If you are anything like me, you don’t quite understand what to make of the Trump phenomenon. Sure Hillary is winning, but what is more interesting to me is that over a third of Americans still plan to vote for this guy. Why? I’m bored with demonizing Trump and Trump supporters. I want to understand the world they are seeing because I don’t get it.
As luck would have it, I happen to be a researcher at Penn who studies the impact of primal world beliefs, which are beliefs about the nature of reality writ large such as “the world is fascinating.” Primals are the most super simple, essential, and general beliefs we have. As of a few months ago, we can now measure 28 primals (yay!). To give away the results, 24 of them mostly collapse into three big ones (Safe, Enticing, and Alive) and these in turn collapse into 1 big one (Good, defined hedonistically). Currently, I’m trying to publish all these measures and look at psychological correlates (super happy…lots of big effect sizes and highly significant findings… primals predict depression, wellbeing, life satisfaction, etc.), but I had some data on current politics and, in this season of absurdity, I thought some people might find it interesting. I’m also learning how to report and conduct these analyses, so it’s good practice. What follows is a summary and an appendix with all the numbers. Keep in mind that all findings below come from one online sample of 533 people [so place grain of salt here]. Eventually, I plan to publish a peer-reviewed journal article with much of this information.
What reality are Republicans and Democrats living in?
So I had this fantastic theory that Republicans would see the world as way more dangerous than Democrats. I though that might explain Republicans’ “irrational” a) fear of criminals which manifests as interest in law and order and support for mandatory minimums, b) fear of ISIS, c) fear of Mexicans, d) fear of people coming to take their guns, e) fear of government, and f) fear of out-group members generally. At their last convention, and indeed for every single Republican debate, it seemed like candidates were always trying to out-terrorize each other (“No, I understand the great peril we are in!”…”No, no. I understand it better.”)
However, this theory was wrong. True, Republicans see the world as slightly more dangerous, but way less than I thought. It’s a small relationship.
Furthermore, both parties see the world as about more or less equally good, revolving around them, abundant, acceptable, beautiful (Dems were slightly higher), changing, pleasurable, improvable, improving (Dems were slightly higher), interesting, meaningful, needing them, fragile, understandable, and against them. There were so many similarities!
Ok. So where do they differ? Republican reality differs from Democratic reality in 9 ways, 4 small, 4 medium, and 1 big. Let’s get the small ones out of the way first.
- On average, Democrats see the world as less competitive. That is, on average, their honest opinion is that collaboration, and not competition, makes the world go round. In turn, this would make sense of why Republicans tend to see Democrats as more naive “kum-by-ya-ists,” and Democrats tend to see Republicans as more merciless cutthroats.
- On average, Republicans see the universe as more atomistic while Democrats tend to see the universe as more of an interconnected whole. Perhaps this helps Clinton’s slogan of “Stronger Together” have traction among those with a worldview in which deep interconnection and cooperation is more of a felt reality. Perhaps this allows the issue of climate change to find more fertile ground among Democrats.
I predicted the two above. They make sense of Republicans emphasizing free markets and American exceptionalism, among other things. I did not predict the two below:
- On average, Dems see the world as more funny. Republicans tend to think that funny things are fewer and farther between. I wonder if this partly explains why virtually all comedians and entertainers are Democrats.
- One of the primals I measured is what I call “Characterizable.” Basically, do you think the world has an overall nature or not? On average, Republicans tend to think it has a nature while Democrats do not. Again, however, these are all fairly small differences.
Moving on to the 4 differences that are a bit bigger:
- On average, Republicans see the world as more alive, which means they see the universe as more imbued with intention and that the world is interacting with them personally. However, these sorts of views correlate with increased religiosity, so I’m not sure if seeing the world as alive is relevant to political views or just a side effect of religion. My intuition says it’s probably more of a side effect, so I don’t talk about it as much in the analysis below.
- On average, Republicans see the world as less worth exploring. This is essentially a gut level sense of return on investment for the worthwhileness of exploring or learning more about any given thing, place, or person. Democrats do not necessarily actually explore their worlds more; it just means that they think most everything is more likely to be worth exploring.
- On average, Republicans see the world as more just. Does the arc of life trend towards justice. Does life find a way to reward those who do good and punish those who do bad? Is the world a place where working hard and being nice pays off? Republicans tend to say ‘Yes,’ and Democrats say ‘No.’
- Finally, the second biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans live in a reality marked by decline, and Democrats think the world is getting better. On the one hand, this makes sense of why such vague rhetoric as “We don’t win anymore” appeals to Republicans and not Democrats, because even though it’s a super vague statement, it corresponds to a primal world belief that distinguishes these groups. On the other hand, this distinction between Reps and Dems might be to some degree an artifact of who’s in the White House. I imagine that when Bush was in charge, Republicans might have seen the world as in less decline and Democrats’ views would have changed a bit too. Still, I doubt this distinction would disappear.
All this, however, except for decline, is relatively small potatoes. Let’s talk about the biggest difference, because it both makes sense and doesn’t make sense: hierarchical.
What the hell does “hierarchical” mean? Out of all the primals we have identified, this one is the least intuitive. For me, it was also super fun to see it “pop” in relation to politics because Hierarchical wasn’t related to depression, anxiety, optimism, curiosity, income, education, or really any of the other variables I looked at.
The “hierarchical” primal concerns the nature of differences. Namely, does difference imply that something is better or worse? For those who believe that reality is hierarchical, if two things are different that usually implies that one is better than the other. Likewise, for those who see reality as nonhierarchical, differences are likely surface and meaningless distinctions and probably distractions. Under the latter view, any attempt to organize the world into “better” or “worse” things will either fail or be inaccurate and superficial. However, for folks who see the world as hierarchical, most things can be fairly usefully ranked and ordered from better or worse. This includes objects, from knives to landscapes, and people, from individuals to ethnic groups. The biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans, on average, see the world as more hierarchical, or, to put it a different way, Democrats gloss over differences.
Are Trump supporters particularly strange Republicans?
In a nutshell, no. Trump people, as opposed to old Cruz and Kasich people, as well as independents, are fairly similar on every primal except 4. Trump supporters out-Republican their Republican peers by seeing the world as even more Alive, Just, and Hierarchical. Also, Trump people think the world isn’t changing quite as much.
So what does this all mean?
I’ve been trying to wrap my head arounds what this means, but it is starting to make some sense. I’d love input:
- Those who see the world as hierarchical and just will tend to assume in small ways that successful people are better people. This suggests susceptibility to infatuations with billionaires.
- If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then political correctness appears foolish. PC culture is a real problem because it glosses over differences that really matter. This might explain a deep frustration on the Right about political correctness that the Left just doesn’t get.
- I’ve often been confused by why Americans need to talk about their country like it’s the best country in the history of the world. But, if we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, and America is the most powerful country in the world, then it stands to reason that America is also the best. It would feel false to say, “America is unique” without also saying, “America is the best.”
- If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then we will have more difficulty mixing with and including out-groups. Obviously, hispanic or African American culture is different than the culture of small-town white America where, according to Haidt, sanctity concerns matter more.
- Jon Haidt identifies 5 political values: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, & sanctity/degradation. Democrats score higher on two–care and fairness–while Republicans score more equally on all of them. It may be useful to understand how primals interact with these values. For instance, if, like many Republicans, you see the world as more just, then pursuing fairness should be less of a priority. Likewise, if you see the world as hierarchical, then it is natural to value authority and submit to it. Indeed, investigating the relationship between the values and primals of political ideologies could be a fascinating line of research.
- The difference between Dems and Reps regarding Worth Exploring may be merely a manifestation of the much bigger difference on Hierarchical. For Dems, the tendency to assume that differences don’t speak to value may be a tendency to gloss over differences in how worth exploring things are too. In turn, for Republicans, seeing the world through the lens of rankings and hierarchies can’t allow every thing to be equally interesting because some things got to be boring.
- Finally, the very definition of conservatism entails conserving something. This is not an urgent priority for someone who sees reality as improving. But, if the world is going to the dogs, then we need to hold on to the more just hierarchy of yesterday.
Ok. Pretending this makes sense for a second, where do these primals come from?
We don’t know. I speculate that they come from many sources, including religion and numerous life experiences. But what seems promising for explaining Hierarchical is simply where one lives. Ask yourself, if you wanted to design an intervention that encouraged people to see the world as less hierarchical, what would you do? Well, we would want to expose people to many different types of people and things that were quite different from each other, but not necessarily better or worse.
Where better to do that than in cities?
With all the talk about red and blue states, we forget that the political divide in America is likely better described as the rural-urban divide. Check out the map below of the 2012 presidential election results by county. You will find, of course with plenty of exceptions, that rural areas are red and urban areas are blue. For instance, Oregon is a reliably blue state, but what’s really happening is that a redder countryside surrounds Portland and Eugene. In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Erie, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Allentown, and Harrisburg are blue dots in a mostly red state. In Texas, Dallas (up there on its own), Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Beaumont are particularly striking. This seems to hold for Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and others. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions. If I remember correctly, Oklahoma City is particularly conservative.
In other words, belief that the world is nonhierarchical could be a side-effect of urban life.
Could Democrats or Republicans use my data to help win this election or future elections?
I think so, but should we? Full disclosure: as a missionary kid who grew up overseas and is quite intercultural, I see the world as deeply nonhierarchical. Adopting the lens of hierarchy does not come naturally to me, and of course I’m very much a fan of making everyone more like me. Woohoo! Let’s do it! Further, as a scientist, we’ve discovered no evidence so far that seeing the world as hierarchical helps or hurts wellbeing that much (though that’s not saying much… we’ve just started looking at this).
However, for a Democrat, I’m also a bit of an outlier on the belief that the world is just. I tend to assume that life finds ways to reward those who work hard and do good. As a scientist, I should note too that belief in a just world is the most studied primal to date. It is connected to wellbeing, being more productive, being kinder to those around you, and numerous other good things. Unfortunately, it’s also tied to blaming victims for their misfortunes, whether the victim is poor, sick, or disenfranchised.
What about Decline? Way before I got into primals, and as a history super nerd (seriously friends, audiobooks and lectures on history are almost exclusively what I listen to in my spare time; I’m currently working through 3 books on medieval England), I have had a strong view that the world, in almost every way, is improving. For example, Harvard’s Steven Pinker makes a case that violence has declined over human history. Reasonable people can disagree, however, including Democrats like my wife, who happens to be much smarter than I am!
So, though I’m personally not down for changing Just beliefs, I could get excited about changing Declining and Hierarchical. For the former, I would suggest that, in school, we study social history more and the history of those in power less. Much of the improvements across the ages have been in such things as health, how we treat the mentally ill, women’s rights, human rights, legal systems, etc. In my view, the facts speak for themselves (but that, I suppose, is how all of us think about all of our primals).
For Hierarchical, the big trick, as implied above, seems to me to be exposure. One could seek to expose individuals to very different people, places, and things. The logic being that this is why going to college, immersive overseas travel experiences like the Peace Corps, and moving to big cities tends to manufacture liberals (nothing new here). These sorts of activities expose us to gays, jews, jesuits, rich, homeless, etc. They become our friends, and we realize that the differences between us are very visible and fairly superficial. Who knows? Maybe the DNC should think about supporting reality TV shows like Wife Swap (I’ve never seen it).
Finally, assuming we (Democrats) want to get more Republicans to vote for Hillary by capitalizing on primals already in place–to appeal to primals for political purposes without changing them–it seems that the Clinton folks were right to seize on how the Trump convention was pessimistic about America and then, at the Democratic convention, do more than the usual “America is the best” fanfare. In other words, in order to appeal to those who see the world as more hierarchical, just, and in decline, it may be useful to be seen, to some degree, as the party of and celebrating the successful in-group. I’m not sure if it’s worth it though. It could alienate all those Dems who see the world as unjust and nonhierarchical.
In the meantime, I think it is important to not be condescending. My original hypothesis had been that Trump people are essentially scared children, and that drove them, their politics, and their party into the arms of a demagogue. This paternalistic theory was wrong. The major difference between me and Trump supporters is more interesting and, hopefully, more useful.
- On average, Republicans see the world as a tad more dangerous. There’s a small difference between Republicans (M=2.31, SD=.96) and Democrats (M=2.53, SD=.92), but it’s barely significant t(321)=1.96, p=.05; g=.24.
- On average, Republicans see the world as more Alive than Democrats (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.42, SD=.86; t(321)=-2.67, p=.008; g=.32). This means they live in a reality more imbued with purpose and intentionality (M=2.63, SD=.91; M=2.2, SD=1.01; t(321)=-3.7, p=0.0003; g=.45).
- On average, Republicans see the world as more easy to characterize than Dems (M=2.86, SD=.72; M=2.55, SD=.74; t(321)=-2.36, p=.019; g=.29).
- On average, Dems see the the world as less competitive than Republicans (M=2.74, SD=.9; M=2.5, SD=.9; t(321)=2.2, p=.029; g=.27).
- On average, Dems see the world as more funny than Republicans (M=2.88, SD=.91; M=2.66, SD=.93; t(321)=1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
- On average, Dems see reality as more interconnected (M=.303, SD=1; M=2.74, SD=.91; t(321)=2.43, p=.016; g=.29).
- The 2nd biggest difference is that, on average, Republicans see the world as more just (M=.2.58, SD=.84; M=2.86, SD=.93; t(321)=-2.78, p=.0057, g=.34).
- When it comes to primals, the biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that whereas Republicans on average see reality as full of things that are meaningfully distinguishable from each other, Democrats tend to see all differences as not better or worse, but just different (M=2.73, SD=.82; M=2.17, SD=.91; t(321)=-5.23, p<.0001, g=.63). You can think of this as “hierarchical.” Republicans on average see hierarchy as more natural. Everything is different from each other in ways that can make the object or person truly better or worse. Democrats see hierarchy as more unnatural because the differences between things are not typically good or bad.
- On average, Democrats see the world as more worth exploring (M=3.35, SD=.8; M=3.05, SD=.1.16; t(321)=2.8, p=0054, g=.34).
- On average, Republicans tend to see the world as in decline (M=2.66, SD=1.32; M=2.12, SD=1.15; t(321)=-3.73, p=.0002, g=.45).
- Compared to other Republicans/independents, Trump supporters see the world as equally good, safe (not even a little different), enticing, scarce (not even a little different), acceptable, beautiful, characterizable (Trump people see the world as slightly more characterizable), competitive (Trump people see the world as slightly more competitive), pleasurable, funny, improvable, improves, interesting, interconnected, meaningful, needs me (Trump people think the world needs them a little bit more), fragile, harmless, understandable, worth exploring, against them, and declining.
- On average, Trump people see the world as even more Alive (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.38, SD=.91; t(303)=-2.94, p=.0036; g=.36). And thus even more intentional (M=2.77, SD=.91; M=2.4, SD=1.12; t(303)=-2.9, p=.004; g=.36) and about them (M=2.22, SD=.84; M=1.96, SD=.83; t(303)=-2.57, p=.011; g=.31).
- On average, Trump people see the world as even more hierarchical (M=2.62, SD=.9; M=2.31, SD=.9; t(303)=-2.85, p=.005; g=.35).
- On average, Trump people see the world as even more just (M=2.77, SD=.94; M=2.54, SD=.93; t(303)=-1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
- On average, Trump people don’t think the world is changing all that much (M=2.99, SD=.81; M=3.18, SD=.71; t(303)=2.12, p=.035; g=.26).
Note: After this post got approximately a bazillion more views than I expected (actually just 15,000), I thought I would double-check my analysis. So, FYI, the above has been updated in light of a further review of effect sizes.