(courtesy of istockphoto)

A set of recent experiments by Lafayette College professor Elizabeth Suhay suggests that inflammatory liberal blog comments do more to enrage and polarize conservatives than inflammatory conservative comments do to enrage and polarize liberals. Suhay took recent debates on the sequester, and then set up online experiments where she exposed people to a neutral news article on the sequester plus two politically neutral comments (the control group), or to uncivil comments from a liberal/Democratic perspective, or a conservative/Republican perspective. Both sets of uncivil comments were inflammatory and aimed at attacking the other side rather than providing substantial arguments. Suhay expected that this would cause polarization on both the left and the right. That’s not what she found:

it was expected that liberals/Democrats would move to the left (e.g., opposing the sequester and supporting Obama), and that conservatives/Republicans would move to the right (e.g., supporting the sequester and opposing Obama), in response to incivility from the left and right. However, when the results from the interactive models were graphed, we only saw polarization among those on the right. This suggests a greater sensitivity to incivility among conservatives and Republicans. Why this is the case is unclear at this time; however, previous research has shown that incivility does appear to be more common in conservative than liberal media.

It’s important to note that this is just one set of experiments — different patterns may emerge as more work is done. It’s also important to be clear that many things could drive this asymmetry, if it turns out to be a real one (doubtless both conservatives and liberals can come up with flattering reasons to explain it, regardless of more scientific explanations; doubtless both will).