Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 2
Posted by Al Sahlstrom on January 26, 2009
Curtis Hardin is one of the authors of Shared Reality, System Justification, and the Relational Basis of Ideological Beliefs, an article that examines the relationship between affiliative motives and ideology. I recently spoke with Professor Hardin about that work. (For additional background on this research and shared reality theory, see Part 1.)
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Al Sahlstrom: Could you please briefly discuss the background of this research – what is social tuning and in what contexts have psychologists previously studied it?
Curtis Hardin: The observation that people can and do tune their attitudes toward the ostensible attitudes of others is an old and persistent one—dating at least to the dialogues of Plato (including The Republic and others). It is there at the inception of empirical psychology in the work of Wundt and Freud and James. It is there at the beginning of social psychology in the work of Sherif, Adorno, Lewin, Allport, and Asch. The problem of tuning in opinion surveys about racism, for example in which respondents expressed less racism toward black than white interviewers in the 1960s and 1970s, is arguably the precipitating finding that inspired the development of unobtrusive measures of prejudice including measures of implicit and automatic prejudice. The use of the term “tuning” was coined (I believe!) by Tory Higgins and colleagues in their “communication game” work that formally situated individual information-processing in social dynamics. Tuning and “anti-tuning” of this type as well as tuning-like phenomena captured in the classical social psychological literature formed one kind of evidence we have argued supports shared reality theory (Hardin & Higgins, 1996; Hardin & Conley, 2001).
AS: How does social tuning occur? Is it something that everyone does? Is it limited by situation or subject matter?
CH: Social tuning is so ubiquitous that many explanations have been forwarded for it, ranging from bald conformity all the way to tacit, automatized management of common ground in face-to-face conversation. It is certain that depending on the circumstance, any number of explanations could be in operation. That said, from the perspective of shared reality theory, social tuning of the type captured in the research we’ve shown you now is ubiquitous. According to shared reality theory, being engaged in an interpersonal relationship requires modulation of “shared reality” (which is evidenced by social tuning). The direction and magnitude of this kind of social tuning is very much determined by the quality of the relationship as well as which attitudes and experiences are either situationally or chronically relevant to that relationship. Our group hasn’t systematically studied subject matter as a potential moderating variable, but we do find that the degree to which the particular attitude is perceived to be relevant to the effective relationship very much qualifies whether tuning will occur and the direction in which it occurs.
AS: Your research approaches political ideology as something that is influenced by motivational processes. How does social tuning fit into this?
CH: In my view, research animated by system justification theory has focused most on epistemic and existential motivations. What we have begun to do—both in the Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin paper as well as experiments currently being done in my lab—is explore the possibility that another motivation for system justification may be relational. Corresponding to shared reality research, we’re starting to find evidence of both chronic relationship concerns in system justification as well as new or situationally relevant relationship concerns.
AS: Please tell me a little about the research you’re currently conducting on social tuning and political ideology. What exactly are you looking at and what have you found so far?
CH: Broadly, many experiments in my laboratory are exploring how individual experience at a given moment reflects a kind of tension among more than one interpersonal relationship, including immediate relationships and long-term relationships. We’ve been working on this in a variety of ways. For example, we’ve found that automatic homophobic attitudes are greater after an interaction with an ostensibly gay than straight experimenter but only for participants who say they have no gay friends. In another line of experiments, we’ve found that unconscious threats to religious experience reduce explicit religious commitment, but only for participants who believe that they do not share their religious experience with their fathers. For participants who do perceive their religious experience to be shared, the unconscious threat is met with increased religious commitment. In yet another line of experiments, we’ve found that although people will become more anti-black when they’ve been included versus excluded in a game played with ostensible racists, the effect reverses when participants have been experimentally induced to be extra motivated to engage with the racists. We’ve found analogous effects on self-judgment as a function of the ostensible gender traditionality of people who include versus exclude participants.
AS: What do you think might be the limits of these effects? How stable are they? What factors might amplify or mitigate these effects (e.g. duration and consistency of exposure to the tuning group)?
CH: Very interesting questions we’ve not yet explored systematically. According to shared reality theory, social engagement (e.g., affiliative motivation) elicits shared reality (e.g., social tuning). Our research shows that such effects of an immediate relationship are moderated by the relation between that shared reality and potentially competing shared realities held in chronic or long-term relationships. But we haven’t attempted to study what makes some relationships more or less “strong” vis-à-vis shared reality. There would be a variety of ways to model this. My preference—that is, until it proves untenable!—would be that the strength of a given attitude would be determined by some simple function of (a) the number of relationships in which the attitude is shared, (b) the stability of the relationships involved, and (c) the salience of those relationships. For example, sharing reality in a new relationship would be inhibited to the degree that that shared reality is incompatible with existing relationships and to the extent that the existing relationships are stable and to the extent that those relationships are cognitively salient. As for the duration of social tuning effects, evidence across social psychology suggests to me that they are unlikely to be very stable. People are very adaptable to changing social circumstances—from situation to situation, relationship to relationship, and even within situations and particular relationships as they evolve.
AS: I think it’s safe to say many of us assume that ideology is something that we develop rationally. What implications would you say your research has on this idea?
CH: Good questions. I don’t think ideology is rational in the sense that for most people it is logically coherent. Nor do I believe that ideology is rational in the sense that it primarily a product of deep or broad conscious thinking. I do believe ideological thinking is rational in the sense that it is adaptive for humans in evolutionary senses. That said, I do not think research I’ve personally been involved in bears terribly strongly on these questions. To show that unconscious processes influence ideology does not preclude ideology from operating consciously as well. To show that ideology is somewhat malleable is not to show that it is either illogical or evolutionarily adaptive. Those would be interesting avenues to pursue, however.
AS: What purpose does tuning serve in this context? Do you see it as having a positive or a negative impact?
CH: We’ve identified some of the functions of social tuning in the research discussed above. Whether it’s positive or negative depends on who is tuning to whom on what dimension to what effect for whom! Like any other aspect of human psychology, it’s both positive and negative. One of the burdens of the scientist is to identify as clearly as possible the who-what-when-why of it.
AS: What research do you have planned for the future?
CH: One thing I’m very interested in is extending research we’ve done suggesting that religious experience is animated by shared reality processes to cases in which religion operates ideologically.
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Curtis D. Hardin, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on the interpersonal foundations of cognition, including the self-concept, social identification, and prejudice. He recently authored an article with John Jost and Alison Ledgerwood discussing the relational basis of ideological beliefs (available in PDF here).