Group-Affirmation and Biased Political Attitudes
By: Gaven Ehrlich
People tend to evaluate information and make judgments in a manner that best serves the interests of groups to which they belong. This is perhaps no more clearly demonstrated than in the domain of American politics. Republicans and Democrats routinely express their disdain for one another and refuse to acknowledge the merits of viewpoints that come from “across the aisle.”
Social psychologists have long maintained that such intergroup biases serve a self-protective function (Fein & Spencer, 1997). Because people see important group memberships (such as political affiliations) as parts of themselves, one can maintain a positive view of the self by exhibiting biases that make one’s own group (the in-group) seem more favorable than groups to which one does not belong (the out-group).
In lieu of engaging in group-based biases, research has demonstrated the effectiveness of another technique for maintaining a favorable view of oneself and the in-group: Self-affirmation (Sherman & Cohen, 2002). Self-affirmation is a process through which one’s self-concept is bolstered in one domain, thereby reducing the need to be defensive and biased in the face of threats to other domains of the self, including group memberships. For instance, affirming the self by reflecting on an important individual achievement or value in the context of academics or social relationships leads people to be less hostile towards opposing viewpoints on contentious political issues such as abortion (Cohen, Aronson, & Steele, 2000).
If biased tendencies can be thwarted by affirming oneself as an individual person, what about affirming one’s group identity? In other words, would affirming an important aspect of one’s political party membership have the same bias-reducing effect on political attitudes as affirming an aspect of one’s individual identity?
To the extent that one identifies strongly with a particular political party (i.e., it is seen as an important part of oneself), it could be reasoned that group-affirmation should be just as effective at mitigating group-based biases as is self-affirmation. Thus, it might be expected that reflecting on a value or achievement important to one’s political party will bolster one’s overall self-concept, thereby reducing feelings of hostility towards members of the opposing party and their viewpoints.
My colleague and I, however, wondered whether affirming the group directly might have a different effect (Ehrlich & Gramzow, 2015). Because the domain of American politics is so contentious and bias-ridden, we thought that affirming one’s political identity may actually exacerbate the tendency to exhibit political biases.
Whereas affirming the self provides a boost to one’s overall self-concept, we predicted that affirming the group would make fresh in one’s mind all of the beliefs, attitudes, and emotions one associates with that group identity. In the context of political affiliation, this would presumably include feelings of hostility towards the opposing party and the desire to defend the positions and values of one’s own party.
We explored this possibility in three different studies. First, we conducted a simple experiment testing the effects of self-affirmation and group-affirmation on inter-party attitudes. Participants in our study either affirmed the self (by writing about an important, self-relevant value), affirmed their political party (by writing about a value important to their party), or performed a control task. They then evaluated members of their own political party and the opposing party on a number of positive and negative traits. We found that participants in the group-affirmation condition expressed more negative bias towards the opposing party than in either the control or self-affirmation conditions.
In order to shed some light on the reasons behind this group-affirmation effect, we ran two additional studies.
In Experiment 2 we found that, in addition to exacerbating intergroup evaluative biases, affirming participants’ political identities also strengthened their tendency to perceive greater correspondence between their own stances on various controversial political issues (such as abortion) and the stances of other members of their political party. Like-wise, political party-affirmation led to less perceived correspondence between personal attitudes and those attributed to the opposing party.
Additionally, we found that participants who affirmed a group identity unrelated to politics (their university identity), did not show this same increase in bias. That is, the effects of group-affirmation on biased attitudes seemed to be restricted to the particular group that was affirmed.
Finally, in Experiment 3 we found that participants who affirmed their political party demonstrated greater accessibility of politically-relevant words and constructs during a word accessibility task than those who affirmed themselves as individuals or who completed a control task.
Taken together, these findings support the notion that affirming the group does not necessarily have the same psychological consequences as does affirming the self. Whereas self-affirmation can buffer against threats to one’s social identity and reduce group-favoring biases, affirmations of the groups themselves appear to maintain or magnify these biases.
This is particularly the case, we think, when it comes to American political party identities. We believe that by affirming their identities as either Democrats or Republicans, participants were in fact increasing the salience of the hostile attitudes and entrenched biases that have come to characterize these two parties.
The current findings document that there are contexts wherein affirming one’s group identity can lead to a greater willingness to defend the in-group and exhibit biases towards out-groups. We hope that our studies stimulate further research on the relationship between the individual and the group and how psychological processes such as affirmation work at these different levels of identity.
Gaven Ehrlich is a 5th year PhD student in social psychology at Syracuse University. His research focuses on the self, social identity, and individual and group-level biases. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.