The number of people in the UK who are members of political parties is roughly the same number as those who say they believe Elvis is still alive and much lower than the numbers who believe Princess Diana was assassinated, the Apollo moon landings were faked or that humans have been contacted by extra terrestrials. It’s very unusual behaviour and it’s worth thinking about the psychological consequences*.
You know how tall you are, right? And you’ve got a pretty good idea of how well that compares with the rest of the world? Perhaps not. In one experiment, participants were shown photos of short people and, afterwards, estimated that they were taller compared to the rest of the population and, subsequently, chose a taller size of rain poncho (a weirdly popular garment amongst behavioural scientists).
Despite being a member of the Labour Party, I don’t always feel like the most pro-Labour person. And if you think about the experiment with the ponchos, that’s not surprising. Because I’m a member of the Labour Party, I see a lot more stuff from the left: tweets, speeches, fundraising emails and so on. Now I like the Labour Party enough to join the Elvis-is-alive-percentile but – out there – are some people who are even more enthusiastic. Like the poncho wearers, I judge where I fit into the spectrum based on my experience and my experience is biased. That’s why it’s sometimes a treat for me to meet a proper True Blue Tory: suddenly I get to be the most leftwing one in the conversation and, while I’m not very experienced in that role, I always enjoy it.
The problem, however, is that when people come together in groups they don’t just conform to the average opinion of the group. People get more certain and the average opinion moves as people become more extreme. In some cases that’s great – people donate more to charity as a group and, even, it has been argued, doctors in groups may spend more time trying to resuscitate patients. Groups tend to suppress doubts and that might be necessary for any decision to be made. Nevertheless, the fact remains: if you bring members of a political party together, they will go home a little more extreme than they arrived. On the big things, parties have electoral incentives not to go too wacky in the long run but on the small things – leafleting in the rain, watching the Daily Politics, tweeting photos of yourself talking to Real People – group members can get more and more distant from the rest.
There’s another odd feature of being in a group. My favourite experiment published this year is from Elizabeth Suhay at the American University in Washington DC. She showed Church-going Catholics one of three opinion poll findings: in one group, she showed them findings that most Catholics were conservative, in another she showed them that most Catholics were leftwing and in the third, and most interesting, case she showed them that most Evangelicals were conservative. Unsurprisingly, Catholics told that other Catholics were on the right tended to give more rightwing answers about their own views, and the opposite happened when they were told that other Catholics were on the left. But when these practicing Catholics were told that Evangelicals were socially conservative, their answers became more socially liberal – as liberal as if they had been told that Catholics are mostly leftwing.
What does this mean? Normally we think that political parties don’t like each other because their views are so different. Suhay’s experiment makes me think that sometimes parties have different views because they don’t like each other. And that goes some way to explaining why parties end up in silly places: how you can often find a leftwinger ready to attack even the most reasonable spending cut or a rightwinger to defend the most egregious business practice. It must look at least as strange as believing the moon landings were a conspiracy by the CIA and little green men.
*I shan’t comment on the psychological causes of joining a political party, other than saying that I’m not sure that getting heavily involved in party politics is a sign that everything is going well in the rest of your life. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I did and that others do too.
References: Gershoff, A.D & Burson, K.A. (2011). Knowing Where They Stand: The Role of Inferred Distributions of Others Misestimates of Relative Standing. Journal of Consumer Research, 38(3), 407-419.
Suhay, E. (2014). Explaining Group Influence: The Role of Identity and Emotion in Political Conformity and Polarization. Political Behavior, DOI 10.1007/s11109-014-9269-1
Sustein, C. R. (2011). Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide. OUP: Oxford.