Tag Archives: Politics

Politically Polarized Brains Share an Intolerance of Uncertainty (Politics / Neuroscience)

A new study on political polarization led by a Brown University team showed how an aversion to uncertainty is often associated with black-and-white political views.

Since the 1950s, political scientists have theorized that political polarization — increased numbers of “political partisans” who view the world with an ideological bias — is associated with an inability to tolerate uncertainty and a need to hold predictable beliefs about the world.

But little is known about the biological mechanisms through which such biased perceptions arise.

To investigate that question, scientists at Brown University measured and compared the brain activity of committed partisans (both liberals and conservatives) as they watched real political debates and news broadcasts. In a recent study, they found that polarization was indeed exacerbated by intolerance of uncertainty: liberals with this trait tended to be more liberal in how they viewed political events, conservatives with this trait tended to be more conservative.

Yet the same neural mechanisms was at work, pushing the partisans into their different ideological camps.

“This is the first research we know of that has linked intolerance to uncertainty to political polarization on both sides of the aisle,” said study co-author Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown. “So whether a person in 2016 was a strongly committed Trump supporter or a strongly committed Clinton supporter, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that an aversion to uncertainty only exacerbates how similarly two conservative brains or two liberal brains respond when consuming political content.”

Jeroen van Baar, study co-author and a former post-doctoral researcher at Brown, said the findings are important because they show that factors other than political beliefs themselves can influence individuals’ ideological biases.

“We found that polarized perception — ideologically warped perceptions of the same reality — was strongest in people with the lowest tolerance for uncertainty in general,” said van Baar, who is now a research associate at Trimbos, the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction. “This shows that some of the animosity and misunderstanding we see in society is not due to irreconcilable differences in political beliefs, but instead depends on surprising — and potentially solvable — factors such as the uncertainty people experience in daily life.”

The study was published online in the journal PNAS on Thurs., May 13.

To examine whether and how intolerance for uncertainty shapes how political information is processed in the brain, the researchers recruited 22 committed liberals and 22 conservatives. They used fMRI technology to measure brain activity while participants watched three types of videos: a neutrally worded news segment on a politically charged topic, an inflammatory debate segment and a non-political nature documentary.

After the viewing session, participants answered questions about their comprehension and judgment of the videos and completed an extensive survey with five political and three cognitive questionnaires designed to measure traits like intolerance of uncertainty.

“We used relatively new methods to look at whether a trait like intolerance of uncertainty exacerbates polarization, and to examine if individual differences in patterns of brain activity synchronize to other individuals that hold like-minded beliefs,” FeldmanHall said.

When the researchers analyzed participants’ brain activity while processing the videos, they found that neural responses diverged between liberals and conservatives, reflecting differences in the subjective interpretation of the footage. People who identified strongly as liberal processed political content much in the same way and at the same time — which the researchers refer to as neural synchrony. Likewise, the brains of those who identified as conservative were also in sync when processing political content.

“If you are a politically polarized person, your brain syncs up with like-minded individuals in your party to perceive political information in the same way,” FeldmanHall said.

This polarized perception was exacerbated by the personality trait of intolerance of uncertainty. Those participants — of any ideology — who were less tolerant to uncertainty in daily life (as reported on their survey responses) had more ideologically polarized brain responses than those who are better able to tolerate uncertainty.

“This suggests that aversion to uncertainty governs how the brain processes political information to form black-and-white interpretations of inflammatory political content,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Interestingly, the researchers did not observe the polarized perception effect during a non-political video or even during a video about abortion presented in a neutral, non-partisan tone.

“This is key because it implies that ‘liberal and conservative brains’ are not just different in some stable way, like brain structure or basic functioning, as other researchers have claimed, but instead that ideological differences in brain processes arise from exposure to very particular polarizing material,” van Baar said. “This suggests that political partisans may be able to see eye to eye — provided we find the right way to communicate.”

David J. Halpern of New York University and the University of Pennsylvania was an additional study author.

The research was supported by a Brown University seed grant and by National Institutes of Health COBRE Grant P20GM103645.

Reference: Jeroen M. van Baar, David J. Halpern, Oriel FeldmanHall, “Intolerance of uncertainty modulates brain-to-brain synchrony during politically polarized perception”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2021, 118 (20) e2022491118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2022491118

Provided by Brown University

Why The Middle is Neglected in Politics And Other Spectrums? (Psychology)

Are we really living in a polarized world? A mathematical model reveals surprises — particularly about people in the middle.

When people talk about the political spectrum, it’s often in reference to “opposite sides.” Whether the sides are “conservatives versus liberals,” “Republicans versus Democrats,” or “left versus right,” the center is rarely included — and can be actively excluded, according to Santa Fe Institute research published this week in the journal PLOS One.

In the paper, mathematician Vicky Chuqiao Yang,* sociologist Tamara van der Does, and cognitive scientist Henrik Olsson mathematically model how people categorize each other along a spectrum. The foundational hypothesis of their work comes from cognitive psychology and assumes that when people form categories it’s to tell each other apart as accurately as possible.

But remembering where everyone is on a continuum is challenging, so people use a shortcut of dividing everyone into two camps: “us” or “them.” And those within the same group want to agree about boundaries that separate “us” from “them.”

“The categorization makes it easier for people to think about things. We only have so much mental capacity,” explains Yang.

“We are trying to understand why we tend to create categories for things in our everyday life like political views, gender, sexuality, and race, even if in reality these things are on a continuous spectrum,” says van der Does. “Specifically, we want to look at the benefits of categorizations to understand when they emerge.”

In the paper, the researchers explore these questions via a dynamical-system model, which is an applied math method frequently used to study natural or engineered systems. By combining cognitive and social components together into the model’s equations, Yang says they can “solve” for where the social boundaries appear.

The researchers applied their model to a large dataset from U.S. political surveys from the 1980s, with the goal of understanding how self-identified Democrats and Republicans at the ends of the spectrum perceived political independents in the center. Would the extremes welcome the “in-betweeners” as close allies? Would they lump them in with the other side? Or would they perceive them as something truly in-between?

The model predicted that when two groups form, both want to exclude those in the middle – a dynamic born out by the survey data.

“By being ‘inbetweeners,’ independents are viewed as unfavorably as the other party by both sides, and left out,” Yang says. “So Independents get the worst of both worlds, and there are downstream consequences.”

The main takeaway of this work is that the middle falls through the cracks of the categorization process — and not just in politics. The researchers’ model could also be applied to understand how social categories form around other attributes, like skin color.

“One possible consequence of falling through the cracks is that people in the middle may be motivated to appear as if they belong to one of the two camps — despite misalignment on policy positions,” says Yang. “This creates a feedback loop, and eventually the middle might disappear, and then you’re left with two camps that are quite strong in their identity and hostility toward each other.”

“Not many scientific studies have studied this dynamic. For example, the national survey we analyzed stopped asking about attitudes towards political Independents after the 1980s. But it’s very unfortunate and we should pay more attention to it,” says Yang. Studying people in the middle “is really important, especially how they’re treated by other members of a diverse society.”

Read the paper, “Falling Through the Cracks: Modeling the Formation of Social Category Boundaries,” in PLOS One (March 31, 2021)

*Vicky Chuqiao Yang is an Omidyar Fellow and Peters Hurst Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute; Tamara van der Does is a Program Postdoctoral Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute; Henrik Olsson is an External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute

Listen to the interview with Yang and Olsson, “Polling & Polarization: How We Make Decisions & Identities,” on the Complexity podcast (September 30, 2020)

Featured image: One prediction from the researchers’ model is a bi-modal distribution for group 1, group 2, and in-betweeners. (Yang et al, PLOS One)

Provided by Santafe Institute

Which Conspiracy Theory Do You Believe In? (Psychology)

Everyone believes in at least one conspiracy theory, according to conspiracy researchers. Conspiracy theories aren’t reserved for angry Republicans in the United States. Do you think Biden stole the election?

Joe Biden is the new president of the United States, although half of the country’s Republicans believe he stole the election. A lot of people believe conspiracy theories on the other side of the Atlantic. But they aren’t only found there.

Joe Biden. Are you among those who think he stole the election? Photo: Andrew Cutraro, White House

Conspiracy theories are not exclusive to people who storm the U.S. Capitol.

“Everyone believes at least one conspiracy theory,” says Asbjørn Dyrendal, a professor in NTNU’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies who specializes in conspiracy theories.

The more conspiracy theories you bring up, the more people answer yes to one of them.

That fact leads American conspiracy researcher Joseph Uscinski at the University of Miami to posit that all people believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Dyrendal basically agrees, but he modifies Uscinski’s statement slightly, saying all people believe some conspiracy theory “a little.”

Referee has it out for your team

Maybe you don’t think that the earth is flat or that the moon landings were faked and kept under wraps by all the 400 000 individuals involved. Maybe you don’t believe that vaccines cause autism and that the authorities are doing this on purpose, or that 5G is messing up your head, even if you’re not exactly alone in that case.

We are all more vulnerable to believing what we think is right, especially when our identity is at stake and emotions are strong. It can be a bit like the emotions associated with football.

“Maybe you think the referee is out to get your football team, especially when one of your team’s players gets fouled in the box and no penalty is called,” says Dyrendal.

“These examples activate the same mechanisms that come into play when our thoughts build on themselves and turn into more entrenched conspiracy beliefs.”

Maybe you even think a lot of referees are against your team, especially if you believe you’re seeing a pattern, like your team never or only rarely getting a penalty kick.

This thinking doesn’t usually amount to a conspiracy theory in and of itself. But the same mechanisms come into play when thoughts build on themselves and turn into more entrenched conspiracy beliefs.

People can have degrees of conspiracy thinking as well. There’s a difference between yelling at the ref in a heated moment and believing that the earth is flat.

Donald Trump. Is he really a savior? Photo: Michael Vadon, Wikimedia Commons

Common traits

You can find people who believe in the most unusual conspiracy theories everywhere, perhaps even in your own mirror.

“But several common characteristics recur often,” says Dyrendal.

Conspiracy theorists typically:

  • tend to have a little less education.
  • more often live in societies that have less successful democracies, which influences trust in others and in the authorities.
  • belong to groups that feel they should have more power and influence.
  • belong to special political organizations or religious groups a little more often.
  • more often use intuition – their “gut feeling” – when making decisions.
  • see connections more often than most people do, also where such connections do not exist, and they are more likely to see intention as the cause of events.
  • are a little more narcissistic and paranoid than others.
  • more often obtain their information from social media.

We can take a closer look at some of these points.

Chemtrails or contrails? Are the stripes after a plane really chemicals that the authorities spray us with? No. It’s condensation. Water vapour. Photo: Shutterstock, NTB

Role of social media

“We’ve noticed that conspiracy theorists are somewhat more likely to find their news sources on social media,” says Dyrendal.

This has a bit to do with how social media works.

Social media can create echo chambers. The media is structured in such a way that you mostly hear from friends and other sources that you already agree with. “Likes” and posts that you click on influence what you see later. This makes it easy to confirm suspicions and perceptions that you already have. And you’ll always find a community of other individuals who feel and think a little like you do.

However, just blaming Twitter and Facebook for this phenomenon is a gross oversimplification. It may seem as if more people than before believe in the strangest conspiracy theories, but in fact we don’t know if there are more than before.

A majority of Americans do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was alone in killing John F. Kennedy. Photo: Victor Hugo King

Gender distribution

You may think that men are conspiracy theorists more often than women, but that’s actually not true.

“When we look at a large number of different conspiracy theories, we find no reliable gender differences in the average scores,” says Dyrendal.

But who believes in which theories can be different, although the differences don’t necessarily revolve exclusively around gender. They may have more to do with dominance.

“People who dislike equality and prefer hierarchy see themselves and their group as superior to others and believe more in conspiracy theories that are specifically about social out-groups,” Dyrendal says.

The United States Congress. More open to welcoming uninvited guests than we thought. Photo: Shutterstock, NTB

This kind of preference for clear social ranking expresses itself in general prejudices against groups that are seen as lower in the social hierarchy or which are perceived as a threat to the social hierarchy.

“These individuals tend to believe more easily in conspiracies like immigration, Jewish dominance, Muslims or the like, and this preference is a little stronger in men,” Dyrendal says.

Group belonging

The most prominent characteristic of conspiracy theorists is that they are often part of various groups that distrust the government and the way most of us live today.

“If you belong to a group that already believes in doomsday scenarios and a future saviour, it’s probably easier to believe in some of the conspiracy theories,” Dyrendal says.

Evangelical Christians in the United States, for example, will find it easier to adopt conspiracy theories that fit with their other beliefs. If you’re convinced that the world as we know it will soon end with the battle between good and evil at Armageddon, it’s not that big a jump to believe that politicians in recent decades are actually emissaries of Satan himself.

QAnon not that big

Among people who stormed the U.S. Capitol were several members of QAnon. This is a group that believes Donald Trump has been fighting a secret war against a powerful group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles, which includes Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton. Probably not part of a Satan-worshiping network of paedophiles. Photo: US Department of State

But the followers of QAnon don’t number as many people some media might suggest, at least in proportion to the population of the United States. QAnon may seem widespread because many of the conspiracy theories adopted by QAnon were already well established and far more popular before.

“But in a country with 330 million inhabitants, numbers quickly grow to a good size anyway,” Dyrendal says.

Conspiracy researcher Uscinski in Miami has studied QAnon for a long time and believes the group hasn’t grown in recent years. He should know, since he’s been asking people about it since about the group’s beginnings.

Most aren’t extreme

But most of the people who stormed the Capitol were completely different people. And when half of the Republicans allege electoral fraud that was overwhelmingly rejected by election officials, we’re not exactly talking about belonging to some extremist group.

These aren’t just poor people who believe the powers-that-be and the rich are looking to oppress them, either. The connections are tangled.

“Conspiracy beliefs are also about a lot of people wanting more. Trump supporters may be less educated than the average population, but they have higher salaries,” says Dyrendal.

The media often portray most Trump supporters as slightly backward, disadvantaged people from rural areas, but this is simply not true.

Lingering beliefs

Most of us aren’t as far out as the strangest few are. Ninety-six per cent of Norwegians vaccinate their children.

But some perceptions and suspicions can linger. Isn’t Manchester United having a lot of penalties called at the moment? Didn’t Rosenborg have all the referees on their side when they won 13 league championships in a row?

Dyrendal admits he hasn’t yet forgiven the referee in the match between Leeds and Bayern Munich in 1975.

Bayern Munich won the European Cup final 2-0 after the referee disallowed Peter Lorimer’s goal, when he ruled Billy Bremner offside and twice failed to call a penalty against Bayern Munich.

French judges. They hate British teams, everyone knows that. And they’re really easy to bribe, right?

More reading: (1) Anastasiya Astapova, Eirikur Bergmann, Asbjørn Dyrendal, Annika Rabo, Kasper Grotle Rasmussen, Hulda Thórisdóttir, Andreas Önnerfors. Conspiracy Theories and the Nordic Countries. (2) Asbjørn Dyrendal, Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, Mons Bendixen. Predictors of belief in conspiracy theory: The role of individual differences in schizotypal traits, paranormal beliefs, social dominance orientation, right wing authoritarianism and conspiracy mentality. Personality and Individual Differences Volume 173, April 2021, 110645. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.110645

Provided by Norwegian Sci-tech news

What Is Stability-instability Paradox? (Politics)

The stability-instability paradox is an international relations theory regarding the effect of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction. It states that when two countries each have nuclear weapons, the probability of a direct war between them greatly decreases, but the probability of minor or indirect conflicts between them increases.


This occurs because rational actors want to avoid nuclear wars, and thus they neither start major conflicts nor allow minor conflicts to escalate into major conflicts„thus making it safe to engage in minor conflicts.

For instance, during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union never engaged each other in warfare, but fought proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Angola, the Middle East, Nicaragua and Afghanistan and spent substantial amounts of money and manpower on gaining relative influence over the third world.

A study published in the journal of conflict resolution in 2009 quantitatively evaluated the nuclear peace hypothesis, and found support for the existence of the stability-instability paradox. The study determined that while nuclear weapons promote strategic stability, and prevent large scale wars, they simultaneously allow for more lower intensity conflicts. When a nuclear monopoly exists between two states, and their opponent does not, there is a greater chance of war.

In contrast, when there is mutual nuclear weapon ownership with both states possessing nuclear weapons, the odds of war drop precipitously.

Reference: Robert Rauchhaus, “Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis: A Quantitative Approach”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0022002708330387 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022002708330387

© 2020 Paradox Parkway. All Rights Reserved.

Higher Narcissism May Be Linked With More Political Participation (Psychology)

New research found that people who are narcissistic may also be more politically active. In a series of studies performed in the United States and Denmark, researchers found that people with higher levels of narcissism—a trait combining selfishness, entitlement and a need for admiration—were also more likely to participate in politics. This could include contacting politicians, signing petitions, donating money, and voting in midterm elections, among other things.

According to the researchers, previous work has shown that higher levels of narcissism are linked with behaviors that could be harmful to functioning democracies—for example, shifting focus from civic responsibility toward a person’s own self-interest and gratification. Higher narcissism in the general public has been connected with more conflict and civic strife, in addition to less cooperation, compromise, and forgiveness.

In a new work, the researchers gathered a variety of data. They conducted two nationally representative surveys: one in the U.S. and one in Denmark, with 500 and 2,450 participants in each, respectively. There was a third, web-based U.S. study with 2,280 participants.

In all three studies, participants were asked about their voting history and political participation, which included attending demonstrations or meetings, contacting politicians or the media, and donating money. Narcissism was measured with a questionnaire in which participants were asked to choose between two statements that could apply to them. For example, “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me” vs. “I usually get the respect that I deserve.”

The researchers found that narcissism was associated with higher participation in early politics, like contacting decision makers and publicizing their opinions. People with higher narcissism were also more likely to vote in midterm elections. Because people with higher levels of narcissism are literally speaking out more, their voices could be more likely to be heard.

Breaking the results down further, the researchers found that the traits of superiority and authority/leadership were related to higher participation. Self-sufficiency, however, was associated with less participation.

References: Zoltán Fazekas et al, Narcissism in Political Participation, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2020). DOI: 10.1177/0146167220919212 link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0146167220919212

The Spiral Of Silence Keeps People From Speaking Out On The Issues That Matter Most (Psychology / Politics)

If you had to name the issue that’s the most important to you, what would it be? Whether your opinion on it is shared by most people or puts you in the minority, there are a lot of reasons you might not feel like speaking up about it. Experts refer to this phenomenon as the “spiral of silence.”

This effect has been studied the most in the area of climate change. In March 2016, The Yale Program On Climate Change Communication performed a national survey that had some pretty counterintuitive results. It’s clear that climate change is close to people’s hearts: more than 60 percent of Americans say the issue of global warming is at least somewhat important to them personally. However, a whopping 82 percent of them hear people talk about the issue less than once a month (24 percent never even hear it being discussed!), and 68 percent “rarely” or “never” discuss the issue with family and friends. If it’s so important to people, why aren’t they speaking up about it?

The phenomenon got its name in the book The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion—Our Social Skin by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. The author pointed out that when it comes to opinions we hold on issues that are important to us, both people in the majority and those in the minority will keep quiet—just for different reasons. The majority assumes everyone thinks like them, so any discussion of their opinions would just be “preaching to the choir.” The minority, meanwhile, assumes nobody thinks like them, so they fear being ostracized if they speak up. The key is that both groups misjudge how popular their opinions are, and operate on that assumption.

As Olga Mecking writes in The Science of Us, that’s not always a bad thing. “When people with racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or otherwise prejudiced views feel that they’re in the minority, it means that oppressed groups may feel more comfortable expressing themselves, like the way LGBTQ people feel more comfortable coming out in states where same-sex marriage is legal.” Still, if an issue is important enough, the spiral of silence can keep beneficial change from happening. So what’s an opinionated person to do? Whether you think your views are shared by everybody or nobody, speak up. Who knows what you could accomplish?

The Gish Gallop Is A Shady Debate Tactic For Winning Arguments (Psychology)

The debate: whether pineapple is a legitimate pizza topping. You’re against, I’m for.

After you spend five minutes laying out a reasoned argument highlighting the ickiness of the sweet/savory combo and the gastronomic superiority of pepperoni, it’s my turn. I spend my five minutes spewing non-facts, shotgun-style: pineapple will make you lose weight, get promoted, win the lottery, and develop the ability to read thoughts. You get a two-minute rebuttal — what do you do? That confused panic you feel is a result of the Gish Gallop, a sly debate tactic that, in today’s political climate, is more relevant than ever.

The Gish Gallop was originally coined by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. Its namesake, Duane Gish, was a prominent creationist in the 1980s and 90s who made it a habit of challenging advocates of evolution to public debates and overwhelming them with false statements. Or, as Scott puts it, “spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate.”

It’s a sneaky tactic, but it works. That’s because it’s easier and faster to tell a lie than to disprove one. Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” When you don’t need to worry about accuracy, you can say anything; telling the truth requires careful explanation and detailed reasoning. Once you’ve successfully volleyed a string of lies, you leave your opponent with the painstaking job of explaining why each one isn’t true — and if they don’t address every single one, you can claim victory.


Of course, as we all know, the Gish Gallop rears its ugly head outside of formal debate, too. It can be hard to counteract all the false facts we’re subjected to every day. But there are ways.

According to Quartz’s Carl Alviani, it helps to reframe the argument by focusing in on the most outlandish and difficult-to-debunk lie in the list. You can also change the ground rules, says Alviani. “Just as in a debate, where we have the option of limiting the number of points a speaker can make, we can create online formats designed to discourage Galloping. For example, the rising prevalence of real-time fact-checking is an encouraging step in this direction.”

But fact-checking only has power if audiences pay attention to it. That’s where you come in. If you read or hear something that doesn’t sound right, check up on it. Find multiple sources that attribute their information. If it’s wrong, tell your friends. Misinformation is easy to spread, but with some hard work, the truth can come out.

Politicians Now Use Simpler Language, Express More Sentiments (Politics / Social Science)

Research by Kansas State University shows how politicians from both major parties have changed their political speech from previous centuries. The research results show that more recent speeches use a smaller vocabulary, simpler language, express more positive or negative sentiments, and have more noticeable differences between Democratic and Republican speakers.

Fig: Mike braun speaking to reporters in the senate basement at the US IMG credit: gettyimages

A computer science research team at K-State analyzed nearly 2 million congressional speeches made by Republican and Democrat legislators from 1873 to 2010. Their computer analysis shows that political speeches are in fact very different in their style from political speeches made in Congress several decades ago. They used automatic text analysis algorithms to analyze congressional speeches in different years.

The algorithms measured different aspects of the speeches such as the vocabulary, the reading level, the positive or negative sentiments expressed in the speeches, and more. The sentiments are measured by using artificial intelligence reading of the text and associating words and phrases with positive or negative sentiments given their context.

The algorithms also measured the frequency in which different topics were discussed. These quantitative speech elements were computed from thousands of congressional speeches made in each year, and the average of each year allowed to measure the changes in the language and topics discussed in Congress during a period of 138 years.

The research showed that the frequency of words related to women’s identity—such as she, her, hers, woman, women, etc.—has been increasing consistently since the early 1980s, while the frequency of words that identify men have been decreasing. The frequency of words related to women’s identity in the 21st century is five times higher compared to the 1950s, but still lower than the frequency of words related to men’s identity. Since the 1990s, terms related to women’s identity are more frequent in speeches made by Democratic legislators compared to speeches made by Republican legislators.

Fig: The Coleman-Liau index shows the reading level of Democratic and Republican congressional speeches in from 1873 to 2010. Credit: Kansas State University

The research also showed that the reading level of the speeches changed significantly over the years. The analysis measured the Coleman-Liau readability index, which estimates the reading level of a certain text and associates it with the appropriate school grade. The analysis showed that the reading level of congressional speeches made by both Republican and Democratic legislators increased consistently from the eighth-grade reading level in the 19th century, to the 10th-grade level in the 1970s. But since 1976 the reading level of political speeches has been declining consistently, and as of the 21st century, it is below the ninth-grade reading level. The same trend was also observed with the vocabulary used by congressional members in speeches, which had been increasing consistently until the early 1970s, and then started to decline—and it is still declining.

The researchers’ analysis of the speeches also showed that more recent congressional speeches express more positive and negative sentiments than the speeches made in Congress during the 19th century and early 20th century. The sentiments in political speeches became gradually more positive and peaked in the 1960s, but declined sharply during the 1970s. Since the 1970s the sentiments expressed in congressional speeches have been becoming more positive.

According to the study, the decline in reading level and vocabulary of the speeches can be related to the increasing presence of media—including live radio and TV coverage—in Congress beginning in the 1970s. Members of Congress started to gradually adjust their speech styles, addressing the public through the media rather than addressing their fellow legislators.

Another aspect reflected through the analysis was the partisan split. Starting in the mid-1990s, Republican and Democratic speeches became increasingly different from each other and also correlated with the political affiliation of the president. For instance, during the George W. Bush administration, speeches of Democratic legislators expressed more negative sentiments compared to their Republican counterparts. That difference flipped immediately after 2008, with the beginning of the Obama administration, during which Republican speeches became more negative.

References: Ethan C. Tucker et al, A data science approach to 138 years of congressional speeches, Heliyon (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e04417 link: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S2405844020312615

Blue Lies Are Why You Can’t Talk Politics With Some People (Psychology / Politics)

Let’s say you have a friend who roots for the Minneapolis Mollusks, while you’re for the St. Paul Seacows all the way. At last night’s game, one of the Mollusks blatantly fouled the Seacow’s star player, but your friend won’t admit it happened. What’s more, neither will any of the other members of the Mollusks fan club. How can they deny seeing something so obvious? The answer is that they are telling blue lies—falsehoods meant to reinforce the bonds within a group and keep others out.


As it turns out, we all learn to tell lies at a pretty young age. Around age 3, kids figure out that their parents can’t actually read minds, and they start telling black lies (that is, lies for self-gain) such as “I didn’t eat the chocolate chips.” Later, around age 7, their developing sense of empathy leads to white lies, such as “I like your drawing.” As these nuances develop, they are learning the entire time about blue lies, and a new study shows that, the older they get, the more likely they are to participate in these lies.

Groups of children ages 7, 9, and 11 were asked to assemble a team of four Chinese chess players—two experienced players, and two novices. Every class decided to break the rules without prompting from the experimenter, but later, when asked if they had done as instructed, the older children were much more likely to lie for the group than the younger kids. As it turns out, those same groups were also less likely to tell lies for their self benefit, suggesting that a growing sense of morality is linked to these kinds of lies—but don’t take that to mean that it’s a good deed.


The phrase “blue lies” allegedly originates in cases when police officers would cover for the department or fabricate evidence to ensure the state’s case. In that sense, it’s pretty easy to see how these kind of lies are detrimental to society. They can also come into play in the political arena. We’ve all seen it in action—a politician can get away with a lot more falsehoods when he’s speaking to supporters than he can otherwise. That’s because those lies either reinforce the beliefs the group holds dear, or because they demonize those outside of the group. Again, it’s clear how this hurts society. When political parties traffic mostly in lies, the gap between them grows insurmountable. That’s why it’s so important to hold each other accountable for the lies we tell, even if those lies benefit us or those we identify with.

References: (1) Genyue Fu, Angela D. Evans, Lingfeng Wang, and Kang Lee, “Lying in the name of the collective good”, Dev Sci. 2008 Jul; 11(4): 495–503. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00695.x ; link https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2570108/