Scandalous! Immorality in One’s Own Political Party Increases Animosity
On any given day, you are likely to learn about a celebrity or politician accused of some criminal, sexual, or financial misdeed. In fact, research shows that public discourse is saturated with the worst examples of human behavior: one study found that individuals are TWICE as likely to encounter stories of immoral (versus moral) behavior online.
In light of this, you may be inclined to agree with a classic paper in social psychology arguing that bad is stronger (psychologically) than good. In other words, people seem drawn to the worst examples of human behavior, such as when people spend time ‘doomscrolling’ about terrible events despite the detrimental effects of all this negativity.
What effect does this focus on immorality have on our politics? If you suspect that it may be making things worse in some ways, you wouldn’t be alone. Studies show that factors like negative ad campaigns can over time contribute to strong feelings of animosity toward members of an opposing political party. In other words, being bombarded with negative images of opposing politicians seems to condition people to have even more intense dislike of members of an opposing party over time.
However, the effects of political scandals may include other more subtle psychological processes as well. In recent research of ours, we explored how individuals respond to scandals about their own party. There are a couple possibilities here that make sense, given what we know about psychology, and our goal was to determine which of these was better supported by the data.
First, it could be that when people learn about immoral behavior in their own group, they distance themselves from that group, to avoid being associated with any bad apples. While that approach makes sense intuitively, research on political parties also shows that parties become a very important piece of who we are, and something we may not be willing to walk away from if we can avoid it. After all, one’s politics are wrapped up with one’s personal identity and values in a way that makes it much harder to see oneself actually leaving a group, even one tarnished with scandal.
So instead, we thought that individuals may respond to scandals within their own party by becoming even more hostile toward opposing parties. Why? If members of other parties seem even worse than one’s own group, then one’s own group will still look better by comparison. Even though we were focused on reactions to scandal within one’s own party, we predicted that people may respond to this information by viewing an opposing party more negatively, effectively taking the sting out of any harm to their own group’s reputation.
We found across three studies (involving a total of 837 participants) that there was strong support for this view. First, we asked Americans who identified as either Democrat/Republic to read about a series of (fictional) scandals involving one major political party: either low-ranking Democrats or Republicans. We then asked them a wide range of questions to assess their perceptions of their own party and the opposing party. These included perceptions of prominent party figures (George W. Bush, Barack Obama), their willingness to compromise with the opposing party, and how positively/negatively they felt about Democrats/Republican voters in general.
Across all studies, we found that people who read about scandals in their own (versus the opposing) party showed significantly harsher and more negative views of the opposition. In other words, Democrats (or Republicans) held more negative views of the other party when they read about scandals tarnishing their own party’s image in the press. Additionally, we saw that this effect was clearest for those who more strongly identified with their own party; more fair-weather Democrats/Republicans didn’t show the same dislike of the opposition after reading about scandals in their party.
It’s also important to note that this effect was equally strong for both Democrats and Republicans. This suggests that across the ideological spectrum, people are equally motivated to maintain a positive view of their own group, even at the expense of the opposition.
These studies may have important implications. As we noted above, media gravitates overwhelmingly toward scandal. But given how strongly people identify with their political parties, this focus on immoral behavior means that almost any media report about scandal is likely to broaden the divides between parties. If it is about an opposing party, scandal may reinforce negative stereotypes about that group (of course they’d do something so awful!), and our studies show that even if scandal is about one’s own political party, it may still perpetuate hostility (since there’s no way we’re as bad as them). Being aware of these tendencies could help you keep a cool head the next time you find yourself reading about the next big scandal.
For Further Reading
Iyengar, S., & Westwood, S. J. (2015). Fear and loathing across party lines: New evidence on group polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59(3), 690-707. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12152
Rothschild, Z. K., Keefer, L. A., & Hauri, J. (2021). Defensive partisanship? Evidence that in‐party scandals increase out‐party hostility. Political Psychology, 42(1), 3-21. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12680
Lucas A. Keefer is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi. He primarily studies language and moral psychology.