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Cognitive psychology research helps us understand confusion of Jonathan Haidt and others about working-class voters

Here’s some psychology research that’s relevant to yesterday’s discussion on working-class voting. In a paper to appear in the journal Cognitive Science, Andrei Cimpian, Amanda Brandone, and Susan Gelman write:

Generic statements (e.g., “Birds lay eggs”) express generalizations about categories. In this paper, we hypothesized that there is a paradoxical asymmetry at the core of generic meaning, such that these sentences have extremely strong implications but require little evidence to be judged true. Four experiments confirmed the hypothesized asymmetry: Participants interpreted novel generics such as “Lorches have purple feathers” as referring to nearly all lorches, but they judged the same novel generics to be true given a wide range of prevalence levels (e.g., even when only 10% or 30% of lorches had purple feathers). A second hypothesis, also confirmed by the results, was that novel generic sentences about dangerous or distinctive properties would be more acceptable than generic sentences that were similar but did not have these connotations. In addition to clarifying important aspects of generics’ meaning, these findings are applicable to a range of real-world processes such as stereotyping and political discourse.

Jonathan Haidt’s generic statement was, “working-class people vote conservative.” Actually most working-class people don’t vote conservative, but as Cimpian et al. point out, such a statement “requires little evidence to be judged true.” At the same time, “these sentences have extremely strong implications,” leading Haidt to chase down all sorts of explanations for political patterns he is not describing accurately.

Consider this statement from Haidt:

When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest.

Wrong on three counts. First, most working-class people in the U.S. don’t vote conservative. Second, working-class people are diverse and make their vote decisions for different reasons. First, there’s lots of evidence that people vote based on what they think is good for the country, not on their interests. Many Americans of all classes and income levels are conservative in their economic ideology (that is, they support low taxes and limited government).

What happened to Haidt? I suspect the psychologist got caught in a psychological trap: He interpreted a novel generic such as “Working class people vote conservative” as referring to nearly all working class people, but they he judged the same novel generics to be true given a wide range of prevalence levels (e.g., when only 40% of lorches working class people voted conservative.

Haidt is a respected researcher, and he might want to think carefully about how he made such a basic mistake about American politics as to write—not just to write, but to base an entire column on—the false statement that most working-class Americans vote conservative. Sure, various casual readers of Thomas Frank drew this conclusion too, but Thomas Frank is an activist. Haidt is a scientist, he should know better. Findings from cognitive psychology such as in the above-linked paper might give Haidt some insight how he can be fooling himself. (And, yes, I’m sure I’m subject to these sorts of mistakes too, especially when I’m not focusing on them.)

P.S. This research by John Huber and Piero Stanig is relevant to Haidt’s original discussion of lower-income conservatives. You can also check out the chapter on religion and voting in Red State Blue State.


  1. […] « Question 28 of my final exam for Design and Analysis of Sample Surveys Cognitive psychology research helps us understand confusion about working-class voters » […]

  2. Donna says:

    Thomas Frank was right about white working class voters in red states. Haidt extrapolates those traits onto all working class voters. He seems to have forgotten the Democratic victories in 2006 and especially 2008, when minority, young, and single female voters came out in droves and swamped his precious “values voters”. This is why the GOP is working diligently to suppress Democratic votes. They lose when we vote and they know it. Furthermore, Haidt (who claims to be formerly liberal but now centrist) is obviously prescribing his own vision of an orderly society and government through his analysis. He’s gone from observer to activist.

  3. numeric says:

    First, there’s lots of evidence that people vote based on what they think is good for the country, not on their interests.

    There may be lots of evidence that people have a belief that their vote is on the basis of what is good for the country, not on narrow self-interest, but people tend to adjust their view of what is good for the country on what agrees with their particular belief system (cognitive dissonance). Now, maybe people are more altruistic than I think, but I recall a famous economist telling me that nine out of ten times when an incorrect amount of change is made in a transaction, if favors they individual making the change (be interesting if their was an academic study on that–saw a recent one in the popular press on cheating under different conditions). Maybe voting is different than short changing. It is! Everyone gets short-changed (ha-ha).

  4. […] Confusion about working-class voters – Andrew Gelman […]

  5. Sergey says:

    May I suggest that it’s not enough to simply claim that “people vote based on what they think is good for the country, not on their interests”, especially in a post devoted to inaccurate generalizations? Isn’t possible that what they define “as best for their country” is simply determined by their interests? Or to be more precise, what is perceived “as best for the country” is a disguised self-reinforcing expression of self-interests?

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, social circumstances and political ideology go together. See my paper with Edlin and Kaplan for more discussion of this point. Also, in Red State Blue State we discuss political ideology on economic and social issues.

  6. David says:

    Didn’t he write a whole book about this stuff? It’s called “The Righteous Mind”. So he’s not just spouting off in a column, he’s spouting off in a book.

  7. Jed says:

    According to today’s NYT, Haidt should have honed his statement to say “racist working-class people vote conservative when faced with the election of a black president.” How racist are we? – Ask Google
    How much causative weight do you think can be placed in data culled from internet searches?

  8. Steve Sailer says:

    When white liberals like Haidt say “working class voters,” they usually mean “white working class voters.”

    In the conventional wisdom, blacks of any class are expected to, told to (and usually do) vote on race, not class, lines; and the New York Times constantly frets that Hispanics aren’t voting _enough_ on ethnic lines.

  9. […] with a piece of construction paper, on which scribbled in crayon is “I HAZ TEH LONE”) Cognitive psychology research helps us understand confusion about working-class voters Union basics the media often gets wrong—and ways right-wing messaging sneaks into labor coverage […]

  10. […] article has a kind of irritating pop-psychology frame, built on quotes from the occasionally slipshod psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, about how humans can justify most anything to […]

  11. […] Cognitive psychology research helps us understand confusion about working-class voters ( Rate this:Share this:EmailPrintLinkedInStumbleUponFacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Political Psychology by Carlos A. Rivera. Bookmark the permalink. […]