At this year’s International Society for Political Psychology conference in Herzliya, Israel, Assistant Professor of Psychology Emily Fisher presented her work on the ways in which social experience influences political leanings and political prejudices.
“American political discourse often feels so contentious because our political attitudes aren’t as rational as we want them to be,” Fisher says. “Studying these political prejudices and where they come from is a first step toward reducing some of the animosity that dominates so many political disagreements.”
Fisher’s presentation, “Social Capital and Attitudes about Liberals and Conservatives,” described the results of a survey in which she asked respondents “to report things like how much they trusted others in their community, how often they attended community events, whether they believed others would help them when needed, and so on.”
This is what Fisher refers to as social capital: “the norms surrounding trust, reciprocity and engagement within a given community.”
“I also measured people’s attitudes about what social psychologists refer to their in-groups and their out-groups,” she says. “For a liberal person, how she feels about other liberals is an in-group attitude and how she feels about conservatives is an out group attitude (vice versa for conservatives).”
Fisher initially predicted that those with higher social capital would have more positive attitudes about their political out groups — that their experiences in the community would lead them to be more accepting of people who disagreed with them. However, the data revealed that this was only true for the liberal respondents. Social capital was related to their attitudes about both liberals and conservatives, but there were no significant relationships between social capital and group attitudes for the conservative participants.
“This data suggests that people’s political ideology affects how they engage with their communities,” Fisher says, “though I’ll need to do more research to figure out exactly how and why that occurs.”
The goal of the conference, “Political Psychology of Global Conflict, Protest and Reconciliation,” was to “highlight the role of conflict and protest in precipitating change” and “explore prospects for reconciliation in areas of endemic or enduring conflict.”
Fisher says she was “partly inspired to do this study because of conflict and reconciliation themes. Lots of research shows that we all think our political attitudes are logical and correct, but they’re shaped by our emotions, our social experiences, our personalities, our demographics, and our group loyalties in ways we aren’t always aware of.”
The presentation was part of an on-going study of social capital and intergroup attitudes. Over the past several years, Fisher has conducted several studies about social capital and attitudes about racial groups in particular. Those studies suggest that people higher in social capital tend to have more positive experiences with people from other racial groups — and that these experiences can reduce racial prejudices.
“That’s why I originally assumed that social capital might reduce political prejudices as well,” Fisher says. “Turns out it’s a little more complex than that — but no social psychologist is ever surprised to learn that people are complex.”
Fisher is continuing this line of work, currently collaborating with two summer science students to design experiments that test cause and effect of social capital.
“Political psychology is a growing interdisciplinary field,” Fisher says. “Social psychologists, political scientists, mass communication scholars and others all work together to learn how people think and act in the political context. For me, this is an interesting way to study some basic psychological concepts like attitudes, cognitive biases, and group identity in a way that is directly relevant to important social decisions. It’s a chance to do scholarship that directly matters to our society.”
Fisher graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Ph.D. in social psychology, where she also earned a minor in political psychology. Her research interests are broadly in the area of intergroup relations; more specifically, she has done research related to intergroup contact and its effect on social categorization and attitudes about outgroups, psychological predictors of political attitudes, and perceptions of social capital in different communities. “In other words,” Fisher writes on her website, “I study racism, sexism, political ideologies, and how our social communities can make these problems worse, or better.”