The Oxford Dictionary defines ideology as “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy”1. So it is a system of thought, assumed to possess coherence and internal consistency.
When we talk about liberals and conservatives, we assume that members of each group have such consistent patterns of political thought and that they are liberal or conservative, regardless of the context. In other words, for example, if we call someone a liberal, we assume that that person would have a liberal standpoint regarding freedom of speech, LGBT rights, economic policies, foreign policy, and a bunch of other unrelated political matters without ever considering the circumstantial factors. However, it is also common sense that this is not always true, at least for some of the people. Circumstantial differences can sometimes prevent people from having a political standpoint that is consistent across different contexts.
In fact, whether people are politically sophisticated or not has been a matter of debate for a couple of decades now. Converse2 famously argued that only a small minority actually had a consistent political ideology. Later research suggested several factors, including education3, political participation4, and political expertise5, that influence the level of sophistication. In my research, however, I took a different approach and investigated the effect of abstract/concrete mindset6.
My hypothesis was based on Construal Level Theory (CLT)7. According to CLT, an abstract mindset highlights superordinate constructs that encompass several subordinate objects. A concrete mindset, on the other hand, emphasizes the concrete differences between objects. Imagine going to the zoo. You might find out that gorillas and capuchin monkeys are quite different from each other in several aspects. Such emphasis on differences is a characteristic of a concrete mindset. You might become even more concrete and pay attention to the even smaller differences between gorillas and orangutans which are more alike to each other as compared to capuchin monkeys. A person with an abstract mindset, however, would look for the similarities, or the umbrella constructs that include all these subordinate objects. For example, they are all primates, aren’t they? Or one can adopt an even more abstract construal and call them as mammals or animals.
Following up on the past research on the relationship between construal level and politics, I hypothesized that these differences between abstract and concrete mindset would explain some of the differences in political sophistication. I argued that if one has an abstract mindset, then s/he would pay attention to the common underlying theme rather than circumstantial differences when forming her/his political convictions. As a result, this would make the person more politically consistent.
In order to investigate people’s responses in different contexts, I utilized some of the most frequently-used political attitude scales in social psychology, including right-wing authoritarianism8 (respect for traditions and obedience to authority figures), social dominance orientation9 (perceiving inequality between different groups to be acceptable), general system justification10 (tendency to justify the political status quo), and economic system justification11 (tendency to justify economic inequality). These scales consist of several statements that are different from each other, yet assumed to be determined by the same abstract, superordinate political belief.
For example, two of the items of the general system justification scale are, “It is virtually impossible to eliminate poverty,” and, “If people work hard, they almost always get what they want.” When construed more concretely, these statements are definitely different from each other. The former is about the possibility of completely eradicating poverty, whereas the latter is about whether people get what they deserve. Still, they belong to the same scale, because they are both about justifying the current economic structure.
So, I argued that people with an abstract mindset, as compared to concrete, would be more likely to give similar answers to different questions on the same scale. As they would be more concerned with the abstract, superordinate belief that encompasses their judgments in different contexts, their answers to different questions would be more alike. To measure similarity in responses, I decided to use within-subject standard deviations (a measure of how much an individual’s responses on a Likert scale varies from each other) and Cronbach’s alpha (a measure of how much responses of different individuals in the same group are internally consistent).
I conducted seven experiments, utilizing five different ways of manipulating abstract/concrete mindset and four different scales, as mentioned above, on American and Turkish samples. The results overall were supportive of my expectations: Those who were led to adopt an abstract mindset, as compared to a concrete mindset, had significantly lower within-subject standard deviations and higher Cronbach’s alpha scores. In other words, abstractness rendered responses to different questions measuring the same superordinate political belief more similar to each other.
The results were promising as they suggest that a thinking style can actually have an important effect on the consistency of political beliefs. Past research suggested that factors like education and political participation have effects on the internal consistency of political beliefs, but this was the first time that such consistency could actually be manipulated. It implies that the level of internal consistency in people’s political beliefs could be more volatile than assumed, as it can be altered with a change in the construal level.
Another potential implication is regarding how thinking about the future would change our political consistency. According to CLT, people adopt more abstract mindsets when thinking about the distant future12. So it could be argued that political matters regarding the future of the world, like policies designed to tackle climate change, might elicit more internally consistent political attitudes. Overall, the results suggest that this is an exciting avenue for future research and further studies might provide us with a more complete picture of how and when the level of political consistency can be altered.
These findings are described in the article entitled An abstract mind is a principled one: Abstract mindset increases consistency in responses to political attitude scales, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This work was conducted by Sinan Alper from Yasar University.
- Ideology. (n.d.). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/definition/ideology
- Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Althaus, S. L. (2003). Collective preferences in democratic politics: Opinion surveys and the will of the people. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Lupton, R. N., Myers, W. M., & Thornton, J. R. (2015). Political sophistication and the dimensionality of elite and mass attitudes, 1980–2004. The Journal of Politics, 77, 368–380. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/action/cookieAbsent.
- Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans know about politics and why it matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Alper, S. (2018). An abstract mind is a principled one: Abstract mindset increases consistency in responses to political attitude scales. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 77, 89-101. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2018.04.008
- Liberman, N., & Trope, Y. (2008). The psychology of transcending the here and now. Science, 322, 1201–1205. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/322/5905/1201.
- Altemeyer, B. (1998). The other “authoritarian personality”. In M. Zanna (Ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 47–92). San Diego: Academic Press.
- Sidanius, J., Pratto, F., & Bobo, L. (1994). Social dominance orientation and the political psychology of gender: A case of invariance? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 998–1011. http://doi.apa.org/getdoi.cfm?doi=10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1688.
- Wakslak, C. J., Jost, J., & Bauer, P. (2011). Spreading rationalization: Increased support for large-scale and small-scale social systems following system threat. Social Cognition, 29, 288–302. https://guilfordjournals.com/action/cookieAbsent.
- Jost, J. T., & Thompson, E. P. (2000). Group-based dominance and opposition to equality as independent predictors of self-esteem, ethnocentrism, and social policy attitudes among African Americans and European Americans. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36, 209–232. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0022103199914038.
- Liberman, N., & Trope, Y. (2014). Traversing psychological distance. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18, 364–369. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1364661314000734.