Oct. 13, 2013— -- Every time they turned on the evening news last year, or picked up a newspaper, psychologists at Duke University saw politicians and pundits who were absolutely certain their views were correct, and anyone who disagreed with them was totally wrong.
How could that be, especially given the complexity of some of the issues that were attracting so much heat?
They decided to take a look at it, and in a study just published in the journal Psychological Science, they produced evidence that the political gridlock in the nation's capital may give a little from time to time, but it's not going to go away anytime soon.
The polarization between the right and the left is so embedded in the personalities and the world view of the principal players that it is feeding upon itself, becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, according to lead author Kaitlin Toner, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University.
"They seemed so sure they were right, and they felt so superior about their own viewpoint," Toner said in a telephone interview. "We were curious about what was causing them to feel that way."
What they found, she added, is a "vicious cycle" in which leaders are likely to become more extreme, not less, because if you feel you are absolutely superior to anyone with an opposing viewpoint it's going to be very difficult to yield.
Whereas a moderate would likely consider evidence on both sides of the issue, "if you believe really strongly in a position you are likely to seek only information that is going to confirm what you already think," she added.
"They may be looking at sources of information that are really polarized as well," she said.
Many other scientists have looked at this same issue, some blaming the polarization on the "rigidity of the right," claiming that dogma -- an authoritative body of moral, and usually religious, opinions -- has made conservatives unable to compromise on principals they consider sacred. But the Duke researchers found a big surprise in their own study. Liberals are less dogmatic than conservatives, but they feel more superior about their own beliefs.
It all depends on the issue.
The researchers recruited 527 people, half of whom have at least some college education, and had them complete questionnaires about their viewpoints on nine political issues: health care, abortion, government aid to the needy, illegal immigration, voter identification laws, income tax rates, torture tactics, affirmative action, and the role of religion in policymaking.
By analyzing how they answered those and other questions, researchers were able to determine whether each participant leaned to the left, or the right.
The participants were also ranked on a "dogmatism scale" to see how strongly they felt about various issues (ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree). Someone who strongly agrees with this statement -- "Anyone who is honestly and truly seeking the truth will end up believing what I believe" -- is likely very dogmatic.
Participants also indicated how correct their opinions were relative to other people's beliefs on each issue, ranging from "no more correct than other viewpoints" to "totally correct -- mine is the only correct view."
Obviously, the superiority expressed in the latter view leaves very little room for compromise. But the nine issues were split right down the middle -- both conservatives and liberals said they were absolutely certain they were right on three different issues, and there was no clear evidence either side felt all that superior on the remaining three issues.
Conservatives felt most superior about their opinions on voter identification laws, tax rates, and affirmative action, whereas liberals were most convinced of the superiority of their views on government welfare programs, the use of torture on terrorists, and the role of religion in policymaking.
Both conservatives and liberals were less convinced that their views were superior on health care, illegal immigration, and abortion.
Surprisingly, health care -- the hottest button on the list of issues, at least in Washington -- ranked rather poorly on the "percentage of sample with highest belief superiority." Only 12.3 percent thought they had all the answers on that issue, and Toner thinks that is probably due to two causes.
"We did this research last year, and it has become a bigger issue now," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if that number would change over time."
It is also a very complex issue, and even people who have studied the huge legislative package known as the Affordable Care Act are probably confused on some issues and willing to listen to opposing arguments. If that's the case, however, you would expect to see more talking and listening and less stonewalling and threatening.
Of the nine issues, the one with the "highest belief superiority" was the role of religion in making public policy, which may not be surprising because it's a rare politician who doesn't publicly express his or her religious fervor at every opportunity. But participants in the study were average citizens, not politicians, so only 38.9 consider themselves all that superior when it comes to religion.
That still seems like a low number, but Toner said it's the highest number on the chart, far above illegal immigration at 9.9, and even abortion at 23.5.
Maybe those surprisingly low numbers tell us something else about our political leaders, especially those who express such extreme confidence in their own views on very emotional and complex issues. They may differ from the folks back home on some issues, but whether you are in Washington or in the nation's hinterland, chances are you feel really superior about some of your views.
"We have some unpublished research showing that this isn't just a political issue," Toner said. "We've asked people about environmental issues, and really trivial things, like whether Coke is better than Pepsi, and we find the same thing.
"When people have really strong feelings about Coke being better than Pepsi, they are sure their opinions are better than other people's."