Barbarians at the Gate
Trends in the Political Psychology of the Great Recession
by Charles Brack (see God, Dopamine, and 3-Dimensional Space)
Percent reporting their economic situation is worse ( red) versus better (black) since the start of the recession
Being president in the United States today is something akin to being emperor of the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th century. The problem today is not unlike the problem with the old Roman Empire: the lack of enough energy to counteract the natural tendency for genetically divergent populations to engage in political and military conflict. With the recent recession, there is a substantial loss of energy, which is evident in the escalation in conflict between social classes, religious groups, ethnic subpopulations, and their highest level of social aggregation--the Democrats and Republicans.
As the Democrats have found out, economic downturns are periods of rapidly shifting political opinion. This shift is coming from all across the political spectrum, and even those that describe themselves as nonpolitical are becoming political. It seems that the recession has created a general depression in activity levels, as people are not as active as they used to be, and interestingly, reporting a corresponding decline in social behavior.
In our economic survey, the 734 respondents, predominately Caucasian, indicated some notable trends. As seen in the graph above, only 5% reported that their economic situation is better since the onset of the recent recession, while a whopping 54% reported that their economic situation is worse, while 41% reported no change.
Coincidentally, while 54% reported that things are worse, 55% indicated a polarization of their political attitudes. Conservatives, libertarians, and moderates are breaking towards conservatism, while the liberals are breaking towards liberalism.
But how is the current economic crisis contributing to political polarization? Overall, the correlation coefficient between declining personal finances and political polarization is (r = 0.25, p=.0001). What is particularly interesting about this is how it breaks by political orientation, and it is not the conservatives and liberals leading the way. The conservative correlation between declining economics and political polarization is (r = 0.22, p=.0001), while the liberals were the least economically reactive of any of the political cohorts, at (r = 0.17, p=.05).
The libertarians were slightly higher than the conservatives, at (r = 0.25, p=.02), and are breaking strongly toward conservatism. 38% of the libertarians indicated they are becoming more conservative, while only 7% indicated they are becoming more liberal (55% indicated no change).
The moderates were particularly susceptible to political polarization due to their financial problems, with a correlation of (r = 0.33, p=.002). However, they were only slightly favoring conservatism. On average, 27% of the moderates indicated they are becoming more conservative, while 20% indicated they are becoming more liberal (53% indicated no change).
While the relationship between political polarization and economic recession is well documented, this relationship appears to be stronger in the middle of the political spectrum. Further, the moderates appear to be quite fickle in their political sentiments, and like a political thermostat, they tend to break against the political party in power during economic crises. In a previous survey on Neuropolitics.org, while George W. Bush was still in power and the recession was underway, the moderates were breaking towards liberalism.
The depression in social behavior
One of the more surprising results from our survey is the decline of social interaction as a result of the recession: 40% of our respondents indicated that they are socializing less (see graph below). Unfortunately, we did not isolate what relationships were being compromised due to the recession, and suspect they fall into two categories: relationships associated with employment and relationships that cost money to sustain (either via travel, entertainment, or telecommunication costs). There indeed may be secular trends associated with social interaction, and the entire category of internet relationships makes this statistic very ambiguous.
Percent reporting they socialize less ( red) versus more (black) since the start of the recession
Nonetheless, as seen in the graph above, a large percentage of people feel the loss of sociality, although 53% of our respondents report no change in social interactions, while 7% report an increase. And interestingly, this varies considerably by political cohort. Both the moderates and conservatives report the greatest decrease in social interaction (44%), while the libertarians (32%) and liberals (29%) were less impacted.
The correlation between a decline in one's finances with a decline in social interaction was a strong one. Overall, the correlation between these two variables was (r = 0.51, p=.0001). By political cohort, this relationship was interesting (conservatives: (r = 0.49, p=.0001); liberals: (r = 0.47, p=.0001); libertarians : (r = 0.47, p=.0001); and moderates: (r = 0.66, p=.0001).
The outlier here is of course the moderates, who report the strongest relationship between the economic downturn and the loss of sociality. Interestingly, the moderates also had the strongest correlation between political polarization and decreasing social interaction, while the liberals were the only cohort where political polarization was not correlated with the loss of sociality.
Geographically, the decline in social interaction was slightly more prominent in the suburbs and less prominent in cities. However, rural communities were also less impacted. At least in this survey, the relationship between population density to changes in social interaction seems to be nonlinear.
Job stress and political polarization?
Concurrent with the increasing unemployment rate, and closely linked to it, is the dramatic elevation in those reporting increasing stress on the job. This elevation is even more remarkable given the time frame associated with its increase: one year. Overall, 74% of the employed indicate that on-the-job stress increased in the last year. Further, more than half of this group reported that job stress has increased substantially.
Percent reporting increase in job stress ( red) versus decrease (black) in the last year
As seen in the graph above, this elevated stress is reported across all political cohorts, particularly among the conservatives. The question is, is there a correlation between increasing job stress and political polarization? There indeed was a correlation overall (r = 0.17, p=.0001), but only the conservatives exhibited any statistically significant correlation (r = 0.18, p = .0005).
We would expect that job stress is an active influence in political polarization, especially given the demonstrated impact that general stress has on political attitudes. The fact that on-the-job stress seems to be more correlated with political polarization in the conservatives may be due to the left-right dichotomy of amygdalar processing (see The Neuropsychology of the Apocalypse).
Note that libertarians, the political cousins of the conservatives (although much less religious), were second to the conservatives in the strength of correlation between job stress and political polarization (r = 0.16, p = .17). Thus, unemployment and job insecurity are probably not the only politically polarizing economic phenomena, as we suspect that on-the-job stress also contributes.
Interestingly, even conservatives seem to be turning on the system, as our most recent survey indicated their most unfavorable rating of employers we have recorded. This anti-employer sentiment is elevated in all of our political cohorts, and the liberals typically report the highest rate of employer abuse.
Who is adapting better to the recession, conservatives, liberals, or moderates?
At the heart of political-religious disposition lies Darwinian adaptation. As we have previously noted, there is a distinctive tendency for conservatives to increase habitat space and reproduction, while the liberals seek to maintain the carrying capacity of the existing habitat and rapidly modulate reproduction in that habitat (see The Thermodynamics of Conservatives and Liberals).
The recent recession has provided an excellent opportunity to see how our political affiliations react to one of the major Darwinian events that inevitably speed up the rate of evolutionary change in species: a decrease in habitat energy. In the table below, we see a number of adaptations and the percentage of respondents, by political affiliation, indicating an affirmative response.
Table 1: Responding to the Recession (C=Conservative, L=Liberal, LB=Libertarian, M=Moderate)
Responding to the recession (percentage reporting)
Spending less money
Using less electricity
Delaying having children
Giving less to charity
Reduction in education (parent and/or child)
Using less gasoline
Dine out less often
Hired an immigrant for household services
Household size has increased in last year
Increased use of mass transit
As seen in Table 1, all political affiliations have significantly adapted to the recession. 69% of our respondents indicated they are spending less money since the start of the recession, which is consistent across all political affiliations, although the conservatives reported the greatest change in spending patterns.
Our ecologically-minded cohort, the liberals, did better than average in curbing their use of energy, increasing their rates of recycling, reducing reproduction, and utilizing mass transit. The conservatives were above average in reducing their spending, owning a business, reducing their charitable contributions, and dining out less often. The libertarians, which reported the highest rate of business ownership, also reported an increase in household size, but were the least responsive group in adjusting their behavior to counter the recession.
The most economically responsive group just happens to be the most politically responsive: the moderates. The moderates, normally the most malleable when it comes to adjusting their political attitudes, were also the most adaptive in their economic adjustments. We can't help but think there is an underlying neurological substrate for this coincidence. As we have previously proposed, the moderates are not as hemispherically polarized as the conservatives and liberals, which may be playing into both political and economic adaptiveness.
We must also note the phenomenon of occupational transience. Our definition of occupational transience consists of those that have recently changed, in the process of changing, or thinking about changing occupations. The percentage of people from our survey that meet this criteria is remarkably high: about half the workforce, or 47%. Further, a whopping 62% of moderates met this criteria, another indicator of moderate flexibility while under economic stress. On the bottom of this statistic were the conservatives, at 42%.
In capitalism, small business formation is typically the lifeblood of job growth, as management of large businesses is more predatory, tending to eliminate jobs even in the wake of economic success. In our survey, the libertarians led the way with business formation, as 21% had their own business, followed closely by the conservatives, at 20%.
Our sampling methodology does not warrant that too much be made of the above data. However, there appear to be several trends that are prominent in our data: a reduction in altruism towards genetic distance; a reduction in reproduction; a reduction in energy use; an increase in conservation (recycling); a decrease in personal mobility and range; a decrease in formal education; and, a probable increase in occupational transience.
In our survey, the moderates were the most flexible in responding to the recession, while the liberals were second. The conservatives followed the liberals, while libertarians adjusted the least, although we must add that these statistics are not controlled for income level and family size.
Sons, daughters, and reproductive strategy
We have previously noted that conservatives and liberals have slightly different reproductive strategies: conservatives are shifted towards the male side (more children), while the liberals are shifted more towards the female side (less children). This shift is evident in the graph below, where we see the stated preference, by political affiliation, for a daughter or a son.
Rather have a son (blue) or daughter (pink) by political affiliation (no preference not shown)
The most common response was "no preference", which are not shown. Since we had more male respondents than female respondents, these numbers do not reflect the proper population preferences. Interestingly, in our survey, the preferences for daughters and sons, by gender, were in the same direction, although males were slightly more likely to prefer sons than were females.
The most interesting group here were the male and female liberals, which both preferred an equal proportion of daughters and sons. All other groups favored sons over daughters, although the most common response was "no preference".
The loss of sociality
One of the problems with stimulating an economic recovery is that human behavior has changed substantially, similar to the long-term behavioral changes associated with the Great Depression of the 1930's. Savings rates have increased and economic behavior is favoring lower risk, both of which counter the ability for stimulating demand and investment. Further, the occupational flexibility of the American population is unfortunately countered by the loss in the ability for educational investment.
The coming election, November 2010, may above all represent the economic and political fickleness of the moderates, along with a general decrease in altruism towards genetic distance (i.e., sociality) across the entire political spectrum. The decrease in sociality, as exacerbated by the recession, seems to be hitting the moderates the hardest. It is interesting to note, in our survey, that the moderates reported the largest decline in charitable contributions and the largest decline in social interaction due to the recession.
They also seem to be the most susceptible to changes in political orientation as a result of economic trends. This is indeed trouble for the Democrats, as unlike the conservatives and liberals, which tend towards political polarization in the same direction as their regular political dispositions, the moderates counter the political party in power.
One of the Roman criticisms of the barbarians were their rapidly shifting military alliances, which usually went to the highest bidder. Now the moderates, like the barbarians, are at the gates of Washington D.C., ready to sack it again, just like they did in 2008. As the Democrats will find out, and as the Roman emperors and the Republicans knew all too well, there is just not enough energy to get rid of them.
Charles Brack, November 2010
See my short piece on conservatives and liberals in Rita Carter's 2010 edition of Mapping the Mind.