What Do Political Labels Mean, Psychologically

Every national election brings some soul-searching in its wake, especially for the losing party. But a political upheaval of this magnitude, coming on top of a massive economic meltdown, is bound to raise the most basic questions about ideological identity and party values. Just what does it mean to be a conservative or a liberal? What will the word Democrat mean in this new era? Are there any clear, defining Republican values and principles left? Or have these labels been so overused and misused as to lose all meaning?

Psychologists are very interested in such questions, because they go to the heart of a broader and more fundamental question about human identity. What makes up our sense of self? When we call ourselves Democrats or conservatives or progressives or Republicans, are we talking about a set of agreed-upon values—something that goes to the core of our identity—or are we simply tossing around empty labels? Columbia University psychologist Michael Morris and his colleagues have been exploring these questions in the laboratory in a series of experiments. Although they actually ran the studies in 2005, the publication of their findings in the current issue of the Journal Psychological Science seems especially prescient: The studies explore what the word "conservative" means for people, against the backdrop of a risky financial market.

The psychologists compared committed Republicans and committed Democrats using an Internet survey. For some of the volunteers, they "primed" their political identity with photos of party leaders and party logos; the idea was to bring this particular strand of identity to the mind's forefront. Then they asked all of them various hypothetical questions related to investing, especially the amount of financial risk they were willing to take. Here's an example: Volunteers were asked if they would opt for a "conservative" gamble or a "risk-tolerant" gamble. A typical conservative option had a 75 percent chance of winning $10 and a 25 percent chance of winning $1, as compared to a 25 percent chance of winning $25 and a 75 percent chance of winning $2. The important thing is that the choices were clearly labeled "conservative" and "risk-tolerant." Now I know what you're thinking. Being politically conservative has nothing to do with being a conservative investor. That's exactly right, and exactly the point of the study. Morris wanted to see if the mere word "conservative" had such resonance for either Republicans or Democrats that it would affect their investing behavior. Put another way, would they embrace or reject the word "conservative" no matter what it meant at the moment?

For the Republicans who had been primed with images of George W. Bush and the GOP elephant, the answer was a resounding yes. They were much more likely to choose the conservative investment option, even though there is no link between Republican politics and fear of risk in the marketplace. Democrats, by contrast, were unaffected by the labels, presumably because the label "conservative" had no resonance in their sense of personal identity.The psychologists decided to double-check these findings with an experiment closer to real-life investing. The set-up was the same as before, but in this case they asked volunteers specifically about how they would invest $10,000 in the market. As with a typical 401(k), they could put more of their money into stocks or more money into bonds, depending on how much risk they felt they could tolerate. Again, the choices were clearly labeled "conservative" (for bonds) and "risk-tolerant" (for stocks). And again, only the most dedicated Republicans chose a conservative investment strategy.

Now here's where it gets really interesting. The psychologists also gave some volunteers the same investment options without any labels, so as not to bias them. When they did this, they found absolutely no difference between Republicans and Democrats. It was the word alone that was enticing Republicans. And in the most startling version of the experiment, the psychologists actually switched the labels, attaching the "conservative" label to high-risk investing. It made no difference. Republicans (and not Democrats) consistently chose options labeled "conservative," regardless of whether the strategy was actually risky or cautious.

So what do we make of all this? Are our judgments so arbitrary that a mere phrase or rhetorical flourish can sway us? It appears so. Previous research has shown that even trivial words—or even fragments of words—can trigger judgments based on superficial familiarity. For example, a person named Dennis is likely to favor a girlfriend name Denise and a city named Denver. Such mindless preferences obviously have no substance or meaning to them, yet they apparently have power. So is the word "conservative" as meaningless as the word "Dennis"? Can it be just a random mix of letters in some cases? It's hard to argue otherwise, at least for the Republicans in these studies. A similar experiment might reveal the same knee-jerk response to the word "liberal," but for the moment, the most anguished identity crisis is taking place on the other side of the aisle.

Wray Herbert writes the "We're Only Human" blog at www.Psychologicalscience.Org/Onlyhuman