To subscribe to the monthly C&E email newsletter and event announcements click here.

In the 2014 midterms, Democrats invested millions in a high tech, big data field operation that produced historically low turnout nearly everywhere it was deployed. In a consulting world driven by sober analysis, those results should lead us to question the wisdom of this approach to GOTV and consider some of the alternatives. 

What, if anything, could Democrats have done differently to increase turnout among their supporters? Political psychologists have been trying to answer variations of that question for decades. Research indicates social influence techniques play a key role in getting people into the voting booth. Moreover, ideologies—and the psychologies behind them—are a crucial part of what motivates people to participate in elections. 

Ideological biases are the rose-colored glasses we can never take off. And that’s because the underlying mechanisms driving our most basic political preferences are rooted far deeper in the psyche than mere belief. Ideologies are interconnected with our personalities and social behaviors, our cognitive biases and instinctual defense mechanisms. That’s why knowing the psychological motivations behind a person or group’s ideology can reveal a great deal about their character and what’s driving their judgments and decisions, whether it’s a candidate for office, a major donor, or a key segment of voters.

Ideology does indeed have two dimensions, but they aren’t the ones you learned about in Poli Sci 101. In the literature, they’re known as right wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO). The terms sound complex, but what they mean is fairly straightforward. The RWA domain deals with expression, while the SDO domain deals with equality. Both dimensions of ideology influence our attitudes on everything from economics to foreign affairs, from social issues to the proper role of government. 

Right wing authoritarianism is sort of like the normative axis of ideology. It deals with how people feel about authority figures, following rules, and the use of force to maintain social cohesion. The RWA axis stretches from repression at the high end to expression at the low end. People who favor repression see the world as dangerous and threatening, which in their view makes obedience, conformity, and force necessary and desirable. Those who favor expression see the world as relatively safe and supportive, which in their view makes creativity, individuation, and non-violence essential. 

Social dominance orientation is like the distributive axis. It deals with how people feel about their own group’s standing in the world, the status of different groups, and how resources are distributed among them. The SDO axis stretches from dominance at the high end to egalitarianism at the low end. People who favor dominance see the world as competitive and scarce—making ruthlessness, cunning, and greed into virtues. Those who favor egalitarianism see the world as cooperative and abundant—leading to a strong preference for altruism, sharing and greater equality. 

Now, many people fall somewhere in the middle of each scale, but even psychological centrists have their own set of biases. Average-level RWAs prefer compromise, conciliation, and continuity. They don’t like to rock the boat, even when it badly needs rocking. Average-level SDOs maintain a fiercely meritocratic worldview, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. They tend to rationalize the virtue of established systems, no matter how corrupt, exclusionary, or fair they are. Both types have a strong bias toward the social, economic, and political status quo. 

These world views aren’t rationally formed, and they aren’t about the way the world is. They’re about how we expect it to be. Political psychologists figured out a long time ago that it doesn’t matter how smart, principled, or politically savvy we are—we all have a way of seeing what we want to see and turning our own perceptions, expectations, and beliefs into self-fulfilling prophecies. 

The challenge is shaping those prophecies. You can’t just ask people what their motivations are. Even if they wanted to tell you, most wouldn’t actually know. None of us are privy to the inner workings of the human brain, least of all our own brains. Over and over again, studies show that the stories we tell to explain our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors usually contain more fiction than fact. 

But there are analytic methods and survey questions that will reliably point to people’s motives, including where they fall along the RWA and SDO domains. If you know that, you know an awful lot about how to influence them.

One recent study looked at RWA, SDO, and advocacy messages on same-sex marriage. In the first part of the study, two candidates in a Republican primary were making different arguments for the exact same policy: a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

So which message did a better job connecting with the conservative base? That same-sex marriage threatens family values and social cohesion, or that same sex partnership benefits come at taxpayer expense and put benefits for straight couples at risk? Actually, it depended on who heard the message. High-RWA conservatives found the social cohesion message more appealing, while high-SDO conservatives were more attracted to the benefits status message. 

The study found similar cleavages on the opposite side of the issue. Which message worked better in a Democratic primary with gay-marriage supporters—freedom to marry or marriage equality? Only low-RWA liberals were strongly attracted to the freedom to marry message. They liked the marriage equality message as well, but not nearly as much as low SDO liberals did. 

Polls and focus groups might have stumbled onto these contrasting values frames by accident, but only by guessing the right messages to test. Political psychologists familiar with RWA and SDO knew exactly where to look for them in the first place. On issues ranging from immigration to affirmative action and from terrorism to health care, RWA and SDO strongly influence what people believe and why. 

In 2013, my firm used this “dual process model” to develop messaging in favor of filibuster reform. Our targets were half a dozen Democratic senators angry at ubiquitous Republican obstruction, but on the fence about whether or not to change Senate rules. Research into their recent actions and public statements uncovered classic patterns of psychological centrism: These senators were loyal to institutional traditions and reluctant to upset the apple cart. 

It’s no wonder these senators were so frightened by change. Even proponents were calling for use of the “nuclear option,” making filibuster reform sound like the beginning of Armageddon. Who wants to vote for that? We strongly urged reformers to avoid that term at all costs and instead characterize reform as a simple “rules change.” Filibuster reform soon became a reality.

The messaging applications of RWA and SDO are almost too numerous to count. It can help opposition researchers develop more devastating attacks, fundraisers connect with their major donors, and digital firms create better content. Indeed, the model can help pollsters better understand the electorate, analytics firms contextualize and interpret their findings, and public officials avoid becoming their own worst enemy. 

To reap the rewards, consultants only need to recognize the importance of ideological motivations and the psychologies behind them. But in a world where it pays to ignore the demonstrated limits of quantitative data, analytics, and technology, that’s a surprisingly tough ask. 

David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, a consultancy specializing in political psychology.