Last year, one week after Donald Trump convinced hundreds of Republicans to storm the US Capitol to find and lynch Mike Pence – sorry, sometimes I say a sentence and my brain just breaks little bit…okay, I’m good, let’s continue – I made a video talking about a study that found that Republicans and Democrats each see the other as stupid and evil, unless they have high levels of intellectual humility and/or are just kind of politically apathetic. I took great pains in that video to point out that just because both sides believe that about the other, it doesn’t necessarily mean both sides are wrong. Keep that in mind as I talk about this very important update on the “stupid and evil” debate. Oh, also keep in mind that when I say “stupid and evil,” I’m using those words for comedic effect, so don’t get hung up on things like whether or not evil really exists in a godless universe. We’re just talking about relative intelligence versus morality.
By now, we’ve had loads of research show us that we all think of each other as stupid and evil, but it’s important to drill down on exactly HOW stupid and HOW evil we all are. Like, since I’ve already mentioned him, let’s consider Donald Trump. He’s stupid and evil, sure, but are we talking 80% stupid and 20% evil? 60/40? 30/70?
You think I’m joking, but that is sort of what this new paper is about: psychologists at UNC Chapel Hill surveyed more than 1,000 people across four different studies to learn how they viewed political opponents, like having one group read over a list of upcoming amendments that were broadly supported by conservatives but not liberals, and then asking them why they think those groups did or did not support them. They found that each side answered about the other, more or less, “because they’re stupid and evil.” No big shock. But they were more likely to emphasize the former: it was more about a lack of intelligence than a lack of morality. That held true across all four of the studies.
While it’s generally bad to have a society as politically polarized as the US, because it leads to things like vaccines becoming a political issue when they aren’t, it’s actually kind of good news that we think of each other as more stupid than evil. Stupid can be dealt with: I can talk more slowly, I can use smaller words, I can simplify complicated issues. But evil is just, well, evil. You can’t really debate someone out of an objectively immoral stance if the person making it is, in fact, an immoral person. If someone says they’d like to bake live kittens into pies, and you ask “why,” and they say “because kittens can’t feel pain and it’s the only pie I know how to make,” you may be able to correct them on that point and perhaps share your favorite strawberry rhubarb recipe with them. But if they say “because it’s fun to torture innocent creatures,” there’s really nowhere to go from there. They know it’s awful, but they don’t care.
So by thinking of each other as “stupid,” maybe we’re more likely to actually try to still have conversations, while if we think of each other as “evil” maybe we’re more likely to give up and just start shooting each other with all of our many poorly regulated guns.
That’s ultimately what all this research is aiming to solve: how do we stop shouting at each other all the time and have meaningful political discourse?
Back to the issue of “both sides”: again, I must stress, just because both sides think each other is stupid doesn’t mean one side isn’t right. Both sides of the vaccine “debate” think the other is stupid but vaccines are an objective good for humanity. And in my previous video on this topic I explicitly mentioned the Capitol insurrection as an example of one side being pretty objectively immoral and unintelligent. Funny enough, the researchers in this study also brought that up when discussing the limitations of the study:
“…the data we collected, to the extent they can be generalized to the American population, only reflect the participants’ perceptions of their outgroups at the time the data were collected. Notably, we collected our data prior to the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Significant events such as this one may have a large impact on political perceptions. However, the public discourse surrounding the event appeared to reflect our findings: on social and mass media, observers framed the right-wing protesters as “misled,” “brainwashed,” and “manipulated.””
The lead researcher told PsyPost that the next step is, in fact, to figure out how to improve political discourse: “There’s some work from our center suggesting that recognizing that people have good reasons for their beliefs reduces animosity, but we would still like to directly test whether we can change perceptions of intelligence and the extent to which doing so is beneficial. It’s also likely that, while political opponents see each other as more stupid than evil overall, there may be particular issues or contexts where that difference goes away, or is even reversed.”
I went and read that other study she references, and it’s a fun one: basically, they found that people were more likely to respect a political adversary if the person is sharing their subjective experience rather than objective facts, especially if their experience involves some harm being done to them. Because if you’re arguing against some political position because it directly harms you, your opponent will understand that you are being rational. It makes sense that you want to avoid being harmed. And understanding that someone’s motivation is NOT due to being stupid or evil kind of forces a person to listen. If you just share objective facts, your political opponent can dismiss them as mistakes (if you’re stupid) or lies (if you’re evil).
One of the ways they investigated this was by combing through more than 300,000 YouTube comments, which is honestly the worst job I can imagine. To make it worse, those were comments left under nearly 200 videos about abortion. Dear god. They said they chose YouTube because it’s “a social media platform known for disrespect,” which is hilarious and true.
They found that comments under fact-based videos were much, much crueler than those under videos in which a person was sharing their subjective experience.
That was just one of a whole bunch of studies they conducted that led to the theoretical model for why subjective experiences are so dang good at winning people over: personal stories seem “truer” than objective facts due to the respect that comes from being seen as a rational person. It’s a good hypothesis and it makes sense as an extension of the basic idea that stories make us empathize with others. We put ourselves in their place and can understand why they do the things they do.
I find it all really interesting, and if you’d like to read either of these studies in full I’m happy to say they are both available as open access! As always, you can find links to them in the transcript, linked in the description box below.
And as always, thanks so much to my patrons for making these videos possible! If you’d like to join, head over to patreon.com/rebecca. This week I’ll be doing a livestream “Ask Me Anything” for $3 patrons and up! No question is too weird. I already regret saying that.