Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All Psychology is Political: A Fisking of Peter Liberman and David Pizarro

Saturday’s piece by Peter Liberman and David Pizarro is everything readers expect from the op-ed page of the New York Times on the eve of an election that threatens scores of liberal Democratic incumbents. It implies that the New York Republican candidate for governor is using a devious campaign tactic with “hidden effects” that “can elicit a surprisingly intense reaction” from voters. The tactic plays to the deepest instinctual urges of certain voters and is associated with harsh moral judgments, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Nothing we haven’t heard a million times from Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, and the fabulously incoherent editorial writers of the Times.

But Liberman and Pizarro’s conclusion breaks new ground:
election officials should keep the psychology of disgust in mind — and be wary of Purell dispensers or awful odors mysteriously appearing at polling places this Nov. 2.
Hunh? You read it right: the alarming tactic in question is an odorized mailer sent out by the Paladino campaign. And the hodge-podge of inference and innuendo in “All Politics is Olfactory” is presented by two professors who base their case, such as it is, on psychological research.

How do Liberman, a professor of political science at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center, and Pizarro, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell, arrive at this lurid warning?

Disgust, they say, is an emotion produced by natural selection that protects humans from contamination by harmful pathogens associated with feces, pus and related substances. They cite a psychology study showing that sitting in a malodorous or dirty room makes people judge hypothetical immoral actions (e.g., lying on a resume) more harshly. Thus dirtiness leads to sterner moral evaluations.

On the other hand, so does cleanliness—or even a mere symbol of cleanliness. (What a conveniently nonfalsifiable theory!) According to Liberman and Pizarro, “merely standing near a hand-sanitizing dispenser led people to report more conservative political beliefs.” You’ll have to take their word for this result because the study is not published. Here they’ve gone beyond science by press release all the way to science by op-ed.

Moving right along, Liberman and Pizarro note that filling out a questionnaire in the presence of a foul odor leads to more negative attitudes toward gay men. Geez—a stinky odor would probably lead to more negative attitudes toward Santa Claus. Did this study rate anyone besides gay men? Were the results cherry-picked for this op-ed? Ooops—can’t say! It’s another unpublished study.

Next, Liberman and Pizarro extract a single result from a six-experiment study of Canadian college students and use it to link people who are easily disgusted with xenophobia and racism.

But that was just a warm-up. Finally, our authors get down to the nitty-gritty:
Recent data collected by one of us (Dr. Pizarro) has also shown that political conservatives on average report being more easily disgusted than liberals.
“Recent data” is academic code meaning “these are unpublished results”.  

And what do these recent data show?
Even when controlling for income, depth of religious belief and a host of other factors, conservatives tended to score higher in disgust sensitivity than liberals.
“Tended” is a code word for results that are in the right direction but not statistically significant. In other words, Dr. Pizarro’s key point—that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals—should be taken with a large grain of salt.

So where does all this hot-from-the-lab and yet-to-be-published research lead?
Taken together, researchers’ findings suggest that the foul smell of Mr. Paladino’s mailer may have done more than just lend it novelty. It also probably made voters more judgmental of New York’s “career politicians” and more receptive to the mailer’s message that the next governor needed to “cut taxes” and “ferret out corruption.” And these impressions may have endured long after the odor and feelings of disgust had dissipated.
Or, to put it another way, Paladino’s mailer was an effective form of political speech and that’s why Liberman and Pizarro are mounting an op-ed campaign of innuendo against it.
Obviously, the malodorous mailer alone can’t explain how Carl Paladino steamrolled Rick Lazio in the primary, 62 percent to 38 percent. Nonetheless, election officials should keep the psychology of disgust in mind — and be wary of Purell dispensers or awful odors mysteriously appearing at polling places this Nov. 2.
Paladino’s campaign gimmick is a scented nightmare for today’s progressives: it’s the Manchurian air freshener. Plant a subliminal olfactory notion in the irrational mind of a Republican, then activate it with a smell in the voting booth. 

What exactly are they insinuating in their caution to election officials? That Paladino should not be allowed to use smells as part of attempts to persuade voters? That disgusting smells and Purell dispensers ought to be banned because they favor one party over another? Will poll watchers have to remove anyone who coughs or blows his nose? Anyone who looks unkempt or too recently bathed?

Studies purporting to define the cognitive traits of conservatives are all the rage in psychology journals these days. Painting conservatives as easily disgusted, judgmental, racist, xenophobic, homophobic and vulnerable to subliminal emotional manipulation is par for the course. It’s as if academic psychology were set on pathologizing conservative attitudes and behavior.

Remarkably, it’s also a theme we hear frequently from Democratic politicians. Last month Senator John Kerry was talking about attention deficits: 
“We have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on, so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth.’’
(There’s a ton of research on that . . . )

And we hear about it a lot from our Therapist in Chief:
At a Democratic fundraiser in Newton this month, offering what he called “a little bit of perspective from the Oval Office,’’ President Obama gave this diagnosis of the American political scene:

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.’’
Fear, like disgust, is a survival mechanism that can be exploited by the party of the knuckle-draggers. And don’t forget bitterness—it can lead to xenophobia:
It was at a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008 that Obama described hard-pressed citizens in the small towns of Pennsylvania as “bitter’’ people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations.’’

What Liberman and Pizarro have done in the New York Times is provide high-toned academic cover for the condescending attitudes of liberals and progressives. Putting psychological science to such blatantly partisan purposes is, dare I say it, rather disgusting.

UPDATE November 7, 2010

David Pizarro tells me that his paper on conservatives being more easily disgusted than liberals was, in fact, published. I regret the error. The paper can be found here. You decide whether or not it should be taken with a grain of salt.

I took the opportunity to ask Dr. Pizarro three questions. Should he care to reply, I’ll post his answers here.

Your 2008 paper in Cognition & Emotion reporting that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals did not involve smells. Has anyone directly shown that conservatives are more disgusted by smells than are liberals, or is the link purely a conjecture at this point?

What specific measures do you and Dr. Liberman believe ought to be taken regarding the use of scented speech during elections?

Do you or Dr. Liberman have any evidence that Carl Paladino’s campaign used, or intended to use, odors in polling places during either the primary or general election?


EdC said...


Thanks for the reminder that demonizing the opposition isn't limited to conservatives, Republicans, or Fox News.

~x~ said...

Thanks for taking the time to read, dissect, and respond to this infotainment.

I don't read the Times because I can't follow it. True story.

I like that you're smart and not an elitist.