The Tea Party and Compromise

October 13th, 2011 by Sean Wojcik

What do we know about Tea Party psychology?  In previous blog posts, I have examined the moral underpinnings of Tea Party support and participation.  I found that people who attend Tea Party events and rallies express moral values and policy preferences that are generally consistent with libertarianism.  I also found that the larger demographic of those who claim to “support the Tea Party movement” appear much more like traditional conservatives in their moral profiles.  And, despite some reports that the Tea Party may be evolving into a more socially conservative movement, the patterns described above remain consistent: data collected from over the past year show nearly identical results among our original and more recent Tea Partiers.  So, instead of writing more about the morality of the Tea Party, I’ve focused this article on some other psychological correlates of Tea Party support and how they might relate to the Tea Party’s attitudes toward political compromise.

We all witnessed the Tea Party’s hard-line position on the standoff leading up to the debt ceiling crisis — 68% of Tea Partiers wanted lawmakers to stand firm on their principles, even at the risk of government shut-down.  Some have argued that, along with their fiscally conservative values, their willingness to take such a stand, and their unwillingness to compromise, have become the defining features of the entire movement.  However, it is not entirely clear why Tea Partiers might be predisposed to these attitudes about compromise.  Although it is impossible to say that any one of the following variables caused or even contributed to any specific political behavior, it is nonetheless compelling to examine how a number of psychological variables might be related to Tea Partiers’ hard-line stance on compromise.

Most notably, Tea Party supporters are highly reactant, as measured on the Hong Reactance Scale. Reactance is an emotional resistance to the influence of others, and often manifests as defiance to attempted persuasion.  Our data show that Tea Party supporters express consistently high levels of this trait, much like libertarians.  They also show low levels of empathy, or the ability to share the feelings of others (much like conservatives and libertarians, as measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index).  Taken together, these two traits may preclude one from a willingness to compromise: a reactive person is highly motivated to disagree with threatening others, and a person who lacks empathy is unlikely to fully consider or appreciate his opponents’ point-of-view.

These findings could also be said of libertarians, but unlike libertarians, Tea Party supporters score low on the Need for Cognition Scale.  This scale measures the extent to which people engage in and enjoy effortful thinking.  Low levels of Need for Cognition are associated with heuristic thinking styles and a lower likelihood of discounting erroneous intuitions and judgments.  As a result, groups that rely less on deliberative thinking styles (i.e., groups with lower Need for Cognition) may be more steadfast in their intuitive convictions, and less receptive to reconsideration.

Another interesting finding is that Tea Party supporters are very sensitive to social desirability concerns, as measured by the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale.  In other words, when presented with true-false questions about oneself that were either socially acceptable but unlikely, or socially unacceptable but likely, Tea Party supporters responded in the most self-promoting fashion.  Their results on the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding also showed relatively high scores on a related measure of self-deceptive enhancement, suggesting that these responses reflected internal beliefs, rather than intentionally over-reported ones.

Along the same lines, Tea Party supporters were also most likely to demonstrate the better-than-average effect.  That is, more than other groups, they reported possessing positive traits more than the average person, and negative traits less than the average person.  Although this effect is pervasive (e.g., over 93% of people report being above-average drivers), Tea Party supporters demonstrated the highest level of this bias compared to other political groups.

So what does this tell us about Tea Party psychology?  Tea Party supporters have a reactant and intuitive reasoning style, low levels of empathy, and they display a self-enhancing/over-confident style of evaluating themselves.  Could these psychological predispositions play an important role in Tea Partiers’ political behavior, particularly in their principled stands/resistance to compromise on their core values?

Although certainly possible, it would obviously be unwise and premature to claim a causal connection between these factors and any specific political behaviors.  Keep in mind that the analyses reported above were conducted with Tea Party supporters, rather than Tea Party participants, who show a slightly different pattern of results (not reported here).  In my next blog post, I’ll go into more detail about a number of other key predictors of Tea Party support that I believe can help inform our understanding of Tea Party psychology.  Stay tuned.

Posted in civil politics, empathy, liberals and conservatives, political behavior, political ideology, political psychology, Uncategorized, yourmorals.org10 Comments »
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10 Responses to “The Tea Party and Compromise”

  1. lillet says:

    Has anyone ever correlated any of these metrics w/IQ?

  2. Sean Wojcik says:

    There is research supporting a link between Need For Cognition and intelligence (see; However, based on our data we can’t make any claims about intelligence test scores for any of these groups.

  3. lillet says:

    Thanks Sean — that’s interesting. I notice a lot of the quizzes on your site focus on logic and systematizing vs. intuitive reasoning. Have you ever considered including a straight-up, LSAT-style logic test? Obviously this is not synonymous with an “intelligence” test, but maybe there’d be some interesting correlations with other stuff you’ve tested.

  4. Jason Russell says:

    “it is not entirely clear why Tea Partiers might be predisposed to these attitudes about compromise.”


    Then let me explain.

    If you’re getting mugged and you beg the mugger not to take all your money, and he complies, is that a compromise?

    If your spouse wants a dog, and you don’t, so you get a smaller dog than he/she wanted, is that a compromise?

    If you give your kid an allowance by handing him a credit card with a limit of $25 and he over spends do you pay it? After all, compared to him you’re “rich.” You can “afford” it. And maybe you underestimated a fair amount for his regular expenses. And you have a good heart. So you say, OK, and you raise his limit by $5. What have you taught him? What does it say about him, and you, and the relationship between the two of you? What expectation does that set in him?

    And he over spends the next week.
    And the week after that.
    And the week after that.
    And so on.

    All the while, with YOUR credit, which, one way or another, YOU are going to have to pay.

    And so, finally, you say, “Enough!”

    And he says, “OK. I tell you what. You’re “rich.” You can “afford” it. I’ll “compromise” with you. Let’s raise your “fair share” this time by “only” $2.50.””

    And still you refuse to “compromise.”

    And your son is befuddled. To him, “it is not entirely clear why [you] might be predisposed to these “hard line” attitudes about compromise.” So he gives you a series of questions about reactance and empathy and need for cognition and social desirability, and what do you know? Sure enough, you’re you are “highly reactant” and defiant to his attempts at persuasion. And you show “low levels of empathy.”

    But, of course, “it would obviously be unwise and premature to claim a causal connection between these factors and any specific political behaviors.”

    Ravi I know you mean well, and you’re honestly trying to be objective, but from where I sit the kind of analysis I see in this post is more than a little too “just so.”

  5. Sean Wojcik says:

    Hi Jason, thank you for your comment. I really appreciate hearing new perspectives, and I’m happy to address some of your points.

    You seem to suggest (though, correct me if I’m misinterpreting your point) that one *should* exhibit these tendencies when confronting an overly-demanding child, and presumably, when confronting current economic issues.

    Let me point out that I have not stated or suggested that the Tea Party’s actions are unwarranted or unnecessary, nor have I made value judgments about the (un)importance of compromise in political discourse. It would not be my place to say such things.

    Second, allow me to clarify what may be a misunderstanding: the data collected about reactance, empathy, need for closure, and self-enhancement were collected independently from any applied political context. That is, Tea Party supporters in our data didn’t demonstrate reactance or low need for closure or self-enhancement *in response to* liberal economic policies, over-borrowing, or appeals for compromise. Instead, these were from established psychological scales that measure latent personality characteristics that are stable across time and context.

    One possibility is that Tea Party supporters are unlikely to compromise on these issues *because* the issues of today are so closely related to their moral valuations of economic liberty and proportionality — please see my previous blog posts on Tea Party morality for more on this. Although there is compelling evidence of a relationship between these economic values and self-enhancement (, as I said in the blog post, it is premature to claim a causal connection between these specific personality factors and any particular political behaviors.

    Despite its somewhat speculative nature, this blog is an outlet for new data and ideas that we can share with the public prior to the slow process of peer review and publication. We appreciate receiving feedback to our ideas, but also be aware that each post reflects the opinion of the author, not the whole YourMorals team… so, regarding your last sentence: if you don’t like this post, don’t blame Ravi 🙂

  6. Jason Russell says:

    Hello Sean,

    My reference to Ravi in my comment is due to my own absent mindedness. I failed to “make sure brain is engaged before putting mouth (or fingers) in gear.” Sorry for that.

    I do not mean to suggest that you’re making value judgments. And I realize and appreciate that it’s a process of exploration and refinement that’s going on here. I’m learning as I go myself.

    The point I’m trying to make, though probably quite poorly, is both larger in a “big picture” sort of way, and more subtle. I’ll try to say it differently. But first let me be clear, I am a huge fan of Moral Foundations Theory and Dr. Haidt. I agree with an opinion I read on another blog which said Haidt had found the Rosetta Stone for understanding the political divide.

    So, here goes: I believe it is predominantly those who reside in the liberal moral matrix for whom “it is not entirely clear why Tea Partiers might be predisposed to these attitudes about compromise.” Many of us whose morality is built on all of the foundations think it’s quite clear, and we wonder what’s so hard to understand.

    It seems that discussion about Tea Party “attitudes” regarding compromise presupposes that “compromise” is a virtue in and of itself that is beyond question – a sacred value, if you will – and given that presupposition, people are therefore baffled as to why anyone would not want to do it. I believe the presupposition is much more characteristic of the political left than it is of the political right.

    I tried to demonstrate, however clumsily, with the little thought experiments in my comment, that compromise, rightly understood, is not all it’s cracked up to be. There’s a dark side to it. What looks like compromise to some people looks like appeasement, or acquiescence, or defeat to others.

    At the risk of making mattes worse, I’ll try one more thought experiment: Let’s say, hypothetically, that a large army attacked the U.S. from the south. I doubt any American would think it was a “compromise” to let that army have Texas. Now let’s say, hypothetically of course, that to the Tea Party the concept of negative liberty which, among other concepts, is a founding principle of this country, is the ideological equivalent of Texas. (I’ll admit that’s not a great example because negative liberty has already been eroded to a large degree, but I think you’ll get my point.) Is it really that hard to understand why the Tea Party has said “this far, but no farther”?

    To me, and others like me, I would venture, it’s not the attitude of the Tea Party that needs to be examined. Further, the fact that the question even comes up seems to turn the issue on its head. What is much harder to understand is why some people treat compromise as if it were a sacred value. Now THAT is something that takes some ‘splainin.

    It just seems to me that some, (though not all, or even most), of the topics that are chosen for analysis at yourmorals arise out of presuppositions, like “compromise” as a sacred value, that exist only, or at least mostly, within the liberal moral matrix.

    Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m predisposed to see liberal bias under every rock. And, I suppose that if the topics were recognized as arising out of the liberal moral matrix and the reason for writing about them on yourmorals was to help everyone understand where people are coming from, as in Dr. Haidt’s “What Makes People Vote Republican?” then I’d probably be a little less touchy about it. But, I’m sorry, that’s just not what I see.

  7. Jason Russell says:

    Oh, and another thing.

    You said that your data about reactance, empathy, need for closure, and self-enhancement were from established psychological scales that measure latent personality characteristics that are stable across time and context.

    That’s fine.

    But opinions are not stable across time. Circumstances and beliefs, or opinions, or even moods, make each other up in the fashion of the chicken and the egg. We are products not only of our moral foundations and our personality traits, but also of the times in which we live, and even the circumstances we encounter in any given year, season, or day.

    We have only so much emotional capital, like patience for example, and when it’s spent we tend to react without it. At the end of a long, hard, stressful day it’s not all that unusual for people to snap at one another.

    The Tea Party arose out of a long, hard, stressful time. It’s out of patience, and it’s saying “enough is enough.” So even though your data was collected outside of any applied political context, the Tea Party attitudes about compromise are very much a product of a very specific applied political context.

    Are you trying to understand a dynamic situation by using a static measure?

    If you’ve known a person long to enough to understand the characteristics of his or her personality that are stable across time and context, what’s the most obvious question to ask when that person suddenly rises up, takes a stand, and says “enough is enough?” Is it your natural tendency to look inside the person and try to fathom from where inside them this sudden behavior came from, or is it your tendency to look at the external factors outside the person which might have pushed them to their limit? I’d ask the latter. It seems to me that you’re asking the former.

  8. lillet says:

    @ Jason,

    Do you think Tea Partiers’ propensity for self-promotion and self-enhancement also arises from justified consternation over wasteful spending? What about low need for cognition? Non-TP libertarians seem just as annoyed with current government policy, yet they display a high need for cognition and are less prone to self-enhancement than any other group.

  9. DRT says:

    This article is great…I’m going to write comments on my site.

    JASON – I think it is fairly obvious that there has been a change in compromising in the past couple of years. Whether one views it as good or bad, it is a notable feature of the national debate that deserves attention.

  10. RGC says:

    It is also worth mentioning that empathy is not always a desirable trait, as “lacks empathy” implies.

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