Saturday, September 15, 2012

Politics, Decline, & Stress Balls

In my last post, I wrote about how important it was to pursue seemingly odd social and political science, and I cited as an example a study that showed squeezing a stress ball can make you more likely to believe random strangers were Democrats.

You might have some doubts. The stress ball study is a weird one among weird ones, and you might wonder whether its important and whether it will hold up under scrutiny. But the stress ball study is important, and I think it will hold up. Here's why.

The stress ball study
First, what's the stress ball study all about? The paper,  "Proprioception and Person Perception: Politicians and Professors," published just a few weeks ago in Personality and Social Pshychology Bulletin, essentially asks whether physically exerting yourself might change how you feel about other people. 

It turns out it does. In one experiment, 52 undergraduates guessed whether four women and four men pictured in photographs were Republicans or Democrats. Half of them squeezed a hard latex ball while viewing the photos, and the other half squeezed a soft polyurethane ball — a stress ball. Those who squeezed a hard ball thought on average that 53 percent of the people in the pictures were Republicans, compared with 43 percent for those who squeezed a stress ball. In other words, playing with a stress ball makes you more likely to think people are Democrats.

That might seem odd, but it isn't that surprising. Psychologists have long known that events, images, and smells — not to mention words — trigger us to think about abstract concepts that in turn influence our behavior. Extra-weird example: Michael Ramscar and Lera Boroditsky once showed that whether you were physically moving or not could change whether you think moving Wednesday's meeting up two days meant moving it to Monday or Friday.*

Closer to politics, we know that while it's hard to change what you think about a given issue, it's easy to change the basis of your choices by focusing on, say, fears about the economy, terrorism, or crime.** 

So why is the stress ball study important?
If the result isn't that surprising, why is it important? First, it adds to the odd list of things we can do to influence voters beliefs. That furthers our understanding of the weirdness that is our political behavior, and it makes that understanding more robust — it makes us more likely to think the weirdness is real.

Second, it shows just how far down the rabbit hole we can go. Stress balls? Really? Well, yes, apparently, at least a little bit.***

And why do I think it will hold up?
Over there on the facebooks, a Nathan Explains Science reader whom I'll call Jimmy O.D. (huge punk rocker) asked whether the stress ball study might fall victim to the so-called Decline Effect, whereby the bias toward publishing results that confirm hypotheses — especially results that confirm odd hypotheses — rather than disconfirm them leads many published results to be disconfirmed later on. 

I don't think that will happen with this study, and my reasons are basically the same as above: while the stress ball study seems odd in isolation, it's part of a much larger body of research that shows how irrational we can be — how the funny ways we connect different ideas in our heads change our behavior in equally funny ways. In particular it's part of a line of research on how suggestible we are, whether that takes the form of words, political ads, or stress balls. In that light, the result seems quite likely to hold up. In fact, it doesn't even seem that strange.

So what have we learned? People are weird, and that weirdness affects important things like politics, and it isn't likely to go away any time soon. Just another day here at Nathan Explains Science.

*Ramscar told my cognitive psychology class that he came up with the idea after having downed a few drinks on an airplane, leading him to go around asking people about moving meetings up. How's that for a pilot study?
**See my much earlier post on, among other things, Willie Horton and the 1988 presidential election.
***Now, a lot of these effects don't hold up with strong partisans, but then it's not strong partisans that generally decide elections — it's middle-of-the-road voters, and they are susceptible to these effects. Maybe stress balls won't affect an election, but then again I don't think anyone's tried.****
****Try to be a little surprised when you see me standing 100 yards from your polling place handing out Nathan Explains Science stress balls.