Tag Archives: politics

Political polarization is on the rise around the globe, fueled by inequality

The world is more politically divided today than at any point in the last five decades, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

It’s not just where you live; people across the world are more entrenched in their political views, less open to differing ones, and identify themselves more strongly with the political movement they associate with. New research led by researchers at the University of St Andrews examines the drivers behind this increase in polarization, and what we can do to bridge the gaps again.

Tightening the ranks

“We know that people have been becoming more politically polarized over time, for example in the US, but we don’t know exactly why political identity is becoming so important,” says Dr. Alexander Stewart of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, lead author of the study. “We tried to understand this by developing a game theoretic model for the cultural evolution of party identity and comparing it to data.

“We found that if there is animosity or conflict between other types of identity groups, such as different racial groups, people will tend to shift their political identities over time to match up with their racial identity, leading to political polarization. This happens because it reduces conflict within a party. Factors such as inequality, which lead to greater animosity between identity groups, can trigger this process.”

The authors explain that populist movements — such as Brexit in the UK and the Trump campaign in the USA, — despite starting with support from ordinary citizens, over time develop strong associations with political identities and foster antagonism with opposing political movements. You’ve probably been able to see that unfolding in real-time, no matter which side of the political divide you yourself fall into.

But why does this process happen, and what drives it? The authors report that it comes down to the various social issues that fuel these movements in the first place. In the United States, for example, the Trump campaign catered to and was thus fueled, in part, racist sentiments among voters.

Addressing the rising tide of political polarization requires that we address these underlying issues first, and the greater overall issue of social inequality, the team notes. But that by itself will not be enough; the next step is for all political actors to take an active stance against these growing divisions. Those leading have to ask those that follow them to cooperate and find common ground even to those of opposing political sentiments.

The findings are based on a series of mathematical and computational models that the team — with members from the Universities of St Andrews, Princeton, and Pennsylvania — have run. These simulations examined how political attitudes and identities shifted over time in relation to growing inequality in our societies.

The results can be extrapolated to give us some insight into the rise of populist parties or movements that paint themselves as being “against the elites”, including supporters of Trump in the USA, Modi in India, Le Pen in France, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the Brexit movement in the UK.

“We found in the US for example that racial polarization expressed by voters has declined while political polarization between Republicans and Democrats has increased, and political parties have become increasingly sorted along racial lines,” Dr. Stewart adds. “This suggests that antagonism between racial groups has shifted to become associated with political identities over time.”

The team also attempted to introduce various conditions into their simulations to test for possible ways to reduce political polarization. One of the methods they tested was wealth distribution; their conclusion was that while such measures (attempts to reduce social inequality in all its forms) can set the groundwork, they can’t take us all the way. By themselves, they are not enough to reverse polarization. In order to realistically achieve this, people need to be called to action against it, the team explains.

“To reverse polarization you must first remove the conditions that helped create it (i.e., reduce inequality) and then engage in ‘coordinated efforts’ to change attitudes e.g., signaling by political elites in the form of bipartisan cooperation or improved rhetoric about the ‘other side’,” Dr. Stewart concludes.

The paper “Inequality, identity, and partisanship: How redistribution can stem the tide of mass polarization,” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Economic inequality and decline fracture society, says a new study

New research at the Princeton University sheds light on how economic hardship and inequality can stoke polarization among social groups. According to the findings, such divisions keep festering even after financial conditions improve.

Image credits Paolo Trabattoni.

We’ve obviously been having a populist problem lately, and it is in no way limited to the US. A key driver of such movements has always been dissatisfaction with how things are being carried out right now, or feelings of anger at the perceived wrongdoings of the elites. But economic hardship also plays a large role in shaping such social woes. Worse yet, the divides seem to persist over time and promote inter-group conflicts.

Not enough to go around

“Times arise when national unity is needed, like we’re seeing now with COVID-19, but we shouldn’t wait for a public health crisis or war to bring people together” says Nolan McCarty, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and lead author of the paper.

“Policymakers and those in government should act now by investing in and protecting social safety nets that can prevent widening social and political divisions.”

The paper explores the theory that social polarization (or ‘tribalism’) between different groups has the tendency to rise during times of economic hardship. Under this theory, overall economic decline, rising inequality, and social conflict come hand-in-hand.

McCarty, together with Alexander Stewart of the University of Houston and Joanna Bryson of the Hertie School in Berlin developed a computer model meant to test the theory. This was built starting from models meant to explore evolution and game theory, but the team designed it to look at people’s willingness to interact with members outside of their own social group. Based on the findings, the authors argue that strengthening our social safety nets can help reduce this type of social conflict.

All of this, however, hinges on a few assumptions that the team baked into their model. The first is that an individual’s economic standing is tied to both interactions with others as well as the general health of the economy. The second assumption was that people tend to take after successful people, mimicking their behavior — which can thus spread through large areas of the public. Lastly, they modeled in-group interactions to be generally less risky with lower rewards, and those with out-group individuals to be riskier and more rewarding.

What the team expected to see was a shift in preference from out-group interactions during good times to in-group interactions during times of economic hardship, as people hedge their bets and avoid risk. Overall, this would lead to a sharp decline in interactions across groups. The results matched their expectations.

Our understanding so far is that economic shocks tend to lead to a rising of far-right movements that cash in on public frustrations by vilifying other groups. High levels of inequality, on the other hand, work to favor groups on the left, who will seek wealth redistribution. However, the model didn’t find proof of these mechanisms — but it did find that all people, in general, become less likely to interact with members from other social groups when times get tough. This, in turn, leads to everyone getting poorer, as in-group interactions tend to generate less value.

“Rather than continue the unproductive debate over whether ‘economic anxiety’ or group conflict is most responsible for our deeply divided politics, scholars should spend more effort considering the debilitating feedback between economics and identity,” said McCarty.

The paper “Polarization under rising inequality and economic decline,” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Politically-incorrect language can seem sincere, but only if you’re saying what the audience wants to hear

Everyone prefers politically correct language sometimes, a new study reports. Where we differ is who we use it with, and how we perceive it in regards to the groups it’s being applied to.

Image credits Rudy and Peter Skitterians.

The concept of political correctness doesn’t get a lot of love in the online environment, so much so that it’s often pointed at to imply a lack of authenticity of those who use it. But it’s also a very divisive term; what others would see as dishonesty and sweet-talking, I would often just chalk up to being nice in conversation.

But a new study shows that, in fact, we’re all inclined to use politically correct language, we just apply it to different people. We tend to see it as compassionate when it’s applied to groups we support or care for, and as disingenuous when it’s addressed to other groups. Overall, however, we all tend to view people who use politically correct language as warmer, but less authentic and thus less likely to hold true to a particular view or idea.

Speeches and stones may break my bones

Such language is often used in a (genuine or disingenuous) attempt to appear more sensitive to the feelings of other people, especially those perceived to be socially disadvantaged. One example would be saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in the understanding that not everyone holds to Christian or religious beliefs.

On paper, it all sounds great — I think all of us here agree that being considerate of others is a good thing. In practice, as you may know from discussions on various social media groups, the term is thrown about as a shorthand for censorship or socially-sanctioned limitations on free speech.

So there’s obviously a disconnect, but where? The team carried out a series of experiments totalling roughly 5,000 participants to examine this issue, reporting that, in broad lines, such language can make us seem less sincere by making our speech seem more strategic and calculated.

The first experiment asked participants to review a written speech and imagine a senator delivering it to an audience. Half the participants received a speech revolving around transgender policy, and the others around immigration policy (the topics were selected from particularly polarizing topics in American public discourse on purpose). Each speech used either politically correct (“Of course I believe that LGBTQ persons are among the most vulnerable members of our society and we must do everything in our power to protect them”) or incorrect (“These people who call themselves LGBTQ are often profoundly disturbed and confused about their gender identity”) language.

All in all, participants who read speeches using politically correct language tended to rate the senators as warmer, but less authentic. The results were consistent between all participants, regardless of their self-reported like or dislike of such language.

For the second experiment, the participants were asked to read a short biography of either Congressman Steve King, Senator Jim Inhofe, or Governor Jeb Bush and watch one of their speeches that were deemed either politically correct or incorrect. Afterward, they were asked to predict what stance these politicians would take on political issues in the future. This step aimed to evaluate how the use of language impacts an individual’s perceived trustworthiness or willingness to defend their beliefs even in the face of social pressure.

Those who listened to politically correct speeches reported feeling less certain about what stance the politician would take on topics in the future. This step showcased one of the trade-offs of using such language: while it makes one appear warmer and more concerned with others, it also makes them seem less sincere or more easily persuaded.

But it’s bias that convinces me

By this point, you’re probably asking yourself an obvious question: where do ‘them libs’ fit into the picture? The authors asked themselves the same thing, and it turned out that political affiliation has very little impact on our propensity to use politically correct language — but very much to do with whom we use it for.

In the third experiment, the team separated participants (based on their responses in a pre-test) as either Liberal-leaning or Conservative-leaning. The first group reported feeling sympathy for the undocumented immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and pro-choice individuals, while the latter was most concerned with the plight of religious Christians, poor white people, and pro-life individuals.

Each participant was asked to read a statement: “I think it is important for us to have a national conversation about” one of six groups. These groups were referred to using either politically-correct (e.g. ‘undocumented immigrants’) or incorrect terms (e.g. ‘illegal aliens’).

Unsurprisingly, when the participant felt sympathy for the group in question and was presented with a politically incorrect term — such as conservatives with ‘white trash’ or liberals with ‘illegal aliens’ — they didn’t view the language as particularly authentic, but as cold and uncaring. However, when presented with a politically-correct term for a group they did feel sympathy towards, they viewed it as authentic. On the flip-side, people also tended to rate politically incorrect language as more authentic when applied to groups they didn’t feel sympathy towards — such as liberals with ‘white trash’ or conservatives with ‘illegal aliens’.

But, and this is a very important ‘but’ in my opinion, there weren’t any divides in liking political correct speech among political groups. Liberals and conservatives were equally supportive of it as long as it applied to groups they felt sympathy towards — and equally against it when it wasn’t.

I feel the findings give us ample reason to pause and reflect on our own biases. Language does have power, and the way we use it speaks volumes about where our particular interests and sympathies lie. But at the same time, understanding that there are certain things we want to hear, and that this changes our perception of the ones saying them and the way they say it, is an important part of becoming responsible citizens for our countries.

The use of politically correct language can stem from genuine care and concern, just as much as it can from a desire to fake that care for brownie points. Politically incorrect language can come from one’s inner strength and willingness to state their mind regardless of society’s unspoken rules, but it can equally be used to deceive and appear no-nonsense when one is, in fact, callous and uncaring. It could go on to explain why considerate politicians can be perceived as weak, or why those downright rude and disrespectful can have the veneer of strength.

Perhaps, in this light, we should be most wary of those who tell us what we want to hear, the way we want to hear it. At the same time, it can help us understand that those we perceive as opposing our views and beliefs aren’t ‘out to get us’ — they literally see a different intent behind the same words, just as we do. Working together, then, doesn’t start with changing their minds, but with checking our own biases, and seeing which ones we truly believe in.

Back to the study at hand, the team explains that their findings showcase how the use of language can help shape other’s perceptions of us. Politically correct language can make us seem warmer but more calculated and thus less sincere. Politically incorrect language can make us look more honest, but colder and more callous — it all depends on what your conversation mates want to hear.

The paper “Tell it like it is: When politically incorrect language promotes authenticity” has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

‘Groupiness’ makes us biased, not gender, ethnicity, or political leanings

In an age where public discourse seems more polarized and extreme than ever, finding common ground is key. Easier said than done, however. A new study comes to show that our desire to fit into and belong to certain groups could lie at the root of this issue.

Image credits Flickr / tadekk.

The study found that people who identify themselves as belonging to a particular political group are more likely to be biased against people outside of the group. People identifying either as Democrats or Republicans showed this inclination in equal measure, so it’s not where our affiliation lies that matters — only that we desire to be part of the group. Whether or not it’s political in nature isn’t really important.

Alternatively, if you’re reluctant to identify yourself as part of a group, you’re less likely to be biased in general.

Mine with mine, you with yours

“It’s not the political group that matters, it’s whether an individual just generally seems to like being in a group,” said Rachel Kranton, an economist at Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and lead author of the paper.

“Some people are ‘groupy’ — they join a political party, for example. And if you put those people in any arbitrary setting, they’ll act in a more biased way than somebody who has the same political opinions, but doesn’t join a political party.”

The team began by testing the ‘groupiness’ of 141 participants by asking them to allocate money to themselves and someone else in their group or outside of it in different contexts. For one of the tests, participants were divided into groups based on their (self-declared) political affinity. In the second setting, they were organized into groups based on what paintings or poems they enjoyed, and in the third one the groups were random.

They expected people to discriminate against other groups based on how strongly they believed in the opinions of their group; in this sense, the first scenario should have been the most divisive, as people tend to care about politics more than art preferences.

What the team found, however, was that simply being attached to a group made ‘groupy’ people more biased against outsiders (as compared to people with the same political leanings but who didn’t identify as being a Democrat or Republican). This effect persisted in all contexts.

“There is this very specific distinction between the self-declared partisans and politically similar independents,” says co-author Scott Huettel, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Duke. “They don’t differ in their political positions, but they do behave differently toward people who are outside their groups.”

“We can’t show you that all group-minded identities behave this way,” says Huettel. “But this is a compelling first step.”

Around a third of the participants didn’t show a bias when allocating money regardless of context. They were more likely to consider themselves politically independent, the authors note, and also made the decision on how to allocate money faster on average than their peers.

“We don’t know if non-groupy people are faster generally,” Kranton said. “It could be they’re making decisions faster because they’re not paying attention to whether somebody is in their group or not each time they have to make a decision.”

As to exactly what makes someone ‘groupy’, the team can’t say right now. From their data, however, they can tell it’s neither gender nor ethnicity. There’s just “some feature of a person” that makes them put more value on group divisions, the authors argue. Other research will need to uncover what this feature is, and how it arises.

The paper “Deconstructing bias in social preferences reveals groupy and not-groupy behavior,” has been published in the journal PNAS.

A week in the COVID 19 crisis from a UK perspactive.

COVID-19 in the UK. A Week in an Underprepared Nation

A week in the COVID 19 crisis from a UK perspactive.
A week in the COVID 19 crisis from a UK perspective.

New research from the University of Huddersfield has starkly warned that the local authorities of the UK are unprepared for the sheer numbers of deaths likely to be caused by the spread of the COVID-19 novel strain of the coronavirus.

In a paper published in the journal Emergency Management Review, the authors warn that major increase in mortality rates and staff absences will mean a struggle to issue death certificates, leading to a bottleneck in burials and cremations, with mortuaries filled beyond capacity, adding that even if fatality rates are at the lower end of expectations — one per cent of virus victims — it is highly likely that death and bereavement services will be overwhelmed.

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for Coronavirus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

As well as analyzing the readiness of local authorities, the authors including Dr Julia Meaton, Dr Anna Williams and researcher Helen-Marie Kruger, drew on data from previous pandemics. Their findings are based on research conducted in 2019 which aimed to assess how well prepared the UK was to handle a potential flu pandemic.

This is by far from the first time that medical professionals have warned the UK authorities that their response to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping that the globe is insufficient. Much of this criticism has focused on the UK authorities failing to secure sufficient medical equipment to handle the growing crisis.

When future generations look back at the handling of this crisis by Boris Johnston’s government they will likely be forced to navigate a litany of lousy excuses, u-turns, bluffs, under the table deals, incompetence and the collapse of the NHS after a decade of neglect. An NHS already at breaking point before the onset of a global pandemic and the health crisis it has wrought.

What follows are revelations of mishandling and blunders that have unfolded during just one week of this crisis. 

Missed emails and missing ventilators

Even as the aforementioned paper was being published, the Government was facing accusations of failing to secure 25,000 ventilators — a potentially life-saving piece of equipment — from UK manufacturer Direct Access. 

The Cheshire based company claim that it informed the UK Department of Health that it could secure the 25,000 ventilators and 50 million coronavirus testing kits, yet its e-mail went unanswered for two weeks. During this intervening period, Direct Access says that the equipment was purchased by other countries. Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove, has apologised for the error and promised to investigate the situation.

“No one seemed to be taking us seriously,” says Andy Faulkner, the manager of Topland, a Dubai firm helping Direct Access obtain ventilators, adding that the two companies offered the government 5,000 units a week over five weeks — but initially received no response. “They asked us to register on the ventilation website, which we did, and then waited another five days for any response.”

Faulkner concluded by saying that it could be as late as July before the companies could offer the NHS any further equipment, even were it to be ordered immediately. 

“Brexit over breathing”

The error comes on the heels of the revelation that Johnson’s government had failed to enroll in the EU scheme to jointly obtain ventilators to avert the predicted shortfall over the following critical weeks. 

The official line from Downing Street was initially that as they were no longer part of the European Union then it had been believed they could not be part of the scheme, an excuse so flimsy that the Independent referred to it as “Brexit over breathing.” Downing Street later clarified that the failure to register in the programme was a result of a communications mix-up. A claim that has been dismissed by Brussels.

On Friday a spokesperson for the EU made it clear that the 11-month transition period during which Britain makes its exit includes an allowance for the country to join in any “joint procurement” programmes. They continue: “The member states’ needs for personal protective equipment have been discussed several times in the meetings of the health security committee where the UK participated.

“At these meetings, the commission stressed its readiness to further support countries with the procurement of medical countermeasures if needed, so member states and the UK had the opportunity to signal their interest to participate in any joint procurements.”

Number Ten did state that they would take part in any future measurements to procure ventilators undertaken by the EU.

To many, this may be seen as an assurance that is both too little and too late. It is estimated that the UK will need 30,000 ventilators to deal adequately with the deepening COVID-19 situation. The NHS currently has an estimated 8,000 machines, with a further 8,000 expected to be ready for the end of April. A deeply worrying shortfall. 

What has come as a shock to some, is that the Government has approached a manufacturer to produce ventilators, albeit one with no prior history in building medical devices and equipment. 

Help from unusual sources

The company Dyson unveiled a prototype ventilator — the Co Vent — just last week, immediately garnering an initial order for 10,000 units from Westminister. The deal will be based upon the device passing tests from expert clinicians and health regulators, according to a spokesperson for Boris Johnson. 

The involvement of the company, founded by billionaire Brexit-supporter and Tory-part donor James Dyson, has garnered a great deal of scepticism, with a representative from Penlon-part of the ventilator Challenge UK consortium — stating that it is deeply unrealistic to design a new ventilator and rapidly begin producing tens of thousands of the device. 

Why have a ventilator by a leading manufacturer in the field when you can buy 10,000 unbuilt prototypes from a Tory donor? Credit: Dyson.

There is, of course, some crossover between the ventilator and the machine that made Dyson a household name, the vacuum cleaner. Both machines are designed to pump air efficiently, and some of the parts are similar. If this doesn’t inspire much Dyson have employed the Technology Partnership — a company that employs some scientists with experience in designing medical interventions — to assist them. Dyson has also pledged to donate 4,000 Co Vent units globally to help fight against COVID-19, as well as promising to donate a further 1,000 devices to the UK.

Fortunately, the NHS is receiving help from a somewhat unexpected source to help tackle other shortages. A medical fetish website — MedFet Uk has donated its entire stock of disposable scrubs to the NHS after it was approached by procurement representatives. 

“Today we donated our entire stock of disposable scrubs to an NHS hospital. It was just a few sets, because we don’t carry large stocks, but they were desperate, so we sent them free of charge,” the company said in a statement posted on their Twitter account. 

The scrubs donated by medical fetish website MedFetUK

Whilst the company has received rightful praise, it seems utterly terrifying that so many years of abuse, neglect, and cost-cutting measures by the Tory Government has left NHS is such dire need of essentials they have to appeal for help from a fetish website. 

The MedFetUK Twitter statement went on to reflect this sentiment, concluding: “So when it’s all over…and the doctors, nurses and other staff have done an amazing job (as they undoubtedly will despite the circumstances)… let’s not forget, or forgive, the ones who sent the NHS into this battle with inadequate armour and one hand tied behind its back.”

Politically incorrect speakers are seen as more authentic

When President Donald Trump refers to immigrants as “illegals,” he’s using charged language that is certainly polarizing, but which might also strengthen his voter base. According to a new study, individuals who use politically incorrect language are seen as more authentic and less likely to be influenced by others. On the flipside, politically incorrectness is also associated with coldness and less willingness to engage in crucial political dialogue.

Credit: Pixabay.

“The cost of political incorrectness is that the speaker seems less warm, but they also appear less strategic and more ‘real,’” says co-author Juliana Schroeder, an assistant professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The result may be that people may feel less hesitant in following politically incorrect leaders because they appear more committed to their beliefs,” she added.

Schroeder and colleagues performed nine experiments involving more than 5,000 people that gauged how politically correct or incorrect language affects their perception of speakers.

The participants came from all ideological backgrounds. Instead of supplying their own definition of political correctness, the researchers decided to ask each participant what they thought each term meant. Across the board, the general definition that emerged was “using language or behavior to seem sensitive to others’ feelings, especially those others who seem disadvantaged.”

During their experiments, the researchers studied the phenomenon by looking at how people’s opinions changed when they replaced certain words with politically incorrect labels, such as calling undocumented immigrants “illegals”.

The results of these studies suggest that both moderate liberals and conservatives judged politically incorrect statements as more authentic. The participants also thought that they could predict a politically incorrect communicators’ other opinions based on their conviction.

At the same time, both groups are just as likely to be offended by politically incorrect speech as long as it involves a group that they care about. For instance, calling undocumented immigrant an “illegal” registered as cold and unsympathetic among liberals. Conservatives, on the other hand, were more inclined to become offended when poor whites were labeled as “white trash.”

“Political incorrectness is frequently applied toward groups that liberals tend to feel more sympathy towards, such as immigrants or LGBTQ individuals, so liberals tend to view it negatively and conservatives tend to think it’s authentic,” says lead author Michael Rosenblum, a PhD candidate. “But we found that the opposite can be true when such language is applied to groups that conservatives feel sympathy for—like using words such as ‘bible thumper’ or ‘redneck.’”

In another experiment, the researchers tested the effect of political language had on perceived persuasion. Around 500 participants were grouped into pairs and asked to debate the funding for historically black churches. The topic was selected because it was previously found to be polarizing, garnering a 50/50 split for and against it. It was also appealing because there was no difference in support and opposition across political ideology.

One of the debate partners was instructed to either use politically correct or incorrect language when arguing their points. At the end of the debate, the participants believed they had managed to persuade the politically correct partners more than the politically incorrect ones. But this turned out to be not true — it was merely an illusion because their partners reported being equally persuaded whether politically correct language was used or not.

Together, all of these studies suggest that there are moments when politically incorrect language can be advantageous to a speaker. It can make the communicator seem more authentic which can help rally people behind them. There are also moments when such an approach can be counter-productive, since the study found that politically incorrect language can also make the speaker seem cold and less strategically mindful.

The findings were reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Music can be used to estimate political ideology to an “accuracy of 70%”, researchers say

Do you like Pharrell’s “Happy”? Then you’re probably a conservative.

If you’ve ever tried to argue with a stranger on the Internet about politics (or with your family at Thanksgiving dinner), you’re well aware that it’s a recipe for disaster: political ideology is often so deeply rooted that it feels hard-wired into our DNA. Political ideology strongly influences our views on things like economics and social policies, but could it also have far-reaching influences on things we aren’t even aware of? The Fox Lab at New York University believes the answer is yes.

Their theory?

“Ideology fundamentally alters how we perceive a neutral stimulus, such as music,” said Caroline Myers, who presented her research at the 2018 Society for Neuroscience Meeting.

To examine the influence of political ideology on musical preference, participants self-reported their political ideology as liberal, conservative, or center, and then listened to clips from 192 songs. For each song clip, they would rate how familiar they were with the song and then how much they liked or disliked it. These songs included the top 2 songs each year from the Billboard Top 40, iconic songs across certain genres, and a selection of more obscure music. Participants additionally ranked how often they believed they listened to certain genres of music — which led to some surprising findings.

For example, 60% of individuals who identified as liberals said that they listen to R&B music, and yet they weren’t any more familiar with these songs than any other group — and they actually liked R&B songs less than their conservative counterparts. Liberals also stated they listen to jazz but were not any more familiar with jazz music than the other groups.

They also looked at individual song preference across the various ideologies. Some did not showcase any major differences, with classical music being the least divisive of all the musical genres. The most polarizing song, however, was “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Conservatives love it, while liberals hate it. And there’s actually evidence of this in the real world — just two weeks ago, Pharrell issued President Donald Trump a cease and desist order for using the song at one of his rallies.

While we can use this information to create a kick-ass playlist for our like-minded friends, is there any evidence that we can guess an individual’s political ideology purely based on musical taste? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

“We were able to estimate individual’s ideological leanings to an accuracy of 70%,” said Myers.

Myers is currently working on addressing the limitations of her study such as the limited number of conservative participants due to heavy on-campus recruiting for the study. However, the results are still striking, and quite concerning, from a personal data standpoint. It goes to show that, even if we’re not actively posting personal details on social media, companies may still have other means to gain insight into our personal preferences – and we might not even be aware of it.

The rulers of every important European state from 400 BC to present day, in one amazing video map

The Old Continent has always been at the center of world politics, partly because Europe’s rich history has been documented much better than that of other regions. Today, the continent, particularly thanks to the European Union, is remarkably peaceful and affluent, but it hasn’t always been this way.

Throughout its history, Europe has seen its fair share of turmoil, violence, and political intrigue. One very diligent YouTube creator called Cottereau recently released a video that shows just how dynamic the European political landscape has been. Starting from 400 BC to 2017, the 20-minute video traces every state and names its ruler, be it a king, emperor, tsar, tribal leader, president or prime minister.

This is really a great visualization, so grab some popcorn and enjoy the rise and fall of empires.

Populism and antivaxxing go hand in hand, new study finds

Falling for populist lies is associated with falling for antivaxxer lies — who would have thought?

Tracing back to discredited research, vaccine skepticism is associated with populist researchers. Image credits: Kennedy (2019).

In recent years, the world has witnessed a string of populist politicians rising to power. Archpopulist Donald Trump served as a lightning rod for most of the discussions but elsewhere in the world, other politicians have used similar approaches to climb into power. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are two striking examples, but Europe has had its fair share of populists in recent times.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, Europe is also experiencing its biggest measles outbreaks in over a decade, largely fueled by vaccine reluctance. Researchers suspected a correlation between the two. Populism relies on fueling hate towards experts and the perceived elite, and antivaxxing relies on a similar approach. Lead author Dr. Jonathan Kennedy from Queen Mary University of London, study author, explained:

“It seems likely that scientific populism is driven by similar feelings to political populism, for example, a profound distrust of elites and experts by disenfranchised and marginalised parts of the population.”

“Even where programmes objectively improve the health of targeted populations, they can be viewed with suspicion by communities that do not trust elites and experts. In the case of vaccine hesitancy, distrust is focused on public health experts and pharmaceutical companies that advocate vaccines.”

So along with colleagues, Kennedy analyzed national-level data from 14 European countries, looking at the percentage of people who voted for populist leaders and comparing it to the percentage of people who think vaccines are not important and/or effective.

They found a strong correlation between the two: wherever people would support populists, they would also start to question the effectiveness of vaccines. In this sense, vaccination can serve as a “canary in the coal mine” for future populism. When elected, populist leaders also always tend to push an anti-vaccine agenda. In Italy, the newly elected Five Star Movement (5SM) repeatedly spoke against vaccines — with important results. The Italian Parliament recently passed a law to repeal legislation that makes vaccines compulsory for children enrolling in state schools. Meanwhile, in Italy, MMR vaccination coverage fell from 90% in 2013 to 85% in 2016, a seemingly harmless drop, which resulted in an increase in measles cases from 840 in 2016 to 5000 in 2017.

It seems that the more extreme a party is, the more likely they are to support antivaxxing — regardless of whether they are left or right wing. In Greece, the left-wing SYRIZA government proposed that parents should be able to opt out of vaccinating their children. However, their efforts haven’t been particularly fruitful, as Greek confidence in vaccines has recently been increasing. In France, where several childhood vaccinations have been made mandatory by law, the right-wing Front National have also raised concerns about vaccine safety.

Researchers also note just how much damage a single, blatantly flawed paper can cause. Much of the distrust in vaccinations comes from a paper published by Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield reported that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism. This has not only been repeatedly disproved, but it has since been shown that Wakefield knowingly tampered with the data and subjected children to inhumane treatment — and yet, his echo still lives on.

In the US, Donald Trump has also spoken against vaccines. Although his own experts have disproved his claims, a recent survey has found that 1 in 3 Trump supporters believe vaccines and autism are related. Meanwhile, on the plus side, countries like Portugal, Finland, and Belgium seem to have no affinity towards either populist leaders or antivaxxing.

At the end of the day, parents want what’s best for their children — and lack of vaccinations can and has killed children. Science-based policy strongly recommends vaccination as a way to make children safer and healthier, whereas populism and fear-mongering attempt to scare parents away from vaccination. Hopefully, fear will not be the victor here.

The study ‘Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data’ by Jonathan Kennedy has been published in the European Journal of Public Health. DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckz004

In ancient Rome, political discourse was sometimes like an internet fight

You think today’s political discourse is bad — you should have been in ancient Rome.

Politics in ancient Rome were not for the faint of heart. Not only were things volatile and often risky, but insults were commonplace.

“The attacks, also known as invectives, were an integral part of public life for senators of the Roman Republic,” explains ancient historian Prof. Dr. Martin Jehne of Technische Universität Dresden.

Jehne documents such abuses from antiquity to the present day. An interesting finding that Jehne reports is just how low Rome’s politicians would stoop, insulting each other for public support and, sometimes, for entertainment.

“Severe devaluations of the political opponent welded the support group together and provided attention, entertainment and indignation – similar to insults, threats and hate speech on the Internet today,” Jehne explains.

The insults and slander really had no limits — things would often get personal and very, very dirty.

“The famous speaker and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), for instance, when he defended his supporter Sestius, did not shrink from publicly accusing the enemy Clodius of incest with brothers and sisters,” says Prof. Jehne — a sexual practice that was not only profoundly immoral, but also illegal in Rome. “Clodius, in turn, accused Cicero of acting like a king when holding the position of consul. A serious accusation, since royalty in the Roman Republic was frowned upon.”

Interestingly, there were few legal consequences to these insults. There was no authority to establish limits on what is permitted in debates, and although they theoretically had a crime similar to slander, it was almost never enforced and the Romans didn’t seem to care much.

In fact, being able to withstand verbal abuse was seen as a sign of power — and not just from their peers, but also from the general public.

“Politicians ruthlessly insulted each other. At the same time, in the popular assembly, they had to let the people insult them without being allowed to abuse the people in turn — an outlet that, in a profound division of rich and poor, limited the omnipotence fantasies of the elite,” Jehne continued.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just the taking — Romans also prized the ability to dish out insults. Basically, if you wanted to be a true Roman — a citizen of the “Eternal City” and not a village pleb — you always needed to have your wits about you.

“They considered this an important part of urbanitas, the forms of communication of the metropolitans, in contrast to the rusticitas of the country bumpkins.” They made a downright boast of the slander flourishing in the city in particular. “When you were abused, you stood it, and if possible, you took revenge.”

Jehne will present these findings and many others at the 52nd Meeting of German Historians in Münster in September, in a section focused on abuses from antiquity to the present day.



Political preference doesn’t dictate your views on climate — except if you’re American

Climate skepticism has nothing to do with science — and everything to do with culture and politics, one study reveals.


Seen at the People’s Climate March in 2017, in Washington DC.
Image via Wikimedia.

One thing that’s really strange about the US to outsiders is how neatly divided the climate change debate seems to be across political cohorts: conservatives say it’s a Chinese hoax, liberals argue that it’s real. For the rest of us (scientists and laymen both), there’s hardly a debate at all — climate change is happening, and we’re the cause. It’s especially striking since the US doesn’t have a monopoly on conservatives, but it does seem to hold one over climate-change-denying conservatives.

So what gives?

Wanting to get to the bottom of things, a team from the University of Queensland in Australia surveyed over 5,000 people in 25 countries. Respondents were asked to answer several questions that placed them on four different political scales: left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, individualist vs. communitarian, and hierarchical vs. egalitarian. Other questions in the survey probed into their views on conspiracy theories in order to test if conspirationist thinking was linked to the idea that climate change is a hoax.

The study did indeed reveal that the US is in a category of its own with regards to climate change: it is the only country in the world with a strong, statistically significant correlation between all four political scales and opinion on climate. In other words, every group on the political spectrum has its own view on the subject, and identifying with a political group will be a strong predictor of the views you hold on climate change — but only if you’re an American. The US also showed a statistically significant correlation between climate views and conspiracy theories– although it’s not unique in this regard: a few other countries, for example Singapore, showed similar correlations.

The closest similarities to the US that the team could find were Australia and Canada. They too showed statistically significant correlations between political ideology and opinions on climate, but these were much weaker and only held true for three of the four political scales investigated. Brazil showed correlation for two of the four scales. The UK, although boasting its own climate-skeptics, didn’t have a single statistically significant correlation.


Correlations between the different parameters and views on climate change.
Image credits Hornsey et al., 2018 / Nature Climate Change

One thing the US, Australia, Canada, and Brazil have in common, the team notes, is that they are among the highest per capita greenhouse emitters in the world. They admit that it could be a simple coincidence, but also point out that countries who use the most fossil fuels (so have the highest emissions) per capita also stand to lose the most should they acknowledge the climate change reality.

“It may be that per capita carbon emissions is a proxy for vested interests around climate change, both collectively (in terms of the fossil fuel industry’s investment in that country) and individually (in terms of the perceived sacrifices and changes that citizens feel they need to make to live a low-carbon lifestyle),” the team writes.

What the team proposes is that climate skepticism is actually a cultural phenomenon, not something inherent in political ideology. If cultural leaders promote an idea long enough, their cultural group picks up on it and embeds it in the group’s mentality and identity — it becomes part of what it means to belong to that group. If nobody influential enough is there to promote these ideas, they simply don’t catch on — which is what happened with most other scientific debates in America.

The team considers this to be good news. There are few countries where climate science and political identities are merged together — the US is an exception, rather than the rule. It’s not an ideal scenario, with the US being one of the largest global emitters, as well as an economic and technological powerhouse, but at least it means that, in other places around the world, people are willing to do something to fix climate change no matter where they stand on politics.

The paper “Relationships among conspiratorial beliefs, conservatism and climate scepticism across nations” has been published in the journal Nature.

Your reaction to smells could say a lot about your political preference, a new study suggests

A surprising study has found that people who are easily disgusted by strong odors like sweat or urine tend to prefer more authoritarian leaders, and it might all have a lot to do with diseases.

Image credits: Hanna Esser.

Disgust is a basic emotion, and it was a very important tool for survival over countless generations. Disgust is basically a way of saying “I’ll have none of that,” and it’s most commonly related to nasty smells or foods.

Just think about someone being disgusted — it has a lot to do with a person’s senses. The nose is wrinkled or turned away, the eyes partially or entirely closed. The whole body is shutting down its sensorial information, and for a good reason: many things that are disgusting are rotten, dirty, or infectious — you don’t want to be near them, and you certainly don’t want to smell or eat them. Disgust is useful largely because it helps you avoid potential diseases, but different people have different tolerance levels.

Researchers had an idea that there would be a connection between how people are disgusted by smell and how they want their country to be led. The idea is that people who have a strong urge to avoid unpleasant smells would also avoid mingling with other groups of people such as immigrants. They would be against multiculturalism and would fall towards the authoritarian side of the political spectrum, researchers suspected. They were right.

‘There was a solid connection between how strongly someone was disgusted by smells and their desire to have a dictator-like leader who can supress radical protest movements and ensure that different groups “stay in their places”. That type of society reduces contact among different groups and, at least in theory, decreases the chance of becoming ill’, says Jonas Olofsson, who researches scent and psychology at Stockholm University and is one of the authors of the study.

Among other questions, researchers asked international participants to rate their levels of disgust for body odors, both their own and others and then gauged their political preferences, looking for correlations.

While seeming completely unrelated, the connection between smell and politic inclinations does make a lot of sense. After all, if disgust is a means of isolating yourself from unwanted, potentially dangerous, then people who are more easily disgusted might also want to be more isolated from other people which they consider as potentially dangerous. Isolationism and a negative attitude towards immigrants and different groups of people is a trademark of authoritarian governments. Still, it’s remarkable that such a clear correlation can be established between odors and ideology.

’Understanding the shared variance between basic emotional reactivity to potential pathogen cues such as body odours and ideological attitudes that can lead to aggression towards groups perceived as deviant can prompt future investigations on what are the emotional determinants of outgroup derogation. In the next future, this knowledge might inform policies to prevent ethnocentrism’ says Marco Tullio Liuzza from Magna Graecia University of Catanzaro, Italy, also one of the authors.

US participants who were easily disgusted by smells were more likely to vote for Trump — which perfectly fits the theory. Image credits: Gage Skidmore.

Notably, researchers also added an extra question for US participants: how they will vote in the 2016 presidential election. Since Donald Trump ticks the boxes for authoritarianism, he was an excellent example to test the theory. Lo and behold, people who dislike bodily odors the most were more likely to vote for Trump.

This is interesting because Trump himself has often said that other people disgust him physically, and is reportedly obsessed with hygiene.

‘It showed that people who were more disgusted by smells were also more likely to vote for Donald Trump than those who were less sensitive. We thought that was interesting because Donald Trump talks frequently about how different people disgust him. He thinks that women are disgusting and that immigrants spread disease and it comes up often in his rhetoric. It fits with our hypothesis that his supporters would be more easily disgusted themselves’, says Jonas Olofsson.

This seems to suggest that authoritarian beliefs are heavily ingrained in some people’s brains, similarly to smell preferences.

‘The research has shown that the beliefs can change. If contact is created between groups, authoritarians can change. It’s not carved in stone. Quite the opposite, beliefs can be updated when we learn new things.’

However, Jonas Olofsson is optimistic. The most important thing is to keep a communication channel between opposing groups, and change can happen, he says.

‘The research has shown that the beliefs can change. If contact is created between groups, authoritarians can change. It’s not carved in stone. Quite the opposite, beliefs can be updated when we learn new things.’

Journal Reference: Liuzza et al. Body odour disgust sensitivity predicts authoritarian attitudes.

Knowing more doesn’t change false beliefs about science

If someone’s predisposed to having false beliefs on science, giving them more information rarely does any good.

Americans’ stance on climate change is largely influenced by their political beliefs. Image credits: HelloImNik / Flickr.

Science vs Religion/Politics

We’ve all experienced it in some form or another. The uncle who’s going on about aliens creating the pyramids. The government making GMOs to poison us. Chemtrails. The long, sinuous arms of pseudoscience reach all corners of the planet (which according to some, is flat) — and no matter how hard you try, it often seems impossible to fight them. Well, according to a new study, providing more information and using regular arguments just doesn’t cut it.

The problem is people associate scientific facts with religious and political beliefs. Point in case: often when we write an article about climate change, we’ll be labeled ‘leftists’ in the comment section. Somehow, in the minds of many people, the reality of climate change, a proven, well-documented and verifiable scientific fact, has become a political topic associated with the left side of the spectrum — even though it’s not. The same goes for evolution, for instance. For over a century, countless studies have not only provided support for evolution but also made predictions based on it — predictions which came true. Everything biologists do nowadays is done in the light of evolution, and you’d expect most people to accept it. But especially for religious people, that doesn’t stand true.

So this is where we are. Religion and politics shape what we believe about intrinsic science.

More is less

Carnegie Mellon social scientists wanted to see if knowing more reduces people’s illogical beliefs. They looked at six controversial topics: stem cell research, the Big Bang theory, nanotechnology, GMOs, climate change and evolution.

“Although Americans generally hold science in high regard and respect its findings, for some contested issues, such as the existence of anthropogenic climate change, public opinion is polarized along religious and political lines. We ask whether individuals with more general education and greater science knowledge, measured in terms of science education and science literacy, display more (or less) polarized beliefs on several such issues.”

On all six topics, people who trust the scientific enterprise more are also more likely to accept its findings. But that’s not really the issue here.

They found a strong correlation between people’s opinion on these six scientific topics and their religious/political beliefs. Stem cell research, the big bang, and evolution correlated with both political and religious stances, while climate change correlated with political stances (remember how we’re called ‘leftists’ for discussing climate change).

They also found that the views of polarized people don’t really change with more education. Instead, if someone has a polarized view on these topics, the odds are his view is only going to get more polarized. We don’t really know why this is happening, though researchers have a few ideas. Baruch Fischhoff, one of the lead authors, expressed his concern regarding their findings.

“These are troubling correlations. We can only speculate about the underlying causes. One possibility is that people with more education are more likely to know what they are supposed to say, on these polarized issues, in order to express their identity. Another possibility is that they have more confidence in their ability to argue their case.”

It’s not about the science, unfortunately

The Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey might be shaping more than our political beliefs.

All this puts together a troubling picture. It basically says that when people argue about controversial science topics, they’re not really arguing about the science itself. They’re projecting their personal beliefs onto scientific topics, and greatly polarize this. Learning more about these topics doesn’t really do much to defeat pseudoscience, which leaves us in a difficult situation.

If we want to convince people of an objective truth, we might have to go way beyond that objective truth.

“We would love to be able to understand what is causing the relationship we observe between education and polarization, and how certain science topics got so polarized in the first place,” Drummond said. “Disagreements about science seem to be about more than the science itself, but also what the science’s implications are for a person’s identity.”

Also, it’s important to note that the study was only carried on Americans. The two-party electoral college system is not very popular elsewhere in the world, and it may very well encourage bypartizanthip, prodding people to pick one side or another and challenge each other. We don’t really know why any of this is happening but for now, one thing’s for sure: we have to address the way we present science to Americans.

Journal Reference: Caitlin Drummond, Baruch Fischhoff. Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017; 201704882 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1704882114

Laws of mathematics don’t apply here, says Australian PM

Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, just out-trumped Trump, saying that the laws of Australia override those of mathematics.

No need to bother with maths, it doesn’t offer any votes. Image via Flickr.

At a recent press conference about cryptosecurity, Turnbull just spewed out this gem:

“JOURNALIST: Won’t the laws of mathematics trump the laws of Australia? And aren’t you also forcing everyone to decentralised systems as a result?”

“PRIME MINISTER: The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

We truly are living in a post-truth world, aren’t we? After all, one can only wonder if a theorem might be overturned with enough votes in Parliament.


Turnbull’s comments come in the context of controversial legislation that wants to force social media companies to give the government access to confidential messages whenever there is some suspicion of illegal activity. Apps like Whatsapp prevent any snoopers, be they the government or otherwise. As NewScientist explains, these use uncrackable end-to-end encryption, “jumbling it up in such a way that only the recipient can de-jumble it”.

Basically, this cryptosecurity involves very advanced mathematics that just doesn’t allow anyone to look in — not even Whatsapp itself. There’s simply no way for anyone other than the sender and the recipient to see the message. There’s also no way of weakening this encryption for say, terrorists, without weakening it for everyone else. So everyone would lose their security.

This isn’t a new approach. UK home secretary Amber Rudd has previously called encryption “completely unacceptable” and the UK prime minister Theresa May has sworn to crack down on social media encryption, despite all the indicators showing that this is not the real problem. Basically, you can’t blame terrorism on the internet, and this will just end up being the worst of both worlds. Terrorists, child abusers, and all the other baddies will find secure ways to send their messages and the rest of us will be left vulnerable to peeking eyes — again, be them governmental eyes or other malicious entities. But hey, who knows, with enough votes, maybe we can change reality.


Angel of Fascism.

Bound around the axe: what is fascism and why do societies turn to it

Heavily stigmatized in the aftermath of World War 2, “Fascism” is a term you don’t hear that much anymore — except thrown around in heated political debates as an ultimate insult. But what is fascism as a political system, and are the concerns that it may be making a comeback valid? Let’s find out.

Angel of Fascism.

Angel carrying the fasces in Piazza Augusto Imperatore, Rome, a vestige of Mussolini’s rule.
Image credits Anthony Majanlahti / Flickr.

Throughout history, people have envisioned and established a myriad of ways to order our societies and define social roles in the grand scheme of things. The shape these systems took, the power they held over various aspects of life, and their relationship to other political systems all evolved in accordance to several factors: a society’s leaning towards secularism or religiousness, traditionalism or liberalism, its overall level of education and ability to exchange ideas, and of course, technological capability.

The basics

Fascism actually emerged (in a coherent form) in Italy, not Nazi Germany. Its roots start to form in 1915 from a people marked by the death, horror, and the (soon to be) vittoria mutilata of the Great War, and it grew on the unprecedented technological and industrial progress of the 20th century. Since then, as Godwin’s tongue-in-cheek law perfectly exemplifies, “fascist” has become an almost derogatory term evoking rigidity and extremism of thought, allegiance to an oppressive single party, violence against anyone not aligned with the ideology, xenophobia, and an exclusion of the one it’s aimed at from any meaningful discussion in politics.

But beyond a few characteristics that define all fascist movements, they draw heavily from a people’s culture and can be very different from one another. So let’s take a look at what this political system stands for, what circumstances led to its creation, and what place it has in the world today.

First things first: political analysts usually classify ideologies as wings on a “left-right” spectrum. At their best, the left wing deals in change, progressive ideas, believes the state has the responsibility to care for its citizens (things like basic income, state-owned health, emergency, education systems are at home on the left), are generally idealist and value equality. The right deals in conservative ideas, believes in free markets as well as minimal state interference and regulation (ultra-free markets, private health, emergency, and education systems thrive under right-wing rule). The right emphasizes equity over equality.

I’ll also take a cue from the guys at PoliticalCompass and factor in a social spectrum to get a better understanding of fascism. So in addition to the left-right poles, we’ll also put in an authoritarian-libertarian scale which shows how different governments go about their business: by pooling power within the ruling body and/or a central figure (authoritarian), or by allowing people greater freedoms, thereby giving away their power (libertarian). Now that we have our bearings, let’s talk fascism.

What is fascism?


The two spectra — left/right and authoritarian/liberal — can be superimposed to give you an idea of where your allegiance lies on the political spectrum — these are my results. If you’re curious about where you fall, go take the test on The Political Compass.
Image credits The Political Compass.

It’s pretty hard to determine the exact boundaries of fascism. In broad lines, however, it’s considered to fall on the heavily authoritarian right as it maintains social order and opposes equality — here it’s in the top bits of the blue area. In other words, fascism relies on a mix of government or single leader with virtually absolute power in society and strong private property that only remains free while it serves the party’s interests.

It also has deep, super-nationalistic and racist, even xenophobic undertones, creating a sense of ‘us vs them’, blaming the perceived other for the country’s hardships, eventually encouraging segregation and violence against this ‘other’ as the way forward.

From a socio-economic standpoint, fascism is highly polarizing: exceedingly rich and powerful industrialists and politicians rule at the top, followed by upper, middle, then lower classes, with one or more groups of non-citizens at the bottom. But none of these truly define fascism (in fact, we can see many of its influences in today’s politics, even though we don’t live under fascism).

What fascism usually does is reject liberal, socialist, and conservative thoughts and replaces them with a complex net of cultural and ideological tenants. This cultural element is why it’s so hard to tell exactly where fascism begins and ends. Fascist rulers attain the people’s mandate by pointing at the glories of yore and their subsequent decadence, instilling a sense of superiority over other peoples (the corruption of the Ubermensch symbol), and insisting that only a strong country united under a strong leader can retake their place on the world stage (“Make America great again“) all of which takes the shape of unique cultural levels in every society.

Fascism America Sticker.

It has a unique flavor wherever it pops up.
Image credits Robert F. W. Whitlock / Wikimedia.

The final traits of fascism are heavy propaganda, a rejection of globalization and attainment of autarky, a mixture of philosophies and ideas from the left and right into its ideology and, perhaps it’s most extreme far-right trait, the aim to have a group of superior people dominate society and purge inferior humans.

Tying it all together, the very name of “fascism” is probably what symbolizes this ideology the best. The word is rooted in the Latin word fasces, which were bundles of rods usually tied around an axe with the blade sticking out. Fasces were issued to Roman magistrates and symbolized power. And in a way, that’s what fascism is: a people inescapably tied to a single cause, vesting absolute power and the decision of life and death in a leader’s personal agenda — whether willingly or by force.

One interesting observation you can make from the four quadrants in the above compass is that it’s not communism which is ideologically opposite fascism — the two are actually pretty similar apart from the fact that communism rejects traditional elites while fascists work them into the new social order. The ideological opposite of fascism is liberal socialism. That’s some food for thought.

How does fascism emerge?

The first truly fascist party emerged in Italy in the 1920s. To give you some context, at the conclusion of the World War I Italy lost an estimated 400,000 soldiers, and almost four million of the country’s men were wounded, captured, or suffered disease and disability after the conflict in the army alone — in a country of 37 million people at the time. That’s over 10% of the whole population. It’s a huge ratio.

For all their hardship and loss, the Italians also felt they were cheated out of the war promises the Entente (basically the allies in WWI) made. Initially allying with Germany and Austro-Hungary to defend against French expansion in Tunisia, one of their African colonies, the Italians secretly agreed to join the Entente in the London Pact — on the condition that they are given back north-eastern Italy from the Austrians. After the treaty was signed, however, UK diplomats figured that they didn’t actually have any beef with the Austrians. Long story short, Italy didn’t get what it was promised when the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, was signed.

Rethondes Wagon de l'Armistice.

A treaty signed in this very railway car.
Image credits Nicklaarakkers / Wikimedia.

This could be seen as the first spark to ignite fascism in Italy at the time. Public confidence and approval of the then-Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando tanked as people regarded him too weak to serve Italian interests. Poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, the one who coined the term “vittoria mutilata,” started to vocally criticize Orlando’s weakness and the treachery of foreign powers. He gathered a small force of armed Italians and actually attacked and conquered the city of Fiume in September 1919, then part of Austria — a 90% ethnic Italian town that the country was promised but didn’t receive as war reparations. The town subsequently issued what amounted to a fascist charter and enjoyed autonomy for a while.

And it may well be this charter that took fascism, in the public’s opinion, from one of many possibilities to a solution. As always, there was still internal resistance, but for many people disillusioned with Italy’s current government, angry about what they perceived as unfairness by external powers, and willing to see Italy’s sacrifices properly repaid, this new political idea actually delivered — it managed, with 2,000 or so armed men, to capture a city that the previous government couldn’t bring back with a whole war.

Germany also had to pay huge war reparations and suffer international shame (it was a thing back then) following the end of WWI, and unlike Italy, they also had to contend with the fact that they actually lost. The reparations ruined Germany’s economy, and I mean actually ruined — inflation was so high in post-war Germany that you needed a literal wheelbarrow of cash to buy a loaf of bread. People would even burn money in stoves to heat their homes during the winter since it was less expensive than buying coal or firewood.

In these conditions, it’s not that hard to understand how desperate people would look to a strong government to solve their problems.

While it’s easy to judge past generations on their actions, we have the benefit of hindsight on our side. Even so, the threat of fascism still looms over us, and will likely haunt our elections and governments for a while still.

Fascism today

Invaders against Fascism.

Image credits Lauren Manning / Flickr.

Fascism was made possible by the breathtaking speed of technological advance in the 20th century, one which overcame society’s ability to adapt. People wanted safety and more bountiful lives following the horrors of the Great War, and autocrats scrambling for ever-more power, with massive industrial and infrastructure complexes behind them, could provide that.

Technology such as radios let the government speak directly to the people, and nobody knew not to trust their government yet so they did the unthinkable things their leaders said would bring about a better world — and are we really the ones to judge them? We are living in an increasingly illiberal world, where our hate and fear push more autocratic leaders into the spotlight. We fear our way of life is under attack by terrorists, more and more people are struggling with poverty, and most people haven’t yet learned not to trust that Facebook post from a random site claiming “immigrants are taking our jobs” and “causing crime” (both are false) — so we do the unthinkable things our leaders ask of us to bring about a better world.

Just as in those early days of economic and political uncertainty, we’re putting our faith in strong leaders who look willing to fight for our interests. A leader who comes with promises of a wealth, safety, a sense of purpose for all — and that’s perfectly understandable. But the people who promise you can have all that if you just kick out x minority, or if you reclaim your borders, the people who hate and discriminate — they won’t solve our problems. They won’t do anything except breed more hate and discrimination, more misery and hardship for those in need, more power and wealth for those who further their goals. Talking about the issue of fascism for The New York Times, Henry Scott Wallace wrote:

“They invariably put ‘money and power ahead of human beings.’ […] ‘They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest, […] claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution’.”

“They bloviate about putting America first, but it’s just a cover. ‘They use isolationism as a slogan to conceal their own selfish imperialism.’ They need scapegoats and harbor ‘an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations’,” he concludes.

Today we do have the benefit of hindsight. We know what lies down the path of fascism, be it in America, in Russia, the UK, or any other country — if it takes root, this time it’s on us.

Assessing the psychological profile of politicians definitely sounds like a good idea

Image credits: Gage Skidmore.

Speaking to Andrew Bock of The Age, the Chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute, Peter Wilson, said that political candidates in Australia should have their psychological profiles assessed much in the same way top corporate executives are today. It definitely sounds like a good idea, but will this ever be a “thing”? In Australia at least, some parties seem to welcome the idea, but without institutional mandates to do so, I’m afraid we’ll still be seeing affairs run their typical course. But wouldn’t be great if psychopaths were barred from office?

“The parties are employers. They hire these people and it would be valuable for the parties to know more about their candidates,” Mr Wilson said.

“That collateral damage is a very positive reason why caucuses and parties would benefit from understanding the psychology and personality of who they have as candidates,” Mr Wilson said.

Fortune 100 companies, or the Australian equivalent ASX Top 100, use complex psychological screening to select the absolute best matches for senior leadership positions. That’s because companies have learned that bad leadership can cost a lot of money or damage reputation. But while the wrong executive can cost the company millions, a wrong politician could cost a whole country billions. The very lives of people could be at stake (and yes, I’m looking at you and your healthcare, US).

In this sort of tests, psychologists assess communication skills, critical thinking skills, people skills, leadership and motivation, resilience and ability to cope with stress and conflict.

“The risk you run at the moment, without psychological assessment, is that someone who gives a great speech to the pre-selection committee, and has done a few months wining and dining the right people may give a misleading presentation,” says Associate professor Denise Jepsen, an organisational psychologist at Macquarie University.

Jepsen claims that these sort of behavioral assessments are “a way of testing for minimum competencies and potentially filtering out or filtering in candidates with those competencies.” Well, I don’t think anyone can disagree with this. After all, if your company forces you to take a behavioral test, you (the voter) should also have a rightful claim of forcing political candidates to take the same test, at least. Consider half the candidates at recent elections in Australia had not had a job outside the political system. You really ought to know if these people are really incompetent for that position. Graduating from prestigious universities and holding party positions is definitely not an indicator of successful leadership.

The UK is actually making some progress in this respect. In 2005, organizational psychologists helped the UK Conservative Party set up its Parliamentary Assessment Board – an assessment center for pre-selection candidates still in operation today.

The US does no such thing. Newly elected president Donald Trump has a personality which attracted some and horrified others. For psychologists, it’s hard to talk about Trump without saying the word “narcissism.” Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, and George Simon, a clinical psychologist who conducts seminars on manipulative behavior, say Trump’s behavior is remarkably narcissistic. Simon went as far as to say that Trump greatly helps him in his study, saying that the president’s behavior is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of narcissism. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.” But that’s just the start of it.

As The Atlantic reports, when local residents refused to sell properties that Trump needed in order to finish the golf resort, he ridiculed them on the Late Show With David Letterman and in newspapers, describing the locals as rubes who lived in “disgusting” ramshackle hovels. He likes to insult people and overall shows extremely little empathy. Trump lies (a lot) and generally calls whatever he dislikes “fake news.” Citing other notable psychologists, a Huff Post article flirts with the word “psychopath” — which is definitely within the realm of possibility. Donald Trump is the living, breathing example of why leading politicians should have their psychological profiles drawn out. But in most countries, that’s not even on the table.

When someone challenges your political views, your brain treats them as a threat

A new brain imaging study shows why people can’t get out of their heads when talking politics — our brains simply shut down when our beliefs are challenged.

Image credits Niek Verlaan / Pexels.

Political beliefs are so deeply rooted in who we are that people will bullheadedly defend them in the face of any and all opposition or evidence. But can’t we all just have a nice talk, carefully consider the evidence together, and come to a common agreement?

No, not really

A study from the University of Southern California shows that when our political beliefs are challenged, brain areas that are involved in shaping our personality and emotional response to threat light up. The brain enters an ’emergency mode’ and we feel threatened — attacked on a very personal, emotional level. The brain then promptly shuts down and refuses any evidence that goes against what we hold to be true.

All of which, as we’ve seen in the recent presidential elections, can divide a nation built on the idea of freedom — of speech, of though, of belief.

“The inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument, or to have one’s own mind changed in turn, stands out as a problem of great societal importance,” the paper reads.

“Both human knowledge and human cooperation depend upon such feats of cognitive and emotional flexibility.”

The team surveyed 40 liberal voters’ opinions on a range of political topics such as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, military spending, the death penalty, and so on. They were also asked what their opinion on a series of nonpolitical topics such as multivitamins or secondhand smoke was.

The researchers then scanned the participants’ brains using MRI while systematically attacking all the points on which they reported having a strong view on. Then they tested the strength of participants’ opinions again. A clear difference emerged between the political and nonpolitical beliefs.

Activity ramped up in a structure known as the default mode network when the participants read arguments that challenged their political beliefs. By contrast, the network kept the initial activity level or only registered a slight increase when participants’ nonpolitical beliefs were attacked. Participants also showed a greater emotional response to the political arguments — the more attached a person felt to a belief, the more their amygdala and insula lit up, and the more they resisted the arguments against it.

Echo boxes

“This is consistent with the idea that being confronted with arguments against our deeply held beliefs makes us feel bad, and then we work to get rid of those negative feelings by rationalizing – discounting the evidence or the source of the evidence, shoring up our arguments, etc.” the researchers note.

To the best of our knowledge, the default mode network is active “when individuals are engaged in internally focused tasks including autobiographical memory retrieval, envisioning the future, and conceiving the perspectives of others” — in other words, it mostly deals with internal processes such as memory, daydreaming, and personality. Its counterpart is the executive attention network, which activates when we deal with the outside world.

The fact that participants showed activity in the default network suggests that their brains treat political views as an internal element — a part of their personality.

“Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong,” Kaplan said in a press release.

“To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.”

In the brain scans below, you can see how political and nonpolitical arguments activated the participants’ brains (yellow-red vs green-blue).

Brains react differently to having your political or nonpolitical views challenged.
Image credits Jonas T. Kaplan et. al / Scientific Reports.

The researchers conclude that when beliefs we hold dear are challenged, our brain reacts as it would to any other threat — by activating the amygdala and the insula. The findings could help explain why people tend to bunker down when presented with arguments that go against their beliefs instead of considering the evidence.

So is there a way to discuss these issues without our brains going into DEFCON 1? None that we know of right now. Maybe hugs? We’ll need some more research on the subject but I think hugs is a good place to start.

In the meantime, try to keep an open mind when talking about politics. And maybe hug the people you’re debating with a lot. Can’t hurt your chances.

The full paper “Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Your brain might have a specific circuit for political arguments

Most people have deeply rooted political beliefs. As anyone who’s gotten in a heated political debate knows, most people are also very resistant to different opinions, becoming wildly defensive when their beliefs are threatened. Now, a new study might have pinpointed just how that happens.

Almost all political arguments are futile, because usually all parties refuse to consider that their beliefs are wrong. Image credits: Chiltepinster.

Researchers have found that when people’s political beliefs are challenged, their brains light up in areas that govern personal identity and emotional responses to threats. When people become defensive about their political opinions, parts of the amygdala light up, parts associated with decision-making and emotional reactions. So in a way, people don’t view politics rationally, but emotionally. In this way, politics is similar to religion.

“Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong,” said lead author Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.”

In order to reach this conclusion, researchers recruited 40 people who were self-declared liberals. They were presented with eight political statements and eight non-political statements, which they said to believe equally strong. They were then showed five counter-claims to each one of the 16 statements.

The amygdala — the two almond-shaped areas hugging the center of the brain near the front — tends to become active when people dig in their heels about a political belief. Credit: Photo/Courtesy of Brain and Creativity Institute at USC

The non-political statements were simple facts, such as “Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb” and “Albert Einstein was a great physicist.” But when presented with counter arguments, the participants’ belief in them waned. Yes, people started to doubt whether Einstein was a great physicist.

“I was surprised that people would doubt that Einstein was a great physicist, but this study showed that there are certain realms where we retain flexibility in our beliefs,” Kaplan said.

However, when it came to political beliefs, participants wouldn’t budge. They didn’t change their beliefs much, or at all, and the people who were the most resistant had the strongest activity in the amygdala. Most interestingly, a circuit of the brain called the Default Mode Network surged in activity when the political beliefs were challenged. The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. But it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future. The importance of emotions should not be underestimated, even in complex, rational decisions.

“We should acknowledge that emotion plays a role in cognition and in how we decide what is true and what is not true,” Kaplan said. “We should not expect to be dispassionate computers. We are biological organisms.”

Sarah Gimbel of the Brain and Creativity Institute was a co-author of the study. She says that understanding why and how this happens could be key for our progress as a society.

“Understanding when and why people are likely to change their minds is an urgent objective,” said Gimbel, a research scientist at the Brain and Creativity Institute. “Knowing how and which statements may persuade people to change their political beliefs could be key for society’s progress,” she said.

Journal Reference: Jonas T. Kaplan, Sarah I. Gimbel & Sam Harris. Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports, December 2016 DOI: 10.1038/srep39589

Boredom can lead to more extreme political views, surprising study finds

Boredom may be a significant factor when it comes to our political views, a new study by researchers from King’s College London and the University of Limerick reports.

A souvenir seller appears bored as she waits for customers. Photo by Adam Jones.

Few people are truly interested in politics, but we all have our own political views – even though we might not be aware of them. They’re influenced by what we think about other people, about society and everything around us. Most of the world today lives in a system called democracy, and in democracy, we generally tend to think of political ideologies in a left-right spectrum. To simplify things, the left part can be associated with socialism, progressivism and believing in civil rights. Meanwhile, the right part includes capitalists, conservatives and traditionalists.

Of course, if we’re talking about a political spectrum, then saying you’re “left” or “right” doesn’t make much sense. You can have central or mixed opinions, you can lean slightly or moderately to the left or right, or you can have far left/right views. This is where things really get dangerous. Towards the far left of the spectrum you can find communism, and conversely on the other side you’d find fascism. Needless to say, these are two really undesirable outcomes, no matter what side you lean towards.

For this study, researchers asked 97 people from a university campus to classify their political orientation. After  that assigned a boring task of classifying and transcribing 10 references about concrete mixing for one group, while another group transcribed only two of these references. They were then asked to classify their political options again, this time on a seven-point scale. They found that liberals in the low boredom group were more moderate in their political orientation, compared to liberals in the high boredom group. A similar trend was found for conservatives, though for a smaller sample size.

The fact that boredom can make people have more extreme views is extremely worrying, and quite surprising. Dr Wijnand van Tilburg from King’s College London, who led the study, said:

‘Boredom puts people on edge – it makes them seek engagements that are challenging, exciting, and that offer a sense of purpose. Political ideologies can aid this existential quest.’ He added: ‘Boredom motivates people to alter their situation and fosters the engagement in activities that seem more meaningful than those currently at hand.’ The authors suggest that adopting a more extreme political ideology is one way that people re-inject meaningfulness into a boring situation.

This would mean that a completely irrelevant and external factor influences something deeply enrooted in us, such as our political beliefs. Dr Eric Igou from the University of Limerick, added:

‘These studies indicate that political views are, in part, based on boredom and the need to counteract these negative, existential experiences with ideologies that seem to provide meaning in life. The implications of these findings are obvious. Possibly politically radicalised individuals and groups are, at least to some degree, driven by boredom experiences in their everyday lives as an attempt to make life seem more meaningful.’

At the moment, we don’t know exactly how much boredom affects our political views, that’s a subject for further research.

‘To gain more insight into the magnitude of boredom’s role one could test, say, how voters behave in an election and see how that correlates with individual differences in boredom. At present, we do not have such data but this is clearly an interesting future direction for researchers who study boredom and voting behaviour.’

The research was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Oddly enough, some Republicans think climate change is real

Comic by Newsworks.

Members of the GOP are notorious for their stance against the idea that humans are causing global warming, or that global warming is real – nevermind that it’s caused by humans or not. Needless to say, climate change can be linked to human activities with a close to certain probability: 99.999%. But while the consensus on global warming among scientists has become even more entrenched, the subject has been polarized in the media to great lengths. As if it’s a matter for debate. It’s not really – it’s just the details that are worth debating. The fact that global warming is happening now and is accelerated by human activities is undeniable, yet many Republican Presidential candidates seem to refuse to acknowledge this out of ignorance or some other interest. Sen. Marco Rubio  says “there’s no consensus”, Sen. Ted Cruz  likens climate change proponents with “flat-Earthers” and Donald Trump… well.

Of all the major conservative parties in the democratic world, the Republican Party stands alone in its denial of the legitimacy of climate science. Within this context, it’s refreshing to hear some Republican Presidential candidates aren’t so adversarial to science. Last night during the GOP undercard debate, not one, but two candidates ‘kept it real’.  New York Gov. George Pataki, for instance, said: “One of the things that troubles me about the Republican Party is too often we question science that everyone accepts.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham continued in the same note.

“You don’t have to believe that climate change is real. [But] I have been to the Antarctic, I have been to Alaska,” he said. “I’m not a scientist, and I’ve got the grades to prove it. But I’ve talked to the climatologists of the world, and 90 percent of them are telling me tat the greenhouse gas effect is real. That we’re heating up the planet. I just want a solution that would be good for the economy that doesn’t destroy it.”

It might not be long until climate change becomes a mainstream part of the Republican rhetoric. After all, politicians merely reflect what their electorate thinks. ZME Science previously reported that 73 percent of Americans believe global warming is real and 79 percent favor some sort of government intervention on the issue. According to a report issued by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication a strong majority of respondents who identify as “liberal Republicans” believe global warming is happening — 68 percent — as do 62 percent of moderate Republicans. But only 38 percent of Conservative Republicans acknowledged climate change, while of those who self-identified with “tea party”  only 29 percent did so also. Since most Republicans fall in the latter two groups, overall only 44 percent of Republicans believe global warming to be true. Even so, it suggests a shift in the way Republican voters understand climate change.

via ThinkProgress