Left vs. right? Spatial cues can sway ideological opinions, experiments show

Metaphorical conflict can play a role in just how differently we rate two opposite ideologies, according to 2016 research.

The series of studies, published in Psychological Science, examined the relationship between physical directions—specifically left and right—and individuals’ opinions about the differences between the political left and right (Democrats and Republicans, respectively).

“Previous research suggests that creating conflict activates a general reasoning process (mind-set) that, once accessible, can be applied to subsequent judgments,” said Tali Kleiman, principal investigator and corresponding author of the study.

Study 1

In the first study, 239 participants completed a sorting task with 100 images of 2012 presidential candidates Barack Obama (Democrat) and Mitt Romney (Republican), and then rated their perceptions of the candidates’ political beliefs and stances.

To create metaphorical conflict, half of the participants were asked to strike the “P” key with their right hand when presented with a picture of Obama and to strike the “Q” key with their left hand upon seeing a picture of Mitt Romney.  Since Obama falls on the left side of the political spectrum and Romney on the right, the task would ideally create subconscious metaphorical conflict.  The rest of the participants were instructed to use the opposite hands to sort the photos.

Scientists found that those who completed the metaphorically conflicting task rated Obama and Romney as having more similar political views than did those who completed the task without metaphorical conflict.

Study 2

In the second study, scientists sought to rule out the possibility that the sorting task from the first study skewed results by actually creating new beliefs and ideologies.  Instead of the sorting task, participants were simply asked to rate Obama’s and Romney’s ideologies on scales—and the scales themselves created metaphorical conflict.

In the control conditions, liberal ideologies were on the left side of the scale and conservative ideologies were on the right side, corresponding to the terms typically associated with them.  In the conflict condition, however, the scale was flipped so the ideologies appeared on the opposite sides.

A large effect was still observed—individuals in the conflict condition rated the candidates as significantly more similar than individuals in the control condition.

Study 3

Study 3 sought to rule out the possibility that the observed effect was actually a result of the opposite phenomenon.

“It is possible that compatibility leads people to perceive politicians as more different, rather than that conflict leads to perceptions of greater similarity,” Kleiman reported.

410 participants were divided into either a compatibility, conflict, or control group. In this case, the control group used the “T” and “V” keys to rate candidates.  The keys are vertically aligned instead of horizontally, ruling out the possibility of both metaphorical compatibility and metaphorical conflict.  Scientists also used former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as the subjects.

The conflict group rated the politicians as significantly more similar than both the compatible and the control conditions, confirming the research team’s hypothesis.

Study 4

Study 4 aimed to define an actual mindset created by metaphorical conflict that, when activated, can lead individuals to define categories more broadly in general.

327 participants completed the same sorting task as in Study 3, but were only sorted into “compatible” and “incompatible” categories.  Afterward, participants were asked to rate the extent to which household items belonged in specific categories.

Consistent with previous results, scientists determined that participants who completed the incompatible task also rated more atypical items as belonging to groups.

“After conflict was created between physical and abstract concepts that were metaphorically linked, participants perceived the attitudes of members of distinct groups as being less different than when concepts were compatible,” said Kleiman.