The Trouble With Politicians Who Always Talk About Values

Last spring Paul Ryan spoke about the latest version of his budget, promising it “offers a better path, consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith.” According to Ryan, “We put our trust in people, not in government.” There was nothing new or surprising in Ryan’s words. At that point his language was already run-of-the-mill Republican rhetoric about the fight over government spending. What is notable about Ryan’s message is that its careful framing may help explain some of the gridlock plaguing the American political system.

Crucially, although Ryan is talking about the budget, he doesn’t reference any numbers or specific programs. Instead, he bring up his faith, the country’s founding, and the simple people vs. government dichotomy. In doing so he takes an argument about dollars or resources and turns it into an argument about values. The question is no longer whether taxes should be 21% or 19% of GDP, the question whether we want to live in a government-run dystopia.

What’s troubling about Ryan’s strategy is that people tend to be less willing to compromise when a conflict involves values. Studies have shown that relative to resource-conflicts, value-conflicts involve more anger, a greater inability to find common ground, and compromises that are less mutually beneficial. The reason for these differences is that a compromise involving resources can simply be seen as an isolated incident about something external to the self, but a compromise involving a value is a threat to your identity. For example, if you live your life based on the principle that small government is better, supporting a compromise that involves increasing taxes can be viewed as an admission that small government principles are not of paramount importance. But admitting that your core belief is not immaculate is an incredibly hurtful thing to do, and people will try to avoid that degree of painful self-doubt. After all, if you’re now unsure about the only thing you were sure about, you could be wrong about anything. Can you even be sure you’re still good person?

Research establishing the differences between value and resource conflicts has been fairly conclusive, but less is known about the specific mechanisms through which the different types of conflict influence behavior. What is it about the negotiations that changes, and how do these changes make compromise harder?

A new study led by Marina Kouzakova of Leiden University suggests a couple of answers. Via a webcam, participants in the experiment discussed with a confederate how they should travel to their vacation destination. Though the destination was accessible by many means of transportation, the discussion focused on whether or not to take an airplane. In the value-conflict condition, participants were told to base their decision on whether they thought air-travel was too damaging to the the environment to justify taking a plane. In the resource-conflict condition participants were told to base their decision on whether air travel was too expensive to justify taking a plane.

After the discussion the researchers measured two potential influences on decision making. First, they had participants fill out a survey that would measure their regulatory focus, a construct that describes the different ways people are motivated to pursue goals. In general, people fall on a continuum between prevention-focus and promotion-focus. People with a prevention-focus are motivated to maintain security and avoid losses, while people with a promotion-focus are motivated by gains and growth. These orientations can influence human motivation in a number of ways. For example, people with a promotion-focus will be more motivated to do something for a $5 reward, while people with a prevention-focus will be more motivated to do something in order to avoid a $5 loss (pdf).

People tend to chronically fall somewhere along the spectrum, but regulatory focus can also be influenced by situational factors. When the researchers looked at regulatory focus immediately after the discussion over air travel, they found that participants in the value-conflict condition were significantly more likely to be prevention-focused.

It’s not hard to see how these shifts in regulatory focus could affect the political process. For example, if a liberal senator is promotion-focused he’s more likely to be open to increasing spending on food stamps even if it means cutting spending on renewable energy programs. Alternatively, if the senator is prevention-focused, he’s more likely to be concerned with protecting the current level of green energy subsidy. Overall, the more politicians drift towards a prevention-focus the more gridlock there will be. Even when there’s not a specific decision to be made, a prevention-focus will make politicians less likely to take risks and more likely to focus on not jeopardizing their position by angering of their base.

The second thing the researchers measured was the cardiovascular (CV) reposes of participants. Models of arousal regulation have shown that people tend to have different CV responses in a “threat motivational state,” which results when a person feels they have insufficient resources to deal with a situation, and a “challenge motivational state,” which results when a person feels they do have the necessary resources. When the researchers looked at the CV responses after the negotiation they found that participants in the value-conflict condition had CV responses that were more in-line with the threat state. The finding provides further support that value-conflicts pose a threat to people’s identities, and that these threats lead to physiological changes as well as psychological changes.

The bad news is that neither altered CV responses nor swings in regulatory focus seem to be things that politicians are uniquely equipped to avoid. In fact, given that politicians have worked very hard to get where they are and have a lot to lose, they may even be more susceptible to taking up a prevention-focus than the participants in the experiments.

In the end the study does a nice job illuminating one of many bad cycles that have engulfed the American political system. The propensity to frame things in terms of values makes compromise something that’s more likely to hurt a politician than help him. Horse-trading is allowed by the electorate; betraying a key principle is not. But framing disputes as value-conflicts also helps consolidate support and strengthen the resolve of those who are on your side, even as it makes it more difficult to find common ground with those who aren’t on your side. And as long as framing disputes as value-conflicts helps politicians get re-elected, that’s the way we’ll continue to talk about them, even if it continues to make compromise more difficult.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)
Kouzakova, M., Harinck, F., Ellemers, N., & Scheepers, D. (2013). At the Heart of a Conflict: Cardiovascular and Self-Regulation Responses to Value Versus Resource Conflicts Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550613486673

One Response to The Trouble With Politicians Who Always Talk About Values

  1. Scott Wagner says:

    Very thoughtful and informative treatment- thanks.

    I wanted to be overtly ideological, please, and muddy this a bit more into something broader than efficiency. It’s much more likely for conservatives to speak about and act on principle: it’s probably neurological (inherited), and can be seen in their creeds, their leaders’ speeches, and in general conversation. There is also some evidence that they tend to be more preventive-focused, though much of that may be situational. The present political polarization, which liberals and even centrists decry as unprecedented (it’s not) or “crazy”, is far less of a problem for conservatives, because the us-versus-them revealed by focusing on principle and safety/security feels natural to them. The world is a battlefield and they are about a great quest, in that sense, and they have much less concern for those who’d like to see compromise- to appease for the sake of someone’s notion of efficiency. Even to accomplish part of what they want. I would submit that much of that circle-the-wagons attitude has been engendered by unprecedented interdependencies such as globalization, advanced debt ratios, technology game-changers, disintermediation, and information flattening. American conservatives are much more comfortable enacting and promoting freedom and independence, not designing optimal interdependence. We should expect very strong response from them. Nor should we assume their impetus is inherently flawed, merely because it’s contentious and inefficient. Churchill was quite contentious (and vilified, and conservative) while Europe stood and watched Hitler’s flagrant, illegal army creation in the early ’30’s, when the lift of the proper pinky would’ve likely prevented WWII. A society in flux has greater risks all around, both through abandoning the past and embracing the future. Conservative reaction is perhaps the strongest touchstone we have of that risk. Many fronts we have to deal with intelligently are being addressed in conservative circles, not on the liberal side. I note two in passing. First, the ironic inaction of the left on consolidated Executive branch power and the curbing of civil liberties. And, in mild contrast to your point about Rep. Ryan’s speech, nuts-and-bolts discussions on government finance (ones that don’t just grind away on principle) are much more common in conservative blogs and think tanks than in liberal equivalents.

    Your last point, that compromise can hurt the politician electorally, is a reflection that this broader principle-centric perspective is rooted broadly in the populace, not in politicians, particularly among conservatives. I think it’s a comforting false myth, especially to those on the left, that our federal government deviates far from the People’s wishes. The inaction and risks that those of us on the liberal end of the train bemoan as disastrous are actually preferred results by a large minority of Americans. Emphasizing principle may be more combative, and even far less efficient, but that powerful minority see principles as assaulted in an unprecedented way, and feel a need to abandon practicality to rivet our sight to principle, in the hope it will lead us out of the quagmire. Any little accuracy gained in such a battle may, unfortunately, prove its worth soon enough, in these uncertain seas. That fact alone should give us at least a bit of pause in our grousing.

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