Category Archives: Social Psychology and Lifecourse

Old=conservative, young=liberal? Age, Generation, and Voting Patterns

We now find ourselves in a unique media period: after the midterm election digestion, and before every news outlet begins twenty-four hour coverage of the 2012 election. So, this seems like a good time to talk about age-related voting patterns.

One of the most striking observations about the composition of voters in the midterm election was how few young people turned out, relative to their numbers in 2008. In 2008, about 18% of the voters were under thirty; about 16% were over 65. This time around, those under thirty made up closer to 11% of voters, and those over 65 made up closer to 23% of voters. (For context, the under 30 figure is close to the 2006 midterm participation of voters under 30 which was 12%– younger people do not relish midterm participation.) A widely circulating idea was that if young people had voted in the same proportions in 2010 as they had in 2008, the Democrats would not have suffered the magnitude of the defeat that they did. Underlying this statement was an assumption that younger people are more liberal and are thus more likely to vote for Democrats, while older people are more conservative, and thus more likely to vote for Republicans. This assumption prompts a question: are younger people are more likely to vote liberal because they are young, and when they age, they too will become more conservative (what demographers refer to as an “age effect”), or are they more likely to vote liberal because they belong to a new generation of voters which is at its core more liberal than previous generations were at that age (a “cohort effect”). (Another possible cause for differences in voting patterns is an event that affects everyone regardless of age (for example, 9/11), in a similar manner– a “period effect.”)

So what empirical evidence is there regarding the relationship between age and voting patterns? (I focus on research on the nature of how people vote over their lifetimes and across generations, instead of whether they vote, for which there is also a large literature.) The evidence is not definitive, at least in part because of the both geographical and temporal variety of the data used, and the lack of longitudinal data, but in general, the time during which you grew up (your generation or cohort) matters quite a bit for your later voting patterns.

There is limited support for the idea that voters necessarily become more conservative as they age.  Instead, most argue that much of the difference between older and younger voters should be attributed to cohort effects; people who grew up during a certain period (e.g. during the depression and WWII) are more likely to be conservative than those who grew up during a different period (e.g. post-WWII affluence) (see Braungart & Braungart 1986). Most likely, the effect age and generation on voting proclivities are interactive. Big events affect how age and generation matters: the voting patterns of individuals in eight post-Soviet countries in the elections of 1989 or 1990 reveal disproportionately conservative (in the sense of preserving the status quo) voting among older voters.  Younger voters, even wealthier younger voters who presumably enjoyed the benefits of previous Leninist regimes, selected change-oriented political parties at a much higher rate.  Schatz (2002) argues that this finding is due to a generational effect during the profound political transition; the effects of the Communist-era socialization of older voters were magnified in the context of the rapid social change.

Like many things, the effects of age and generation on voting patterns may not be consistently predictable and may differ by political context. A study comparing the voting patterns of British and West German voters in data from 1958 to 2002 finds a more nuanced picture that takes into account the nature of the electoral system. Goerres (2008) argues that age and generational effects are not alone sufficient to explain the voting patterns of older voters, because the extent to which these factors matter depends on the nature of the electoral system in which they participate (he discusses dealigned and proportional electoral systems in particular). (For reference, the study does not find evidence that voters choose more economically conservative parties as they age.)

What of the state of affairs in the U.S.?  A 2008 report from the New America Foundation uses data trends from 1972 on voting and political identity and finds a general age effect in previous generations where voters become more conservative as they age, but argues that there is a cohort effect for the “millennial” generation (which they define as those born between 1980 and 1986) such that millennials are substantially more liberal than earlier generations were at the same age).  For the effects of this generational shift, stay tuned…

Read more about determinants of voting behaviors here: Fabrigar & Krosnick on VOTING BEHAVIOR, in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology

Blinded by narcissism?

In the Freudian Era, Narcissism was a central psychiatric concept and diagnosis. In the last several months, the likelihood that the American Psychiatric Association will drop this diagnosis from it’s new, 5th edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has been the subject of a string of articles in prominent newspapers and other news outlets including the New York Times and NPR. Though the debate is one about professional discourse and diagnosis, it extends well beyond this realm and begs the question of whether or not this change represents a larger trend in the US wherein Americans no longer see putting themselves before others and thinking of themselves as better and more capable than others (even with little evidence to back it up) as a problem.

In her book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable than Ever Before, Jean Twenge somewhat satirically describes an increasing focus on the importance of self-esteem in American Society. From birth, she argues, children are steeped in the notion that they are important just for being them and that they must make themselves feel good at all costs. Ultimately, Twenge argues, this rather ironically leads to more unhappiness and even mental illness, as the current generation of young adults does not learn how to live in the real world. Their entire educational experience can be captured by several of Twenge’s examples: children receive trophies just for doing their best, rather than for being the best player or the hardest worker on the team; they are content with C grades because teachers tell them they’re good no matter what their grades are; they earn pretty stickers for effort rather than genuine achievement. While there are some wonderful outcomes of the self-esteem movement (for a description of the functions and theories of self-esteem, see the linked article below) that started with the Baby Boomer generation – namely that kids do feel more liberated and, in moderation, self-esteem is certainly beneficial – Twenge argues that the level of self-esteem present in today’s kids is harmful to both them and society more broadly. Ultimately, over-inflated self-esteem can result in narcissistic tendencies that lead to much more than feeling overly good about oneself; narcissism can ruin relationships, cost people their jobs, and even lead to increases in violence.

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New issue of Sociology Compass out now! (Vol 4, Issue 12)

Sociology Compass

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Volume 4, Issue 12 Page 999 – 1078

The latest issue of Sociology Compass is available on Wiley Online Library

Crime & Deviance

Parole Revocation in the Era of Mass Incarceration (pages 999–1010)
Jeffrey Lin
Article first published online: 1 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00335.x

Gender

Men and Erotic Oases (pages 1011–1019)
Richard Tewksbury
Article first published online: 1 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00343.x

Science & Medicine

Fat Studies: Mapping the Field (pages 1020–1034)
Charlotte Cooper
Article first published online: 1 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00336.x
Regulating the Medical Profession: From Club Governance to Stakeholder Regulation (pages 1035–1042)
John Martyn Chamberlain
Article first published online: 1 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00338.x
Critical Theory and Medical Care in America: Changing Doctor–Patient Dynamics (pages 1043–1053)
Sophia Lyn Nathenson
Article first published online: 1 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00339.x

Social Psychology & Family

Transnationalism over the Life Course (pages 1054–1062)
Sean R. Lauer and Queenie Wong
Article first published online: 1 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00337.x

Social Stratification

Impoverished Clientele and Influential Institutions: Perspectives on Neighborhood Poverty near Harvard Yard (pages 1063–1078)
Katarzyna Skuratowicz and L. Janelle Dance
Article first published online: 1 DEC 2010 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00331.x

“Hope” and “change” don’t pay the bills – and for that, the democrats will pay

In the last presidential election, “hope” that Washington could be a less partisan and ultimately a less corrupt and more transparent place, coupled with a longing for “change,” propelled Obama into office. That, and an intense disappointment with the previous administration. However, the economic meltdown and the generally painful economic situation for a large number of Americans has lead even many Obama supporters to question whether anything is actually different and whether our president can be pragmatic and effectual in difficult times. This had lead, for instance, one woman at the recent CNBC question and answer session with the President to say: “Quite frankly, I’m exhausted….defending the mantle of change I voted for.” She, in fact, rattled off a list of exhaustion, including how unpleasant life is for many “middle class” Americans today. Most are in historically unheard of debt, even if they don’t have college loans (but if they do, it’s even worse), many are losing their houses, some are reportedly even resorting to food banks because they simply can’t make ends meet. And this is in the middle class.

This CNBC press conference, largely because the audience consisted of Obama supporters, calls into question what those who voted for Obama are feeling about the economic situation. Who do you blame when things are bad if you voted for the person in charge? And, if I’m unemployed, caring about hope and change may not only be irrelevant now, but it may anger me that those were the more intangible values upon which I based my feelings in the last campaign. Not wanting to direct my feelings of frustration at myself, the party I voted for and the politicians I had a hand in electing will surely bear the brunt of my anger. Social psychological studies inform us that we are more likely to attribute blame to others or external forces for bad consequences and think of ourselves as having a role in the ones that prove to be useful or have a positive outcome in some way. So, I might feel good about the Democrats’ role in health care reform and feel as though my vote had something to do with it, but when it comes to the economy, the death of soldiers in two wars, etc., I might instead blame the administration and likely the President as the figurehead. And, what does this mean for the the 2012 political season? Frustrations are high and people don’t want to blame themselves, so they blame the administration (and that’s the Democratic supporters!). Looking forward to the next election, I have to wonder if there’s any way for the democrats and the President to escape this blame game unscathed.

Disappointed Supporters Question Obama

Attribution Theory

Come as you are: The social experiences of sexual identity and mental health

On August 4, Federal Judge Vaughn R. Walker struck down California’s ban on same sex marriage ruling that the prohibition violated the right to equal protection as afforded by the United States Constitution.  Judge Walker went to great lengths to lodge his ruling in an extensive review of the facts presented. Ultimately, he determined,

“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.”

Walker also noted, “Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.”

Proposition 8 as well as the military policy of “Don’t ask don’t tell,” has kept the debate over the equal rights and protections of individuals who are gay or lesbian a contentious topic for political debate. The dialog generally centers around the acceptance or rejection of gays and lesbians within the U.S. legal system and society as a whole. However, very rarely during these debates is serious public attention given to the implications of these conversations the adolescence and young adults who are beginning to become sensitive to their own sexuality. (more…)

The truths of the war in Afghanistan : does visibility decrease support?

On Monday, Wikileaks, a website devoted to exposing the underbelly of the political and corporate world, revealed thousands of documents that, in a nutshell, depict the complications, perils and pitfalls of the war in Afghanistan. One piece of alarming information is that terrorist organizations in Afghanistan are clearly being supported by Pakistan. Another is solid evidence of the corruption of Hamid Karzai (though this has been suspected for quite some time). The force with which this story hit the news this week, the amount of coverage it has received and the combination of this story with recent exposés on the experience of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a situation in which increasing amounts of negative press about the war, whether in small leaks or larger bursts, are emerging. The dominant discourse or narratives about the Afghan war – hunting down a terrorist, bringing justice to terrorists in general, rooting out potential terrorist cells or the humanitarian notion that we’re providing a more stable government and safer society for Afghans – feel as though they are shifting. There is increasing discourse about a lost battle, a waste of precious American dollars and young lives, etc. Perhaps this shift is due to the number of soldiers dying, which makes it increasingly likely that you or someone you know or at the very least a distant acquaintance is fighting in the middle east. Perhaps it’s our disastrous economy and the potential double-dip recession looming that’s making it harder to justify spending billions to fight a war when about 1 in 10 of us are unemployed at home. It could be any combination of these and/or other factors, but I would like to suggest that the increased access to images, information and general visibility of this war will be a key factor in its demise.

Theories of cognitive dissonance suggest that when our behavior clashes with our cognition, an uncomfortable psychological state ensues. For instance, if I am a pacifist, but engage in a violent act, I will experience distress. As I watch the coverage of the war in Afghanistan since the Wikileaks report was released yesterday, I am lead to think about the role of cognitive dissonance in producing social change.  No matter what you believe has happened in Afghanistan, the narrative of success and progress, whether in the realm of hunting down terrorists or establishing better government, is at odds with the information in the Wikileaks documents that depict chaos. Changes in attitudes about the Afghan war have been brewing for months. Will this new and increasingly prominent information about the problems of “winning” this battle create psychological tension for many Americans who previously supported the war?

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Are we informing ourselves into inaction? How much information is too much?

What does an overload of information do to our decision-making process? This question becomes, at least in part, an issue of simplicity v. complexity, so I am reminded of Durkheim’s classic argument about social integration and regulation. Too much or too little of each causes problems – for him, various types of suicide emerge because of an overbearing or under-restricting/engaging society.  Simmel’s conflict over the freedom, yet overwhelming choices of the metropolis also comes to mind. In each of these cases, it is a balance that creates a healthy/functioning individual. Perhaps this is the same with access to information. Too many choices makes it difficult for us to assimilate all the information, but too few choices would presumably not provide us with as much intellectual stimulation as we might desire. In our world, is there a balance? Or, are we so inundated with information that we’ve just become accustomed to being overwhelmed. Perhaps we’ve learned to filter what’s important to us – or, might we just miss things all the time because we can’t possibly take it all in? I’m sitting here, right now, with the news on TV and several windows open on my computer screen. I’m in the midst of working on several articles at the same time. That is arguably my personal style – perhaps one of chaos – but it is fairly representative of the general environment in which we all exist these days. There is a steady flow of information abounding at all times – everywhere we turn.

In the PBS piece below (a quite excellent video clip) , the story is about the economy and decision-making about investing, but this is a theme that carries over into much of our world today. Another issue with access to information is that it forces us to make more decisions than we might otherwise have to (see the “jam” experiment in the video). With more choices, people often opt not to make a final decision because it’s hard to feel like you’re making the right choice when there are so many options in front of you. This is a basic tenet of classic social psychological studies of cognitive dissonance. In choosing, we inevitably have to live with the downside of the choice we make and with the absence of the good qualities of the option we overlooked. If we’re presented with myriad choices, what happens then? Do we just become incapable of making any real decision at all – overwhelmed by the prospect of choosing, the notion that we might be missing out on something better or be stuck with something that’s not the best possible option? Especially if there are many other options, making a final decision means high odds of regret. Or, is this precisely why we rely on online stock tips, recommendations from other shoppers on Amazon and other online shopping outlets – we never really make decisions. We rely on these infinite sources of information to help make the choices for us. Social psychological studies also allow us insight into how we make ourselves feel better if we make the “wrong” choice; we externalize the blame. If that’s the case, I can write off the novel I didn’t like because I bought it on a recommendation from another reader or the computer I bought because someone online reported that it had a nice keyboard, etc. It’s not my fault – they recommended it to me! Perhaps the wealth of information makes it harder to make a choice, but easier to deflect the blame for problematic decisions.

Your Mind and Your Money

Information Society, In Blackwell Reference Online

Oil gushes into the Gulf of Mexico, who has the expertise to stop it?

Oil has been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for over a month as a result of an explosion atop a rig that was extracting crude from a 5,000-foot-deep well owned by British Petroleum. The horrific event, which killed 11 men working on that rig, set off a leak that experts say is pumping anywhere between 5,000 and 18,000 barrels of oil a day; that’s anywhere from 210,000 to 756,000 gallons of crude oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico per day. It’s an amount that’s hard to fathom. There is already way more oil in the gulf than the 11 million gallons that spilled into Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989. The environmental and economic fallout from this are and will continue to be catastrophic for many years to come.  The damage to the sacred marshes off the coast of Louisiana that are responsible for the incubation of numerous sea and land creatures is so great that it’s impossible to even assess. The injury to the ecosystem more generally is bad at best. And the decimation of the fishing industry there is a fate sealed so clearly – in order to bring in a paycheck, instead of shrimping, many gulf coast residents are signing up with BP to help clean up oil in the same waters where many of them spent decades of their life fishing. A way of life, part of LA culture has also been obliterated by the sheen of oil that spans miles and miles of the gulf and by the tarry substance washing up on shore. It is likely that this leak will not be stopped until a relief well can be completed in August, at which point several million more barrels of oil will have merged with the millions already suffocating the gulf. There is a small chance that one of the various short-term solutions such as the “top hat” tactic will slow down the leak, though several intermediary solutions have already failed.

If you watch/read/listen to the media coverage of this man-made disaster, you will find extensive finger-pointing (and culpability is an important issue to address later) and people raise myriad questions- what is the role of government here? How should we alter the laws about offshore drilling? etc. – all of which are vital to answer and none of which I have space to address here. One central sociological question that is implicit in many of the other issues raised by this event and by the coverage of it has to do with who has expertise. Who has the expertise needed to solve this problem (if anyone) and how do we channel that expertise when it is seemingly held tightly in the fist of the very company that allowed poor safety measures and cheap materials to cause the blast in the first place?

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What is “taste”? : The changing nature of Kosher food comsupmtion

According to a recent New York Times article (see below), the consumption of Kosher foods is expanding; the market for these products once mostly consumed for religious reasons has widened well beyond the Jewish community – certainly to a much wider audience than Jews who abide by the laws of Kosher eating. While, historically, kosher foods were uniquely consumed by the Jewish community, health reasons have become a driving force behind the expansion of the market. For instance, the Times reports:

“According to the market research survey, 62 percent of people who buy kosher foods do so for quality reasons, while 51 percent say they buy kosher for its “general healthfulness.” About one-third say they buy kosher because they think food safety standards are better than with traditional supermarket foods. Only 15 percent of respondents say they buy kosher food because of religious rules” (Karren Barrow, nytimes.com).

As we can see quite clearly, the smallest percentage of people consuming kosher foods do so for religious reasons. This provides us with a nice example of how a cultural (e.g. religious) phenomenon can be co-opted by other groups and even society at large.  It gives us a little insight into what “taste” actually is – or how people come to have preferences for certain items, whether they be food or other consumer items. In other words, the purchasing of this kind of product has become a trend – much as buying green products has.

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Hoarding and other disorders – are they rooted in the mind or the market? And what does this tell us about mental illness?

Of late, behaviors such as hoarding are getting a lot of attention. TV shows devoted to the tormented lives of hoarders have hit the scene and certainly, an increase in interest among mental health professionals and the media has surfaced. There are several substantive sociological issues here that go beyond the psychological elements and individual consequences of hoarding behavior – or buying, spending, drinking, gambling – all of which are considered by the American Psychiatric Association to be disorders in and of themselves or at least symptomatic of other disorders such as anxiety or bipolar disorder. Compulsive buying is another example. While not considered to be a disorder of its own, compulsive buying is being considered as such for the new version of DSM to be released in 2013 and is already listed as a symptom of Bipolar disorder. Jennifer Hemler, for instance, in her forthcoming paper, “The Medicalization of Compulsive Shopping: a Sociological Disorder in the Making,” describes how compulsive buying is rooted in much more than psychological disorder or an imbalance of brain chemicals.

If you’ve ever experienced a hoarding home, you know it can be unsettling and even disturbing and that the consequences to people’s social lives and sense of self  and even physical health can be disastrous.  While it is important to know about hoarding as an experience, it is crucial for sociologists and other social scientists to focus, in addition, on several questions: When does one become a so-called hoarder – i.e. what’s the line between messy and hoarding? Another question of importance is whether hoarding should be considered a symptom or consequence of anxiety, as the article below from NPR suggests. Or, is it really the other end of the spectrum from something like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an anxiety disorder? And finally, the subject of my inquiry today: when we’re talking about disorders like hoarding or compulsive buying, another disorder involving the collecting of items, usually superfluously, are these not possibly disorders that could only take place in a society that so compels us to want stuff and to buy things? Might the presence of stuff  as a comfort – whether it be new items stored in closets, never to be worn or used, or surrounding oneself with used, broken, generally useless items to the point that there is barely any empty space – much more likely be a result of the anxiety about having things, buying things and possessing things that is so central to our consumer society.

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