That seductive power of feeling superior (when, actually, you aren't)

And a cautionary note about Google

It is often more difficult than you’d expect to find information that might give you a more rounded picture of an issue.

And the surprising thing is that Google is less help than I assumed it would be.

Here’s how I noticed.

Back when I was addicted to anger…I mean Twitter…I felt superior to small c conservatives. Not just more right about things than them. Actually innately superior. Google helped to fuel this notion by making it really easy to find out that conservative minds are wired differently to mine.

Try it yourself. Google negative personality traits and how they are connected with political preferences.

You’ll soon find out about the actual physical differences between conservative and liberal brains. And, on a few initial passes, this proves that conservatives are more reptilian, narcissistic, cold-hearted etc. They are Bad People.

I loved pointing this out, when I was a shouty online person. So did many others of the ‘liberal’ persuasion. It was fun, because the personality traits identified in liberals (an ideology with which I personally identified) were more positive.

That’s what I mean by the seductive power of feeling superior. It feels good to think you’re better (at some existential level) than people with whom you disagree, particularly on issues of principle.

Much of this research into qualitative differences between people of different political viewpoints has generated many news headlines, so it matters.

These days I subscribe to a weekly newsletter from Psypost about the latest findings in cognitive psychology. Barely a week goes by without a new study identifying negative personality traits that predict support for Donald Trump. This week’s example was a Union College paper published in the Journal of Social Psychology ‘Does Personality “Trump” Ideology? Narcissism Predicts Support for Trump via Ideological Tendencies’.

I would have seized on that, in my shouty Twitter days.

And I would have based my reaction entirely on the title.

Such is the warm fuzzy comfort of confirmation bias. The constant reaffirmation that we’re right feels good.

But, lately, I’m more cautious. And in the case of this paper, closer reading of the assumptions underlying this study, based on a questionaire filled in by 302 people (there were 74.2 million votes for Trump in 2020), jangle a bit.

For example, ‘authoritarianism’ is assumed to be entirely correlated with right wing perspectives. Really? There seem to be some standard questions used to establish one’s baseline authoritarianism. But are they the right questions? Do they take into account the liberal version of authoritarianism (bullying people for ‘wrongspeak’, complaining to people’s employers for opinions that have nothing to do with the work that they do and having people banned from speaking engagements etc). I am yet to see this behaviour labelled as ‘authoritarianism’ in the papers that Psypost reports.

Here’s the thing. I don’t know whether I can trust this paper. Not because I assume that it’s politically motivated. But I do wonder if that may be a subconscious driver in some of this research. The Wikipedia entry on the politics of American academics is interesting in this context.

I also don’t know whether I can trust this paper because I don’t really have the intellectual acumen to dig into it properly.

But I can’t shake the sense that I could have predicted its findings (Trump types are likely to be Bad People in certain ways) and that makes me suspicious.

Another aspect of it troubles me.

We live in an age in which there seems to be a general agreement that we are more polarised than ever before.1 This is also generally agreed to be an unhelpful situation.

Scientific studies like this, which use pejorative terminology to describe particular political factions, are bound to generate news headlines that reach other non-experts. It seems reasonable to imagine that they then provide ammunition for people who enjoy waging the culture war online.

Sometimes this can end up seriously misleading those of us without the professional or intellectual chops to check the findings ourselves.

An example of this happening is described here and there are two things to say about it in the context of Rarely Certain.

The story is about conservatives being more prone to ‘psychotic’ personality traits, according to an academic study. I remember reading the stories about those findings. I loved that my prejudices about conservatives were backed with evidence. Because I’m not a conservative. The coverage that this study gained, across swathes of widely consumed media, contributed to my (then) growing sense of moral superiority over people with different political views than mine.

It’s taken nine years for me to learn that this widely publicised research was later corrected by its own authors. For the remarkable reason that they had accidentally swapped some labels around in their statistical analysis. So that what they said their paper showed was actually the opposite of what their data suggested.

The correction clarified that the study had really suggested that some of the negative personality traits the researchers had surfaced in their analysis were more likely to describe liberals. Not conservatives.

Cool. Science doing what it should, in good faith. Mistakes are corrected. Good on the people who made this mistake and owned up to it.

If I felt like it I would invest the necessary time in counting up the stories generated by the original (false) data interpretation and compare the numbers with stories generated about the correction. But I probably won’t.

However, I’d confidently wager €100 that the correction was seen by fewer people than the original tale.

The other thing to note about this is that I only discovered this error by patiently searching for studies that support a feeling I have about shouty liberals appearing to be just as unpleasant as people (at least online) as conservatives. And seemingly neurotic, to boot.

It took ages. Not because there aren’t people doing work to see which negative personality traits are harboured by liberals. But because that work is just much harder to find, at least via Google.

No wonder American conservatives in particular complain about a political and cultural bias in the world’s most important search engine. Based on my experience of trying to find some balancing views from the field of cognitive psychology against this popular trope about nasty conservatives it does appear that certain information is not readily surfaced by Google.

The point here is that the information landscape appears to be skewed, even outside our favourite partisan news sources and social media group bubbles.

You only really notice this when you shrug off an ideology (in my case progressive liberalism) and decide to explore non-partisan independence. It’s actually quite hard work, finding perspectives that don’t fit with your existing views.

Anyway, I look back at my days of trolling conservatives on Twitter with a degree of intellectual contempt. They weren’t me at my best. Neither as a thinker nor as a person.

That’s probably enough for now. Except that I’ll leave you with another study that was listed in my Psypost round-up this week.2

This one suggests that ‘left wing’ 3 people are more likely to display anxiety disorder symptoms.

My, how I laughed at that (as a leftie who now practices mindfulness to notice and thereby diminish his own anxious tendences).


Maybe worth noting here that I’m not sure that we really are more polarised than ever before. Perhaps we just have easier sight of the repugnant other in our hyper-connected information environment. Sorry, I mean with the internet, social media and everything.


The label ‘left wing’ bothers me a lot at the moment. Because so much of our political discourse seems to be imported from the USA. And I tend to interpret much of the progressive or social justice movement there as more a project around doing Capitalism nicely than changing humanity’s relationship with resource consumption and distribution.

Credit: the picture is by Pixabay contributor John Hain