The Frontal Cortex

Negational Identity

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.


  1. #1 Norman Doering
    September 18, 2008

    It’s nice to have all this neuroscience and psychology to help us explain how we got into this mess, but is there a way to use it to help us get out of it?

  2. #2 MAC
    September 18, 2008

    Wonder what would happen if political parties were abolished. After all, Jefferson made no mention of them in the Constitution, and they’ve turned out to be the most divisive force in America, with the possible exception of the current president. But then, he’s the product of a political party.

    I’m sure if parties ceased to exist, we’d find another way to push each other into warring factions. It has always been thus.

  3. #3 shannon murphy
    September 19, 2008

    Bruce…Springsteen? Bruce Campbell? Lenny Bruce? How are you ever going to find you tribe by listing such vague affirmational characteristics.

  4. #4 travc
    September 20, 2008

    This is not at all surprising.
    Not to Godwin the thread… but “not Jews” has a long history of unifying people (primed for exploitation from an amoral social dominator).

  5. #5 razib
    September 20, 2008

    white people shouldn’t talk about people of color! you don’t Know our Experience.

  6. #6 Aaron Durst
    September 21, 2008

    So encouraging animosity towards whites is an acceptable method of getting minorities to vote for the minority candidate? I hope they did not receive tax dollars for their study.

  7. #7 Rebecca Welton
    September 27, 2008

    MAC………I don’t believe Jefferson wrote the Constitution. I know he exchanged letters with Madison (the Father of the Constitution), and gave him feedback, concerning among other things the lack of term limits. Jefferson felt that without them, Presidents could become like despotic kings; that people will continue to vote for the incumbent. I think it was Madison who wrote pretty eloquently about factions in one of the Federalist papers, can’t remember which one off the top of my head. It is not just the political parties that you may be reacting to, but all the other factions of special interests that already exist and actually are instrumental in the party politics you don’t like. If you have time, I think you would enjoy reading the Federalist Papers if you haven’t already.

    Jefferson was also a member of the Republican Party (not today’s, that honor is Lincoln’s), Adams was a Federalist, and their rivalry was intense, their campaign very dirty. The idea of no parties only lasted one presidency. The historians tell us there were many dirty campaigns in our past. It is the beauty of the system we live in that we can disagree, even if it is intense and heated. To think we will all get along and agree on everything is quite naive and probably unattainable in a society that emphasises the individual. I sometimes think the rhetoric about how divided we are is a little overblown. We need healthy debate. I don’t like the gutter behavior either.

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