Study: Liberals cognitively suppress stereotypes about conservatives — but not vice versa

New research suggests that conservatives rely more on stereotypes to navigate social interactions with liberals than vice versa. The study, conducted in Turkey, found evidence that political stereotypes were more accessible in the minds of conservative individuals than in liberal individuals.

“Although we saw a tremendous increase in the research on political psychology in the last decade, still very little is known about people’s psychological experiences during inter-ideological interactions. This research was motivated by a desire to understand a potential psychological handicap in such interactions, that is reliance on stereotypical perceptions about others of opposing ideology,” said Irmak Olcaysoy Okten of Lehigh University, the corresponding author of the study.

We suggest that focusing on preconceived notions (as opposed to individuated, unique information) about people of opposing ideology would prevent smooth inter-ideological communication. Our study provides the first step towards a broader goal of understanding and addressing potential psychological issues that hinder healthy communication between parties that embrace different political ideologies.”

In the study, 101 conservative college students and 107 liberal college students were asked to develop resolutions for a political issue in Turkey. They were told that another participant, with either the same or the opposite political leanings, was doing the same in another room and that they would soon be required to collaborate. After this, the participants completed a lexical decision task, a test used to measure the cognitive accessibility of stereotypes.

“In our study we observed a clear pattern in terms of accessibility of stereotypes in mind when people were preparing for a political discussion; conservatives had stereotypes about liberals highly accessible in their minds whereas liberals tended to suppress stereotypes about conservatives,” Okten told PsyPost.

The findings were published in The Journal of Social Psychology.

“This result brings about the possibility that conservatives and liberals may navigate inter-ideological interactions differently. While conservatives seem to keep stereotypical thoughts that apply to the upcoming political interaction at bay, liberals seem to be motivated to suppress stereotypical thoughts about both ideologies,” Okten explained.

“Our results also suggested that this stereotype suppression tendency can be costly on behalf of liberals; liberals with low (vs. high) stereotype accessibility performed worse in an independent self-regulation task, suggesting that they may have used up their self-regulatory resources when suppressing stereotypical thoughts.

But it is unclear how well the results can be generalized to other countries.

“One caveat we should note here is that this study has been conducted in a non-Western context (Turkey),” Okten said. “Therefore, the examined stereotypes were determined through pilot studies with Turkish participants. To our knowledge, there is no other published study that examined ideological stereotypes to that extent within Western or non-Western context.”

“We believe that future studies that are to be conducted in other cultures should carefully determine the content of specific stereotypes regarding ideological groups,” she continued. “Also, in our study participants were told that they would engage in a political interaction soon, yet, such interaction never actually took place. Future studies should look at how stereotype utilization by conservatives and stereotype suppression (and related self-regulatory costs of suppression) by liberals affect the way liberals and conservatives actually interact.”

“We would like to bring attention to the dearth of research in the area of psychological experiences during inter-ideological interactions,” Okten added. “The implication of that line of work is very critical and relevant to today’s polarized political climate; therefore, we hope to see further research in that area.”

The study, “Stereotype activation and self-regulation by conservatives and liberals in political encounters“, was authored by Irmak Olcaysoy Okten and S. Adil Saribay.