The Social Dimension of Political Values

Abstract

Worries about the instability of political attitudes and lack of ideological constraint among the public are often pacified by the assumption that individuals have stable political values. These political values are assumed to help individuals filter political information and thus both minimize outside influence and guide people through complex political environments. This perspective, though, assumes that political values are stable and consistent across contexts. This piece questions that assumption and argues that political values are socially reinforced—that is, that political values are not internal predispositions, but the result of social influence. I consider this idea with two empirical tests: an experimental test that recreates the transmission of political values and an observational analysis of the effect of politically homogeneous social contexts on political value endorsements. Results suggest that political values are socially reinforced. The broader implication of my findings is that the concepts scholars term “political values” may be reflections of individuals’ social contexts rather than values governing political behavior.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    While there is large body of literature on values (for example, the values that form moral foundations—see Graham et al. 2009), here my focus is on political values (Caprara and Vecchione 2013; Ciuk 2017; Feldman 1988, 2003, 2013; Feldman and Steenbergen 2001; Goren 2005; Goren et al. 2009; Hurwitz and Peffley 1987; Jacoby 2006, 2014; Knutsen 1995; Kuklinski 2001; McCann 1997; Nelson and Garst 2005; Nelson et al. 1997; Schwartz et al. 2010; Zaller 1992).

  2. 2.

    Research finds that political attitudes can be influenced by social and survey contexts (e.g., Bartels 2003; Chong and Druckman 2007; Nelson et al. 1997; Klar 2014; Sniderman and Theriault 2004; Tversky and Kahneman 1981), but the assumption is that political values are more stable (see Caprara and Vecchione 2013).

  3. 3.

    While there are various types of outside influence, including elite (Zaller 1992) and impersonal (Cialdini et al. 1990), this piece’s focus is on social influence (Huckfeldt et al. 2013). Mutz (1992) defines social influence as that which is motivated by the desire to be similar to a certain group.

  4. 4.

    Although I use a value that has minimal partisan pre-treatment, there exists some general pre-treatment in that participants likely already had some views towards these values (see value distributions in preliminary studies). This may be beneficial, as it suggests the treatment led participants to change their perception of this value (rather than to initially develop it) in response to a social cue that branded compromise as endorsed by a positively-viewed political group. This speaks to the theory as values being socially reinforced rather than socially created.

  5. 5.

    The sample was: 48% female, 79% white, 51% college graduate or above; mean age of 38; 34% leaning, weak, or strong Republican, 13% pure Independent, and 53% leaning, weak, or strong Democrat; slightly skewed liberal (mean of 3.66 on scale from 1 to 7); above average in terms of interest in news (mean of 1.65 on scale from 1 to 3), taking part in political discussions (mean of 2.68 on scale from 0 to 7), and attention to news media (mean of 4.15 on scale from 0 to 7). Given this sample is above average in terms of education, interest, discussions, and attention to media, pretreatment is especially threatening (see Druckman and Leeper 2012), reinforcing the decision to use non-established political values. Lastly, a check was conducted on the sample to examine the influence of bots on the collected data, which found non-threatening results (see Online Appendix A.6).

  6. 6.

    Full question wording and results can be found in Online Appendixes A.2 and A.3.

  7. 7.

    The question wording for the dependent variable was: “What about you—which do you believe in more?” with the options of compromise, standing your ground, or don’t know.

  8. 8.

    The controls added as a robustness check to the findings were measured pre-treatment and included partisanship, ideology, gender, age, race, education, attention to news, how often one discusses of politics, and how often one consumes news. Wording of variables is in Online Appendix A.7. These controls aim to also address worries about partisan stereotyping (Rothschild et al. 2018).

  9. 9.

    In general, research on political values that does not include all identified political values leads to the natural question of how political values differ from each other. It is likely, for example, that the internalization of political values among the public likely differs by how clear social cues are, just as attitudes among the public differ depending on elite signaling (see Levendusky 2010).

  10. 10.

    As in previous literature, morality is comprised of both moral tolerance and moral traditionalism.

  11. 11.

    Past research finds that in the 2000 ANES only 4% of respondents had networks in which everyone disagreed with them (e.g., a Democrat with a full network of Republicans), while 34% of respondents had networks in which everyone agreed with them and 48% of respondents had networks in which no one supported the other party’s candidate (Huckfeldt et al. 2004). Thus, I assume that a homogeneous network indicates a network of the same political party.

  12. 12.

    While there are additional values discussed in Jacoby (2006, 2014) and Goren et al. (2009), those are either not available in the 2000 ANES dataset or are measured in a limited capacity.

  13. 13.

    Note that given the smaller sample size (N = 227) here, the coefficient is marginally significant (p = 0.056).

  14. 14.

    I also conduct an analysis that examines the effect of political discussions (without accounting for the makeup of discussion partners) on the endorsement of party-congruent political values. This result largely mimics the results from the main analysis (see Appendix C).

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Correspondence to Elizabeth C. Connors.

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Connors, E. The Social Dimension of Political Values. Polit Behav 42, 961–982 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09530-3

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Keywords

  • Political values
  • Social influence
  • Social cues