Political peer pressure may drive costly personal choices

February 17, 2021
Ideology beats out personal gain when politics are involved. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Ideology beats out personal gain when politics are involved. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Individuals who seemingly go out of their way, even straining close relations at times, to make their political views known appear driven by a desire to follow the norms of their ideological peers rather than potential gains for them or their group, three researchers argue in a recent study, adding to a growing amount of evidence that political identities are becoming as important socially as race and religion.

The paper, published last month in Political Behavior, found through a series of survey experiments in the the U.K. and the U.S. that people who identify as liberal or conservative “knowingly choose” to follow the norms of their chosen ideology even when they are aware that their actions may come at a personal cost, such as taking a smaller paycheck in order to work for a fellow Republican.

Known as expressive politics, such costly behavior is hardly new, but scholars have debated in recent years as to precisely what motivates these people, said Mark Pickup, the paper’s lead author and an associate professor of political science at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

“Alternative mechanisms suggest that individuals are unaware that they are paying a personal cost,” Pickup told The Academic Times. “If individuals are aware and are still willing to pay the cost in order to comply with the expectations of their group, behavioral change will not come about simply by pointing out the trade-off they are making.”

In their paper, Pickup and his colleagues build on a growing body of research that suggests political identities are also a form of social identities like race and religion, and argue that these identities impart a set of expectations to their members for how they “ought" to think and behave.

Scholars have sought to establish these norms as the most likely trigger for expressive political behavior, but were previously unable to do so “cleanly” by ruling out alternative explanations, the researchers wrote. For example, it may be possible that members of one group see gains by an out-group as a great cost to them personally, via a process called motivated reasoning, or that identity is simply used as an informational shortcut.

“We are certainly not the first to explore the role of norms, but we feel we provide the most conclusive evidence to date about the role of political identity norms in making costly expressive decisions,” Pickup said.

Prior studies have asked questions designed to make respondents think about their political identity, rather than the norms attached — in a psychological process known as priming — which makes it difficult to conclude whether expressive behavior is due to norms or another aspect of political identity, Pickup explained.

Other studies, he said, told individuals how members of their group tend to think or act, which makes it difficult to pin down whether behavioral effects are due to making the group norms more salient or by providing new information to respondents.

“There are also limitations to just looking at changes in attitudes, as we are typically most interested in behaviors,” Pickup said.

To this end, the authors conducted a survey in the U.S. and the U.K. that showed a “clear majority” of those who self-identified as liberal or conservative from both countries understood how their peers feel about a range of 22 policy issues, including LGBTQ rights, welfare and tax cuts. Respondents were offered $3, or GBP 2, if they correctly guessed their peers' expectations, which helped ensure that the results serve as an accurate measure of group norms, the authors wrote.

In another survey that was embedded in a YouGov study, more than 4,000 Britons were offered GBP 0.50 ($0.69) for every GBP 30 ($41.57) they voted should be donated to a group that advocates against a specific policy favored by their ideological peers, up to a maximum of GBP 300 ($415). Respondents were told their votes were one in 500, meaning a vote for the full amount would only result in a donation of GBP 0.60, effectively nullifying any policy implication of their choice.

Prior to this question, the treatment group was primed to either evoke feelings about their political identity or the corresponding expectations from peers for how they should respond to a given policy issue.

Those who identified as “very left” or “very right” politically voted to donate an average of GBP 64.50 when explicitly primed about their norms, versus GBP 75.98 from those who were primed about their political identity. Within the control group, those with strong ideological leanings voted on average to donate GBP 83.60. Those with weaker ideological stances consistently voted to donate more to the group.

Limiting the potential policy impact of respondents’ actions effectively turns the decision into an “entirely expressive” one rather than material, the authors explained. This also helps ensure that identity is not used as an informational shortcut.

A third experiment took a similar approach in explicitly priming norms, but this time manipulated the strength of the norms by telling half of the approximately 2,000 respondents that most of their ideological peers voted to give money to the group. When presented with this "counter" to the norm, respondents donated an additional GBP 14.64 on average, demonstrating that people are more likely to deviate from norms when presented with additional information about one's norms.

The authors expect their results to generally hold true across different democracies where political identities are a big part of one’s own identity. However, Pickup cautioned, the way political identities are viewed may vary from country to country.

“In the U.S., ideological identities have become almost synonymous with partisan identities,” Pickup said. “Elsewhere, ideological [identities] are much more distinct. And there are probably important political identities that are neither strictly ideological nor partisan, like Brexit identities in Britain.”

The paper, “Expressive Politics as (Costly) Norm Following,” was published Jan. 3 in Political Behavior. It was authored by Mark Pickup, an associate professor and graduate program chair in the political science department at Simon Fraser University; Erik Kimbrough, an associate professor of economics at Chapman University’s Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy; and Eline de Rooij, an associate professor of political science at Simon Fraser University. Their research was funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of money donated by those who were primed about their political identity. The error has been corrected.

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