The dominant view of ideology is that it is something that individuals consciously, rationally form. In this mold, ideology is something pure that exists for its own reasons. It is not a means to an end, unless that end is implementation of policy that reflects the most accurate evaluation of the world around us. It does not, or at least should not, change based on different situations. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that unconscious, automatic processes and social psychological factors are connected to ideology.
One theoretical perspective that sheds light on this connection is shared reality theory. Shared reality theory proposes the idea that particular cognitions are founded on and regulated by particular interpersonal relationships, and that particular cognitions in turn regulate interpersonal relationship dynamics. In other words, there is evidence that our associations with others might have a meaningful impact on our internal thought processes and vice-versa. Our social interactions may in fact serve a crucial psychological function by creating a common (or shared) view of reality that lends a sense of objectivity to otherwise transitory and subjective individual experience. One theoretical means through which we establish shared reality is “social tuning,” through which we bring relationship-relevant attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors into harmony with those of others with whom we either wish to be close or must be close. Ideology is particularly implicated in these processes, both due to its salience and because ideologies can function as “prepackaged” sets of beliefs that are useful for establishing where we stand in relation to others and their perspectives.
While shared reality theory and the possibility that people might actually “tune” their beliefs based on their relationships does not mean that ideology is arbitrary, it does undermine traditional dispositionist assumptions about the centrality of the individual as a rational decision-maker. Our responses to situations that implicate our religious or political views involve automatic processes that are permeable and susceptible to the influence of those around us. Our level of commitment to a given idea can vary depending on how we are experimentally primed. Rather than occupying a consecrated position above other opinions, trends, and inclinations, it is possible that ideology can be as unconsciously driven and impacted by situational pressures as preferences that are given considerably less weight. The full impact of these phenomena is likely to become clearer as social psychologists continue to explore our need for shared reality with others and its relationship with our view of the world around us.
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For more on the relationship between affiliative processes and ideology, read Part 2, which contains my interview of Curtis Hardin. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Networks” and “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil.”