I’m currently in Edinburgh for the conference of the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP 2017) – the annual convention where the great and the good of political psychological research gather to share their latest research findings. While I’m waiting for my talk on Sunday morning (for delegates – 8:30am in the Playfair Reception Room), I thought I would take the opportunity to recap a few of the most pertinent messages that I’ve seen so far.
Firstly, last night saw ISPP President Dr. Kate Reynolds give her opening address to the conference. Dr. Reynolds demonstrated the impressive improvements in the diversity of ISPP over the last 40 years. There is now an almost 50:50 split between male and female speakers at the conference, for example. And although senior awards are dominated by male recipients, dissertation prizes have reversed this trend, indicating a bright future for women within political psychology.
These gains are to be applauded. I would add, however, that arguably one of the most important types of diversity that ISPP should be targeting is intellectual (and particularly ideological) diversity. Like the rest of (social) psychology, my observations so far suggest that ISPP is heavily skewed towards the left-hand-side of the political spectrum (as exemplified by the many sessions and talks dedicated to “explaining” and “understanding” the election of Donald Trump or the Brexit vote).
A key theme in Dr. Reynolds’ address was the fight to reintroduce scientific rationalism into political discussions. It was raised that populism is taking hold of democracies all around the world, and that there was an ongoing backlash against “elites” (which presumably includes academics – after all, British Environment Secretary Michael Gove famously said that people “have had enough of experts” in the run-up to the Brexit vote last year). This, again, is evident when scanning the titles and abstracts of talks at the conference, and represents a potentially growing area of research in political psychology. Whether we can stem the tide of populism through scientific rationalism (as opposed to capitalising on people’s inclination for emotionally-based motivated cognition) is still an issue to be resolved.
One of the sessions I was most looking forward to at ISPP 2017 was the first one of the conference-proper. Dr. Agnieszka Golec de Zavala chaired a session examining the role of collective narcissism – an individual difference construct characterised by emotional investment in one’s social identity. Much of the research presented (from Golec de Zavala, Christopher Federico, and Katarzyna Jasko, for example) described evidence supportive of collective narcissism being a significant predictor of the Brexit vote, support for Donald Trump, and the endorsement of violence as a route to reaffirming a sense of personal and group significance.
These talks presented a consistent picture – collective narcissism plays a role in the development of political attitudes that support attempts for nation-strengthening behaviour. Throughout, my thoughts were drawn to the potential for using this construct across the ideological spectrum. As presented in the session today, attendees would be forgiven for assuming that collective narcissism is a construct that is another facet of conservatism (in a similar way to authoritarianism (as it is traditionally studied) and the social dominance orientation). However, if collective narcissism is purely related to group-based investment, there remains open the possibility that those on the political left also endorse similar views about the moral superiority of their political group. This is an issue that wasn’t discussed within the session, but is something I’ll be chasing up and trying to discuss with those involved over the next couple of days.
The most fascinating study I saw presented today came from Carla Murteira, who is a PhD student at the University of Lisbon. Murteira and her colleagues examined whether collective narcissists would mimic the facial expressions of ingroup members, or respond to the emotional faces of outgroups. Using an online survey, they found that increased ‘threat’ from an outgroup (Muslims, in this case) increased mimicry of self-reported ingroup anger among collective narcissists. However, using a lab-based facial electromyography (a technique that measures muscle activity), collective narcissists demonstrated no physiological responses to such threats.
In discussing these data, Dr. Golec de Zavala suggested that collective narcissists may explicitly express such views in order to ‘overcompensate’ (my phrasing) for personal vulnerabilities or low self-esteem. This would again for me strengthen the argument that collective narcissism could also occur on the political left, with a range of arguments being made in recent years about the psychological vulnerabilities of the far-left (particularly on college campuses). Adapting the work described in other presentations, it would be easy to see how collective narcissism on the left contributes to the cultural authoritarianism that has been commented on by the popular and online media in recent times. Again – a topic for discussions throughout the conference!
Towards an Ecological Approach to Political Psychology
Keeping with my emerging interest in the horseshoe model of political ideology and expression, I was intersted to hear Dr. Thomas Kessler talk about a new ecological approach to studying these concepts. Dr. Kessler spoke about how our firmly-held and commonly-repeated key findings about individual differences in ideology (e.g., disgust sensitivity on the right, and openness to change on the left) may be artefacts of biased or selected stimuli that we use in such research. For example, when we study disgust our focus is commonly on views about homosexuality. Unsurprisingly, conservatives come out with higher levels of disgust than liberals on this domain. What if, though, we used a different issue. Animal rights, for example. Would disgust still be regarded as a conservative emotion if we asked about views of battery farming, or cosmetic testing using animals? I’m dubious, and so was Dr. Kessler.
Underpinning this talk was the implicit assumption that conservatives and liberals are more alike than they are different, and that it is simply the targets of their poltiical views that distinguish them. For me, this is consistent with the horseshoe model, whereby the far left and far right are likely to respond in equally authoritarian (or emotional) ways when their sacred topics are touched upon in political discourse. The varied sampling of stimuli – as well as participants – is likely to be a vital process to engage in when examining this idea experimentally.
Conclusions on Day 1 of ISPP 2017
ISPP 2017 is proving to be one of the most intellectually-stimulating conferences that I have attended. It’s a relatively small conference with a big conference feel. This is likely because of the profile of many of the speakers and attendees that are seen moving around the venue. Tapping into their expertise and experience is key as we (“early career scholars”) seek to make inroads into this exciting area of research.
Day 2 looks likely to be more of the same. Particular highlights include a session on ideological division, system justification, and a keynote from Prof. Linda Skitka on moral conviction. More to follow…