Supporters of Democratic candidates tend to be less cognitively rigid and more interpersonally warm than Trump supporters, according to new research published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology. This was found to be true even for supporters of left-wing Democratic candidates such as Bernie Sanders, suggesting that extreme liberals and extreme conservatives do not share similar psychological dispositions.
There is an ongoing debate in psychology about whether liberals and conservatives fundamentally differ from each other (asymmetry), or whether both extreme liberals and conservatives are similar to each other on various psychological dimensions (symmetry), explained study author Jake Womick, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
So, for instance, past work has shown cognitive rigidity and interpersonal coldness are linked to conservatism. There is a question of whether this is unique to conservatives, or if these might apply to anyone who endorses extreme ideology, regardless of whether they are on the left or right. The 2020 primaries were a unique opportunity to address this question because, for U.S. politics, we had some relatively extreme Democratic candidates. We were thus able to examine whether supporters of these more extreme left-wing candidates looked more similar to supporters of moderate Democrats (asymmetry) or supporters of Republicans (symmetry).
In the study, 831 U.S. participants indicated on March 3, 2020, whether they planned to vote for President Donald Trump in the upcoming election or support one of the candidates in the ongoing Democratic primary race. The Democratic candidates at the time included Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Michael Bloomberg.
The participants also completed psychological assessments of four variables representing cognitive rigidity (openness to experience, active open-minded thinking, dogmatism, and preference for one right answer) and two variables representing interpersonal warmth (compassion and empathy).
In general, we primarily found support for the asymmetry hypothesis, Womick told PsyPost. Supporters of relatively extreme Democratic candidates (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) were similar to supporters of more moderate Democratic candidates (Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg) and were not similar to Trump supporters. This trend was particularly strong for interpersonal warmth.
In other words, Sanders, Warren, and Biden supporters were less likely than Bloomberg and Trump supporters to agree with statements such as Flexibility in thinking is another name for being wishy-washy and more likely to agree with statements such as I like to be there for others in times of difficulty.
Previous research has found other instances of political asymmetry. For example, a study published in Political Psychology in 2020 found that conspiracy theories were endorsed with a greater level of intensity at the right end of the ideological spectrum. Extreme liberals were not as likely as extreme conservatives to adopt a conspiratorial mindset, those researchers said.
But the current study also hinted at the possibility of some political symmetry. Active open-minded thinking (e.g. allowing oneself to be convinced by an opposing argument) was lowest among Trump supporters, followed by Bloomberg supporters. It was highest among Warren supporters, but it dipped among Sanders supporters. A similar pattern was observed for the preference for one right answer, which was higher among Sanders supporters than among Warren supporters.
In some cases, Sanders supporters showed higher cognitive rigidity than supporters of moderate Democrats. However, they still did not show levels of cognitive rigidity comparable to Republican voters, Womick said.
Our results largely support the asymmetry hypotheses, particularly in terms of interpersonal warmth. There were some cases in which supporters of extreme Democrats were more cognitively rigid than those in the middle, but the patterns we observed were not completely symmetrical, the researcher explained.
One possible reason may be that U.S. society is relatively conservative. Thus, we may not have as many people who are as extremely liberal as one might find in other less conservative cultures. It is possible that if one were to run this study in a more liberal culture, those on the far left and far right would look more similar in terms of cognitive rigidity.
Overall, one possibility we draw from these data is that interpersonal warmth may be characteristic of left-right differences in political ideology (with those on the left being warmer, and those on the right being colder); and, cognitive rigidity may be characteristic of extreme vs. moderate belief (with those on the extreme ends being more rigid, and those in the middle being less rigid), Womick said.
The study, Testing Cognitive and Interpersonal Asymmetry vs. Symmetry Among Voters in the 2020 Presidential Primaries, was authored by Jake Womick and Laura A. King.
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