Is It Wrong to Think Your Political Opponents are Stupid and Evil?

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I think you may have noticed that throughout the past year I’ve become more and more convinced (and more and more open about the fact that I’m convinced) that the alt-right is full of ignorant and bigoted extremists. I’ve long suspected that the “moderate” conservative belief system of “smaller government, less funding for public institutions like schools, and lower taxes for the rich,” could lead to the situation we currently find ourselves in, and I’ve said as much, and now that it’s happened I can’t exactly hold my tongue: a disturbing number of conservatives are absolutely bonkers and a much larger number of conservatives are okay with it so long as it gets more conservatives into power.

In other words, the people who disagree with me are immoral and unintelligent.

Anyway, in the news today is a new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality building upon previous studies that suggest political polarization in the United States occurs because members of each of the two major parties tend to perceive their counterparts as being immoral and unintelligent.

Uh oh. Am…am I the baddy?

Okay, so the idea that people make moral judgments about the opposite political party isn’t new. For awhile now researchers have suspected that we become polarize through two major ways: ideologically, meaning that I disagree with the policies that you champion and vice versa, and affective polarization, which means I think you’re stupid and evil, and vice versa. We can’t really help the ideological polarization because that’s just a straight-up difference of opinion. For example, let’s say that you are in favor of the government providing vouchers for students to attend private schools using tax dollars and I am not. Morality has yet to enter into the equation concerning our differences — we just want different things.

Affective polarization is malleable, though. You might think I’m stupid to not realize that allowing parents to choose between public and private schools would force public schools to get better in order to be competitive. You might think I’m evil, because by opposing a voucher program I might be denying a lower-income black family the chance to send their child to a better-funded school in a different district instead of to their failing local public school.

And I may think you’re stupid to want to implement a system that research shows will lead to worse outcomes for students. And I may think you’re evil to take public money away from secular schools and funnel it to religious schools that indoctrinate children in belief systems that should remain separated from our government.

But for all of those points you could easily replace “stupid” and “evil” with “mistaken” and “values different things.” And someone who did see it that way would be less politically polarized.

So this paper looked at how affective polarization might be moderated by something known as intellectual humility — the understanding that I am a flawed human being who might be wrong about something, so I will critically examine my beliefs in the light of any evidence that they may be wrong. In other words, a True Skeptic. Obviously, a lot of people call themselves skeptics who wouldn’t know how to evaluate a closely held belief if it walked into their office for its annual performance review with its own self-assessment already filled out. That metaphor kind of got away from me but you know what I mean.

Skepticism, though, truly is intellectual humility: I fervently believe something, but should I? If someone presents me with evidence against my belief, will I dismiss it out of hand or will I consider it?

So researchers asked more than 800 people to fill out surveys to find out how they score on intellectual humility, what their political preferences are, and how they feel when they imagine a person from the opposite political party — disgust? Contempt? Fear? They also asked them things like “how much money would I have to give you to vote for someone from the other party,” which is honestly one of the dumbest survey questions I’ve ever heard. My answer is zero, not because I’m not willing to vote Republican but because my VOTE ISN’T FOR SALE, THAT’S ILLEGAL, Jesus. Anyway.

They found that people who were high in intellectual humility scored lower on affective polarization. So that’s it: I’m not intellectually humble so that’s why I think the thousands of people who stormed the Capitol last week are stupid and immoral.

But wait! There’s more. This paper also found that people who were high in intellectual humility scored lower on the other kind of polarization: ideological. The one that isn’t really up for debate. So, this might mean that people who scored higher in intellectual humility were also just more likely to be politically apathetic. Maybe it’s a case of someone saying “Well I don’t have all the answers, so who am I to take a position on this?”

And that’s what I really want to highlight, here: Reddit seemed to assume this was some kind of “both sides” paper: Republicans AND Democrats see each other as evil and stupid. They can’t all be right, therefore they’re all wrong and only the intellectually humble are in the right. Right? Well, no. Let’s take something that has been “politicized” but is really just a straight-up fact: anthropogenic global warming. Scientists have formed a consensus that says it’s really happening and we should do everything in our power to stop it. Democrats tend to agree and think that Republicans are either stupid or immoral for not taking action; Republicans tend to disagree and think that Democrats are either stupid or immoral for trying to take action. There are plenty of people on both sides, though, who don’t really care. They don’t know enough about the issue to argue about it. So, they will score well on intellectual humility (e.g., “I don’t know, I could be wrong”) and score low on affective polarization (e.g., “that person just has a different opinion.”) 

All of that fits with what this study is showing, but at the end of the day there is a right and a wrong answer. Anthropogenic global warming is really happening, and the people who deny it’s happening are doing so for reasons. Those reasons tend to fall into just a few camps: they’re ignorant of the data and/or they refuse to accept the expertise of scientists (they’re dumb) or else they know it’s happening but have financial interests in continuing to behave the way we always have (they’re immoral). No matter how you look at it, there’s no intellectually honest way to say “it’s just a difference of opinion.” It’s not whether or not you think grapefruits taste good (they don’t) — it’s whether or not you understand reality.

So yeah, don’t worry, you can be a skeptic — an intellectually humble person — and still know that the people who committed armed insurrection on the United States Capitol are credulous idiots and immoral assholes. But it’s worth remembering that that doesn’t make all your political opponents stupid and evil, or that you should treat them all as subhuman. I guess what I’m saying is it’s healthy to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. I will disagree on this one. You just assume that they are “more likely to be politically apathetic”. And you also assume that there are broadly two reason for refusing to accept evidence e.g. “dumb” or “evil”.

    There are good arguments for a different explanation. Maybe Republicans tend to disagree with the scientific consensus on global warming not because they are stupid or evil, but precisely because they are polarized. There are studies that show that merely presenting free-market-based solutions to global warming makes republicans more willing to accept the scientific consensus and democrats less so. That means that some people care much less about global warming and the truth and much more about their political tribe.

    When people are polarized, they argue like lawyers, they are like sports fans – the goal is to win, because losing the argument jeopardizes your overall ideology.

    I would argue that Republicans who are high on intellectual humility will be much more willing to accept the scientific consensus than those who are polarized. And I would argue that democrats that are low on intellectual humility are accepting it not because it is a scientific fact. but because it is part of being a democrat – part of the tribe.

    The way I see it is that if you are an intellectually humble person you will be much more likely to accept evidence and revise you political believes in the light of that evidence. On the other hand, if you are politically polarized than any contradicting evidence will be sorted out in either the dumb or the evil boxes.

    One of my favorite quotes is from Magyn Kelly: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?”. Just substitute “Republican” with one’s cherished believes and use it akin to memento mori. It might help to be much less willing to win at any cost and much more willing to accept inconvenient truths – e.g. global warming and reality in general.

    1. I did not assume people are more likely to be apathetic. I pointed out that that’s a logical conclusion from the data in the study, which the study authors agree with. Just because you’ve made a just-so explanation you like better doesn’t mean that the study supports it.

      1. That was a poor choice of words – I didn’t want to be confrontational. Sorry about that – I am clumsy at putting my thoughts into words and I think the internet just makes things worse. I don’t have access to the full article and I didn’t know that it was discussed by the authors. I am in no way implying that the study supports my explanation, I really just wanted to point out that there is a different interpretation. And I do think that it is also a logical one. I have just restated some of the usual hypotheses in studies on intellectual humility, group polarisation and motivated reasoning.

  2. Unclear to me how much can be gleaned from this study. I am not an expert in this field and only had time to skim it, but in the introductory material the authors spend several paragraphs explaining the concept of IH and attempts at measuring it. To put it mildly, these paragraphs don’t inspire a lot of confidence in the measurement or utility of IH. Indeed, even the very definition of IH seems unclear (“definitional opacity”, in the author’s words) and its past application providing mixed results at best. In the cited study the strength of the various associations did not appear to be very strong. Although some of the correlations did pass statistical testing, I fear that reliance on these may represent the oft seen tyranny of the p value. Associations can be statistically significant yet the magnitudes not be significant in a real-world sense.

    Regarding political polarization, to my mind this is one of the most serious problems currently facing the U.S., and it seems only to get worse with each passing year – on all sides of the political phase space.

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