May 12, 2012


The New Phrenology: How liberal psychopundits understand the conservative brain. (ANDREW FERGUSON, 5/21/12, Weekly Standard)

A paper called "Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others" describes a study put together by a team of social psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, a few years ago. Graduate assistants managed to collect 118 undergraduates, most of them under the age of 21. The kids agreed to participate in the experiment because they were given $15 or class credit for a psychology requirement. A skeptic might point out that the sample of participants was thus skewed from the start, unnaturally weighted toward either kids who badly need $15 or psych majors. And all of them, by definition, were the kinds of kids who want to go to college at Berkeley. Almost half of the participants were Asian American; only 3.5 percent were African American. Caucasians made up less than 30 percent.

The group the researchers studied is not, in other words, a demographic cross section of humanity. It's not a ride through Walt Disney's "It's a Small World." It has no claim to the randomness that sampling requires. It is therefore an odd gang from which to extract truths about human behavior. Indeed, speaking as a former resident, I can attest that human behavior in Berkeley, California, is unlike human behavior anywhere else in the world. But the method by which these human truths were drawn was even less plausible. The setting the researchers constructed for their experiment was exquisite in its artificiality. To see how powerful people react in real life, the professors began by giving the kids a questionnaire asking them how powerful they felt. ("Agree or disagree: I think I have a great deal of power.") The students were then divided into pairs and seated facing each other, two feet apart. Each student had a video camera trained on him and was wired to an electrocardiogram through receptors taped to his torso. 

Then the students told each other traumatic stories from their personal experience, lasting no more than five minutes. The stories were supposed to be upsetting, or "emotionally evocative." 

After many regression analyses and much hierarchical linear modeling, the professors discovered that their conclusion matched their hypothesis: The "powerful" students--that is, the students who said on the questionnaire that they were feeling powerful that morning--showed less dramatic reactions to the stories than other students. Or, as the professors put it: "Our data suggest that social power attenuates emotional reactions to those who suffer." 

I told you it was boring. It was also preposterous, at least as an experiment designed to test a hypothesis. The questionable assumptions fairly cry out from where they're buried. Just for starters, can a questionnaire asking a college sophomore how powerful he feels tell us whether he's powerful? Researchers never measured the elements that made an "emotionally evocative story"; the stories were rated by grad-student coders whose own feelings of powerfulness were unrecorded. And underlying the endeavor was the silliest buried assumption of them all, that the way a college kid reacts in a psych lab while he's wired to a machine and jabbered at by a stranger has some--any--relation to how "rich and powerful" people (Edsall's phrase) live their lives. 

If such a study claimed to prove a different conclusion, and presumed to tell us that rich and powerful people were more compassionate than those with less wealth and lower social standing, we could expect our psychopundits to approach it with more of the skepticism that journalists are so famous for. But skepticism would put a psychopundit out of a job, and so the violations of logic and common sense simply ramify. Among the studies that constitute the recent "academic critique of the right," one used participants--more than 65 percent of them female--solicited over Craigslist; another recruited participants through Amazon's Mechanical Turk website. Neither sample could possibly represent any group other than itself. 

The samples are even odder when you consider that Edsall and his fellow psychopundits construed these studies, which were about the rich and powerful, to show how conservatives and Republicans behave. In most of the studies, Asian Americans made up nearly 50 percent or more of the participants. But Asian Americans are the most liberal ethnic group in America--"the only group," Gallup says, "that has a higher proportion of [self-identified] liberals than conservatives." 

That the "rich and powerful" are identical to conservatives and Republicans--Edsall's assumption--is a hoary idea dear to many Democrats and essential to their self-image as the opponents of privilege. It persists even though many of the plushest and most powerful institutions of American life are in the hands of liberal Democrats: public and private universities, government bureaucra-cies, nonprofit foundations, movie studios, television networks, museums, newspapers and magazines, Silicon Valley .  .  . Among the fabled "1 percent," according to Gallup, the number of self-identified Republicans is only slightly greater than the number of Democrats. As Christopher Caldwell has pointed out in these pages, political donations from 19 of the 20 richest ZIP codes in the United States go overwhelmingly to Democrats, by a ratio of four to one or more. Democrats are the party of what Democrats used to call the superrich. Only Democrats seem not to realize this.

Posted by at May 12, 2012 6:31 AM

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