Psychological Correlates of Feelings Toward Labor Unions among Liberals

February 27th, 2011 by Ravi Iyer

I have been reading a great deal lately about the labor battle in Wisconsin lately.  As someone who rarely has had a traditional job, I have never had a well formed opinion about unions and it has been an interesting opportunity to think about the role of unions in society.  There have been a great number of polls lately, each of which provides fodder for our innate abilities to confirm what we already believe to be true (confirmation bias).  What psychological (as opposed to demographic) variables might lead someone to have warm or cold feelings toward unions?

By the time we can vote, we have developed coherent narratives that help us make sense of our emotions, beliefs, and opinions.  In psychology, we often study individual variables and their impact on attitudes, but the real world is more complex and there are a whole host of attitudes, opinions, and dispositions that may have an impact on your opinion about unions.  As such, I thought it might be interesting to look at the whole picture of what our yourmorals data shows as the correlates of warm or cold feelings toward unions.

The below chart (click on it to enlarge) is sorted from measures/beliefs that are most associated with warm feelings toward unions to measures/beliefs that are negatively associated with warm feelings toward unions.  Warm/cold feelings were assessed using a feeling thermometer scale from 1-7.  Our sample is not representative, so any conclusion that you may draw would be based on the idea that the psychological associations in our overly educated, liberal leaning, internet user sample would hold for other groups.  To help isolate psychological variables, I ran the analysis on only those who self-identified in our sample as liberal, effectively holding that variable somewhat constant (I say somewhat because within this sample, some people were more liberal than others).

I would love to hear what others see in these patterns, but my initial impressions are:

  • A lot of what is associated with being liberal is associated with being pro-union.  It is likely a mistake to try and figure out which comes first as people certainly adhere to their party positions, but people also certainly gravitate toward their parties due to psychological variables.  It is all tied together and research supports both relationships.  As such, it may make sense that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s decision to not only try and reduce pay, but effectively try to end all union representation for public workers, meets with such vehement opposition.
  • Other oriented connections appear even more related to feelings about unions beyond what one might expect from simple liberal partisanship.  For example, identification with country is actually negatively associated with liberalism, but is positively associated with feelings toward unions.  All measures of connection to others seem to have positive relationships.  The Big 5 personality dimension of agreeableness (e.g. being trusting) has an almost equal relationship as the dimension of openness to experience, which is usually the dominant predictor of liberalism among Big 5 dimensions.
  • Dispositional emotional reactivity appears to be a predictor of how liberals feel about unions.  Liberals who are empathizers (on Baron-Cohen’s measure) who care about the less fortunate, feel emotional when perceiving beauty, and are also slightly more prone to depression tend to be those who feel warm toward unions.
  • In contrast, rationality, a liberal hallmark, is not related to feeling toward unions.  Belief in scientific causation is strongly associated with liberalism, but not related to feelings toward unions among liberals.  Experiential thinking appears slightly positively correlated with positive feelings toward unions among liberals even as it is negatively correlated with liberalism in our wider dataset.  Rational thinking is not correlated with feelings toward unions, even as it generally is associated with being liberal.

Overall, the impression I get from the pattern is that it is the bleeding heart liberals, as opposed to the more rational, scientific liberals, who likely feel more connected to the ongoing protests in Wisconsin.  But I welcome alternative ideas/interpretations as well as ideas about how these results might not hold in other populations, as the interaction would likely prove instructive.

– Ravi Iyer

Posted in labor unions, news commentary, political psychology, scott walker, unpublished results, wisconsin unions, yourmorals.org2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Psychological Correlates of Feelings Toward Labor Unions among Liberals”

  1. Brad says:

    Interesting post, Ravi. With a front row seat to the protests here in Madison, I’ve been thinking a lot about the factors that lead one person to see a bunch of lazy government workers looking for a handout and others to see a dictatorial governor who is hell-bent on depriving teachers of their civil rights.

    Both sides couch their arguments in fairness language, but it is obvious that they are talking about very different things.

    For some thoughts “from the ground” as it were, see Kathy Walsh’s recent post at the Monkey Cage:

    Kathy is a professor in our department here, and she has lately been doing some very interesting work on the attitudes of rural Wisconsinites.

  2. Ravi Iyer says:

    Thanks for the link, Brad. We’ve been looking at different definitions of fairness lately. If you have the latest megafile, it’s the “uberfair” and “fairness_scenarios” studies. For some, fairness is a matter of equality, while others are more focused on people getting more than they deserve. I’m interested to hear more on your Wisconsin experience and thanks for the link.

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