Science reveals how politics turns us all into our worst selves

 

If the past several election cycles are any indication, this autumn is going to be brutal. The folks who laughed at 82-year-old Paul Pelosi getting horrifically roughed up by a fanatical intruder in 2022 will face off against the folks who joked about Kentucky deserving its deadly flooding disaster that same year due to the state’s unpopular policies—and the animosity between both groups will transcend the ballot box and spill into every avenue of the discourse.

Unfortunately, as a recent study suggests, it won’t just be by the most politically fired-up people saying and doing reprehensible things in the lead-up to the election, but friends and neighbors—and quite possibly the person staring back in the bathroom mirror.

According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln study, when it comes to politics, people tend to turn into highly motivated shadow versions of themselves, with a victory for their preferred candidate justifying nearly any means deployed in getting there. Seemingly, no partisan behaviors are too transgressive to forgive, and few personal morals are sturdy enough to withstand intense pressure to hold the line. This study, titled, “Politics makes bastards of us all: Why moral judgment is politically situational,” offers a compelling scientific explanation for why the nice old lady who lives next door may have stolen your yard sign. (Or vice versa.)

Coauthors Kyle Hull, Clarisse Warren, and Kevin Smith created a large survey study to test their hypothesis, that people are “more willing to engage in immoral behavior and tolerate higher levels of immoral behavior in the political compared to the personal realm.” While it’s obvious just from casual conversations that some people might call out their opposing party’s shadier elements (like, say, alleged grifter George Santos) while keeping quiet about their own (like, say, alleged bribe-taker Bob Menendez), this team wanted to get to the root of such discrepancies.

They surveyed a total of 2,472 respondents, across four different sample groups—two of which were student-based, along with a third group found through Amazon’s crowdsourcing site, Mechanical Turk, and a fourth from international research data and analytics company YouGov. Although those surveyed were predominantly white—with the group containing the fewest white respondents still at 67%—they otherwise represented a fairly even cross-section of gender and political leanings.  

The first part of the survey plumbed respondents’ opinions about their own moral behavior. It prompted them to “imagine a person you find completely despicable” and then consider a range of hypothetical acts that they (the respondents) might participate in to express their negative feelings about that person. (One example of these hypotheticals: “I would falsely accuse this person of a serious misdeed.”) The survey also asked respondents similar questions about a politician they find completely despicable, as well as what kinds of poor moral behavior they would tolerate in a friend versus a “top-notch political candidate whose views were in total agreement with mine.”

The results were consistent with the hypothesis that people tend to be more forgiving of morally odious people with whom they agree politically, and more likely to act unethically themselves toward their political opposites. According to the survey data, people tend to judge their friends slightly more harshly for moral transgressions than they would a politician they supported, while being willing to bend morals in their own politically motivated behavior, rather than in other, more personal matters.

“People, regardless of age or ideology, were more willing to engage in immoral behaviors and judgments if the behaviors were in the political realm,” one of the study’s coauthors, Hull, told Nebraska Today. “And a lot of it was just driven by genuine internal dislike of the ‘other’ side.”

In today’s hyperpartisan political culture, the other side no longer consists of people with alternative or competing views, but rather villains who must be defeated. Viewed through that prism, it’s understandable why so many people end up digitally screaming obscene vitriol at people with whom they disagree online, or voting for candidates with a checkered past (or even a checkered present, in some cases). The sensational nature of news items surfaced from social media—whether they come from unreliable sources, are entirely lacking in context, or consist of flat-out misinformation—only throws kerosene on a fire already burning out of control.

Unnerving as these findings may be, however, they also serve as a reminder that our tendency toward poor political behavior is still a choice. Especially once it becomes clear, through studies like this one, how our own behavior fits within broader patterns. As we barrel toward the general election, and other people in our in-groups sink even lower to achieve their political goals, it’s always possible to choose to go another way.