Group Think at the Inauguration?

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How does being in a big crowd change your mind?

The inauguration struck us as a unique moment to test these ideas about identity, identity formation and group think with a massive number of people.

Jay Van Bavel, a social psychology professor and neuroscientist at NYU, has looked at the concept of “us” vs. “them,” and how our brain behaves when we divide ourselves into groups.

“There's a lot of things that are happening psychologically and even biologically,” he said, “that are making a change in how you see yourself.”

Using an fMRI machine, Van Bavel has measured which areas of the brain are activated when, for example, we identify faces from our own group or race, compared to others. While this area of research is still fairly new, scientists have found that parts of the brain associated with thinking about the self (medial prefrontal cortex) and highly arousing stimuli (amygdala) respond when people make decisions regarding their in-group relative to an outside group. 

Much as we would have loved to get everyone in an fMRI, we had to rely on more portable tools. So we enlisted Van Bavel to make a survey asking people things like: are you liberal or conservative? How much do you feel you have in common with the average person who shares your view of Trump? Would you do business with someone who didn’t share that view? Would you date them?

About 1,300 people filled out our survey before the inauguration. Around 600 took it again afterwards. Admittedly, these were largely public radio listeners, though we recruited other people from conservative-leaning political groups on Facebook and through email.

The effect of cheering with your team

So what happened? Mainly liberals reported attending an event during inauguration weekend, and afterwards, their identification didn’t change much.

Beforehand, 71% of liberals said they agreed or strongly agreed that they had a bond with Trump’s opposition. After the inauguration, that number was 70%. The lack of change may be because this group was already pretty strongly identified: over 80% of left of center survey-takers identified as liberal or strongly liberal, regardless of whether they had gone to a rally that weekend.

Two measures shifted more for liberals who protested compared to those who didn’t: They were slightly more certain that they could suss out a Trump supporter without talking about politics, and they had a stronger sense that the goals of Trump supporters precluded theirs.

Given this self-identified very liberal group, it maybe shouldn’t have been a surprise that they had harsh views of the other side. Their views were much more strident than those of our conservative survey-takers — a group that mostly self-identified as slightly conservative (54%) or conservative (25%).  

Overall, conservatives in our survey (including the strongly conservative) were much more up for interactions with people who opposed Trump. More than half agreed or strongly agreed that they’d be willing to do business with the other side (58% vs. 21% for liberals) or be friends with someone from the other side (74% vs. 28%).

The most surprising result was about dating. Forty-four percent of conservatives said they’d be fine dating someone who opposed Trump, while only five percent of our liberals said they could date a Trump-supporter.

Our largely female pool of liberal survey respondents may have been especially turned off to Trump supporters after the President’s many sexist comments during the campaign.

It’s possible that the feeling among this group of liberals, Van Bavel said, is that “anybody who supports Trump is somebody … who can look the other way when a candidate confesses to engaging in sexual assault.”

The partisan mind

One final thing we wanted to test in this survey was how people’s political affiliation might influence their perceptions.

“Scientists are starting to study this more and more,” Van Bavel said. "We're really getting a handle now on the power of our identities to shape our automatic judgments and maybe even ... our interpretations of reality.”

The hypothesis is that our identity as part of a group can make us see things differently, things as simple as distance or color. For instance, people chose lightened photographs of Barack Obama and a hypothetical biracial candidate as more representative when their political party matched that of the candidate. And even for seemingly nonsocial information, people overestimated the distance on a map between a domestic and foreign location, relative to another domestic location. 

And this seemed to be borne out in our survey. We asked both groups, who had more people in D.C. during the weekend of the inauguration. Liberals overwhelmingly said there were a lot more protesters than supporters (84%). Conservatives were mixed: some said Trump supporters had more people (31%), others said the Women’s March did (35%), and others said there were about the same (12%).

It may be a reflection of something Van Bavel has seen in his lab, where group identity, even when people are randomly assigned into meaningless teams, can — unconsciously and in a matter of milliseconds — can affect how the brain processes new information.

For more on crowd psychology, listen to this week's podcast: