Surprising insights from the social sciences
Stars and stripes for the GOP Republican politicians are sometimes accused of wrapping themselves in the American flag. But could it be that the flag actually makes you a Republican? Researchers asked people to participate in an online survey weeks before the 2008 election. For some of the participants, a small picture of an American flag was placed in the upper-left corner of the survey. Participants with the flag on their survey indicated more support for Republican John McCain and more affection for the party itself - and also turned out to be more likely to actually vote for McCain when they went to the polls. The effect was durable: In July 2009, those participants who had been randomly exposed to the flag on the initial survey were less positive on Barack Obama, had less affection for Democrats, and reported more conservative beliefs. These effects were true for both conservatives and liberals.
Carter, T. et al., “A Single Exposure to the American Flag Shifts Support toward Republicanism up to 8 Months Later” (Psychological Science, forthcoming).
Your virtue, my vice Previous research has shown that people can feel justified in acting immorally after establishing a reputation for moral behavior - a phenomenon called “moral licensing.” New research shows that this can even happen vicariously, when similar others have established a moral reputation. In several experiments, students who were led to believe that their fellow students had done the right thing were subsequently more likely to be biased against a minority candidate who was the most qualified for a job opening. This effect was mitigated if one’s moral peers were not as easy to identify with, or were not considered part of one’s group.
Kouchaki, M., “Vicarious Moral Licensing: The Influence of Others’ Past Moral Actions on Moral Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).
Feel guilty? You’re hired! in the business world, the ideal employee is often assumed to be a driven, hard-charging, no-regrets kind of person. However, a new study from the business school at Stanford University suggests that people who are prone to guilt deserve a second look. In an experiment with students and in surveys of workers, the researchers found that people who reported more of a tendency to feel guilt also tended to work harder. Moreover, to rationalize their increased effort, guilt-prone people also became more committed to the organization they were working for. This pattern was not true for people who were more prone to shame, a somewhat different emotion.
Flynn, F. & Schaumberg, R., “When Feeling Bad Leads to Feeling Good: Guilt-Proneness and Affective Organizational Commitment,” Journal of Applied Psychology (forthcoming).
Pulling away makes us wiser In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to lose perspective. Researchers at the University of Michigan tested a simple way to get beyond this problem: psychological distance. In one experiment, college seniors and unemployed graduates had to explain - from either a close- or a distant-observer perspective - how the recession would affect their careers. The group acting as distant observers gave more open-minded and humble answers. Likewise, in an experiment before the 2008 presidential election, liberals and conservatives were asked to explain - from the perspective of either an American or someone in Iceland - how a victory by the candidate they didn’t like would affect important issues. Again, the distant-observer perspective prompted more open-minded and humble answers, and it even moderated the participants’ political views.
Kross, E. & Grossmann, I., “Boosting Wisdom: Distance from the Self Enhances Wise Reasoning, Attitudes, and Behavior,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).
Lower taxes, bigger government? One of the operating assumptions of modern conservatism is that tax cuts help reduce the size of government, because the loss of revenue will eventually compel spending cuts. Although intuitively appealing, this logic has been largely refuted by empirical research, some of which has even shown that taxes and spending move in opposite directions. But it hasn’t been clear why. According to a new analysis of public opinion trends, a good explanation may be “fiscal illusion theory,” whereby lowering the perceived cost of government (i.e., taxes) increases voters’ demand for it. Indeed, budget deficits have been associated with more favorable public opinion towards government. On the other hand, as the authors note, “surplus revenue collection is associated with decreased demand for government.” So if conservatives really want to shrink government, they might be better off letting taxes go up.
Ura, J. & Socker, E., “The Behavioral Political Economy of Budget Deficits: How Starve the Beast Policies Feed the Machine,” The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics (July 2011).
Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.