Tuesday, September 22, 2009

People Who Don't Believe in Their Beliefs

So I was reading Reading Beyond Race, by Paul M. Sniderman and Edward G. Carmines (Harv. Univ. Press, 1997), which analyzes a bunch of survey work about racial attitudes.

In an initial chapter, they point out that white opposition to affirmative action was overwhelming even among "the most racially tolerant 1 percent of whites." My immediate reaction was, "So then how did affirmative action ever come about, if almost no one supported it?"

A subsequent chapter had the answer. The researchers came up with a very clever idea that they called the "List Experiment," which consisted of giving people a survey in which the interviewer reads a list of things that could possibly upset people (pollution, an increase in gas taxes, etc.), and then asks simply to know how many of the listed items (not which particular items) upset the person being interviewed. But some of the interviewees got an extra item in the list: affirmative action. This allowed the researchers to know that if the average number goes up when affirmative action is included in the list, some number of people are picking affirmative action in addition to the other items.

What were the results? Here's where things get interesting. When liberals are asked directly about their attitude toward affirmative action, they largely support it. But this is "a result of liberals saying what they think they should say, not what they really think. . . . it turns out that about 57 percent of white liberals include 'black leaders asking the government for affirmative action' among the things that make them angry or upset, compared with 50 percent of conservatives (and 55 percent of moderates . . .). These three figures are statistically indistinguishable."

I wonder how much of politics (and religion?) is a matter of people saying what they think others want to hear, not what they really believe. But by the same token, how much of the very fact that we have civilized society at all is because we squelch our true feelings and say what other people will find acceptable? (Witness the difference between the vast majority of face-to-face conversations vs. the sorts of things that anonymous Internet commenters will say when unencumbered by the social pressure to hide their true feelings.)


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