Uncommon Knowledge: A thinner blue line

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No emptiness in foxholes

Research out of UMass Amherst suggests that war gives people meaning, which makes war harder to stop. For example, Americans who read an article about the Revolutionary War subsequently found more meaning in the war on terror and were more resigned to its continuation. Jewish Israelis who were surveyed during the 2014 Israel-Gaza war perceived more meaning in the conflict and supported more escalation than when surveyed several months after the war. Parisians who were surveyed after the November 2015 ISIS attack derived more meaning from the conflict and supported more escalation if they had been assigned to read an article framing the conflict as expansive rather than constrained. And Americans who watched a video that framed the October 2014 ISIS-inspired hatchet attack in New York City as more meaningful subsequently reported feeling more meaning in life and showed more support for escalation.

Rovenpor, D. et al., “Intergroup Conflict Self-Perpetuates via Meaning: Exposure to Intergroup Conflict Increases Meaning and Fuels a Desire for Further Conflict,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Red morals, blue morals

In experiments before the 2016 election, participants were presented with messages opposing either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The messages made moral appeals either to loyalty (“Trump has repeatedly behaved disloyally towards our country to serve his own interests” or “Clinton is willing to risk the standing of our nation to achieve her own goals”) or to fairness (“Trump openly discriminates against Muslims” or “Hillary Clinton is willing to sacrifice fairness and equality to achieve her own goals”). Among conservatives, the loyalty message reduced support for Trump significantly more than the fairness message did, while there was no such effect for moderates or liberals. Among liberals, the fairness message hurt support for Clinton more than the loyalty message did, while there was no such effect for moderates or conservatives.

Voelkel, J. & Feinberg, M., “Morally Reframed Arguments Can Affect Support for Political Candidates,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).


Researchers at Duke University asked people to consider various moral scenarios (for example, is it OK to smother a crying baby to prevent hostile soldiers from finding a bunch of people, or is it OK to let a homeless patient die so that a seriously injured family of five can get his organs?). After making an initial choice, participants evaluated a list of reasons for and/or against the choice and were asked again which option they would choose. As one might expect, participants who were only given reasons against their initial choice were more likely to change their minds. However, the effect was surprisingly small. Only around 10 percent changed their minds.

Stanley, M. et al., “Reasons Probably Won’t Change Your Mind: The Role of Reasons in Revising Moral Decisions,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).

State of anger


Survey data from the 2012 election indicated that people who were frequently angry at the presidential candidates were also more cynical about government, even controlling for other factors. To see if anger was actually causing such cynicism, a survey experiment was conducted during the 2016 election and found that people who were randomly assigned to write about a time they were very angry subsequently reported being more cynical about government.

Webster, S., “Anger and Declining Trust in Government in the American Electorate,” Political Behavior (forthcoming).

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A thinner blue line

From December 2014 to January 2015, the NYPD carried out a work slowdown to protest anti-police protests. Foot patrols, criminal summonses, and low-level arrests dropped significantly. Ironically, though, this may have been a good thing: “Contradicting arguments that systematically decreasing proactive policing should correspond to increased crime (that is, the Ferguson effect), our results reveal that civilian complaints of major crimes declined by approximately 3 to 6 percent during the slowdown.”

Sullivan, C. & O’Keeffe, Z., “Evidence that Curtailing Proactive Policing Can Reduce Major Crime,” Nature Human Behaviour (September 2017).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at