Red Republicans, Blue Democrats: Political Identity and the Psychology of Colors
By Heath Shive
Part of the blessing of thinking is the curse of overthinking.
Children see pretty colors. Adults…overthink this.
We can see green in the leaves and grass. But green is symbolic too – of St Patrick’s Day, Irish Catholic politics, and of Islamic culture.
Orange can remind us of citrus fruit…or Irish Protestant politics, Halloween, and the Orange Revolution.
Somewhere along the way, Americans associated Republicans and Democrats with “red” states and “blue” states.
This relatively recent color coding has been credited to the broadcast networks' election coverage during the 1980s, but was locked in during the 2000 Presidential election campaign.
Is it that simple?
Let's overthink this.
To the science of primary colors and political identity!
Embodied cognition is a concept in psychology which asserts that not only do humans ascribe a metaphor or belief to a sensation, but sensations imprint feelings onto the human mind.
To influence a person’s sensory input is to influence their mental thinking.
In 2005, psychologist Danny Hayes studied "trait ownership" in politics and discovered that people generally ascribe “hard” qualities to Republicans and “soft” qualities to Democrats.
Do political views have a "hardness" or "softness"? And does the opposite happen, does hardness connect to a political idea?
Three psychologists – Michael Slepian, Nicholas Rule, and Nalini Abady – published a paper in 2012 that revealed the power of hard and soft sensations on thinking. In one experiment, they had the participants squeeze either a soft ball or hard ball. While squeezing the balls, the participants had to look at four male and four female faces and guess each face’s political orientation.
Those who squeezed a soft ball were more likely to guess Democrat; those who squeezed a hard ball were more likely to guess Republican.
But how does color come into play?
Red State, Blue State
In a previous blog ("Devil in a Red Dress"), I wrote about the psychological connections between the color red and the human mind.
Waitresses wearing red get tipped more. The color red can make women more attractive to men, and vice versa.
But this blog is about politics, not sex appeal.
Two researchers Anthony Little and Russell Hill experimented to see if the color red conveyed dominance even in inanimate objects. People were shown blue circles and red circles. Then they were asked which circle seemed more dominant.
The participants judged the red circle more dominant.
Circles are not famous for dominance. And no state looks red or blue from outer space. But still, we associate certain colors with certain feelings, and vice versa.
So let’s combine the thoughts of the above studies. Republicans are perceived to have more hard-line political views. Hardness communicates assertion, strength, and power.
People can be forgiven if they naturally associate the color red with Republicans.
What are the stereotypical associations with the color blue? Peace, acceptance, and higher thought. People can be forgiven if they naturally associate blue with Democrats.
The funny thing is that Republicans for most of the 20th century were associated with the color blue!
So what is different now in the psychology of the political landscape?
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D. Hayes (2005). Candidate qualities through a partisan lens: a theory of trait ownership. American Journal of Political Science, 49 (4), 908-23.
A. C. Little and R. A. Hill (2007). Attribution to red suggests special role in dominance signaling. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 5 (1-4), 161-68.
M. L. Slepian, N. O. Rule, and N. Ambady (2012). Proprioception and person perception: Politicians and professors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39 (12), 1621-28.
For more about embodied cognition, see:
Lobel, Thalma. Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence. Atria Books, 2014.
Your Greatest Threat Is From Your Own Species: The Science of Animal Murder and Disney Delusions
By Heath Shive
Spring has arrived. The birds are singing. But it isn't peaceful.
Bird song is a declaration of territory, a warning to competitors, an announcement of virility, a call to feeding, a warning of danger, and a cry of anger.
Species can always threaten another species.
But in Nature, the greatest threat comes from your own species.
To the gruesome science of when animals kill their own kind.
In a Disney movie, animals talk to each other. They enjoy profound conversations. They save their friends.
Humans are bad. Humans are sinful and wicked…unless they have animal friends.
Humans have destroyed a lot of animal habitat - forests cleared for farming, rivers dammed for electricity. Humans could – and must – do this constructively.
But the greatest threat to any animal's life (including human life) comes from your own species.
Because you all eat from the same bowl, so to speak.
Red in Tooth and Claw
Researchers up to the 1960s thought that primates (except humans) were benign, social, and harmless.
But the more anthropologists were in the field, the more they witnessed how ultraviolent primates can be. Follow this link to learn more of the Gombe Chimpanzee War.
Infanticide occurs in half of all mammal species. For example, new alpha lions will kill all the cubs of the pride’s predecessor – while the mother lionesses watch.
But among primates, infanticide happens with horrific frequency. Infanticide could be as high as 37% among mountain gorillas, 44% in chacma baboons, 47% in blue monkeys, and 71% among red howler monkeys.
Baby chimps are not killed by leopards or poachers nearly as much as they killed by other chimpanzees.
Adult animals "murder" adults too. For example, a study of 155 wolf corpses in Yellowstone Park over 12 years revealed that 37% of the wolves had been killed by other wolves.
Not all species have these kind of intra-species “homicide” rates – but they are found particularly in social carnivores (packs) and primates.
Now compare these rates with humans. How often do babies die by infanticide? Is it even 1%?
What is the murder rate of human beings? Is it near the 40% mark of wolves?
The Goodness Paradox
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham wrote a remarkable book entitled The Goodness Paradox.
Wrangham points out that humans have a profound capacity for good and compassion, but how do we reconcile that with humanity’s equally profound appetite for destruction?
Wragham argues that there are 2 forms of violence: reactive violence (violence in response to an immediate threat or perceived threat) and proactive violence (planned, strategic, and intentional).
Two men fighting in a bar is reactive violence. Two nations going to war is proactive violence.
Wrangham remarks that humans are unique in the animal world – because humans are phenomenally low in reactive violence while being extremely high in proactive violence.
It’s the exact opposite in the animal world.
Wrangham’s central hypothesis in the book is this: humans evolved uniquely from other primates because we found a way to “self-domesticate.”
Put 300 chimpanzees on an airplane and when the plane lands, you’ll find dead chimps.
But humans ride airplanes all the time without incident. That explains how humans can form large groups, whereas other animal species cannot.
This is how humans can build civilization, whereas primates and wolves cannot.
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Cubaynes, Sarah,Daniel R. MacNulty, Daniel R. Stahler, Kira A. Quimby, Douglas W. Smith, and Tim Coulson. 2014. “Density-dependent intraspecific aggression regulates survival in northern Yellowstone wolves (Canis lupus).” Journal of Animal Ecology 83: 1344-56.
Infanticide data from Watt 1989; Henzi et al. 2003; Butynski 1982; Crockett and Sekulic 1984.
Butynski, T. M. 1982. “Harem-male replacement and infanticide in the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanni) in the Kibale Forest, Uganda.” American Journal of Primatology 3: 1-22.
Crockett, Caroline M., and Ranka Sekulic. 1984. “Infanticide in red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus).” In Infanticide: comparative and evolutionary perspectives, edited by G. Hausfater and S. B. Hrdy, pp. 173-91. New York: Aldine.
Watts, David P. 1989. “Infanticide in mountain gorillas: new cases and a reconsideration of the evidence.” Ethology 81: 1-18.
Wrangham, Richard. The Goodness Paradox. Pantheon Books, 2019.
Exposure Anxiety: When “Strong” Isn’t Smart
By Heath Shive
Exposure anxiety is the fear of looking weak. It is also a “cognition trap” – a mind-set (belief, personal philosophy) that limits your ability to think and act.
Maybe everyone has felt this way. But when very powerful people are afraid to look weak, the results are disastrous and large-scale.
Zachary Shore is a professor of national security affairs. He is also the author of a book entitled “Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions.”
It’s a great read, and his chapter on exposure anxiety is the first “cognition trap” he tackles.
To the history of exposure anxiety!
Orwell and His Mad Elephant
When he was young, the future-author George Orwell had been a police officer in Burma. A local elephant had broken free and gone on a rampage. When Orwell finally found the elephant, the elephant’s rage was gone and it was calmly eating grass. But the entire town had come out to watch Orwell deal with the elephant.
Everyone expected a show. Orwell didn’t want to shoot – but if he didn’t do something "strong," how could the Burmese respect his authority?
Orwell shot the elephant repeatedly…but it wouldn’t die quickly. In frustration, Orwell just left. The elephant died a half hour later.
Orwell didn’t look very powerful. He didn’t impress. He felt a fool. Even though Orwell did not want to shoot the animal, he did not want to look weak to his audience.
Greeks and the Price of Overkill
In the 5th century B.C.E, the Greek island of Mytilene had revolted against the city of Athens. In retaliation, Athens sent a war party to the island with these orders: kill every man, enslave every woman and child.
However, some Athenians had second thoughts. So they had a debate. The Athenian Cleon argued that if Athens showed mercy, it would look weak and there would more revolts in the future.
But the Athenian Diodotus argued for mercy. He pointed out that not all the Mytilenians had revolted. Many of the rebels had surrendered their arms. But – Diodotus argued – if other cities knew that there would be no mercy, new revolts would be better planned and the rebels would fight to the death. There would be no incentive for surrender.
Cleon’s show of strength actually would make future revolts more ferocious and implacable.
Athens sided with Diodotus and a fast ship was sent to stop the war party in Mytilene.
Abu Ghraib and the Need for Morale
The abuses at the prison of Abu Ghraib made international headlines. Many Americans did not see the big deal – the victims were enemy soldiers. Sergeant Ivan Frederick was court-martialed for his part in the crimes. In the closing statement, the prosecutor Major Michael Holley said that treating enemy soldiers to basic dignity was essential for long-term warfare. Because if the “prisoner – or an enemy, rather – believes that he will be humiliated…why wouldn’t he continue to fight to his last breath?”
If surrender wasn’t incentivized, then the fighting would be more intense and more soldiers’ lives lost.
Exposure anxiety leads its victims to overreact, but the aftermath usually leaves them less secure than before the conflict began.
Anxiety warps our feelings and imagination. Anxieties create a chain of fears. Anxieties cripple our ability to get what we want, because we fear how we look.
It is important to not act on fear. Act in your interest. Then you can win.
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Shore, Zachary. Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. Bloomsbury, 2008.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.