Thursday, May 28, 2009

Silly Political Tests

In what you might mistake for a David Brooks column, Nick Kristof shares two questions that supposedly indicate whether you're "liberal (which he later defines as believing that "morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm") or conservative (which he implicitly defines the same way, but as also "upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust").
How’s this: Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?

And, second: Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?
Kristof explains,
Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed by actions that seem disrespectful of authority, such as slapping Dad. Liberals don’t worry as long as Dad has given permission.

Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.
I would expect them to be even more likely to self-identify as non-parents. Seriously, for Kristof's examples of "disgusting" things, he seems to focus on things you're likely to inure to with experience. Does it disgust you to "smell urine in a tunnel"? That reaction is likely to diminish over time if you live in a major city and it becomes part of the "background noise" of your daily experience.

Kristof challenges his readers to take the "disgust" test, so I did. And the results told me that (thanks probably exclusively to being a parent) on the whole I find things marginally less disgusting than an average person, they said nothing about my politics. So I read the background information on the test and read,
Disgust appears to play a role in moral judgment, moral conflict, and ethno-political violence. (For the best work on disgust and politics, see David Pizarro.)
Fair enough. And it seems like a paper, "Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D.A., & Bloom, P. (in press) Conservatives are more easily disgusted. Cognition and Emotion.", would be right on point. But not in the way Kristof represents. It's not about sink knobs and earthworms.
In the first study, we document a positive correlation between disgust sensitivity and self-reported conservatism in a broad sample of U.S. adults. In Study 2 we show that while disgust sensitivity is associated with more conservative attitudes on a range of political issues, this relationship is strongest for purity-related issues—specifically, abortion and gay marriage.
Although the disgust effect was not exclusive to "'sociomoral' issues of gay marriage and abortion ... a greater disapproval of gay marriage and greater disapproval of abortion", results are correlational and thus " it is possible that there are other variables related to both disgust sensitivity and conservatism that may account for the observed relationship." The study's conclusions are presented as a starting point for further research. But to the extent he wants to claim that "studies suggest" a link, the type of disgust Kristof should be focusing on is the type that sees purity as a moral virtue, and is evoked by behaviors that offend one's sense of purity even if they're harmless to the actor and to others. The type of purity you're likely to hear about in church, or see evoked in a Ross Douthat column.

As for comedy skits in which you slap your parent, that seems to tie more into Kristof's definition of conservatism as authoritarian in nature. But you don't have to be conservative to be authoritarian and, despite a correlation, don't have to be authoritarian to be conservative. But Kristof doesn't follow through on that claim, choosing instead to focus on disgust. If you're testing for authoritarianism, a better question would probably be, "Would you be more likely to slap your father with his consent as part of a comedy act, or to slap your child out of anger or to impose discipline?" But I think the answer would only correlate to political leanings for the aforementioned reason, that authoritarian personalities are more likely to espouse conservative politics.

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