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WSMD? JA! Episode 2: cultural polarization on death penalty & climate change, 2006 vs. 2012

This is the second episode of CCP's already insanely popular new feature, "Wanna see more data? Just ask!" -- or "WSMD? JA!" (For contest rules and conditions, see here.)

In this episode, we answer the question, posed by students in Jeff Fagan's Capital Punishment seminar at Columbia Law School, "have you applied the cultural cognition scales to capital punishment?"

The answer is ... "why, yes -- in a survey just last month! And in another back in December 2006."

It's pretty interesting to compare the two sets of survey results, both on the issue of capital punishment and on the issue of global warming.

The items were the same in both the 2006 & 2012 studies:

How strongly do you oppose or support ... [1] stricter carbon emission standards to reduce global warming ... [2] the death penalty for murder?

The items both used six-point Likert measures: (1) strongly oppose; (2) modestly oppose; (3) slightly oppose; (4) slightly support; (5) modestly support; (6) strongly support.

Both of these issues -- the death penalty and climate change -- are ones on which hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians are most intensely divided. I used ordered logit regression models to simulate how likely a "typical" hierarchical individualist (one whose scores on the "Hierarchy" and "Individualism" scales are both set at +1 standard deviation) and a "typical" egalitarian communitarian (-1 SD on each scale) were to "support" the indicated policy at some level (either slightly, moderately, or strongly) in the two studies.

Here's the outcome from the Dec. 2006 study (a 1500-person, nationally representive sample):

Basically, mirror images: the egalitarian communitarian is over 90% likely to support stricter carbon emission limits, and about 60% likely to support the death penalty; the hierarchical individualist is about 90% likely to support the death penalty and about 60% likely to support stricter carbon emission limits

Now here are the results in September 2012 (from an 800-person, nationally representative sample): 

Wow! An amazing increase in the degree of polarization on carbon-emission limits, with the egalitarian communitarian squeezing up close to 100% and the hierarch individualist dropping down to about 10% likely to support that policy. There's more polarization on the death penalty too: while the hierarch individualist of 2012 is hanging in at about 90% likely to support, the egalitarian communitarian is down from around 60% in 2006 to around 40% today.

I didn't expect to see such stark results -- on either issue, really.

Maybe I should have? On climate change, the common view is that the issue has become increasingly partisan. Remember, too, that 2006 was the year that Al Gore's movie came out, an event that many see as having helped brand the climate change issue ideologically.

I had thought the idea that climate change polarization was more recent was overstated. Well, I was right to remember climate change being highly polarized, culturally speaking, in 2006, but these data support the view that people (ordinary, not particulary partisan ones, remember) are much much more divided now! (Some think that's changing; yet our studies over the last yr haven't shown any abatement in cultural polarization.)

On capital punishment, it's pretty well known that support for the death penalty is generally declining. Consider this trend in Gallup's national polling:

The divide was 65% for, 28% against in Oct. 2006. Five years later, the divide had narrowed to 61% for to 35% against. That's something, and if you go back a bit further, the contemporary trend seems even more noticeable, albeit modest.

From our data, it looks like most of the action is coming from egalitarian communitarians, who moved from being more likely to support to more likely to oppose. Hierarch individualists don't seem to have budged!

I think this is pretty interesting (almost as interesting as learning that today's army has fewer horses and bayonets than it did in 1916, news the President announced in the middle of my writing this post; yet another shock!).

But I have to say, I myself am not so interested in the policy positions favored by people with opposing cultural outlooks.  One can't have a policy position -- on anything -- without making a judgment of value. Not surprisingly, people with different values tend to support different policies (although as I said, in this case the changing strength of the conflict on carbon emission limits did surprise me).

What's more interesting -- to me, at least! -- is the contribution that cultural values make to perceptions of risk and related facts. Cultural cognition is about how people's cultural outlooks shape processing of various types of information--from scientific findings to expert opinions to images captured in a video

What I wish we had collected data on last month and also back to 2006 was the relationship between our subjects' cultural outlooks and their perceptions of whether the death penalty deters. That's one of the classic examples of an empirical issue that's driven by symbolic or expressive, cultural outlooks. Indeed, every schoolboy & -girl knows  Lord, Ross & Lepper's classic biased assimilation study, which found that people conformed their assessments of studies on the deterrent effect of the death penalty to their pre-existing positions.

But there's really interesting evidence that people in general are becoming less convinced that the death penalty deters without changing their mind on the death penalty. Consider this from Gallup:

If you go back to '85 -- back when the death penalty was a big deal (remember Willie Horton? that was from the 1988 presidential campaign; the issue is dead as ... well, it's no longer relevant at all to national political divisions) & closer to when Lord, Ross & Lepper did their study, 62% believed the death penalty deterred, and only 31% that it didn't. Today the proportions are close to reversed. Yet support the death penalty has not tailed off nearly so dramatically.

What's going on? ... Maybe because the issue is less salient as a focus for cultural contestation (again, it's been off the national political state for a quarter century!), people don't feel the same pressure to conform their consequentialist rationales to their cultural evaluations of the death penalty; in other words, motivated consequentialism might be associated most strongly with culturally polarizing issues...

Just a conjecture! I really am perplexed!

And I like feeling that way.  Thanks Fagan Capital Punishment students for a really good question.

That's all for this episode of "WSMD? JA!"  See you next time!

Some references:

Ellsworth, P.C. & Gross, S.R. Hardening of the Attitudes: Americans’ Views on the Death Penalty. J. Soc. Issues 50, 19 (1994).


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Reader Comments (1)

Cool data! I think your conjecture makes sense and fits with what you've said before: When people engage in cross-cultural argument, they justify their positions with culturally-neutral rationales, such as deterrence. And they'll reduce cognitive dissonance/engage in motivated reasoning by believing what they say. When they don't have to speak in these terms, then they're free to focus on more deontological reasons for their position. Could this be tested in an (expensive) experiment where some subjects talk with like-minded people about a controversial issue and others talk with opposite-minded people, and we see who has what risk-related beliefs? Or would there be 500,000 other interpretations of those results?

October 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMW

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