May 16, 2016

Study suggests political peril leads to intransigence

U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo
U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

In 2013, Congress reached a stalemate on federal spending and a government shutdown ensued. Several Republican lawmakers declined to vote for bills that included funding for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

While Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the health-care law was a severe threat to the economy, a majority of Americans – about 60 percent based on some polls – wondered why Congress couldn’t negotiate some kind of agreement.

Newly published research from University of Nebraska-Lincoln political psychologist Ingrid Haas gives a hint into the political interplay between such situations of uncertainty, threat and compromise. It found willingness to compromise can be affected by both uncertainty about a policy or situation and whether or not there is a perceived threat – but the effects of uncertainty on political behavior are more complicated than one might expect.

“There is a common misconception that uncertainty is always bad, but prior research has shown that uncertainty by itself isn’t necessarily bad because it can make people more open-minded, more willing to compromise, more tolerant,” she said.

Haas, an assistant professor of political science, conducted three separate tests to investigate how uncertainty about a political issue, as well as perceived threat, affected participants’ willingness to support political compromise. The first analysis, conducted during the 2013 shutdown, measured perceptions of uncertainty about and the perceived threat of Obamacare, as well as support for compromise regarding the government shutdown.

Then, in two follow-up experiments over the next two years, uncertainty and threat were scrutinized independently to examine the relationship between uncertainty, threat and support for compromise.

Combined, the experiments show a consistent pattern in how uncertainty and threat affect political behavior, Haas said: Those who are more conservative were affected more negatively than moderates and liberals by uncertainty as well as the combination of uncertainty and threat.

“Liberals and moderates were more likely to support compromise in response to uncertainty, especially when uncertainty was not paired with threat,” Haas said. “On the other hand, conservatives were more likely to show decreased support for compromise in response to the combination of uncertainty and threat.

“So, the main takeaway is that liberals and moderates were more likely to show positive responses to uncertainty, with increasing support for compromise.”

In fact, the biggest ideological difference that emerged was that moderates and liberals weren’t affected in their willingness to compromise when exposed to uncertainty combined with threat, in contrast to the impact uncertain threat had on conservatives, which in one experiment slashed their willingness to compromise by almost one-third.

“Conservatives show more of a change in response to uncertainty and threat, but liberals just don’t respond as much in either direction,” Haas said. “The impact of these negative emotions on political behavior seems to be larger in conservatives.”

Haas said the results are consistent with other research on conservatives, liberals and negativity bias, which has demonstrated that those on the political right tend to pay more attention to and respond more to negative emotions and situations in their environments. She was surprised, however, that uncertain threat had little to no effect on moderates and liberals.

The study was published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Ingrid Haas

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Associate Professor of Political Science

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