What Role Does Partisanship Play Outside of the Polls?

11:21 minutes

Do you consider someone’s political party when you’re assessing dating partners or job candidates? Political scientist Shanto Iyengar conducted a study showing that the biggest social divide might not be race or religion, but rather political affiliation. Iyengar discusses how politics is shaping personal identities and social relationships.

Segment Guests

Shanto Iyengar

Shanto Iyengar is a Professor of Political Science and Communication  at Stanford University in Stanford, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: If you’ve ever given online dating a try, you know there are lots of ways to filter out the potential matches– smoker, are you a smoker– nonsmoker, deal done. Now, more and more, that key filter is becoming one’s political beliefs. There are even politically based dating sites that will help you find your running mate. Do potential partners parties match? That’s it.

We went out to Times Square to ask people how much politics matters in dating, and would they consider dating someone with different political leaning?

SPEAKER 1: There’s major issues that you would disagree with on an every day level with someone. So I think, yeah, it definitely does play a role. I think it depends on the issue. I’m– completely couldn’t date someone that didn’t have the same political views as me.

SPEAKER 2: Oh yeah, why not?

SPEAKER 1: Because I find conservative views really ignorant. And I guess, they’re inherent in my morals. It was the way I was brought up. So there’s no way.


SPEAKER 1: Never.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that was Christine from Westchester and Jen from Perth, Australia. We’re used to hearing politicians play up the partisan divide, especially in this election cycle. But how does that divide play a role outside of the polls? Shanto Iyengar is a professor of political science and communications at Stanford University. Welcome to Science Friday.

SHANTO IYENGAR: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: It makes sense that people would want to date or marry someone that shared the same political beliefs. But it always hasn’t been this way, has it?

SHANTO IYENGAR: That’s right. In the good old days, at least in terms of discussions of polarization. So let’s say we go back to the 1950s, the 1960s. Party affiliation made virtually no difference to interpersonal relations. So there’s a well known survey question that people were asked. How would you feel if your son or daughter were to marry someone from the other political party? Democrats would be asked about marrying into the Republican Party and vice versa. And less than 10% of Americans felt troubled or displeased by the prospect of inter-party marriage.

30 years later, around the late 1980s, the mid-1990s, we began to notice a slight change– well, a dramatic change. More than 25% now say that they would be troubled by the prospect of their offspring marrying outside the party. And as you pointed out in your lead into this segment, if you actually look at spousal agreement, if you look at the marriage across party lines today, it’s extremely infrequent. Maybe 10% to 11% of American couples actually have divergent party registrations.

IRA FLATOW: And is this part of– there are so many dating sites. Do they ask this now on the dating sites? They match you by your party affiliation?

SHANTO IYENGAR: No, you’re free to construct your own profile. And there’s actually quite a bit of research on what people put out there. And not surprisingly, people are fairly strategic. That is to say, they do not advertise their political views. So it’s not as though they are proclaiming themselves to be conservatives or liberals. They’re making it difficult for prospective matches to find out about this. And so despite the level of difficulty, people manage to uncover it. So it’s indicative of how important this attribute happens to be. People are actually going out of their way to get this information.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you set up a fascinating study that tested partisan bias in an area that should be completely out of the realm of politics. And I’m talking about the bias, how it might affect scholarships. Tell us about that.

SHANTO IYENGAR: Well, we asked people to judge resumes. We gave them a couple of resumes of high school seniors. And we were interested in the degree to which extracurricular activities might trump academic credentials. And so we manipulated the high school kids grade point average. He either had a 4.0 or a 3.5. Then we also manipulated other attributes. So we gave them a prototypical African American surname or a more Anglo side of him. So we manipulated race.

And we also indicated that, maybe, on the resume, he was the president of the Young Democrats or the Young Republicans. So we provided cues about partisanship. And it turns out that, while the task of the respondent was to select one of these two candidates, and it turns out the party cue dominated. It dominated credentials. It dominated race. It dominated gender. So people were, basically, going out of their way to penalize the kid who happened to be active in the opposing party.

IRA FLATOW: So they were choosing scholarship based on party affiliation?

SHANTO IYENGAR: That’s right, to a remarkable degree.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that sounds like a serious problem.

SHANTO IYENGAR: Well, I mean, the issue is that we live in an age– as Donald Trump is fond of reminding us– it’s an age of political correctness. And so when people are asked questions about race or gender or age, and they are asked to offer opinions about members of racial groups or gender groups or religious groups, they are not very spontaneous. They feel constrained. But when you are asking people about Democrat and Republican, they feel free to say all kinds of bad things about their partisan opponents. And social norms just don’t apply.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know what, it seems like, maybe it is good. The good news is we’ve come far enough that race doesn’t count as much as your political affiliation anymore. It’s not–

SHANTO IYENGAR: Well, yes, that would be an optimistic take on it.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask you a couple of other things. I know you may not have tested for this, but I remember when I was dating. And one of the most important things you wanted to know from somebody, that might be a deal breaker, was whether you were a smoker or not, right? You’re not going to live out your life in a house with someone who smokes, or you don’t smoke. Does politics even trump smoking?

SHANTO IYENGAR: Well, smoking is a pretty difficult attribute to conceal. It’s fairly transparent. Politics is not all that visible. I mean, it’s true that quite a few Americans display their partisan preferences. They have bumper stickers or yard signs. And they certainly express their opinions on candidates and issues. But smoking, I would say, is just far more pervasive as sort of a attribute.

IRA FLATOW: So what you’re saying is that if you want to be socially active and meet people, it’s best to hide your political affiliation.

SHANTO IYENGAR: Well, you certainly don’t want to go out on a limb and advertise your preferences on climate change, and abortion, and Donald Trump, and what have you, yes.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s interesting. Let me just remind everybody first, that I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday, from PRI– Public Radio International– talking with a very interesting scientist, Shanto Iyengar, about politics now trumping– so to speak, no pun intended– everything else that people think about. Is this an American thing or is it true worldwide, do you think?

SHANTO IYENGAR: Well, that’s an interesting question, and we were curious about that. And so we’ve actually begun some work into other societies that are actually quite divided. We think of America as being a polarized society, but we’re actually not as polarized as several other countries. So, for example, we’ve been looking at Spain, where we have separatist movements in Basque Country and Catalonia. And we’ve also been looking at Belgium, where there’s a big divide based on language, French speakers, versus the Flems.

And it turns out in these highly divided societies, where they’re divided on grounds other than politics, we have sort of replicated the American pattern. We find that in Spain and in Belgium, the party divide is quite intense, and competes with these other very salient social or ethnic divides. So it doesn’t seem to be a distinctive, uniquely American phenomenon.

IRA FLATOW: If people are going out of their way to hide their biases this way, would they possibly also hide them from pollsters, not telling them the truth about what they’ve just voted on or where their biases are?

SHANTO IYENGAR: Well, on sensitive subjects, there is some evidence that people are less than completely honest in their poll responses, particularly on– there was this famous Wilder effect, named after the African American governor of Virginia. So when people are asked whether they’re going to support an African American candidate, they might say, yes. Because they believe that is the socially appropriate thing to say. They’re advertising their openness, the fact that they’re not racist. But in the privacy of the polling place, they might do something else.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that might be a lesson for this next coming election and primaries coming up about what people will say and what they will hide.

Thank you very much, Dr. Iyengar, for taking time to be with us today.

SHANTO IYENGAR: My pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: Shanto Iyengar is professor of political science and communications at Stanford University.

One last thing before we go. Marvin Minsky died this week at the age of 88. He was a pioneer in artificial intelligence. But his interests were wide and varied. And back in 1992, he was a guest on this program, talking about the rise of nanotechnology, a new field. And he offered this thought to a caller who wanted to know how to break into this field.

MARVIN MINSKY: If you want to do the latest thing, it usually pays to work sideways. You want to learn mathematics and physics and chemistry and computer science. If you start right in on it, you’ll probably never get up to the front. And this happens in a lot of fields. There’s another very exciting field, called virtual reality, that’s become worldwide popular. Students are always saying, how do I get to do that? The answer is to learn a lot of science, and a lot of critical thinking in art, and so forth. Don’t aim right toward the thing. I don’t think that’s a good idea.

IRA FLATOW: Marvin Minsky died this week at the age of 88.

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