The research, conducted at Duke University, was published in “Psychological Science,” the peer-reviewed journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The study was inspired by the 2012 presidential election campaign. “We were looking at things like comments on blogs and pundits and politicians on TV,” Dr. Kaitlin Toner said in a phone interview. “It seemed like there were a lot of people who felt very certain that their views were correct but they contradicted one another and there’s no way that everyone could be 100 percent correct all the time.” Toner, the lead author on the study, did the research while a graduate student at Duke.
She explained that 527 adults were asked online two questions about each of nine hot-button topics to measure the extremism of their attitudes toward each issue as well as the degree to which they felt their beliefs were correct while others were wrong, translating to a feeling of “belief superiority.”
“We found that people who had more extreme attitudes in either direction also felt more superior about their views,” Toner said.
When it came to the nine “contentious” issues, conservatives expressed the strongest feelings of superiority on affirmative action, taxes and requiring voter identification, while liberals expressed stronger feelings about government aid to the needy, the use of torture on terrorists and not basing laws on religion.
Reaction to the other three topics — health care, abortion and illegal immigration — were about equal.
Don’t confuse belief superiority with dogmatism, though. The latter is “a personality trait,” Toner explained. “It’s a measure of inflexibility….You’re holding a belief rigidly and won’t change.”
In other words, you can hold “superior” beliefs that you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong about a particular issue, but still be able to change your mind, unless you’re dogmatic about your viewpoint.
Previous research has shown that conservatives tend to be more dogmatic, and Toner said their study found the same results, with dogmatism increasing as views moved to the right of the political spectrum.
What’s interesting is that those in the middle of the political spectrum appeared more accepting of other opinions. “There’s no logical reason why people who were moderate couldn’t feel superior about that moderate position,” Toner said. “For example, there’s no reason why somebody who thinks there should be middle-of-the-road tax policies shouldn’t believe that’s the best view but that’s not what we found….moderates felt less superior about their positions.”
That’s not always been the case, however. Benjamin Franklin called himself “an extreme moderate,” said Dr. Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke who supervised the study. Franklin believed moderation “was the only proper perspective when you look at political issues.”
None of this research surprises me, after spending 18 months as a comments editor for the Web site Politics Daily. Most sides were unrelenting in their fear and loathing of the other; both liberals and conservatives could be equally rude, crude and obscene in their characterizations of their foes. (The only thing they seemed to agree on was that I must be a male as they would address their comments to me with “Dear Mr. Editor.”)
Those of us who consider ourselves moderates may need to quit being so easy-going and seek more candidates willing to negotiate and compromise.