Hearing what you want to hear

So, I was listening to last week’s Slate Political Gabfest when special guest, former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (and object of David Plotz’s fandom) casually mentioned that the study showing that conservatives are more authoritarian had been retracted for getting it’s findings 180 degrees wrong.  This definitely caught my attention as I had noticed in some earlier comments (before I stopped reading them) to my Washington Post piece that a number of readers were entirely skeptical with our findings regarding an “authoritarian” parenting style.  I didn’t expect the respected-for-his-relative-Republican-sanity to just be parroting misguided talking points, but I guess I gave him too much credit.

Anyway, here’s the deal, the evidence that Republicans and conservatives are more authoritarian than liberals and Democrats is quite overwhelming (nice summary of it in Vox).

Now, there was a study not long ago in AJPS about Psychoticism (not quite what it sounds like) that originally found this:

Having a high Psychoticism score is not a diagnosis of being clinically psychotic or psychopathic. Rather, P is positively correlated with tough-mindedness, risk-taking, sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and authoritarianism [emphasis mine] (Adorno et al. 1950; Altemeyer 1996; Eysenck and Eysenck 1985, McCourt et al. 1999). In social situations, those who score high on P are more uncooperative, hostile, troublesome, and socially withdrawn, but lack feelings of inferiority and have an absence of anxiety. At the extremes, those scoring high on P are manipulative, tough-minded, and practical (Eysenck 1954). By contrast, people low on P are more likely to be more altruistic, well socialized, empathic, and conventional (Eysenck and Eysenck 1985; Howarth 1986). As such, we expect higher Pscores to be related to more conservative political attitudes, particularly for militarism and social conservatism.

Now, notice that this study is about psychoticism a personality trait that, despite being published in the pages of the 2nd most prestigious PS journal, I’ve literally never heard anybody discuss in relation to real-world politics– in marked contrast to authoritarianism.  So, interesting, but really nothing much more than that.  And again, it is only correlated with authoritarianism, among many other correlates.

So, things get interesting when it turns out the authors had an absolutely monumental screw-up (and one I mentioned in quick hits a while back):

 The interpretation of the coding of the political attitude items in the descriptive and preliminary analyses portion of the manuscript was exactly reversed. Thus, where we indicated that higher scores in Table 1 (page 40) reflect a more conservative response, they actually reflect a more liberal response. [emphasis mine] Specifically, in the original manuscript, the descriptive analyses report that those higher in Eysenck’s psychoticism are more conservative, but they are actually more liberal; and where the original manuscript reports those higher in neuroticism and social desirability are more liberal, they are, in fact, more conservative.

Whoa.  Amazingly embarrassing and appalling.  Nice summary of the matter at Reason.  Am I now abashed that liberals are more likely to have the anti-social tendencies of psychoticism?  Nope.  Again, interesting but not like this is a personality trait that has proven particularly interesting or useful in explaining politics.

Anyway, what is quite interesting to me is how it has clearly become very widespread for conservatives to believe this somehow refutes the link between conservatism and authoritarianism despite the fact that this present research is only tangentially related while there is a whole body of unchallenged scholarship finding that key relationship.  Just search for– conservatives authoritarian retraction– and you fill find a whole host of articles/posts like this from the Washington Examiner:

Who would have guessed that a study conforming to every liberal media narrative about conservatives would turn out to be complete and utter garbage?

It turns out that the study, titled “Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies” got its conclusions switched, meaning what it determined to be personality traits of conservatives were actually the personality traits of liberals.

The paper originally stated that, “In line with our expectations, P [for “Psychoticism”] (positively related to tough-mindedness and authoritarianism) is associated with social conservatism and conservative military attitudes.”

Surprise! The authors set out believing conservatives were authoritarian and they “proved” they were right. [emphasis mine]

So, there you have it.  The conservative world is now entirely convinced that the authoritarian-conservative link– a very real, very consequential phenomenon– is just a made-up liberal academic fantasy.  Of course, it is also fair to wonder how the ideology of the authors of the AJPS study affected their long delay in uncovering their mistake.  Hmm, I guess we can all go on keeping believing what we want to.  Social science got it horribly wrong in this case.  But given the alternative, I’ll stick with it.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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