individuals’ ideologies as networks

Hypothesis: People not only hold opinions about parties and specific issues; they also explicitly connect their various beliefs together to create more-or-less coherent logical structures. Understanding these structures yields insights about individuals that we would miss if we only knew a list of their opinions.

This thesis challenges a common assumption in political and moral psychology. Although scholars meticulously analyze the structure of the arguments in books, essays, and speeches, several streams of research suggest that ordinary people have no such structures–their political preferences are random, or chosen by elites, or driven by latent variables of which they are unconscious. I think that we won’t find the conscious structure in average people’s thinking unless we develop tools that can detect it.

Looking at some individuals

To that end, last summer I collected data from 100 Amazon Turk participants. I restricted the sample to liberal residents of the USA, in order to control the range of issues that would appeal to them so that I could analyze the small dataset effectively.

I showed each person a list of 30 ideas they might favor, about half of which leaned left. I simply asked, “Which of these would you like to see happen?” and encouraged them to be selective. Consistent with my effort to recruit liberals, they chose almost exclusively liberal items. For instance, 80% chose “health insurance for all” and zero chose “a return to traditional values.”*

After subjecting respondents to a bit of explanation and training, I showed them their own chosen items in pairs (in random order). For each pair, I asked, “Are you in favor of X because you are in favor of Y?” Each time they said yes, that created a link between two nodes (or an edge between two vertices, if you prefer the technical language). From these responses, I was able to generate network maps for each person and for groups.

Here is one such map. This person is a white man, age 32. He places himself as far as possible to the left on a unidimensional ideology scale and he says that he agrees with AOC most often, followed by Bernie, then Warren, then Obama, and finally, Biden. He believes that eight things that he would like to see happen (e.g., health insurance for all) provide reasons to reduce corporate influence on government. He also sees an indirect link between reducing corporate influence and racial justice (by way of reducing incarceration) and an indirect link to the environment (by way of enabling a tax on carbon). However, he doesn’t connect political reform to free college or LGBTQ+ issues, although he cares about those issues and connects them.

In short, his network is highly centralized around reducing corporate influence. This seems like an important fact about how he thinks.

Below is another map, this time for a white woman, age 30, who ranks the Democratic politicians in precisely the opposite order as the man did (Biden first; OAC last). However, she ranks herself as a one on a 0-10 ideology scale, i.e., very liberal.

Her graph is more complex than the man’s. She is 3.6 times more likely than he was to see any given pair of ideas as a connection. Two-thirds of her arrows are double-headed. (She favors less crime because she favors more trust in government, and vice-versa.) You can move around her graph from one item to the next, and then onward. It is not centralized around any single node.

As noted, I first asked respondents whether each of their goals provided a reason for another goal. It was up to them what counted as a “reason.” I believe, however, that we can put ideas together in numerous ways, with a range of logical connectors. A justification is one link; a cause is another.

Therefore, I next showed respondents pairs of outcomes and asked whether each one would cause the other one. I included outcomes that they had not selected in the first place, because you might not select something as a high value even though it causes an outcome that you do value highly.

Here is the first respondent’s map with the causal connections added in:

It becomes complicated–perhaps too complicated to understand visually. But it’s clear that he believes higher voter turnout and a more responsible electorate are “upstream” factors–they cause many desirable outcomes–even though he did not initially choose them as his priorities. It makes sense to me that they are means to the ends he favors.

Finally, I showed respondents random pairs of items and asked, “Imagine x happened. Would that change your opinion by making you more supportive of y?” This produced another kind of connection (hypotheticals), which I can add to the first respondent’s map along with the causes and reasons:

Metrics suggest that this addition doesn’t actually change this person’s map very much, although it adds a few ideas at the end of arrows.

An example: the role of reparations in the mentality of the left

Months ago, I hypothesized that reparations for slavery play an important role in the thinking of left-liberal Americans. Progressives oscillate between hostility to the US government and desire to expand federal economic action. If the government paid reparations, progressives would trust it more and would therefore tilt to democratic socialism.

I can identify some individuals who may exhibit this logic. For instance, here is a 40-year-old white woman who favors a set of progressive outcomes and sees all of them as reasons to reduce corporate power over government (rather like the first man discussed earlier):

She did not select reparations as one of her original priorities, but she was asked whether actually seeing reparations happen in the world would make her more favorable toward other outcomes. She said it would make her more supportive of 10 things, including trust in government and civility. One can imagine that she thinks: if the government paid reparations, I would want people to trust it and would want citizens to be civil to each other, because the regime would be more legitimate. However, this is largely my inference about her responses, and it’s not a common pattern in the data.

These are three examples from the 100 cases that I collected. I have many more to look at, and I have IRB permission to interview selected respondents about their reasoning.

Aggregate results

I am also interested in examining the aggregate data. One evident finding is that people’s top priorities for how they would like to see the world change are not the same as the factors they see as most influential.

In my sample, the most frequently chosen goals are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a solution to climate change
  3. a higher minimum wage
  4. racial justice
  5. more school choice

The items that are seen as having the most direct effects on other items are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a less corrupt government
  3. less corporate influence on government
  4. a more responsible electorate
  5. more equitable education

And the items that have the most links of any kind to other items are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a less corrupt government
  3. racial justice
  4. more trust in government
  5. economic growth

Healthcare hangs in there as the top priority however you slice it. However, better government and economic growth–which are not chosen as high priorities from a simple list–emerge when people think about various kinds of premises or causes for the things they do value.

Another method would be to measure the relationships between people’s networks of ideas and a different variable of interest. I was planning to look at self-placement on an ideological scale, but my sample clusters together too closely. Seventy-four percent rate themselves between 0 and 2 on a 0-10 scale.

Instead, I am using as the dependent variable how people rank AOC compared to other Democratic politicians. I chose that outcome because her ranking correlates most strongly with ideological placement, and also because the biggest negative correlation in the whole matrix is between her rankings and Joe Biden’s (-0.67). Plus, her rankings have a nice distribution: the median is 3 on a 1-5 scale. So I take her strong supporters and opponents to mark the ends of a meaningful spectrum within the US left.

If we simply correlate the priorities that people choose (or don’t choose) with their rankings of AOC, then the correlations that are significant are:

  • more school choice and racial justice (which were chosen by identical people*)
  • equity for LGBTQ+ people
  • (not choosing) economic growth
  • (not choosing) less crime
  • (not choosing) a reduction in government debt

These correlations make intuitive sense to me. Among liberals, those who care less about crime, deficits, and growth would like OAC best.

If you put all the choices together with the demographics and ideology in one linear regression model to predict support for OAC, it does a decent job (r-squared = 0.488).** However, none of the individual items (including ideology) are statistically significant. One could conclude that knowing which items people pick helps you to predict their opinion of AOC, but you need to know most of the items.

If, instead, you look at which items people thought were reasons for other items, the model is more predictive (r-squared = .608 with the same number of variables) and ten items become stat. sig. on their own (p <.05). Knowing that an individual sees one of these items as a reason for other items gives a basis to predict that this same individual likes (or dislikes) AOC.

That seems like confirmation of my original hypothesis. The structure of people’s beliefs–more than the things they support–predicts a consequential opinion. However, I am still working on the regression and other aggregate methods; suggestions are welcome.

*Increasing school choice was also popular. I am not surprised to see support for that idea among liberals. One thing that may be surprising is a perfect correlation between racial justice and school choice: the same 49 people chose both of those items. **For this model, I omitted the people who placed themselves in the right half of the ideology scale, who looked to me like outliers. See also: ideologies and complex systems;  it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedthe pivotal significance of reparations for the American left; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.