One of the most depressing things about an election cycle is the way it splits America into a series of demographic and ideological tribes. There’s red states and blue states, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives, hockey moms and soccer dads. Cultural commonalities are replaced with partisan differences. It’s an ugly and unhealthy process, and it happens every four years.
But where do these tribal identities come from? It would be nice if these identities were mainly positive things, so that we chose a group based on “affirmational characteristics”. In other words, I would belong to a tribe that shared my love of raw milk cheese, Bright Eyes, Bruce and Borges. (It’s a very small tribe.) Alas, in the Us versus Them landscape of human nature, much of identity is actually negational, which means that we choose a group based on a set of traits and preferences that we don’t have or like. So I wouldn’t belong to the Colbert Report fan club, I would belong to the anti-Sean Hannity fan club. My love of Bruce would be less relevant than my distaste for the Eagles. And so on. As Kanye put it with eerie accuracy: “Cause everything I’m not, made me everything I am.”
New research shows how negational identity shapes our political preferences:
Previous research suggests that narrow identification with one’s own racial group impedes coalition building among minorities. Consistent with this research, the 2008 Democratic primary was marked by racial differences in voting preferences: Black voters overwhelmingly preferred Barack Obama, a Black candidate, and Latinos and Asians largely favored Hillary Clinton, a White candidate. We investigated one approach to overcoming this divide – highlighting one’s negational identity. In two experiments simulating primary polling procedures, Asians and Latinos randomly assigned to think of and categorize themselves in negational terms (i.e., being non-White) were more likely to vote for Obama than participants focused on their affirmational identity (i.e, being Asian or Latino), who showed the typical preference for Clinton. This shift in voting preference was partially mediated by warmer attitudes towards other minority groups. These results suggest that negational identity is a meaningful source of social identity and demonstrate that whether one thinks about “who one is” versus “who one is not” has far-reaching impact for real-world decisions.