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Who Can Deviate from the Party Line? Political Ideology Moderates Evaluation of Incongruent Policy Positions in the Insula and Anterior Cingulate Cortex (Link)

With Ingrid J. Haas and Frank J. Gonzalez

Abstract: Political polarization at the elite level is a major concern in many contemporary democracies, which is argued to alienate large swaths of the electorate and prevent meaningful social change from occurring, yet little is known about how individuals respond to political candidates who deviate from the party line and express policy positions incongruent with their party affiliations. This experiment examines the neural underpinnings of such evaluations using functional MRI (fMRI). During fMRI, participants completed an experimental task where they evaluated policy positions attributed to hypothetical political candidates. Each block of trials focused on one candidate (Democrat or Republican), but all participants saw two candidates from each party in a randomized order. On each trial, participants received information about whether the candidate supported or opposed a specific policy issue. These issue positions varied in terms of congruence between issue position and candidate party affiliation. We modeled neural activity as a function of incongruence and whether participants were viewing ingroup or outgroup party candidates. Results suggest that neural activity in brain regions previously implicated in both evaluative processing and work on ideological differences (insula and anterior cingulate cortex) differed as a function of the interaction between incongruence, candidate type (ingroup versus outgroup), and political ideology. More liberal participants showed greater activation to incongruent versus congruent trials in insula and ACC, primarily when viewing ingroup candidates. Implications for the study of democratic representation and linkages between citizens’ calls for social change and policy implementation are discussed.


Psychophysiology in Political Decision Making Research (Link)

With Matthew V. Hibbing and Kathryn A. Herzog

Abstract: In the last decade, political science has seen a rise in the use of physiological measures in order to inform theories about decision-making in politics. A commonly used physiological measure is skin conductance (electrodermal activity). Skin conductance measures the changes in levels of sweat in the eccrine glands, usually on the fingertips, in order to help inform how the body responds to stimuli. These changes result from the sympathetic nervous system (popularly known as the fight or flight system) responding to external stimuli. Due to the nature of physiological responses, skin conductance is especially useful when researchers hope to have good temporal resolution and make causal claims about a type of stimulus eliciting physiological arousal in individuals. Researchers interested in areas that involve emotion or general affect (e.g. campaign messages, political communication and advertising, information processing, general political psychology) may be especially interested in integrating skin conductance into their methodological toolbox. Skin conductance is a particularly useful tool since its implicit and unconscious nature means that it avoids some of the pitfalls that can accompany self-report measures (e.g. social desirability bias and inability to accurately remember/report emotions). Future decision-making research will benefit from pairing traditional self-report measures with physiological measures such as skin conductance.

Morality is Relative: Anger, Disgust and Aggression as Contingent Responses to Sibling versus Acquaintance Harm (Link)

With Lukas D. Lopez, Karie Moorman, Sara Schneider, and Colin Holbrook

Abstract: Angry reactions to moral violations should be heightened when wrongs befall oneself in comparison to when wrongs befall acquaintances, as prior research by Molho and colleagues (2017) demonstrates, because aggressive confrontation is inherently risky and therefore only incentivized by natural selection to curtail significant fitness costs. Here, in three pre-registered studies, we extend this sociofunctional perspective to cases of wrongs inflicted on siblings. We observed equivalently heightened anger in response to transgressions against either oneself or one’s sibling relative to transgressions against acquaintances across studies, whereas transgressions against acquaintances evoked greater disgust and/or fear (both associated with social avoidance) in two of the three studies. Studies 2 and 3, which incorporated measures of tendencies to confront the transgressor, confirmed that the elevated anger elicited by self or sibling harm partially mediated heightened inclinations toward direct aggression. Finally, in Study 3 we compared tendencies to experience anger and to directly aggress on behalf of siblings and close friends. Despite reporting greater affiliative closeness for friends than for siblings, harm to friends failed to evoke heightened anger relative to acquaintance harm, and participants were inclined to directly aggress against those who had harmed their sibling to a significantly greater extent than when the harm befell their friend. These overall results broadly replicate Molho et al.’s findings and theoretically extend the sociofunctionalist account of moral emotions to kinship.



How do political interest and inherent levels of anxiety influence the established relationship between situational anxiety brought on by the political environment and information seeking behavior? In my dissertation, I argue that political interest and trait anxiety (i.e. inherent level of anxiety) 1) serve as selection mechanisms, determining who experiences state anxiety (i.e. situational anxiety brought on by the environment), and 2) determine how (much) state anxiety influences information seeking behavior. My proposed research will provide insight into why some people never immerse themselves into politics, and if they do, how political interest and anxiety influence their information environment that leads to information seeking behavior. With today’s oversaturated information environment and prevalent social media use, it is important to understand what prevents people from selecting into political state anxiety and what selecting in means for different types of people. I propose a series of three studies—using surveys, experiments, and physiological methods—to examine the roles of political interest and trait anxiety in state anxiety, attention to objects and environments that induce state anxiety, and information seeking behavior.

Punishment of Political Leaders:

Co-authored with Peter D. Carey 

(Working paper linked in the title.)

Abstract: Work in international relations often assumes that a domestic audience is able to constrain and punish the actions of their leader. This work assumes that the audience perceives and understands the actions that their leaders take, and are able to hold them accountable. Implicitly, these works also assume that the audience receives an unbiased assessment of the leader’s actions. Using an experiment, we show that the framing of information about a leader’s actions has an impact on an individual’s ability to punish their leader. We also use simulations to aggregate these attitudes and speak to attitudes of the mass public. When news of a leader’s broken promise is framed negatively, the logic of audience costs holds and citizens punish the leader. When a broken promise is framed positively, however, citizens are less able to constrain their leader, resulting in a breakdown in the logic of audience costs.

Ideology Attribution:

Co-authored with Ingrid J. Haas

Abstract: Does attributing the roots of political ideology to biology influence political tolerance and how people feel about political outgroups? In this paper, we examine the effects of attributing political ideology to biology, as opposed to personal choices that are more malleable, on political prejudice, intolerance, and perceptions of political polarization. Using an experimental paradigm, we encouraged respondents to think about political ideology as either rooted in biology or as a personal choice that is not fixed. Results from two studies suggest that encouraging individuals to attribute political ideology to biology leads to decreased political prejudice, decreased political intolerance, and a perception of less political polarization.

Emotions, Aggression, and Morality:

Co-authored with Lukas Lopez, Karie Mooreman, Sara Schneider, and Colin Holbrook

Materials available on OSF.

In this series of papers we look at how (inter)group status or personal ties influence how people react to moral transgressions. We expect that people will experience anger over a moral transgression that victimizes someone close to you (e.g. political ingroup member, familial tie) and experience disgust over a moral transgression that victimizes someone with whom you have weaker ties. These emotional reactions will determine what sort of response an individual has to the moral transgression. Anger will lead to direct aggression and disgust will lead to indirect aggression. These papers show the role of emotions in perceiving and responding to moral events and help us understand how aggression manifests itself related to these emotions. These results will have implications for intergroup relations in politics and in other social settings and understanding the situational context that leads to aggression and potentially politically charged violence.

Propensity for (Acceptance of) Political Violence:

Co-authored with Stephen P. Schneider and Ingrid J. Haas

Abstract: Are individuals with unstable high self-esteem more likely to support political aggression as a response to threat? Previous work has found that individuals with unstable high self-esteem, a high self-esteem that is prone to fluctuations especially in the face of challenges, are more likely to lash out when their egos are threatened. Aggression stems from the psychological need to defend one’s ego, which is especially fragile and susceptible to threat within individuals with unstable self-esteem. We theorize that this holds true in a political context and that individuals with an unstable high self-esteem will be more aggressive. We test this with a survey and find that individuals with an unstable self-esteem are more likely to be politically aggressive, regardless the level (i.e. high or low) of self-esteem.

Perceptions of Ideological Extremity:

Co-authored with Kathryn A. Herzog

Abstract: How does exposure to extreme political candidates affect an individual’s self-perceived ideology? Social comparison theory states that individuals inform their self-concept based on a relational comparison of themselves to others. Assimilation effects and contrast effects lead to individuals adjusting their attitudes and traits in order to be more similar to an optimal social standard (assimilation effect) or adjusting their attitudes and traits in order to be less similar to a suboptimal social standard (contrast effect). Within politics, moderate positions are viewed more favorably than extreme positions, making a moderate candidate an optimal standard to be used as an anchor (i.e. a reference point an individual can use to make social comparisons). When faced with suboptimal ideological viewpoints (e.g. an extreme political candidate) individuals will be motivated to contrast their own viewpoints to distance themselves. Extreme candidates should elicit a contrast effect, but the direction of this effect is dependent on whether it is an in-group or out-group candidate. We predict that exposure to extreme political candidate will lead to more moderate ideological self-placement when the candidate is in one’s in-group and more extreme ideological self-placement when the candidate is in one’s out-group. Results from an experiment show partial support for our hypotheses; when faced with an extreme in-group candidate, individuals see themselves as more moderate.