put someone in front of a mirror, an actual mirror, and it’s manipulated so that there’s a different person’s image in the mirror, when you reach your hand up to touch your face there’s a very highly trained person who does the same thing, and over time you will graft your self image onto the other person, but not if they’re of a different skin color. Yet those same effects are completely mitigated if you change the skin color to purple, because they there’s sense of outgroup for purple people. But all this comes together to say that this is not — it’s not conscious — this is not under your control. This is happening to you, right?
Lilliana Mason: The fact that you can detect psychological group attachments in saliva suggests that this is not something we can control.
David McRaney: This brings us to things that you specifically talk about, and I would like to run through these, and all of these blow my mind. So forgive me when I go, “Wut!?” to every one of them. I’m going to sort of read some of your quotes back to you and have you disassemble them. And I all of these are worthy of writing on a blackboard and walking by every day and putting into your collection of things that make the world make sense. One is, “We act like we disagree more than we actually do.” What do you mean?
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. So that’s kind of the title of the book: Uncivil Agreement. The example that I would give to be politically salient today is to think about child separation at the border. I would suspect that 99 percent of Americans would say children should not be separated from their parents. But when you get a partisan cue attached to it, you can actually get people to say the opposite thing that they would have said six months ago. Similarly, if you can convince people that their party holds a different position than it does, they will change their position immediately without even knowing that the party gave them the cue. They’ll think that it all was coming from their own logical reasoning process.
David McRaney: We have research that shows that specific thing, right?
Lilliana Mason: Yes, an experiment by Geoffrey Cohen from 2003 that changed the welfare positions of Democrats and Republicans. People just matched their own position to their party. When asked, “Did your party have an effect on your opinion?” they said no. They were asked to write an essay about it, and they broke down a whole bunch of reasons about why they held that position. They came up with them out of whole cloth on the spot, not knowing that this was something that they were even doing. So, the statement that we act like we disagree more than we actually do reflects this sense of how our opinions can be very fluid, so fluid that if we wanted to come to a compromise we could, if there were not these pesky identities in the way. We can’t we can’t come to a compromise because our identities are making us want to take positions as far away from the other side as possible. What that means is that we are trying to look like we disagree in order to defend our identity and our sense of difference from other people. But that actually isn’t the case.
Another example that I gave in the book is that right after the Sandy Hook shootings, Pew did a study and asked people the extent to which they approved of the government creating a background check law for gun purchases. 90 percent of the entire American population agreed, including 80-something percent of Republicans. They agreed that there should be legislation enforcing background checks. Then they were asked if they approved of Congress passing a bill that would enforce background checks. It’s almost the same question. But this is now Congress actually doing it. And Republican support for that dropped by 20 percent, and only 50-something percent of Republicans then supported the bill itself. 80-something percent supported the actual thinking about the law, but only 50-something percent supported the bill, which essentially means that when it comes to party victory in the government, people have different opinions on what they want done — when it comes to actual policies on the ground. So, plenty of people would be happy for a law that enforces this policy that everyone agrees with, but the people who are on TV would say this is a big loss for that party. They don’t want to deal with the idea that their party lost on something. So, their approval of the legislation is diminished. Those are two different things. Our actual opinions, our levels of agreement, are different than what we are willing to accept our government to do because we don’t want to feel like our party is losing
David McRaney: I feel like these last few answers you gave really should illuminate for a lot of people listening what’s happening. Like every time I go to Twitter it has that prompt — What’s happening? — I’m like, “I don’t know” And there’s this sense of: How did the world go crazy? Are we all poisoned? Is social media are destroying our minds? Why can’t the other side listen to me? Are they in a cult? Both sides think the other side is brainwashed, or are in a cult or something, because what your work and the work of some other people in your field are suggesting is that these are psychological effects. The environment is changing, and it’s affecting our psychological responses to the environment, which then causes the environment to change even more. We are in this weird feedback loop right now. There’s something out there causing partisanship to increase. There’s a million, million variables that caused that to happen, and polarization began to occur, but then once our human group psychology locked into that, it started driving that polarization. Is that a fair reading?
Lilliana Mason: I would argue that one of the more powerful things that drives it has been has been the identities that are connected to our parties becoming more separated. Our racial identities and our religious identities are being separated by parties so that — When I said before if we don’t we don’t want our party to lose — if you’re if you’re racial and your religious identity is connected to your party identity, then you don’t want your racial, religious, AND party identity to lose much more strongly than you care about just your party identity. Our parties are parties are taking up an increasingly large portion of our self-concept real estate, and so the stakes of the game are much higher now than they were 50 years ago.
David McRaney: Is there any consensus on how that’s happening? I know that the sort of folk political science idea is that it was secularization or something to that effect — that identities were once tied to religion. There’s also the idea that we used to be tied to our local geography. We were members of our town first, members of our subdivision, or whatever you live in, and national politics was something that we thought about on the side or on the backburner, or in relation to our local politics. Is there any consensus as the why we’ve become Republicans or Democrats first, or Libertarians first, or whatever you are first, and then all these other identities second? Is there any consensus in political science as to why?
Lilliana Mason: Well so there’s a couple of different, major things. The first the first was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after which we had a bunch of Southern Democrats very gradually leave the Democratic Party. Because party is such a strong identity, it is hard to switch parties. It’s like it’s like converting to a different religion. Most people don’t do it. The conservative Southern Democrats really disliked the Civil Rights Act that their party had enacted, but they didn’t just become Republicans. They gradually moved away from the Democratic Party, and in the next generation, they identified as Republican. That took a generation, and that’s really what we saw happening during the 1970s and ’80s when there were a lot of crosscutting identities. There was low polarization then, because people weren’t sure exactly which party they belonged with, because it was in the middle of this process of realignment.
Then the second thing that happened is that the religious right really became involved in politics in the 1980s, and in the Republican Party. I’m not sure which direction it went, but the Republican Party and the religious right decided that they were meant for each other, and they really started working together, to the extent that by the year 2000, essentially all of the requests of The Contract with the American Family, which is sort of the Christian Coalition platform, were included in the Republican Party platform by the year 2000. That also sent a very strong signal to voters which party is your party.
Those were social changes that happened, and essentially what it did was send racial cues and religious cues to the voters to give them additional information as to which party represents you the best. It’s much easier information to understand than who likes taxes and who likes welfare.
David McRaney: That makes a shocking amount of sense.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah, well of course that was facilitated by an increasingly partisan media. Not only did we have much easier cues, because there were racial and religious cues, but we also had a partisan media that was telling us exactly what those cues were and which party we were supposed to belong to — and who we were.
David McRaney: So, it’s feedback loops on top of feedback loops. In the actual world you’ve got these parties who are slowly incorporating things that are already identities, and that then causes people to move more into the party, and then it makes it sort, and sort, and sort, and then the media just wants to make money. So, it’s responding to it, to the marketplace that’s changing, and it then becomes another driver of that marketplace. And then you’ve got human group psychology that is responding to all this, and it is driving it more. It’s like three feedback loops causing a perfect storm of feedback.
Lilliana Mason: Yes. It is kind-of a perfect storm. And you now have social media on top of it, where you start yelling at each other for being bad people.
David McRaney: Oh yeah. Social media today, I feel like, is like 98 percent tribal signaling at this point — or whatever terms you want to use — because it’s what drives engagement. It’s not in Facebook’s interest to make people engage with their platform less, so that’s why they’re so really squirrelly about all this.
Lilliana Mason: And it is also not in the news media’s interest to explain how policies are going to affect the electorate at large rather than to say which party won and which party lost this legislative vote. So that’s sort of the story of that of the background checks bill. The way that it’s portrayed in the media is to say these are the winners and these are the losers, and then everybody watches because they want to know if they won or lost. But if they say, “This is the bill, these are the details. This is how many people would help. This is how many people would hurt. These are the things that you need to know…”
David McRaney: No one’s going to watch that. It’s on C-SPAN. That’s super boring and nobody watches.
Lilliana Mason: [laughing]…nobody watches C-Span…but if it’s, “Who is the winner and who’s a loser?” and you’re in one of those groups, then you’re going to pay attention.
David McRaney: Yeah and I’ve seen that like there’s an it-bleeds-it-leads aspect of modern cable news, which is, instead of it being somebody was shot or this weird thing happened in your local community, it’s always presenting whatever is happening in politics as an us-versus-them thing, as someone winning and losing, as, “Can you believe what this person said about this person?” It makes total sense that someone who was adept at, and was steeped in, the tabloid and reality television version of entertainment to rise up in landscape like that.
Lilliana Mason: Absolutely. It makes a lot of sense. Recently, there was a news article saying, “Are the tariffs a win for the president?” Well who wins democracy? That’s ultimately the question. There shouldn’t be a one-half-of-the-country-wins-democracy type of answer to that question.
David McRaney: This leads to something that you say in the book, which is as the nation grows more partisan there this idea of “the other” that is just everywhere. “The other” is something that that has become omnipresent, and it’s something that candidates in every era, since there’s been politics, since we were togas, can easily tap into. And there’s a sense out there, I think, that people like Donald Trump are brainwashing people, are tricking them or turning them into hate mongers or something like that. But I get the sense from your book that Trump, like many before him and many who will come after him, simply took advantage of the existing political landscape. Is that fair?
Lilliana Mason: Absolutely. I mean I started writing the book in 2009. I had no idea Trump was coming. So, he’s definitely an example of this rather than the cause of it. And the thing I like to I say about Trump is that his campaign did two really effective things. One was using the term winning as much as possible and also admitting that people were feeling like losers. He was saying “We’re losers; we lose all the time.” That spoke to a lot of people, and then, “I’m going to make us win again.” And then he just kept repeating that word winning, and when we have a polarized electorate that really gets at the sense of like, “I really need to win.”.
And the other thing that he did was point at a target to be the scapegoat for why people felt like they were losers. It goes back to the lion example. If you don’t know where the line is, you have nothing to fight. You feel anxious. You don’t know what’s going on, and you need to hide. But if you do know where the lion is, and you’re told that you’re a winner, and you feel surrounded by these other people who are strong, then the way that psychology talks about it is that it creates a more angry response, which is an approach emotion. You get up and you start doing things, like fighting. So, effectively what Trump was able to do was to take all these people who are feeling vaguely anxious — things were not going right for them; they didn’t like the way that things were happening in their lives and in the country; they didn’t know why exactly — and he pointed his finger at immigrants and Muslims and whoever else and said that’s the reason that this is all happening to you. Now you know the where the source of your threat is. Go get it. So, effectively what he did was change anxiety into anger for these people. Anxiety is an emotion that makes you sit down. Anger is an emotion that makes you get going. He got a lot of people revved up, and he effectively made them feel more powerful, like they deserve to be in power.
David McRaney: After we are within these groups, there are forces that then act upon us. Something you said that made me feel bad was that once someone like this comes into power, anyone who uses this us-versus-them, winning-versus-losing strategy on a partisan electorate, once they come to power, that same partisanship then allows them to disregard norms. And then once they disregard those norms, norms are a fragile psychological construct in the beginning, the norms deteriorate. Is that what’s happening?
Lilliana Mason: That’s part of what’s happening. No one feels identified with norms. You can have norms of your group, and you can strongly try to behave in a way that that comports with those norms so that you don’t get kicked out of the group, but if you feel like the norms are of another group then why do you need to worry about them? There is this idea of Trump coming in and draining the swamp and being new, starting over type of president, and those norms didn’t really apply to his supporters necessarily. Those were establishment government norms that they didn’t feel particularly bound by, because they didn’t really identify as typical establishment political people. There was very little recourse to betraying those norms. The way that we keep people obeying norms is by social sanction. If you violate the norms of your group, then your group sanctions you, and you are shunned or punished or something happens. You notice that you’ve done something wrong. But if it’s not your group that’s shaming you, then there’s very little that can be done to make you pay attention to those rules.
David McRaney: OK. Now I’m super freaked-out. So, taking everything we’ve talked about so far. There’s something in the book that you talk about, and this is really important, and it’s something had changed the way I see the world. You talk about three ideas: polarizations, sorting, and ideology. You say that these have traditionally been seen as something we do based on the issues that we find important. You argue that there is really a second way groups become polarized; a second way they sort themselves; and a second way that they express or invest in ideology. Let’s run through those and see what’s driving that second version of things. If you can help us understand them — there’s issue-based and identity-based. So, what is the difference between issue-based polarization and identity-based polarization?
Lilliana Mason: The traditional when I started my dissertation was that polarization was issue-based. Americans are becoming increasingly extreme in their issue positions and moving to the two ends of the spectrum. Republicans are becoming extremely conservative and Democrats are becoming extremely liberal. That would be polarization. So, the reason that I started this entire project was to say, “Well, what if there’s a different kind of polarization? What if we’re not we’re not polarized in our issue positions? What if we hold relatively moderate issue positions, but we’re so attached to our identities that we feel very distant from our outgroups regardless of the issue content?” So, issue-based polarization basically means that we disagree, and the identity-based polarization means that we feel like we are very different people from the people on the other team regardless of our actual issue agreements.
David McRaney: What is issue-based sorting versus identity-based sorting?
Lilliana Mason: Sorting was one of the alternative explanations for what was going on. Instead of polarization, it was sorting. If polarization means that people are moving to the extreme ends of the spectrum, sorting means that Democrats are becoming consistently more liberal and Republicans are becoming consistently more conservative. They’re are making all of their issue positions converge on the same end of the spectrum. It doesn’t mean that they are extreme, it just means that they’re consistent, which on average would make it look like Democrats are becoming more liberal and Republicans are becoming more conservative. Really, it’s just people scooting over to the correct side of the spectrum on all of the issues. That’s the traditional idea of sorting: partisans are learning what goes with what and which positions they should be holding. Identity-based sorting, also called social sorting, is the process that I talked about earlier where the parties become increasingly racially divided and religiously divided. When partisans are looking at the other side, they’re not seeing people who are like them, and to the extent that they are sorted socially, they are going to find it a lot harder to speak to, and to understand, and to humanize the people on the other side of the aisle.
David McRaney: And when I read this, I thought how could this possibly be identity-based, what is issue-based ideology and identity-based ideology.
Lilliana Mason: This is maybe the most controversial one. The word ideology classically means your system of beliefs. What issues do you consider important, and how do they fit together? Are they generally liberal or generally conservative? Identity-based ideology is simply: Do you identify with the term liberal or the term conservative, regardless of your issue positions? There’s a book by Elison Stimpson called Ideology in America that talks about how the American electorate, on-average, is what they call “operationally liberal.” What that means is that, on-average, Americans prefer liberal policies, but also, on-average, the American population is symbolically conservative, which means that they prefer to call themselves conservatives, on-average. Within the group of people that call themselves conservatives, there is a lot of heterogeneity in terms of issue positions. There’s a wide range of issue positions that people who call themselves conservatives hold. It’s a little smaller on the liberal side, because “liberal” was such a bad word for such a long time that you have to commit to it if you’re going to call yourself that. Among people who call themselves conservatives, there is a very wide range of actual policy content. If that’s possible, then there has to be something about the word conservative itself, separate from the issues, that make up the definition of conservatism that is meaningful to people.
I started with that and then started measuring: When you talk about liberals do you say “we” rather than they? To what extent do you think of yourself as a conservative? How well does the term conservative describe you? These are identity-based questions. And what I found was that even among people who have completely conflicting issue positions with the label — so liberals who hold relatively conservative positions and conservatives who hold relatively left-leaning issue positions –even with people who have the wrong issue positions, the more strongly they identify with the label, the more they hate the other side.
So, liberals hate conservatives if they are very strongly identified as liberal, even if they don’t have the right issue positions. And conservatives hate liberals, even if they have the wrong issue positions, as long as they’re strongly identified as conservatives. So, there is a social effect that’s happening with the terms liberals and conservatives, that is not entirely related to the content of the policies that go along with those terms.
David McRaney: I look at all this, and think about this, and I feel like there’s a tendency to believe that we’re all driven by ideas, and we’re not driven by any of these tribal allegiances or group psychology. I don’t think anyone wants to believe their saliva changes when they think about this kind of stuff. We want to think that it’s the issues themselves, the facts of the matter, that determine our attitudes about issues — whether we support gun control or abortion or fracking — or we believe in climate change or criticize the president or anything that is now currently, oddly, divided along party lines. I think seeing that things like this are divided along party lines should clue you in that something is going on. In reading your book, it seems like you’re making an argument that, oftentimes, collective action, whether that’s voting or protesting or something more than that — and you say in the book that activism is good; collective action is good — but it seems like you are making an argument that our collective action is sometimes something we do on behalf of our group more than on behalf of our actual understanding or passion about the issue. Or that passion comes from the group-i-ness. Is that so?
Lilliana Mason: Yes. The way that I explain it, is we obviously want people to be active in politics. We don’t want a completely apathetic electorate. It becomes problematic is when…I said anger is an approach emotion..and the ingredients of anger are generally, and this is simplifying it, but they tend to be that you feel like you have a strong group around you. And there is a source of threat. So, if those are the two things that are contributing to your anger, then you’re participating in politics on behalf of a strong group identity. If that finger is pointed at whatever is causing the threat to you, then you’re going to participate in politics on behalf of that anger rather than thinking through which party best represents your interests.
Aken and Martell’s called it the “folk theory of democracy” — the idea that people sit down and think about which party is best matched to them and which one best represents their own personal interests and values, and then they then they make a reasoned decision, like a banker choosing an investment. But what ends up happening instead, is that we start making these decisions more like sports fans. So, if we’re taking action like sports fans…sports fans don’t do anything. Like, they’re not cheering for their team so that their team can then go legislate things for their district and help them get subsidies for their business. You cheer for your team just to make the team win. When the team wins, you don’t expect anything more of them, and you don’t hold them accountable for whatever they do after the victory. If you’re participating in politics on behalf of, “I just need that victory, because it’s going to make me feel really good, because I’m so strong, with so much of my identity invested in this party, that I just need them to win, and I really don’t care what happens after they win” — that kind of activism is not great, because essentially what that means is that we will be taking action on behalf of our party and not holding them accountable at all. If they do something bad or wrong or against our interests, we will not vote against them, because they’re our team, and just because your team misbehaves, it doesn’t mean you stop being a fan of the team. So that type of activism, I argue, is actually normatively not good for democracy. We need accountability. We need an electorate that can hold elected officials accountable when they don’t do the things they’re supposed to do. And if we have this sort of team-based approach to activism, then we’re not going to be able to have that type of democratic accountability.
David McRaney: People are always asking, “How do I change these other people’s minds?” Like with what’s going on the border. People may find themselves in an argument with someone who is defending what’s happening on the border. And that’s just one example of many things that you might find yourself arguing about. Do you have any advice as to how to reach out to people who are on the other side, whatever the other side is for you, and encourage them to see things differently?
Lilliana Mason: Well there’s two different ways to approach this. One is to try to change the subject away from politics. Let the temperature of the conversation die down a little bit. Remember that they are your friends or relatives or whatever. Go cook a pie together or something, and then come back to it when you’re in a more peaceful moment and you can actually talk sincerely, because when hackles go up nobody’s going to agree to anything.
The other argument that I’ve seen lately is just if you are talking to somebody who has who has a different conception of reality than you do, and their source of information is completely different — you’ve never even heard of any of these things before, and they’re using arguments that are complete nonsense to you — it’s almost not a conversation that’s worth having, unless you can get back to that calm moment when you can speak sincerely. Starting off in a place where you are using a completely different basis of reality and truth…that’s just not a conversation that can really go anywhere.
So, my advice would be: don’t start it that way. Don’t don’t jump into a political argument with somebody before establishing some type of trust. Otherwise you’re both just going to go back to your camps and use your talking points, and your brain is going to come up with every single reason that you’re right and they’re wrong, and that’s the only thing your brain is going to come up with. There will be no empathy, no thoughtfulness. But if you spend a little time together, and then in a quieter moment say, “I just really really worry about those kids or something that’s human and thoughtful, just in order to take it down a few notches and speak on a human level, rather than like, “How dare Trump and his administration do…” Nothing is going to work as long as it’s politicized that way. It has to be a human conversation with your own feelings and thoughts and your own understanding that the other person has feelings.
David McRaney: I like what you just said, because I think I get into a lot of arguments in which I realize the other person is pulling their information from a source that is hidden from me, and I’m likely doing the same thing. We’re almost having a proxy war. And I find that discussions are better when, instead of doing that, we introduce the issue up front. Now we’re directly addressing a shared thing, coming up with our own justifications. Though we might still have some kind of proxy war. But I find that discussion is better than the other discussion where we’re just launching arguments that our team has introduced as the best arguments when you face the other side.
Lilliana Mason: You are just rehearsing your lines, basically.
David McRaney: That’s good advice. Stop rehearsing your lines.
Lilliana Mason: Put own the script, please.
David McRaney: This leads to my last question, which is a big one. The last time we spoke, I got a lot of e-mails, a lot of tweets, and they all ask the same question, pretty much, which was, “I don’t want to do this. What do I do.? I mean, do I join a bunch of different groups? Do I start reading the other side’s newspapers?” That kind of thing. I guess there’s another kind of question that people would ask, which was the same question, which was, “What do we do about this; how do we approach this problem as a society?” Now you say in the book that as long as this social divide is maintained, then we’re going to behave more like warring tribes than unified nations of people who have different values and different ideas about what policies should be enacted. Now, it’s just like the side has to win and the other side has to lose, no matter what. I feel like these are both the same question, which is, “What do we do? How do we fix it?” I’m just going to stop talking and let you talk as long as you want about that, because I think that is the thing that people want to hear most from you, once you have made them feel as bad as I currently feel.
Lilliana Mason: A bunch of the things that I talk about in the book are things that could happen. They are not necessarily anything any individual person could do. I think the probably the most promising thing is having another rift in one of the parties and a new realignment like we had in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s not something we can do. But it’s something that has happened before and could happen again.
The other things that we’re individually responsible for are…one of the things that we know about intergroup prejudice is that we can combat it on an individual level by practicing turning it around. Saying I just made a snap judgment about this person based on their identity. I realize now that I did that. I’m going to be aware of it, and I’m going to think about it and try to try to change that snap judgment or stereotype around in my head and practice thinking about that person as the opposite of the stereotype I just thought of. Over time, you can get good at it. You can practice it so much that that it becomes a little easier, and it comes a little bit faster. The first immediate instinct is always going to be to go after that person with the stereotypes that are associated with them. But you can create, by practicing, a secondary response which can follow the first one relatively quickly that says wait don’t assume that. Hive this person a chance. They’re a human being. They have family. They care about people.
The problem with is that it requires motivation. This is where my research is going right now. It’s a more controversial angle at this point. Who is motivated to do this? Unfortunately, not everyone is motivated in the same way to take these types of actions. People who have very homogeneous groups — let’s say you have a racial and religious group — and most of the people in your racial group are also in your religious group and vice versa — those are highly overlapping groups, and people who are in very highly overlapping groups tend to be more intolerant of outsiders. People who have only mildly overlapping groups — if the majority of people in your racial group are actually a different religion from you — those people tend to actually be much more tolerant about group members and much more inclined to try to understand outgroup members as human beings.
So, we have a problem where the people who need to be motivated to do this are already isolated in these very homogeneous social groups, and the more isolated they are, the less they’re going to be motivated to try to understand outsiders. That’s problematic. The people who need to try the most are the people who are the least inclined to try.
This is where it does get controversial. I mean I feel like at this point we have to say there is a party asymmetry here, and I’ve seen this in a desire to compromise. I’ve looked at this from the 2016 American National Election Studies data in “desire to compromise” in feelings towards outgroup members. What I found is that people who are largely in the Republican Party, because the Republican Party is largely white and Christian and straight, they tend to socially exposed to other partisans who are very similar to them. It’s relatively rare for a Republican to meet another Republican who is racially or religiously distinct from them. Democrats are the party of everybody else. Democrats were 56 percent white, 19 percent black, and 17 percent Hispanic in 2016. So, for Democrats, any given Democrat is likely going to be exposed to another partisan member or another party member who is racially or religiously distinct from them, because there are plenty of very religious Democrats who are people of color, and there are plenty of very secular, white Democrats. Within the larger party umbrella, Democrats tend to be exposed to people unlike them on a much more regular basis, or at the very least they think of the people in their party and their group as more diverse.
That means the people who are probably reaching out to you saying, “I want to change this. I want to be more tolerant,” are the people who are already more tolerant and probably more exposed to people who are unlike them. In a racial and religious and other types of cultural and geographic and social ways. That is something that we’re going to have to address at some point. I don’t really address it in the book. But it is a problem. Saying everyone needs to behave the same way to fix this problem is not exactly correct, because it’s the people who are the most socially isolated who really need to practice this the most. It’s unclear to me exactly how to motivate that, because that’s an extremely threatening thing to say to somebody who feels very comfortable in their homogeneous socially homogeneous group.
The last thing is: We must stop trying to frame everything as zero-sum game. It’s not good for ratings, so this probably is not going to happen, but to the extent that we describe legislation as a win for one side or the other, we’re never going to have compromise. The only way for democracy to work is for there to be compromises. We have to somehow get to a point where, ideally, the news would say, “This is the legislation; this is what it does, and the whole Congress is voting on it. Let’s see what happens.” Then we could watch to see what the outcome of the vote is and not to see, “Did my team win or not? If they won, great, I’m turning off the TV. I’m not going to pay attention to what happens with that law.” It would be great if we could have a different type of coverage of the way that politics works. Because right now we we’re telling ourselves a story about a war that’s going on in our country, and it’s only making the war worse.
We need to find a way to step back and think, “OK, what’s the greater good?” Find a way to think about what is the best for the most people. Obviously, it’s not human instinct to do that. But we’ve done it before and we had crosscutting identities between the parties not that long ago. It is possible for us to have crosscutting identities again. That would link us to the other side in terms of thinking of them as human beings.
The last thing that I’ll say is that the one policy that I’ve thought of this since I wrote the book that could work would be service. One way to get people of varying backgrounds to work together is to put them work together doing some type of service. Working in a soup kitchen or building houses for Habitat or working in Peace Corps or doing something in the military. The military is a giant melting pot of all different kinds of political orientations. One thing that could be helpful is to work together. This is my like moonshot idea. Possibly connected to free tuition for people but on the condition that they do two years of service — not done with their neighbors. That service mixes them together with other people who are from different places and have different perspectives, and then you would a generation of Americans who sees other partisans as human beings. It provides service, which is great, and you get to go to college, which is also great. That’s my one optimistic outcome. If we can do that, then maybe we could have a little bit more understanding.
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