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Going to Motive


The Washington Post's Shankar Vedantam reports today on some interesting academic research that empirically demonstrates something that should be evident to those who spend time reading blogs. Those on the opposite sides of political disagreements question each others motives reflexively:

A wide body of psychological research shows that on any number of hot-button issues, people seem hard-wired to believe the worst about those who disagree with them. Most people can see the humor in such behavior when it doesn't involve things they care about: If you don't care about sports, for example, you roll your eyes when fans of one team question the principles and parentage of fans of a rival team.

Vedantam goes on to cite findings from Glenn D. Reeder, an Illinois State University social psychologist that looked at this phenomenon in the context of the Iraq War:

When Reeder and his colleagues asked pro-war and antiwar Americans how they would describe the other side's motives, the researchers found that the groups suffered from an identical bias: People described others who agreed with them as motivated by ethics and principle, but felt that the people who disagreed with them were motivated by narrow self-interest.

The column has more, including data on perceptions of George Bush - well worth the click.

NOTE: Vedantam's column provides no specifics about how the Reeder, et. al. studies sampled "pro-war" and "anti-war" Americans, except for a citation that appears to be to this article (subscription only) in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. I lack electronic access, so if any Pollster readers have a moment to check and share relevant details, I'd be grateful.

UPDATE (3/13): Professor Reeder kindly sent a copy of the journal article that I linked to above.  It reports on results of four individual studies, each involving relatively small samples of college students (ranging in size from 80 to 165 interviews).  Three of the studies involved students at an unnamed Midwestern university, one involved students in Canada.  The observed differences reported in Vedantam's column were statistically significant.  However, the student subjects studied -- while a mix of Democrats, Republicans and independents  -- certainly did not constitute a representative sample of all Americans. 

None of the above implies any criticism of Reeder and his colleagues.  Experimental studies of involving student subjects are common to the academic literature, and these studies were intended primarily to look for differences between Iraq war supporters and opponents, not to project the views of the general population.  The journal article also fully discloses the relevant methodological details.  Reeder also points out, in his email, that another unpublished study conducted using a representative national sample replicated his findings regarding "attitudes issues of gay marriage and abortion." 

However, it would have been easy for casual readers to assume that Vedantam was citing a projective sample of all Americans.  He described the subjects as "pro-war and antiwar Americans" without providing more specifics, other than one ambiguous reference to "volunteers."  A friendly suggestion to Vedantam and his editors:  The column would have been better had it included one line noting that the Reeder, et. al. studies were experiments involving college student volunteers that should not be considered a representative national sample of all Americans. 

 

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