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I want to be special: The desires of the conservative and the liberal

Monday, January 20, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

mr rogers valentineWe’ve written before about the differences between liberals and conservatives. The article we feature today isn’t about moral issues, brain structure, or shopping preferences. It is instead about a basic need filled for some by Mr. Rogers: the deep-seated desire to be special. 

Two studies were conducted. The first had 292 participants recruited via Mechanical Turk (171 women and 121 men; age range 18-77 with an average age of 35.9 years) and the second study had 287 participants–also recruited from Mechanical Turk (162 women and 125 men, age range 18-82 with an average age of 35.4 years).

Participants in both studies read 41 statements and indicated whether they agreed or disagreed with each statement. Twenty-two of the statements (e.g., “I like poetry”) were drawn from the Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Inventory–a very familiar psychological measure and specifically chosen for a nonpolitical nature. The other 19 were created by the researchers and purposely political in nature (e.g., “America should strive to strengthen its military”).

Once they had completed their own ratings of disagreement or agreement with these 41 statements, participants read the same 41 statements (presented in random order) and were asked to “please estimate the percentage of people who share your political beliefs who would agree with this item”. When the study was completed, the researchers found these differences between liberals and conservatives:

Liberals under-estimated their similarity to other liberals but moderates and conservatives over-estimated their similarity to other moderates and conservatives.

Liberals possessed a greater dispositional desire to be unique than did either moderates or conservatives. (That is, liberals wanted to be special to a greater degree than did the other two groups.)

The researchers believe the desire of the liberal to be ‘unique’ and therefore special, hinders their ability to gain consensus on goals (whether they are political, personal or policy-driven). As long as liberals insist on seeing themselves as unique while conservatives and moderates over-estimate the similarity of other’s opinions to their own, liberal group agendas will not coalesce and collective goals will not be achieved.

It raises an intriguing question for voir dire. If you want to have a hung jury, is it better to have liberals who see themselves as unique in order to avoid consensus on the jury? The researchers measured the participant’s need for uniqueness with an almost 40-year-old scale. They do not identify which items they use from the Need for Uniqueness Scale although they do indicate they used 11 of the 32 scale items. Here are a few sample items:

When I am in a group of strangers, I am not reluctant to express my opinion openly.

People frequently succeed in changing my mind.

If I must die let it be an unusual death rather than an ordinary death in bed.

I tend to express my opinions publicly, regardless of what others say.

Whenever I take part in group activities, I am somewhat of a nonconformist.

Despite the age of the scale (created in 1977), the items are descriptive and fairly judgment-free. Think carefully about your case, and consider whether this dynamic might play a part in the way that jurors might perceive your case. Does the trial story involve public embarrassment, assertiveness (or a lack of it), a willingness to challenge authority, or assertive behavior? It’s an interesting measure to consider for use in pretrial research to identify those with a high need for uniqueness and, to see if this variable has any relation to eventual verdict in a specific case.

Stern C, West TV, & Schmitt PG (2014). The liberal illusion of uniqueness. Psychological Science, 25 (1) PMID: 24247730


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