Published for, March 5, 2012

NPR aired an interesting trio of segments this morning about inconsistency and flip-flopping. I particularly enjoyed Alix Spiegel’s report on Jamie Barden, a psychology professor at Howard University. Barden’s work considers how “tribal” affiliation affects our perceptions of inconsistent behavior by politicians. In one experiment, Barden asked students their view of a hypothetical political operative named Mike who crashed while driving drunk and then, a few weeks later, gave a speech against drunk driving:

“Now obviously there are two possible interpretations of Mike’s actions. The first interpretation is that Mike is a hypocrite. Privately he’s driving into poles. Publicly he’s making proclamations. He’s a person whose public and private behavior is inconsistent.

The other interpretation is that Mike is a changed man. Mike had a hard experience. Mike learned. Mike grew.

So when do we see hypocrisy and when do we see growth?

What Barden found is that this decision is based much less on the facts of what happened, than on tribe.

Half the time the hypothetical Mike was described to the students in the study as a Republican, and half the time he was described as a Democrat.

When participants were making judgments of a Mike who was in their own party, only 16 percent found him to be a hypocrite. When participants were making judgments about a Mike from the opposing party, 40 percent found him to be a hypocrite.”

I suspect this is the same phenomenon that leads sports fans to systemtically disagree with referee decisions against their favorite team.

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