Ponder, D. E., Simon, C. A., Wendell, D. G., & Tatalovich, R. (2015). Public Opinion and Democratic Party Ownership of Prosperity: The Political Legacy of the Great Depression, 1955-2013. American Politics Research, 43(6), 1107–1128. doi:10.1177/1532673X15578164 [link] [ResearchGate]
Current Research Topics and Projects
Political Neuroscience: Ideology and Emotions
Recently, researchers have made incredible advances in the study of personality and dispositional differences between liberals and conservatives, trying to explain why people who may seem very similar nonetheless may have strongly opposing political beliefs. Employing electroencephalography (the reading of electrical signals from the scalp), surveys, and behavioral experiments, I test the idea that conservatives and liberals have differences in core biologically rooted sensitivities to negativity, inhibition, and avoidance. Although popular theories suggest deep physiological differences between liberals and conservatives, my data suggests conservatives are largely indistinguishable from liberals in basic, fundamental behavioral mechanisms. In fact, while current theories argue that conservatives are more sensitive to negativity, in some studies I find precisely the opposite. My work argues that emotional and cognitive differences in liberals and conservatives are real and interesting, but likely occur further downstream from basic biological and neurological functioning. Expression of biological and neurological ideological differences will depend on context. My dissertation work inspired two branches of further inquiry into context, and these avenues are described below.
Emotions and Politics: The Emotion of Disgust in Food and Health Politics
Over the last several years, we have witnessed growing political movements against child vaccination, genetically modified (GM) foods, artificial sweeteners, processed foods, and smoking. These ‘purity policies’ focus on maintaining one’s health in the face of new technology and scientific discoveries. Interestingly, purity policy attitudes defy common partisan explanations, as endorsements of purity policy attitudes cut across the ideological divide, with liberals and conservatives alike sharing these concerns. With colleague Scott Clifford, across three studies, we have confirmed that disgust sensitivity is a stronger predictor for these attitudes than partisanship or political ideology. These results suggest that the emotion of disgust, part of the evolutionary heritage of human beings, plays an important role in the formation of political attitudes surrounding food and health, likely motivating concerns about unhealthy food, unclean air, and disease vaccinations. Two follow-up projects are already in the field.
Cognitive Styles: the Political Belief Bias Effect
I am currently preparing a paper that explores how a cognitive bias known as “belief bias” is related to political judgments. My team (including Richard Matland and Robert Morrison) recruited an online sample of liberals and conservatives in order to test how political beliefs may interfere with logical reasoning. I find that political beliefs are especially difficult for conservatives to inhibit, and this effect persists even when controlling for level of political knowledge, interest in politics, and general intelligence. Conservatives appear to hold onto viewpoints more strongly and resist cognitive inhibition of political values. They may rely more heavily on heuristics when processing political information. Liberals, in contrast, have a more flexible cognitive style, allowing them to engage in analytic reasoning more readily by temporarily inhibiting their political beliefs.
Future work is already underway to explore additional cognitive biases as they relate to strongly held political attitudes. This research program illustrates the difficulty that political beliefs present for logical reasoning. It also suggests that dispositional differences in how liberals and conservatives process political information may serve to make it more difficult for them to find common ground, because they hold and process beliefs in different ways.