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Perceptions of threat to personal values shape punishment judgments through social identity threat

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ThreatValPun (Perceptions of threat to personal values shape punishment judgments through social identity threat)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2019-08-31

In modern societies, values and ideologies are expected to rule people’s political decisions (i.e. elections and votes) and politicians’ governing behavior and decisions. However, current events and the political context in Europe and in the US point to instances of political in-group bias on various evaluations and judgments. For example, attitudes towards Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal server for her electronic correspondence appeared to be strongly influenced by one’s political group: a disqualifying crime for Republicans, and an insignificant detail for Democrats. It is important to understand these biases in order to ensure fair democratic processes, and to protect non-privileged people and groups from underserved treatments. The present project proposed to understand this phenomenon. We set up to provide a theoretical model accounting for these processes be reviewing the relevant literature on the topic in psychology, neuro-economy and cognitive sciences. We then tested the model through experimental and neuroscience methods, and provided empirical support for this model in an American and European context. We conclude that political identity is a factor contributing to political belief and political justice judgments. This work should, eventually, allow the creation of interventions to reduce in-group bias in political and other intergroup contexts.
During the first period of the project, we reviewed the relevant literature on the topic in psychology, neuro-economy and cognitive sciences and wrote a review article describing these findings and proposing our theoretical model, the Identity-Based Model of Political Belief (Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018). According to our model, when approaching new information, people compute the value of belief or attitude as a function of competing goals: accuracy or fairness goals on the one hand, and social identity goals on the other hand. The value of belief or attitude is computed depending on the weight put on these different goals, which might vary across situations and people.
Building up on this model, we ran a series of experiments testing the main idea in the context of belief in fake news: We found that people were more likely to believe news about the value-upholding behavior of ingroup politicians and the value-undermining behavior of outgroup politicians, regardless of the specific value being upheld or undermined. This demonstrates the preponderance of political social identity over ideological values. I presented this work at various conferences and report it in a paper currently being revised for publication at a high-impact peer-reviewed academic journal.
In addition, in an extension of this model to support for punishment as a function of political identity, we ran another series of experiments testing the influence of political in-group bias in support for punishment judgments. In two behavioral studies, we found evidence of political in-group bias in support for punishment of US politicians. We designed, implemented ran a follow-up fMRI study examining the neural processes underlying these judgments. We are currently analysing the behavioral and neural data from this experiment.
During the second period of the project, we further extended our understanding of the neural processes underlying the effects of political identity on moral cognition. We conducted a new experiment, in a different political context (i.e. the Netherlands), in which we measured cardiovascular responses. By examining the physiological responses, we aimed at understanding the social identity threat proposes to underly the effects previously observed. The results were inconclusive, but trigger new questions to be answered in future work.
Overall, this project contributed to the literature in psychology and political sciences by advancing our theoretical empirical understanding of political belief. We provided evidence for identity-based biased political thinking. These findings were widely shared with peers and with the public, through multiple presentations at conferences, the organization of a symposium at the largest social psychology conference, multiple invited talks to academic and non-academic audiences, as well as multiple interviews with journalists.
This work advances theory in psychology, political sciences and neurosciences in several ways. First, we bring together insights from different fields and integrate them in an innovative theoretical model. Our model is the first to propose an original framework to understand biased political cognition on the basis of research in social psychology, neurosciences, cognitive and political sciences. This model is presented in a scientific article published in a very high impact journal, ensuring its wide dissemination to the scientific community, and beyond, as evidenced by the multiple news and blog reports it generated.
We tested our model through several experiments targeting specific aspects of the model. A first series of studies found first empirical support for our model (see above). These findings are reported in an article, currently being revised for publication. We expect this paper to be accepted for publication within the next year.
In addition, another series of studies tests an extension of this model to judgments related to support for punishment of US politicians as a function of political identity. The first two studies have found support for our model. The third study of this series is an fMRI study in which we investigate the neural processes underlying support for punishment as a function of political identity. We expect to find differences in brain activation as a function of political identity of the participants and of the offenders: out-group offenders should trigger higher harm perceptions, presumably evidenced in amygdala activations, and higher responsibility judgments, likely to be evidenced in higher activation in the temporo-parietal junction. Both of these should correlate with support for punishment as measured behaviorally. Furthermore, punishment evaluations correlate with activations in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, in line with previous research on punishment judgments. We will also examine ideological differences in punishment evaluations and its underlying neural mechanisms. Based on the literature on moral foundations, we might expect Democrats to be more driven by perceptions of harm than Republicans. These results will be described in a scientific paper which we will submit to a high impact journal.
Overall, this project should have an impact both on the advancement of science on one hand, and on society on the other. Indeed, our understanding of the socio-psychological processes at play allows a better grasping of a highly relevant current real world phenomenon, namely the biased political thinking in general, and in particular the belief in and spread of fake news. Fake news is an issue of expanding importance as growing evidence of active planting of false stories by national groups with extreme ideologies emerges. This phenomenon has important consequences, as it is highly likely that it contributed to important political events of the past few years. Understanding the processes at play will allow us to propose interventions to try and tackle this issue on the long term. The societal implications of the project are therefore likely to be important.