Sam Uretsky

Scientists Study What Makes a Conservative

Science, assuming it can still get a research grant, continues to look for the answers to some of the most difficult questions: what happened to the missing matter? can Goldbach’s conjecture be proved? why do people vote Republican? The October 2009 issue of Gerontologist tries to give a partial answer to the last question. For a study titled “Older voters and the 2008 election,” researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine analyzed poll results for the 2008 election, and came to different conclusions based on age groups.

For voters over 65, a vote for McCain seems to have been a vote for Eisenhower. This actually may be an argument for focusing efforts on younger voters, because people who identified as Republican during the 1950s may have held onto their party identification no matter how much the party changed. Another factor was affinity voting; people in the 65-74 cohort voted for Sen. McCain because they identified with him. In contrast, once a person hit 75, Sen. McCain’s age was no longer a factor – he may have been too young to relate to. Similarly, voters up to the age of 64 didn’t seem to identify with Sen. McCain based on age. Apparently there are major changes associated with aging, one at age 50 when the invitation to join AARP arrives, and again at 65 with a Medicare card. The authors concluded, “In the study of age-group voting behavior, ongoing attention is needed to cohort and period effects, as well as candidates’ contrasting individual characteristics-in addition to possible effects of campaign issues.”

As interesting as this study was, an even more valuable study was published in the November 2008 issue of Psychological Science, under the title “Mistaken identity: activating conservative political identities induces ‘conservative’ financial decisions.” This study, performed by researchers at the Columbia Business School of Columbia University in New York, may be remarkably important, since, among other things, it found a behavior pattern that applies to Republicans but not to Democrats. Subjects were asked to make choices between a series of investment plans, ranging from high-risk high-return, to low-risk low-return. When the choices were offered without any implied labels, the subjects would make their own choices based on their own proclivities. When the same choices were offered with the presented indicating that one of the selections was “conservative,” self-identified Republicans gravitated to that choice. Traditionally, “conservative” implies the low risk choice, but in this study, Republicans selected whichever option had been presented as “conservative” without regard for the level of risk. Their concern was for the label, not the contents.

In another part of the study, subject were asked to explain the label “conservative” before making a choice. This effort to explain conservatism had no influence on the choices made. The authors wrote “... the mechanism underlying the effect appears to be not activated identity-related values prioritizing low risk, but rather activated identity-related language (the group label “conservative”).” This was the perfect example of W.S. Gilbert’s famous line in H.M.S. Pinafore, “I always voted at my party’s call / And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.” For anybody wondering how the party of small government can pass laws prohibiting saggy pants – it seems that being a Republican has less to do with philosophy than club membership, and you have to go along in the club outings.

A third study, this one from the May 2009 issue of Risk Analysis came from Stanford University, and was titled “The association of knowledge with concern about global warming: trusted information sources shape public thinking.” In this study, researchers asked subjects about the extent of their knowledge of global warming. Among Democrats and independents, the more a person knew, the more concerned they were about the risks associated with climate change. The researchers wrote, “Among people who trust scientists to provide reliable information about the environment and among Democrats and Independents, increased knowledge has been associated with increased concern. But among people who are skeptical about scientists and among Republicans more knowledge was generally not associated with greater concern.” Presumably Republicans can learn things, they have large collections of facts about not only global warming but also economics, gynecology and American history, but further research will be required to find out what sources they’ll listen to. “(Glenn) Beck University ... a unique academic experience bringing together experts in the fields of religion, American history and economics” starts this July.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2011

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