Friday, November 22, 2013

Terminal Uniqueness: A Liberal Disease?

A study that has been making the rounds recently finds this:
[L]iberals underestimate their similarity to other liberals (i.e., display truly false uniqueness), whereas moderates and conservatives overestimate their similarity to other moderates and conservatives (i.e., display truly false consensus; Studies 1 and 2). We further demonstrated that a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives in the motivation to feel unique explains this ideological distinction in the accuracy of estimating similarity (Study 2).
In other words? Liberals feel their beliefs--even amongst other liberals--are overly unique and conservatives or moderates--even compared to others in their camp--are more broadly shared. This extends not just to political beliefs but all beliefs (at least all tested) and is theorized to be a factor in why, for example, #OccupyWallStreet failed to cohere and the Tea Party managed to get a bunch of people elected.

Terminal Uniqueness vs. Everybody Does It
In Alcoholics Anonymous Terminal Uniqueness is a term for the (ironically very common) person who shows up, attends one meeting, and decides these people are nothing like me! The unique special snowflake then leaves the meeting internally justified in continuing to drink because, hey, that 12-step stuff might be good for them ... but it'd never work for me.

False Consensus on the other hand is the (wrong) belief that a lot of other people (perhaps a 'silent majority') feel the same way you do about something. While it might be because of the 'echo chamber' (wherein you, as we almost all do to some degree) surround ourselves with people who are like-minded ... if only by moving to Alabama or New York city ... it can also be a defensive belief: I may hear a bunch of stuff that says I'm wrong--but I know most people really agree with me!
Both False Uniqueness (FU) and False Consensus (FC) can be deployed (subconsciously) as psychological protections when it comes to political positions we are emotionally highly invested in. Is this what's going on with both the conservative's tested FC and liberal's tested FE? Maybe.

Let's look ...

It's impossible (without paying for the study ... which isn't going to happen) to know what the psychologists thought was behind the FC/FU behavior--but if we assume that both these miscalculations are the tale-tell result of an emotional protection we should ask:
  1. What is the difference in each group's (Tea Party vs. #OWS) defensive emotional stance?
  2. What is the difference with relationship to False Consensus to each group's core beliefs?
There might be other good questions--but I've wisely limited these to psychological studies I can find on the web, even if they are mostly ridiculously pay-walled.


The Tea Party's and #OWS's Defensive Emotional Stances
When you are emotionally protecting yourself you are defending against experiencing some specific emotion you don't want to feel (examples: sadness, fear, and, especially, shame). The defensive position provides you with an intellectual defense against the having to dwell on the emotion in question by allowing you to "wish it away."

In the case of both the Tea Party and #OccupyWallStreet the emotional assault is a feeling of victimization (take a look at any partisan web-site comments) but the emotional response was, I think, quite different:
  1. The Tea Party was, substantially older, better employed, and wealthier than #Occupy. They were 9pts above the 50k/year mark over #Occupy and 6pts over #Occupy in the 50k-100k category. They were 10 points over 65 years old, and more employed (9pts or 4pts Retired). They were also a good deal whiter (24pts) and, let us not forget, more registered to vote (11pts).
  2. The age demographic meant that to the Tea Party victimization meant, to a significant expense, a threat to Medicare (something they already had). To #Occupy the victimization was the lack of ability to find jobs (something they desperately wanted).
This difference was substantial:
  • The Tea Party reacted with anger ("Keep your gummit hands off mah Medicare!")
  • #Occupy reacted with fear ("I have a degree in Ancient Poetry ... Will you give me a 75k/year job so I can pay off my college loans?")
Let's look at a study that is not behind a pay wall:
[F]ear and anger have opposite effects on risk perception. Whereas fearful people expressed pessimistic risk estimates and risk-averse choices, angry people expressed optimistic risk estimates and risk-seeking choices. These opposing patterns emerged for naturally occurring and experimentally induced fear and anger.
In other words, if you respond to being victimized by getting angry you will take risks to make things right. If you respond to being victimized by being afraid you will avoid risks to prevent yourself from being victimized again.

Protecting Core Beliefs
The other question we should look at is whether there was a substantial difference in 'core beliefs' between the groups. We already know there was. The Tea Party was, despite their focus on the economic message, socially conservative and religious. #Occupy was not. While it is difficult to find polling concerning the social breakdown of #OWS (it's not as hard to find polling on the economic beliefs of #OWS) the two are fairly polar opposites: the Tea Party was strongly anti-gay marriage while #OWS was (demographically at least) strongly in favor of allowing it.

We know that gay marriage (and tolerance of gays in society in general) has become popular with amazing rapidity. This is far from lost on members of the right.

A study, also, alas, behind a pay-wall, found a correlation here:
ABSTRACT 102 adults (aged 15–75 yrs) completed social distance scales for 10 stigmatized groups and estimated how most people would respond. As predicted, both false consensus and false uniqueness effects were detected. The tendency to perceive a consensus for one's own attitudes was especially evident among relatively intolerant Ss whereas the tendency to present oneself as uniquely tolerant was strongest for relatively tolerant Ss and when social norms demanding sympathy for a group were strong. People's motivations to present themselves as either similar to others or superior to others may jeopardize efforts to gauge social acceptance of people with disabilities and other potentially stigmatizing attributes.
In other words, when society at large is in favor of a stigmatized group (homosexuals) we saw the same behavior attributed to liberals and conservatives in the first study: conservatives who were more intolerant of gay rights perceived a false consensus. Liberals perceived a false uniqueness!

To quote another abstract from yet another pay-walled article of a similar sort:
A close look at the results of Tabachnik, Crocker, and Alloy (1983) and Sanders and Mullen (1983) suggests that people possessing undesirable attributes overestimate consensus, whereas people holding desirable attributes underestimate consensus.  ... 
These findings are consistent with a motivational interpretation that emphasizes the individual's need to justify or normalize stigmatized behavior and to bolster perceived self-competence.
False Consensus correlates to justify behavior they think society will stigmatize and False Uniqueness bolsters a feeling of self-competence or, perhaps, patting yourself on the back for being so tolerant. Who needs full articles anyway!? Not The Omnivore ...

One Last Bit
Let's pop back for a second and take a look at the driver for a lot of partisan behavior--a feeling of victimization. Interestingly, and, most importantly, non-pay-walled-ly, feeling that you are a victim leads to entitled and selfish behavior:
Three experiments demonstrated that feeling wronged leads to a sense of entitlement and to selfish behavior. ... In Experiment 3, participants who lost at a computer game for an unfair reason (a glitch in the program) requested a more selfish money allocation for a future task than did participants who lost the game for a fair reason, and this effect was again mediated by entitlement.
What does this mean?

Well, it means this: if you are behaving selfishly ("Give me a JOB!" or "Let everyone under 65 bear the costs of necessary healthcare reform!!") you will, probably, want to 'protect' that feeling--to justify it ("College is overpriced!!" "I paid my dues!!"). Even if those justifications are true (college is probably overpriced and will let you get nearly useless degrees for tens of thousands of dollars ... And retirees are entitled to Medicare) if I am not willing to look at my own reactions to these needs / wants my likely other option is to adopt an emotional defense.

The way to avoid this is to be willing to either own some selfishness (which I can just about guarantee anyone reading this blog does) and/or take responsibility for our own part in our circumstances (what did I think I'd do with that 70k poetry degree!?).


  1. I've seen several interesting elucidations here regarding the psychological differences between Left and Right. To a significant degree, it explains some of the difficulty I often have with some of my "other side of the spectrum" friends when it comes to trying to discuss (oh almost) anything over which we disagree - to effect: I can't have an intelligent conversation with them without it almost immediately collapsing into a heap of red herrings and ad hominem attacks.

    While this helps understand why this failure in communication happens, I struggle now with trying to find a way to 'reach' the other side in some meaningful way. How to approach the conversation that gets commitment to that conversation, and that leads to more moderated, less polarized (and ultimately more productive) debate.

    I mean, "your sense of fairness is not on the same page as my sense of fairness" only goes so far, right?

    1. This deserves its own post in reply :)