Secular cultural trends punctuated by noisy, emotional peaks & valleys: surveying the psychology landscape of mass opinion, mass shootings, & gun control

Really cool new working paper by Josh Blackman & Shelby Baird on the psychology of mass public opinion on guns.

Based on a disciplined synthesis of decades of survey data in relation to mass shooting events, plus a textured case study of popular reactions to the Newtown shooting, B&B construct an interesting & plausible model of the psychological dynamics that shape popular support for gun control.

The key pieces consist of [1] an aggregate societal demand for gun restrictions, which comprises a vectoring (essentially) of culturally grounded predispositions; [2] a collection of risk-perception heuristics that, interacting with cultural predispositions, regulate popular attention and reaction to information on gun risks and the efficacy of gun regulation; and [3] sporadic mass shooting events that, feeding on [2], ignite a conflagration of political activity that cools and abates in a recurring, predictable pattern (“the shooting cycle”), leaving no net effect on [1].

The political-economy take home is that gun control supporters can’t expect to buy much with the currency of popular opinion. As a result of [2], we can expect the drama of gun control to remain stubbornly anchored to the center of the popular-political stage.  But once [1] and [3] are disentangled, B&B conclude, it becomes clear that the popular demand for gun control is relatively weak and growing progressively weaker over time, notwithstanding the predictably intense but temporary spikes generated by mass shootings.

Because of the psychology of gun risks, the prospect of scoring a decisive victory will thus continue to tantalize gun control supporters, who will respond with convulsive enthusiasm to the “opportunities” episodically furnished by mass shooting tragedies.  But according to B&B, they won’t get anywhere unless there is “a significant cultural shift” on guns–one the dimensions of which are significant enough to alter [1].

Indeed, B&B view the prospects of that sort of development as constrained by [2] as well. Advocacy groups will predictably employ culturally partisan and divisive idioms to milk support from the members of groups that are culturally predisposed to see gun risks as high, thereby reinforcing the political motivation of opposing groups to resist gun regulation as an assault on their identities.

There are lots of things to like about this paper.

One is the interesting and compelling explanatory framework B&B construct.  Even if one isn’t sure it is right– or even strongly suspects it is wrong!–engaging with it is a great way to structure one’s collection and assessment of evidence that can be used to advance understanding of gun control politics.  In addition, even if one isn’t interested in gun control, one can profitably adapt the framework to other “risk” issues, like, say, climate change, where advocacy seems similarly disoriented by the allure of popular-opinion fool’s gold.

Another is the solid style of analysis.  B&B didn’t conduct an original observational study or conduct an experiment. But they did use valid empirical methods.  That is, they formulated a set of conjectures, identified sources of evidence that could be expected to support an inference as to whether the conjectures were likely true or not, and then collected the evidence and assessed it in a disciplined and transparent manner that admits of engagement by critically reasoning readers.

Contrast this with the “just-add-water-&-stir, instant decision science” that abounds in both popular and academic commentary.  That style of analysis, which aims to mesmerize credulous readers into thinking that their preconceptions are “scientifically supported,” is a counterfeit species of empiricism.

To be sure, the sort of “synthetic empirical” analysis that B&B have performed is open to criticism, particularly given the flexibility those who engage in it have to identify confirming and disconfirming forms of secondary evidence.

But no form of valid empirical analysis is free of doubt.  

A smart person will be willing to accept guidance from any valid form of empirical inquiry–that is, from any that is susceptible of generating more or less reason to believe a proposition than one would otherwise have. Rather than wasting time arguing about “which valid empirical method is best,” that person will welcome all forms, the results of which that individual will combine in forming his or her views.

The “gold standard” is the “no gold standard” philosophy of convergent validity.

The final thing to like about this paper: cool graphs!

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