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Cheering dying: Psychology behind ghoulish outbursts at GOP debates

A University of Minnesota professor who researches the psychological underpinnings of political preference talks about two spontaneous outbursts that caught a lot of people’s attention.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.