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Cheering dying: Psychology behind ghoulish outbursts at GOP debates

Two spontaneous and enthusiastic outbursts during the most recent Republican presidential debates caught a lot of people’s attention.

During the first debate, held at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., the audience cheered wildly when it was pointed out that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had overseen a record-breaking 234 executions in his state. (That number has since risen to 235, and would have climbed to 236 Thursday if the Supreme Court hadn’t stayed an execution.)

Then, during the second debate, which was held in Tampa, Fla., and partly sponsored by the Tea Party Express, the audience applauded loudly — and a couple of people shouted, “Yes!” — when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Texas Rep. Ron Paul if a 30-year-old sick man who had chosen to not buy health insurance should be allowed to die if he became seriously ill.

People on the political left have called those cheering episodes ghoulish, sadistic and reminiscent of the grisly guillotine crowds of the French Revolution. People on the political right have shrugged their shoulders and said, “What’s all the fuss?”

On Thursday, I spoke about those audience outbursts with Howard Lavine, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. Lavine, who has a background in psychology, researches the psychological underpinnings of political preference. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

MinnPost: Were you surprised by how the audience reacted in those two instances — to the mention of a record number of executions and to letting an uninsured person die?

Howard Lavine: Yes, but not when you think about who the audience was for those particular debates. They were the most conservative of Republicans, and they are very strongly supportive of capital punishment, and they tend to have somewhat retributive angularities to their attitudes. So I don’t think it was terribly surprising.

In respect to the cheering and the “Let him die” response to Ron Paul, I think that is wrapped up in the very hardline position that the Tea Party has taken both toward government intervention in the economy generally and particularly toward the issue of health care, the Obama health care plan they vehemently oppose.

Those responses fit pretty nicely into what we know about conservative Republicans, and Tea Party Republicans in particular.

MP: Do people cheer for these kinds of issues only when they’re in a group? I mean, I can’t imagine they would cheer if it were their own family member being left to die because of a lack of health insurance.

Dr. Howard Lavine
Dr. Howard Lavine

HL: We do know that when these predicaments fall on themselves, people with otherwise ideological opposition tend to react differently. But this is crowd behavior to a degree. There is a process called deindividuation — [a psychological state] in which people react in ways so that their sensitivity to social norms is set aside. So when they cheer on the death of some poor soul who otherwise would get government health care, they are acting in a deindividuated way.

MP: Are we at some new and different psychological point in our political history?

HL: We are. Traditionally, parties divided on issues of economic intervention. And they still are divided on that. But they are now also divided on matters of culture. Republicans more and more tend to be morally conservative or authoritarian and Democrats have become more and more morally liberal or libertarian. I don’t mean libertarian in terms of ideology, but permissively, let’s say.

[This divide] has two effects. One, the changing nature of partisan conflict has put more emphasis on the culture wars. I think what you saw in both of those responses — particularly the capital punishment one — followed from polarization on culture war issues.

And the partisan conflict has become hotter. Economic issues tend to be difficult, technical, means-oriented, and they don’t arouse as much emotion as simpler issues, like the culture war. Now that the parties are divided more squarely on those culture war issues, partisan conflict is more acrimonious.

MP: But is letting someone die because they didn’t purchase health insurance a culture war issue?

HL: It’s a good question. The culture war has to some extent appropriated the economic sphere, so people are responding to economic issues on the basis of cultural predispositions. This is in part because the parties are now divided on both of these dimensions, and the Republicans are using culture war symbols and arguments on economic issues. They have in a sense conflated the two dimensions, and they do it to their advantage.

So, yeah, I do think that that particular response has some cultural resonance. It wasn’t simply a cold, rational response to whether the government should be activist or minimal.

MP: If you are somebody who cheers about executions or about letting a young man die because he didn’t purchase health insurance, does that do something to your own psyche?

HL: You’re dealing with a symbolic response that is not literally about a person dying for lack of anyone caring. It’s a symbolic response to a broader economic issue. Those were fairly, or probably highly, informed people in that audience, and they were also highly politicized, and their responses probably reflect something more symbolic.

MP: So they were thinking of the issue abstractly.

HL: Yes, both abstractly and probably more as a cultural response than purely as an economic one.

MP: Do we know anything about the psychological differences between the people who cheered at the debates and the people who were appalled by those cheers?

HL: The question you’re really asking is what are the psychological underpinnings of political conservatism. And, yes, we know a lot about that. 

MP: What are those differences?

HL: They are many, and they revolve around general differences and sensitivities to threat and fear:  A need for closure. The degree to which people are motivated to have certain knowledge.

And [both groups] differ in terms of their authoritarianism, the degree to which they prefer collective authority to individual autonomy.

MP:  Conservatives prefer the authoritarian?

HL: Yes. Conservatives tend to be authoritarian. They prefer conformity to a single social normative order, whereas liberals tend to value freedom and autonomy and individual preferences.

There are a lot of other [differences], such as a need for structure and something called regulatory focus, where conservatives tend to be attuned more to losses than to gains. Conservatives tend to have what’s called a preventive focus. They focus more on bad things that will happen if they don’t behave in a normatively prescribed way, whereas liberals tend to have a promotion focus. They tend to focus on rewards that are associated with behavior rather than on punishments.

MP: Are we born with these psychological traits?

HL: There is good data on that. …The one personality dimension most strongly related to political ideology is openness to experience, which appears to be significantly inheritable. [Research has shown that liberals rank much higher than conservatives on this trait.]

MP: Are any of these psychological differences reflected in the cheers we heard at the debate?

HL: It’s difficult to explain individual responses. I think that all one can say is, in general, politics reflects underlying psychological needs. And individual political behaviors and responses reflect those needs as well.

MP: So our individual psychological traits are reflected in our political choices.

HL: There’s no doubt about that.

MP: And we may not be aware that our political choices come from those traits rather than from any neutral and objective analysis of the issues?

HL: Yes. People are notorious for not understanding the basis of their preferences and behavior.

MP: Is there anything we can collectively learn from these two particular outbursts at the debate?

HL: For me, I didn’t learn very much because, on reflection, [the cheering] fit into a pattern of what I think we know as social scientists about the underpinnings of political preference.

But cheering for death, either with respect to capital punishment or for someone dying because of a lack of health care, is unsettling. It points to a heartlessness that can be seen as an aspect of a political conservatism combined with a certain sense of retribution and anger and, in general, a negative aspect, at least to the government.

MP: Is there any way for the people who cheered and the people who were appalled by the cheers to reach common political ground?

HL: I’m rather pessimistic on that. The parties have now become very strongly polarized on these kinds of issues. And the mass public has strongly taken partisan cues that more and more resonate with underlying psychological predispositions.

When parties become ideologically purer, this allows individual citizens to sort themselves in ways that reflect their own psychological underpinnings. So in that respect, I am pessimistic — in fact, increasingly pessimistic.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/16/2011 - 11:32 am.

    This was a great article. I forgive Mr Swift; now I know you just can’t help yourself. 🙂

  2. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 09/16/2011 - 11:33 am.

    The audience members cheering on the deaths of others reminded me of lynch mobs and Nazis in the days of yore. What a frightening bunch. The bunch seems frighteningly convinced of their own superiority just as the Nazis did.

  3. Submitted by David Greene on 09/16/2011 - 11:36 am.

    “Republicans are using culture war symbols and arguments on economic issues. They have in a sense conflated the two dimensions, and they do it to their advantage.”

    That’s exactly right. Many people have pointed this out. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership can’t seem to grasp the concept. They fall into the trap of arguing on the culture/economic front, right where the Republicans want them.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/16/2011 - 12:03 pm.

    Does anyone remember the Labor Day rally in Detroit and the words of James Hoffa JR.?

    Of course, the labor union crowd “went wild” when these hostile and violent words were used.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/16/2011 - 12:46 pm.

    Like I commented earlier on the post related to increasing poverty:

    The US is making a choice between two philosophies:

    “you get what you deserve”


    “let’s work together to try to resolve the problems that people are having”.

    Right now it has swung pretty far toward, “you get what you deserve”.

  6. Submitted by Sherry Gunelson on 09/16/2011 - 01:01 pm.

    The Republican party also views itself as the “pro-life” party, the party of life. No irony detector required.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/16/2011 - 01:36 pm.

    Bill, that was an asinine comment but I forgive you, too, and for the same reasons you incorrectly thought I needed forgiveness.

    As a pro-life advocate I am vehemently against state sponsored murder, whether carried out by a representative of the state or a pregnant woman.

    As to whether a seriously ill person without insurance “should die”; if my personal preference was the defining factor, that person would certainly live.

    However as science lovers and members of the scary smart, reality based community know chronic illness do not go away by themselves, and those that our bodies cannot fend off by itself will tend to be fatal unless a doctor intervenes….and everyone knows that the number of doctors that ply their trades for free doesn’t come close to the number of people that expect them to.

    Therefore in many cases a seriously ill, uninsured person is going to die whether I want them to or not.

  8. Submitted by Jeff Folie on 09/16/2011 - 01:44 pm.

    Hey Ron since when did calling for people to be voted out of office become “hostile and violent”.
    Don’t beleive anything you see on FAUX news.

  9. Submitted by Rod Loper on 09/16/2011 - 02:32 pm.

    You are safe around conservatives as long as you are an embryo or a fetus.

  10. Submitted by Clayton Haapala on 09/16/2011 - 02:52 pm.

    Oh RonG, “buh buh but they do it too!”.
    The sentence prior to Hoffa’s much-touted line contained the words “With [y]our votes…”.

  11. Submitted by Douglas Shambo II on 09/16/2011 - 03:11 pm.

    “MP: Conservatives prefer the authoritarian?

    HL: Yes. Conservatives tend to be authoritarian. They prefer conformity to a single social normative order, whereas liberals tend to value freedom and autonomy and individual preferences.”

    Does this Q & A strike anyone else as strange and perhaps counterintuitive? Conservatives always seem to be arguing less government, more individual freedom, etc., whereas liberals seem to argue for government to have a greater role.

    I accept Howard Levine’s statement. In my experience, conservatives don’t really believe in less government; they just want one in which police and military (“the authorities”) have the larger role. Likewise, liberals don’t really want more government; they look to government to take more of a role in caring for people.

  12. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/16/2011 - 03:17 pm.

    Like so many in the field of psychology, Dr. Levine is totally focused on the trees of the variation of individual responses and whether each individual’s responses fit some category of pathology in the D.S.M.,…

    that his approach is the equivalent of focusing on the color and size of the popup box on your computer display that used to tell you, in earlier versions of the Windows operating system that your system had crashed and needed to shut down,…

    while ignoring that there even WAS an operating system that was popping up that message, let alone a Basic Input Output System (B.I.O.S.) running beneath that operating system that controlled what it was possible for the operating system to accomplish.

    In reality, the human operating system is the equivalent of “artificial intelligence” (the holy grail of computing) in which the person adapts to their environment in ways that increase the ability to efficiently get what you need for survival and even satisfaction from that environment.

    The human equivalent of the BIOS, however, which seems to reside in the amygdala, contains automatic routines which are also programmed by the environment in ways that substantially alter and, thereby, limit the awareness and the range of responses possible for any human, based on painful experiences (physical and/or emotional) that that particular human has undergone.

    Thus are most (but not all) people raised in rigidly conservative, conformist, authoritarian families the recipients of painful experiences at the hands of their families, friends, communities and churches which program them to be unable to comprehend that it is possible to see the world in any other way, nor to react to the circumstances around themselves in other ways than they have been programmed to react.

    As another poster has already said. They can’t HELP it.

    That’s no excuse for us to just let them keep doing what they’re doing, however, because other factors in the programming of their amygdala-based BIOS cause them to pursue options in their lives and the lives of our nation and its states, that GUARANTEE that, no matter how much nor how completely they accomplish their hearts’ desires,…

    they will find no satisfaction in those accomplishments, find their own well being and their own circumstances reduced by their own political/social successes,…

    and, being unable to comprehend that they might better desire anything else, they will destroy our society in their endless pursuit of those things that do not, will not, and cannot ever effectively address our problems,…

    nor will their solutions help to support or maintain our citizens’ (even their own) equal rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Although the BIOS built into each of us humans cannot be reprogrammed (we’re stuck with it and how it works), we CAN use other functions and features of that BIOS to erase the limitations that it tends to program into our psyches based on the painful experiences life has visited upon us.

    It’s unfortunate that more of us have not discovered the means to do so.

  13. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/16/2011 - 03:32 pm.

    I’ve also heard morally conservative morality described as a sense of personal morality (avoiding or punishing sin) and liberal morality as a sense of social or collective morality expressed in reaching out to help (we are our brother’s keeper and being poor, sick,lonely or falsely maligned is not our brother’s fault).

    It would seem, though, that family and educational environments can buttress or blunt either tendency.

  14. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/16/2011 - 04:08 pm.

    I often agree with Neal, but I’d have to amend #5’s first “philosophy” to say: “You get what I THINK you deserve.” We’re talking about a judgment that doesn’t usually have an abstract, rational, non-discriminatory basis, since it typically springs from fairly vague and shifting qualities that are believed to have earned reward or punishment. Not everyone in those debate audiences cheered or applauded the comments in question, so while the “death cheers” are sad commentaries on the current state of political discourse, they basically refer only to the judgment(s) of the individuals who are doing the cheering.

    Those doing the cheering will be hard-pressed to convince a rational person that they’re “pro-life.”

    Mr. Swift’s “pro-life” bonafides would have more credibility if he were just as vehemently opposed to American (and others’) military actions resulting in the deaths of those at the other end, military and civilian alike, not to mention being supportive of treatment of the poor, here and abroad, for a host of deadly diseases. I’ve not noticed that viewpoint in his comments so far.

    I’d also take the more general “pro-life” argument at least semi-seriously if more concern were expressed by its advocates for the quality of the life being so vehemently defended. ‘Twould seem that the people most insistent upon a female giving birth whether she wanted to or not are often the same people who are most adamant in their opposition to any sort of program that might assist either the mother or the infant after said infant arrives. Cognitive dissonance, if nothing else, unless we adopt the very odd position that “life” begins at the instant of conception and ends at the instant of actual birth.

    Just sayin’.

    More astute citizens will already have noted that, if “God is pro-life,” it’s also true that “God is pro-death.” Therein lies a considerable conundrum for idealogues of the first viewpoint. Mr. Swift’s argument regarding the number of doctors willing to work for free is not without merit, but sidesteps the issue. The question I heard from the debate was not *will* the uninsured young man die, it was *should* the uninsured man be *allowed* to die. One is an estimation of biological probabilities, the other is a value judgment carried out as policy.

  15. Submitted by Peter Soulen on 09/16/2011 - 04:13 pm.

    I’d like to see Dr. Levine’s analysis of the psychology of North vs/South, or abolitionist vs/slavers in the run up to the civil war. I have thought more and more lately that we are headed in that direction…

    And, who was it that said that for the GOP – life begins at conception and ends at birth?

  16. Submitted by Hal Davis on 09/16/2011 - 07:07 pm.

    Greg (#12):

    ==Thus are most (but not all) people raised in rigidly conservative, conformist, authoritarian families the recipients of painful experiences at the hands of their families, friends, communities and churches which program them to be unable to comprehend that it is possible to see the world in any other way, nor to react to the circumstances around themselves in other ways than they have been programmed to react.==

    A wordy way of saying that those believe that they are doomed to a harsh life are speaking, I’m sure, from experience.

    And those who believe that life can be more joyous and gentle have had, or believe they can have, a different experience.

    I’m not sure how to reconcile that. But I think a combination of snark and love might make the conversation more interesting.

  17. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/16/2011 - 08:39 pm.

    A very good article. Dr. Levine’s comments remind me of the 1960’s and early 1970’s when I found myself in the midst of the anti-war movement. Which I was myself. But I found that being in a group (or a “mob” as some might call it), I lost my own voice or person. Even my silence became part of the louder voice of those who clamored loudly. Dr. Levine articulates the difference between our individual opinions and the group voice when our presence lends weight to those those are responding to cultural symbols.

    On the other hand, these responses help us to weigh what those group responses mean to us culturally. I find the tea party “let them die” attitude extremely repugnant and hypocritical to say the least since I’m sure many of these tea partiers profess to follow Christ.

  18. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 09/16/2011 - 11:38 pm.

    My take is a little different: I think these outbursts (and the attitudes that underlie them) are related to the sour economy. This is an overgeneralization, but liberals tend to blame the actions of powerful institutions (Wall Street, banks, credit card companies, government deregulation) for the state of the economy while conservatives tend to blame relatively powerless individuals (people who bought homes they couldn’t afford, illegal immigrants, public employees, “those deadbeats who don’t pay federal income taxes”, the poor). The rank-and-file of the Republican Party is encouraged by their leaders to resent these groups.

    In particular, this translates into hostility toward any individual or group perceived to cost the taxpayer money. That would apply to individuals convicted of capital crimes (“why should the taxpayers feed and clothe such people for the rest of their natural lives?”) and the uninsured (“why should the taxpayers pay for the health care of someone who either can afford insurance and chooses not to get it or isn’t diligent/careful/prudent enough to be able to afford it?”).

    When times are tough and people feel insecure about their own futures, they are not inclined to be generous in thought or deed. You see this everywhere. I do not believe that the punitive, vengeful streak in right wing politics today would have gained much traction in a strong economy. When we finally pull out of the economic doldrums, I hope people will come to their collective senses.

  19. Submitted by William Pappas on 09/18/2011 - 08:06 am.

    “Retributive angularities”? Can we just call a spade a spade and say that the Tea Party is disturbingly amoral and coupling that with a fascist approach to government is more than a little frightening.

  20. Submitted by David Harcourt on 09/18/2011 - 11:06 am.

    Ron Gotzman, you must have seen the Fox News edited version of the speech, the one where they removed the part where we made clear he was talking about voting, not violence.

  21. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/19/2011 - 01:49 pm.

    They are selling their kidneys in Tamil, India…not out of compassion for another…but for self-survival

    Tea Party fundamentalists applaud the death of another who cannot afford health care. It may be explained away as cultural phenomena of hard times and self-preservation (Not-them-but-us). Yet it cannot explain away the inhumanity displayed so blatantly…so it surprises me that someone in that Perry crowd hasn’t requested or demanded the dying man’s kidneys.

    Check out Canetti’s “Crowds and Power” or Hermann Glazer’s out-of-print book on the “Spiesser-ideologue” mentality and we’re almost there again folks.

    Do not underestimate our deterministic nature; the sense of self-preservation-by whatever-means-it-takes…sad to say, it is another, basic human instinct…

    It would be unfair to animals if we were to assume it is our dog-eat-dog underbelly of survival instincts at play here, as it may be followed a step or two further…as we start feasting on each other in order to survive and soon become a steaming mountain of scat on a gray landscape?

    A neighbor a few dunes away, had been daily observing a mother fox with her kits and one day as she was dividing her “spoils’ among her babies…Fox, looks up as she always did acknowledging my neighbor from a distance away. But this day she stops eating and feeding and picks a fairly ample piece and strolls over; drops it at my neighbor’s feet…I think it’s called “sharing”?

    Then another story; family dog, big German Shepard, Diego who noted the neighbor’s new puppy had wandered across the street. The new neighbors are looking furtively for their new pet when Diego crosses the street with a bundle of fur in his mouth. They said he dropped it at their feet, then gave them a stern look…a pragmatic move one can assume; then returned back home.

    Sharing is a compassionate response one could say, or a pragmatic one in either case.

    Self preservation is not necessarily a base, animal instinct but a human one, as it can be when it only displays its backside. Then we call it reservedly, the human condition, that is, the ugly side of ‘humanness, when it sees another trying to exist also… yet applauds his dying when the system fails?

    It is not a just society that honors this Darwinian dialectic…

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