This is a summary of the 2022 paper Individuals prefer to harm their own group rather than help an opposing group. I spent about an hour reading the study and writing the post as I went. If I made mistakes in my interpretation, please let me know in the comments.
- Individuals prefer to harm their own group rather than provide even minimal support to an opposing group across polarized issues (abortion access, political party, gun rights).
- Individuals preferred to subtract more than three times as much from their own group rather than support an opposing group, despite believing that their in-group is more effective with funds.
- Identity concerns drive preferences in group decision-making
- Individuals believe that supporting an opposing group is less value-compatible than harming their own group.
Let’s say you’re a highly partisan voter. Maybe you’re a Democrat, with a strong dislike of Republican politics. Now, let’s play a game of Would You Rather. Let’s say a mustache-twiddling psychologist ushers you into his lab and offers you a choice. On the table is a pair of checks. You look more closely. The checks are made out to the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, each for $1,000,000!
“You’ve got to choose,” says the psychologist. “Either I make both of these donations, or tear up both checks. What do you want me to do?”
You hem and haw, then think about what each party would spend the money on. Democrats are the party of the poor. A little money can go a long way. The Republicans are the party of the rich, and they get so much money that an extra $1,000,000 won’t help them. It would make sense to have the psychologist donate both checks - on balance, the extra money will probably help the Democrats more than the Republicans.
So you’re surprised when the words out of your mouth are, “tear up both checks.”
OK, that’s not the exact methodology of this study, but it gets the point across. This study showed that participants are foolishly spiteful in lose-lose situations. Here are the individual study results:
- In lose-lose situations, do people irrationally focus on hurting their opponents, even at a greater cost to their own side? On both sides of the aisle, offered a choice of giving their opponents $1 or having their own side lose $1, they’ll take the loss about 75% of the time, even if they think their own side can make better use of the money. So yes, people will sacrifice a greater benefit to their own side to avoid helping the enemy.
- How big is this effect? The researchers found that people would rather lose more than $3 than give $1 to their political opponents.
- How much of this is an identity thing, as opposed to an attempt to be strategic? People feel like giving $1 to the opposition harms their political identity more than losing $1 for their own side. Even if they think their own side uses the money more effectively than their opponents, they’re not persuaded to change their donations on that basis.
- What if we reinforce people’s partisan identities? Does that enhance the effect? Yes it does. Reinforce people’s identity as a Democrat, and they’ll be even more likely to choose to sacrifice $1 for the Democrats in order to avoid giving $1 to the Republicans, and vice versa.
- What if people thought it was normal to focus on avoiding hurting their own side, even if it helps their opponents? This makes a huge difference. If people think a strong majority of their own side would rather let the other side have $1 in order to avoid losing $1 for their own side, they’ll conform to the this new norm.
- What if nobody would find out? The researchers found that this doesn’t matter at all. People make pretty much the same choices whether they think their choice would be public or anonymous.
We don’t know exactly why people behave this way. Are people trying to protect their self-image or reputation? The researchers checked if maybe the “reversibility” of losing $1 for your own side to keep $1 out of the hands of your opponents is the motivator (after all, if you sacrifice $1 for the Democrats to keep $1 out of the hands of the Republicans, you can always follow this up later on by donating an extra $1 to the Democrats later on). But almost nobody thinks about this.
The takeaway is that norm-setting has a powerful effect on behavior when politically polarized people face lose-lose choices. People will shoot themselves in the foot to avoid giving ammunition to their opponents, even if they think their own side has better aim.
My heuristics say that this study is likely bunk. It has the unholy trinity of being counter-intuitive, politically useful, and sounding cool.
I'm going to pre-register my predictions here before I do an analysis.
I was wrong. This study actually looks solid, with pre-registration and good sample-sizes.
Also, they made all the code and datasets available!
I should make it clear that these practices are very much not common in any field and greatly exceeded my expectations. I applaud the authors for making the extra effort and strongly encourage other researchers to follow in their footsteps.
My yell-at-people-on-the-internet-for-doing-statistics-wrong senses are still tingling, though, for reasons I don't understand. It's probably nothing, but maybe it's foreshadowing.
A full analysis will follow. Eventually.
Also their respondants are not just undergraduates - the first study at least was a representative sample of about 1,000 US and UK residents.
Upvoted for preregistration.
These may be reasonable heuristics, given how much research doesn't replicate. But why do you consider this finding "politically useful"? The study says that this behavior happens regardless of political affiliation, so it's not like those studies that say "<my political opponents> are <dumb / naive / racist>" and which then serve as ammunition against the other side.
Also, kudos to pre-registering your predictions!
I meant more like it slides neatly into someone's political theory, and "increased political polarization" is a pretty common topic nowadays. I should probably come up with a better description for this.
Does it slide neatly into the political theory of increased political polarization, though? I feel like I could've told stories consistent with that theory for all conceivable study outcomes:
I think this is complicated by the reality that money given to the parties isn't spent directly on solving problems, but on fighting for power. The opinion that "the political parties should have less money on average, and my party should have relatively more money than their party" seems eminently reasonable to me.
I asked one of the authors about this. She acknowledged that some respondants do say they'd like to see less money in politics. However, she also pointed out that in the win/win scenario, people choose to have their own party gain a dollar and leave the opposition alone, rather than leaving their own side alone and subtracting $1 from the opposition. So people are not consistently choosing to decrease the amount of money in politics. This makes respondant claims that this was their objective in the lose-lose scenario sound like post-hoc rationalizations to me.
I disagree - the proportion of people citing "less money in politics" or "I hate both parties on principle" as reasons for taking from their own side in the "lose-lose" condition is roughly the same as the proportion of people taking from the opposition in the "win-win" condition. I think these were basically the same people, so no post-hoc justification is needed.
The remainder of the "lose-lose" takers basically just say variants of "it feels less bad/cheap/traitorous to take from our own side than to give to the opposition", a situation that doesn't exist in the "win-win" condition.
Let’s step back and look at what we’re debating. You’re seeing that a few people just don’t like political donations. They want to see less money in politics. They’re clear on this, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a win/win or a lose/lose situation - they just want to see fewer dollars being wasted on attack ads. They’d ideally like both parties to spend less.
When I look at this study, I see that most people behave like they agree with them, at least in lose-lose situations. But in win-win situations, people take the dollar they're offered for their own side instead of burning one of their opponents' dollars.
So some people clearly do want to see less money in politics, and that no doubt is how some of them picked their responses in this study. But most people just aren’t acting as if that was top of mind for them. One way to make sense of it all is to say that people see the study questions as a loyalty test. Some quirk of the human brain makes them see “giving” their opponents a dollar in the lose-lose situation as feeling more traitorous than “losing” a dollar for their own side. But “getting” a dollar for their own side feels more loyal than “destroying” a dollar for their opponents.
That seems psychologically plausible to me. "Giving" your opponents a dollar smacks of "aid and comfort to the enemy," while "losing" a dollar for your own side feels like at worst a blunder, and at most a necessary cost paid out of prudence, in a way that goes beyond financial accounting. On the other hand, "getting" a dollar for your own side feels like you're bringing home the bacon. You're a provider, and you might expect to gain status. "Destorying" one of the enemy's dollars feels at best like counting coup, but at worst like you're being a thief or you're not playing by the rules. Maybe some people will pat you on the back for it. But it might also trigger some kind of vendetta by the other side. Maybe it's more trouble than its worth.
I don't think people go through a thought process like this consciously - this is me channeling my subconscious associations when I consider the options.
Yes, I basically agree with your first two paragraphs. However, I disagree that the evidence shows people are using post-hoc justifications in the lose-lose condition. There is no need for that hypothesis. If the "less money in politics" people in the lose-lose condition also took money in the win-win condition but everyone else switched, we would get similar results to that actually observed.
I don't know if I even disagree with your explanation for the different results between the win-win and lose-lose conditions. I'm modeling this off of existing models of taboo violation. Breaking "mundane taboos" like "donating less/no money" are always preferred over "sacred taboos" like "donating to the opposition" or "stealing, even from the opposition". So the more politically active someone is, the more likely they are to view "donating less" as a sacred taboo, since the more politically active someone is, the more they are exposed to requests for political donations and hence ignore them. The difference is mostly in the framing - my framing is that, in reality, causing there to be less donations to your side doesn't feel like a taboo, since it's something people do implicitly anyways. This is all that is needed to explain our results, and I think the simplest, most elegant, and least counter-intuitive.
We might actually have the same models, with the only difference being the viscousness implied. The real question is where they differ, and what different predictions they give. I think the best way to resolve this is a followup study that directly asks people what each option makes them feel emotionally, and how much.
I think we agree on the taboo/loyalty test thing, and I don't have strong, considered, specific views on the details of people's psychological state - I don't think the results of a "how each option makes them feel emotionally" study is likely to surprise me, because I just don't have very articulate or confident views on that level of granularity.
I'm still not quite sure what you're pointing out with the "less money in politics" thing explaining these results. Is that something you can spell out point by point, maybe giving specific numbers from the study to buttress your argument? I realize that's a big ask, I understand if you don't want to take the trouble.
~20% of people were explicitly "less money in politics" in the lose-lose condition. This explains why ~20% of people took away money in the win-win condition, because it was the same people. That's it. It doesn't explain anything else. I just brought it up because it was interesting. While everyone else was having to struggle with difficult emotions, they just pressed the button to take away money, in line with their values. This was funny to me.
Let’s say we kicked the “less money in politics” crowd out of the study. If they were 20% of the respondents, I believe that about half the remaining people would have chosen each option. Which starts to look like it’s pretty arbitrary, not a sign of some deep seated psychological quirk. I’ll have to ask the author about that - thanks for explaining!
After thinking about this more, I actually think there is a counter to that. The fifth study showed that people are really conforming to a norm, real or imagined. If they were really acting on their own individual preferences, then it seems like telling them their own side thinks it's important not to lose money, even though the other side gains money, ought not to be able to so thoroughly alter the choices they make.
What we probably need is an explanation for:
The explanation for (1) seems to be an overriding desire to maintain their sense of political identity. But the explanation for (2) might be that, all else equal, they think it's sensible to diminish the amount of money wasted on politics. But if (1) dominates, then if they think the norm is to put money into politics, they'll do that instead.
I agree, I think that is an important alternative explanation that AFAIK the authors did not adequately explore.
Hypothesis: much of this is explained by the simpler phenomenon of loss aversion. $1 to your ingroup is a gain, $1 to your outgroup is a loss and therefore mentally multiplied by ~2. The paper finds a factor of 3, so maybe there's something else going on too.
I thought about that, but I think it doesn't quite fit the details of the study. For example, in Study 1, they asked people to choose between two options:
The second option was much more popular, even though it involved taking a loss. So it seems to me that, if anything, loss aversion makes these results even more surprising. What do you think?
I agree and now am pretty confused.
It seems like the explanation is that the desire to conform to the imagined norm in order to reinforce identity is so powerful that it can even override loss aversion to a large degree.
More discussion on the SSC subreddit.
A pretty interesting alternative hypothesis is what I call "kitten stabbing". Let's say that you believe every dollar given to Dems goes to TV ads, while every dollar donated to Reps goes towards building a giant robot Mitch McConnell that stabs kittens. If you're a Rep, you can think of a giant mechanized Bill Clinton that bombs random embassies in Serbia instead. In this worldview, you still think your own side is more effective at achieving stated goals, but any money given to the other side is going towards pure evil. Therefore, you are more willing to take money from your side than to give to the opposition.
There's also the "less money in politics" view, which is directly mentioned in many responses in the data table for S2. Example: "I'm sick of the big partied and their interference, so I'll take any option to subtract money from them".
However, these hypotheses are directly contradicted by the results of the "win-win" condition, where participants were given the ability to either give to their own side or remove money from the opposition. In those cases, something like 80% (!!) chose to give to their own side.
Many of the actual responses are pretty in line with what you would expect. "If I added $1 to the Republican organization, I would feel like I'm supporting the Republicans and I don't want to do that. I don't want to make it more likely that a Republican will be voted into office. By default, I chose to subtract $1 from the Democratic organization because that was my only choice that remained."
I'm still very confused, tbh.
For your proposed model to work, we have to assume that respondants think their own side is better at turning money into electoral victory, which they can then use to try and achieve concrete aims, but their opponents are able to turn money donated to their political campaign directly into concrete aims, without needing to achieve political victory. For example, the Democrats need to win the presidency to pass a law banning homophobic curriculums in the schools and thereby modestly advance the cause of gay rights, but the Republicans can spend campaign money directly on extremely effective homophobic TV advertising that has as major effect on stoking homophobia, no electoral victory required.
However, this still seems like a scenario in which the respondant is convinced that their opponent can spend the money more effectively than their own party. The study authors showed that even believing their own party spends money more effectively than the opposition doesn't persuade people by default to protect their own donation while allowing the opposition an additional $1. So I don't think your hypothesis fits the findings of the study, insofar as we can extrapolate.
Can you say where exactly you found the "I'm sick of the big parties and their interference" quote? I am having trouble finding it, not sure if you meant study 2 or supplementary 2 by S2.
It's the xlsx file in the supplementary 2 study. "Study S2"
I would argue this is a simple stealing is bad heuristic. I would also generally expect subtraction to anger the enemy and cause them stab more kittens.
I think I found the missing intuition from a participant ("Data - Study S2"): "Because if you add one dollar it is equivalent to adding power to the party in question. If you take away one dollar from a party it does not give power to the other party. Also, if it's better to be judged by your own party as cheap or bad than to be called a betrayer."
People who have strong views in politics also tend to be involved in party events. So imagine someone who goes to rallies and fundraisers. They are constantly being bombarded with requests for money. This is a bit annoying and the participants turn down opportunities to donate all the time.
So decreasing a donation to your party is a slightly bad thing you do all the time. It's very much expected that you don't donate at each fundraiser. At some point it becomes the same as taking an extra dounut. It becomes a mundane sin instead of a moral one. Something shitty that everyone does. And people very much judge themselves for moral sins, and will generally prefer to make a mundane one instead. And I think people view influencing others' donations the same way, since they are also exhorted to seek donations from friends/relatives.
But donating to the opposition is still a moral sin, of course. Hence why 28% of participants prefered to take $10 from their in-group instead of giving $1 to the outgroup.
I think this is a plausible alternative explanation that can also explain the results of the "win-win" condition. Taking money, even from a rival group, is still kinda immoral, in most peoples' minds. But giving to your own group doesn't trigger any negative emotions, hence why it was preferred. I will follow up on this later, but I think this hypothesis can be tested with the available information.
Also, another interesting fact: the proportion of people who took money away from the out-group in the "win-win" is roughly equal to the proportion of respondents who responded with "both parties should have less money on principle" in the "lose-lose" condition. This is important, even if I can't quite figure out why yet.
Isn't this a factual error?
It's just supposed to represent a thought process someone might go through as an illustrative example, not to be factually accurate. Sorry that wasn't clear!