Ideology Trumps Sex

In past Psychology Today columns, I have discussed how ideology is a very strong predictor of many important life outcomes, and indeed that ideology “too strongly” predicts in many cases.

In the present column I discuss several new findings that further corroborate this claim.

First, in a recent study led by my Masters student Elvira Prusaczyk, we analyzed nationally representative data sampled from over 3200 Americans in 2016, prior to the presidential election.  We found that political ideology strongly predicted abortion attitudes. Specifically, the more conservative (vs. liberal) the respondent, the more he or she opposed abortion.

[As a statistic, the correlation was r = -.50. This means that a full 25% of the variability in abortion attitudes was explained by political ideology alone, a large effect in the individual differences literature, see Gignac & Szodorai (2016). Put another way, among those above the median in political ideology and hence conservative, 75% opposed abortion]

What might surprise you is that participant sex (or gender) was essentially uncorrelated with abortion attitudes (r = .03). In other words, if I knew your political ideology I’d have a strong estimate of whether you support a woman’s right to abortion, but if I knew your sex my estimate of your abortion attitude would be essentially no better than a random guess or a coin toss.

Political ideology, yet again, trumps group membership and group interest (in this case, whether you are a man or a woman).

Similar but less dramatic findings were recently released by the top polling organization Pew. Their survey was also a nationally representative survey, with a sample size of over 6200 people, conducted earlier this year.  Their survey focused on reactions to sexual harassment in the workplace, as relevant to the #MeToo movement. They found that 55% of women believed that men going unpunished for sexual harassment is a problem, whereas 44% of men hold that belief. Here, knowing a person’s sex would give you the ability to predict this harassment-relevant attitude above chance levels.

But the political divide on this question was much larger that the divide between the sexes. Among Democrats (and those leaning Democrat) 62% believed that men getting away with sexual harassment is a problem, but among Republicans (and those leaning Republican) only 33% considered men going unpunished a problem. That is a sizeable effect by any standard. If I knew your political affiliation, I’d have very good estimate of your attitude on sexual harassment.

(This issue is timely given concerns about how much information social media companies are collecting about us. Simply knowing one bit of information about you, such as your political ideology, will go a long way to knowing who you are, what you think, and how you’ll behave).

Here I have discussed two recent, large, and nationally representative datasets that nicely illustrate the basic point: political ideology is a very strong predictor of social outcomes such as abortion rights and sexual harassment. In the case of abortion, sex/gender was an irrelevant predictor, and in the case of harassment, it was a meager predictor relative to ideology.

Our ideologies have become “supersized” predictors of human nature. For a variable once considered irrelevant to the social sciences (see Jost, 2006), ideology has taken central stage in explaining and predicting 21st century life.


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