- Top of page
- Overview of the Analyses
Political psychologists have typically argued that ideological commitments are structured in a bipolar fashion, where a positive evaluation of conservative objects implies a negative evaluation of liberal objects (and vice versa). Individual differences in conformity to this pattern are usually attributed to an ability-related variable, i.e., political expertise. Departing from this strict focus on ability, this study examines the hypotheses that an important motivational variable—the need to evaluate, or the desire to form opinions of objects as “good” or “bad”—would (1) predict deviations from ideological bipolarity, even controlling for expertise; and (2) moderate the relationship between expertise and deviations from bipolarity. Data from two national surveys provided evidence for these hypotheses and indicated that the results extended to deviations from bipolarity in evaluations of presidential candidates and political parties.
Political psychologists have engaged in a number of critical debates about the underlying structure of citizens’ ideological commitments. The most prominent of these debates have focused on whether members of the mass public use the higher-order distinction between “conservatism” and “liberalism” to structure their opinions (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960; Converse, 1964; Judd & Krosnick, 1989; Kinder & Sears, 1985; see also Achen, 1975; Judd, Krosnick, & Milburn, 1981; Zaller, 1992) and whether ideology consists of a single left-right dimension or multiple but interrelated left-right dimensions corresponding to different policy agendas (Asher, 1980; Knoke, 1979; Layman & Carsey, 2002; Luttbeg, 1968; Shafer & Claggett, 1995; Weisberg & Rusk, 1970; see also Duckitt, 2001; Schwartz, 1992). While these two debates have generated highly important work in the literature on political attitudes, they have often obscured what is perhaps an even more fundamental question about the dimensional structure of ideology. This is the question of whether ideology has a bipolar structure, where conservatism and liberalism are opposed ends of a single evaluative dimension; or a bivariate structure, where conservatism and liberalism are separate evaluative dimensions (Conover & Feldman, 1981; Green, 1988; Kerlinger, 1984).
Most work on the structure of ideology has assumed that ideological commitments are organized in a bipolar fashion: to the extent that an individual is attracted to conservatism and evaluates it more positively, he or she should be less attracted to liberalism and evaluate it less positively (and vice versa; see Campbell et al., 1960; Conover & Feldman, 1981; Converse, 1964; Green, 1988; Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003; Kinder & Sears, 1985; Wilson, 1973). This assumption is evident in the construction of many policy items in the National Election Studies and other survey series, which present respondents with a bipolar response scale anchored by a conservative option at one end and a liberal option at the other. Moreover, the bipolarity assumption is taken for granted by almost all participants in the debates alluded to previously (Conover & Feldman, 1981). Regardless of the extent to which different researchers believe that citizens actually rely on ideological categories, most of them assume that ideological thinking will manifest itself in a bipolar form. Similarly, regardless of how many policy dimensions different researchers believe ideology consists of, they tend to see each of these dimensions as being a bipolar evaluative continuum with conservatism at one end and liberalism at the other.
Nevertheless, several lines of inquiry have suggested that ideological commitments may be organized in a bivariate fashion. These perspectives suggest that conservatism and liberalism are relatively independent categories of political evaluation, rather than opposite ends of a single bipolar spectrum. At the simplest level, researchers have noted that much of the mass public is unable to grasp the difference between “conservatism” and “liberalism” or accurately distinguish between positions which represent these two ideological categories (Campbell et al., 1960; Levitin & Miller, 1979). While this may indicate an absence of knowledge about conservatism and liberalism (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996), it may also indicate that many citizens do not see these two categories as being invariably opposed in the evaluative sense (as questions about differences between them implicitly assume; see Conover & Feldman, 1981). Moreover, other studies have suggested that there are individual differences in how conservatism and liberalism are distinguished from one another even among citizens who do make such distinctions, with some distinguishing between the two in terms of attitudes toward the concentration of power and others distinguishing between them in terms of attitudes toward the preservation of the status quo (Brown & Taylor, 1973; Conover & Feldman, 1981; Lane, 1962; Marcus, Tabb, & Sullivan, 1974).
Extending this argument, other researchers have directly suggested that conservatism and liberalism refer to different attitude systems with different reference points. In particular, Kerlinger (1967, 1972, 1980, 1984) has argued that conservatism and liberalism have different sets of “criterial referents,” i.e., goals, values, and concerns that are central to what it means to have a conservative or liberal outlook. According to this account, the referents that are “criterial” for conservatism are largely irrelevant to liberalism, and vice versa. This implies a noticeable deviation from evaluative bipolarity: one's level of conservatism should have little or nothing to do with one's level of liberalism, since the bases of each attitude system are effectively independent of one another. Consistent with this argument, exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses have shown (1) that evaluations of “conservative” and “liberal” referents load onto different factors and (2) that the factors corresponding to these two sets of referents are relatively orthogonal to one another, rather than being negatively related (as the bipolar model would assume; see Kerlinger, 1972, 1980; see also Conover & Feldman, 1984). Similarly, other analyses have shown that feeling-thermometer ratings of “conservatives” and “liberals” (Conover & Feldman, 1981) and Republicans and Democrats (Weisberg, 1980) have only a weak negative correlation with another.
However, factor-analytic studies using different model specifications have qualified these results (Green, 1988; Sidanius & Duffy, 1988). For example, after correcting for nonrandom error introduced by the use of a common response format, Green (1988) found that latent variables corresponding to evaluations of liberals and conservatives were in fact highly negatively correlated, suggesting a bipolar pattern. These studies—along with a growing literature on the polarization of distinctions between conservatives and liberals (e.g., Hetherington, 2001; see also Fiorina, 2005; Poole & Rosenthal, 1997)—have shed increasing doubt on the notion that the evaluative structure of citizens’ ideological commitments deviates significantly from bipolarity.
Interestingly, few studies in this body of work have asked whether there may be individual differences in the extent to which citizens’ ideological commitments fit the dominant bipolar model. Nevertheless, the question of how different citizens might evaluatively organize their ideological commitments is an important one. First, if some citizens’ commitments are bivariate rather than bipolar, then this suggests that some conservatives and liberals may not simply disagree with another; instead, they may be using distinct, incomparable frames of reference. As Conover and Feldman (1981) put it, conservatives and liberals may “view the political world not from different sides of the same coin,” but “from the perspective of entirely different currencies” (p. 624). Second, if conservatism and liberalism are not evaluative opposites for all citizens, then processes of political judgment may be different and more complex among such individuals: namely, they would be faced with aggregating conclusions from two different dimensions of evaluation, rather than one.
So, what variables might predict individual differences in the evaluative structure of citizens’ ideological commitments? On this score, a handful of studies point toward the importance of political expertise or the possession of well-organized systems of factual political knowledge (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Zaller, 1992). In particular, a more extensive knowledge of abstract political ideas may provide informed citizens not only with a better conceptual awareness of what conservatism and liberalism are, but also a better awareness of the fact that conservatism and liberalism are organized and treated as evaluative opposites in the elite political discussions responsible for the definition of these concepts (Converse, 1964; Hamill, Lodge, & Blake, 1985; McClosky & Zaller, 1984; Stimson, 1975; Zaller, 1992; see also Jennings, 1992). This suggests that political experts may be less likely to deviate from evaluative bipolarity in their ideological commitments, while novices may be more likely to do so. Consistent with this, multigroup confirmatory factor analyses conducted by Sidanius and Duffy (1988) found that the bipolar model fit better among Swedish and American students who were high in expertise. Conversely, while their results indicated that the bivariate model fit poorly at all expertise levels, they also suggested that its fit was especially poor among those high in expertise.
Thus, the limited evidence available tends to depict the structuring of ideological commitments as a matter of ability: Citizens are less likely to deviate from evaluative bipolarity if they have acquired the domain-relevant skills and knowledge needed to do so. However, a growing body of work suggests that motivation—in the form of generalized needs, goals, and wants—may determine if and how prior information is used to form and organize judgments (Higgins & Sorrentino, 1990; Kruglanski, 1996; Lavine, 2002). While extant work on political expertise has more broadly acknowledged the significance of motivational variables at a theoretical level (e.g., Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Luskin, 1987), little or no empirical attention has been devoted to the role of motivation. Thus, an exclusive reliance on ability-related variables like expertise may leave us with only a partial account of how citizens evaluatively structure their ideological commitments. But how might motivation matter in this context? One motivational construct that has received a great deal of attention in recent years is the need to evaluate (Jarvis & Petty, 1996), i.e., the degree to which an individual is spontaneously motivated to form opinions of various objects as “good” or “bad.” Individuals with a high need to evaluate think more frequently in evaluative terms and are more likely to have formed attitudes toward a variety of objects, while those with a low need to evaluate engage in less evaluative effort of this sort. Accordingly, research suggests those high in the need to evaluate are more likely to spontaneously evaluate various objects and represent these evaluations in memory as “precomputed” attitudes that can be easily accessed when an opinion needs to be expressed (Jarvis & Petty, 1996; Tormala & Petty, 2001). In the political domain, other studies suggest that those with a high need to evaluate are more likely to display highly crystallized preferences, such as relatively extreme ideological commitments (Bizer et al., 2004; Federico, 2004).
While none of these analyses dealt with the question at hand, several characteristics of those high in the need to evaluate suggest a motivational pathway to different types of ideological structure. In particular, formal and institutional work on the functional significance of ideology suggests that the latter is useful primarily because it helps individuals reach a set of evaluative conclusions about politics and map them onto simple but fundamentally evaluative political choices (e.g., voting; Hinich & Munger, 1994; Sniderman & Bullock, 2004). Importantly, most of these choices are bipolar in nature, so the possession of ideological commitments that are also structured in an evaluatively bipolar fashion may greatly facilitate political judgment. Thus, if individuals with a high need to evaluate are more likely to be interested in forming attitudes toward political objects—and choosing between them—then a bipolar structuring of ideology may be more useful to them. Prior to any political decision, their commitments will be organized in a fashion which makes comparison and relative judgment easier: They will know that there is a “conservative” option and a “liberal” option and that one is likely to be more attractive than the other in light of one's own evaluative commitments. In contrast, citizens who approach politics without a strong motive to evaluate should have less of a need for ideological structures that facilitate judgment and choice. As such, a bipolar structure may be less functional for them, leading to greater deviation from bipolarity. Thus, those with a high need to evaluate may be less likely to deviate from ideological bipolarity, while those with a low need to evaluate may be more likely to do so.
However, given this logic, the need to evaluate may have more than a main effect on the structure of citizens’ ideological commitments. Instead, it may also determine the extent to which expertise allows individuals to organize their ideological commitments in a bipolar fashion. While expertise may provide citizens with a better awareness of the fact that conservatism and liberalism are evaluative opposites—at least as they are defined by elites—this knowledge may be more useful to those who approach politics with a strong need to evaluate. This suggests that the negative relationship between expertise and deviations from ideological bipolarity may be more pronounced among individuals with a high need to evaluate. Since these individuals will approach politics with a stronger motivation to evaluate objects and choose between them, we might expect them to use whatever understanding of ideological concepts they possess to form bipolar commitments that better prepare them for these judgments and choices. In contrast, the negative association between expertise and deviations from bipolarity may be weaker among those who are not strongly motivated to evaluate the objects they encounter. These individuals should be less motivated to establish the bipolar ideological commitments that facilitate political judgment and choices. In this case, even an expert understanding of political ideas may have a relatively small influence on ideological structure.
Thus, expertise and the need to evaluate may have important main and interactive effects on the evaluative structure of ideological commitments. However, given the organizing role ideology is believed to play vis-à-vis other attitudes, it is possible that these effects of expertise and the need to evaluate may extend to deviations from bipolarity in citizens’ evaluations of presidential candidates and political parties as well. Like evaluations of conservatism and liberalism, evaluative attraction to the Republican and Democratic candidates—and the parties that field them—can potentially be organized in either a bipolar fashion or a bivariate fashion (Green, 1988; Weisberg, 1980). In light of the increasingly strong relationship between ideological and partisan attitudes (Fiorina, 2005; Hetherington, 2001; Poole & Rosenthal, 1997), individuals who deviate more from ideological bipolarity may also deviate more from bipolarity in their attitudes toward the presidential candidates and political parties. This suggests several additional hypotheses. First, it suggests that expertise and the need to evaluate should be negatively related to deviations from bipolarity in evaluations of candidates and parties. Second, it suggests that the negative relationship between expertise and deviations from bipolarity in evaluations of these pairs of objects should be stronger among those with a high need to evaluate. Finally, given the organizing role of ideology, it suggests a pattern in which the interactive effect of expertise and the need to evaluate on deviations from bipolarity in evaluations of candidates and parties is mediated by deviations from ideological bipolarity.
- Top of page
- Overview of the Analyses
Political psychologists have long been interested in the structural organization of citizens’ ideological commitments. Among other things, they have recurrently engaged in discussion about whether ideology is organized in a bipolar fashion, where conservatism and liberalism are understood as opposed ends of a single evaluative spectrum, or a bivariate fashion, where conservatism and liberalism correspond to independent dimensions of political evaluation (Conover & Feldman, 1981; Green, 1988; Kerlinger, 1984). While most work suggests that the bipolar structure is the psychological norm in mass publics, few studies have investigated the possibility of individual differences in the extent to which the evaluative structure of citizens’ ideological commitments conform to bipolarity or deviate away from it. In particular, not much work has focused on the potential motivational antecedents of individual differences in the structure of citizens’ ideological commitments; instead, most studies have focused on ability-related variables like political expertise. The present study attempted to fill these gaps by examining two primary hypotheses: (1) that an important motivational variable—the need to evaluate, or the desire to form opinions—would be negatively associated with deviations from ideological bipolarity, even after the effects of expertise were taken into account; and (2) that the need to evaluate would moderate the negative relationship between expertise and deviations from bipolarity.
Analyses using the 2000 and 2004 National Election Studies provided clear support for these hypotheses. Extending these basic results, other analyses provided support for a series of additional hypotheses. These analyses indicated that the need to evaluate was also negatively associated with deviations from bipolarity in evaluations of objects closely linked to ideology: namely, presidential candidates and the two political parties. Moreover, these analyses also indicated that the need to evaluate moderated the negative relationship between expertise and deviations from bipolarity in evaluations of each object. Finally, mediated-moderation analyses indicated that expertise and the need to evaluate interacted to predict decreased deviation from ideological bipolarity, which in turn led to decreased deviation from bipolarity in attitudes toward the other two sets of objects.
So, what implications do these results have? At the simplest level, they reinforce and extend earlier findings on the relationship between political expertise and the evaluative structure of citizens’ ideological commitments. Consistent with this earlier work (e.g., Sidanius & Duffy, 1988), the results presented here indicated that expertise was negatively related to deviations from ideological bipolarity in two different datasets, even after a variety of other factors were taken into account. Moreover, the results also suggest that expertise is negatively related not just to deviations from ideological bipolarity, but also to deviations from bipolarity in evaluations of objects closely linked to ideology—namely, attitudes toward presidential candidates and political parties.
More importantly, though, these results provide evidence for the notion that the evaluative organization of citizens’ ideological commitments is a function not just of ability but of motivation as well. Even after the effects of expertise and various controls were considered, a key motivational variable—the need to evaluate—was significantly related to the evaluative structure of respondents’ ideological commitments. This finding suggests that the desire to use information evaluatively may have an effect of its own on the extent to which individuals treat conservatism and liberalism as evaluative opposites.5 More broadly, these findings also add to a growing body of work on the nature and significance of the need to evaluate. Previous research on this construct clearly suggests that it may play a key role in the establishment and organization of attitudes across a variety of domains. Among other things, studies suggest that the need to evaluate is associated with a greater willingness to form and express attitudes toward various objects (Bizer et al., 2004; Jarvis & Petty, 1996), to express extreme attitudes (Federico, 2004), to display behaviors consistent with the possession of highly crystallized political preferences (Bizer et al., 2004; Federico, 2004), and to establish “precomputed” evaluations (rather than ones assembled on the spot; Tormala & Petty, 2001). Nevertheless, most of these findings relate to properties of attitudes toward specific objects. In contrast, the results reported here suggest that the need to evaluate may also have consequences for the structuring of a broader evaluative predisposition, namely, ideology. Thus, the impact of the need to evaluate may extend not just to the characteristics of attitudes toward specific objects, but also to the generalized predispositions believed to constrain these attitudes.
More broadly, our results suggest that researchers may want to focus more attention on the role of “motivated social cognition” in the construction and organization of political evaluations. In this vein, a number of perspectives in social and political psychology imply that judgments are a joint function of factors related to ability or the possession of information (such as expertise) and motivational factors that determine how skills or information are used to establish and organize attitudes (Kruglanski, 1996; Lavine, 2002). These perspectives have been applied in a variety of other literatures (e.g., persuasion; see Cacioppo et al., 1996; see also Kruglanski, 1996), but they have only recently been extended to analyses of how individuals structure their broader political commitments, such as those related to ideology. In general, work in this area has focused largely on the role of ability-related factors like expertise (Sidanius & Duffy, 1988; see also Judd & Krosnick, 1989). Moreover, in the present context, they have usually assumed that individuals with the expertise needed to understand the bipolar structuring of ideology in elite discourse are also motivated to make use of this expertise in organizing their own commitments.
Departing from this general focus, the present study takes a more interactive approach: It suggests that expertise is more likely to be associated with less deviation from ideological bipolarity in the presence of a motivation to use this expertise in a broadly evaluative fashion. As such, the present study adds to a body of recent work suggesting that the structuring and use of ideological predispositions is an interactive function of expertise and evaluation motivation. For example, Federico (2004) finds that expertise and the tendency to clearly identify oneself as liberal or conservative are more strongly related among those with a high need to evaluate. Interestingly, this study also found that expertise and the need to evaluate interacted to predict “evaluative integration,” a tendency to evaluate sets of politicians from the Democratic and Republican parties in an oppositely valenced fashion. Given the similarity between this measure and the present concept of “ideological bipolarity,”Federico's (2004) results can be looked at as early evidence for the interactive finding discussed here. However, the results of the present study go beyond these early findings in several ways. First, Federico (2004) did not focus explicitly on the evaluative structure of ideology per se; rather, the focus was on the mediating role of domain-specific evaluative consistency development of extreme attitudes. Second, Federico (2004)'s analyses did not focus directly on how individuals organize their evaluations of specifically ideological referents, i.e., “liberals” in general and “conservatives” in general. Thus, this previous study is only able to speak indirectly to the evaluative organization of citizens’ ideological commitments. Finally, the present study also looks at how the interactive effect of expertise and evaluative motivation fits into a broader set of relationships—namely, a pattern in which the interactive effect of expertise and the need to evaluate on deviations from ideological bipolarity also has important “downstream” effects on the structure of citizens’ evaluations of candidates and parties.
These, however, are not the only other results consistent with the general notion of a critical interaction between expertise and evaluative motivation. For instance, among those with a high need to evaluate, expertise more strongly predicts ideological conceptualizations of the differences between political parties (Federico & Schneider, in press). Perhaps most importantly, though, other analyses suggest that expertise is more likely to predict issue constraint (i.e., ideological agreement among one's issue positions; Converse, 1964) among those with a high need to evaluate (Federico & Schneider, in press). Like the results reported here, this last finding reinforces the notion that an “expert” understanding of how elites conceptualize ideology is more likely to be applied to the structuring of one's own commitments and attitudes in the presence of a strong motivation to evaluate various objects. Thus, under a high need to evaluate, experts’ broader belief systems are more likely to be marked both by an “appropriate” relationship between liberalism and conservatism themselves and by “appropriate” relationships between liberal and conservative issue positions.6
Thus, along with other findings, the results reported here make a notable contribution to our understanding of how citizens organize and make use of ideological commitments. Nevertheless, these data and analyses are not without their limitations. Perhaps most importantly, the correlational nature of the data and analyses makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about underlying causal relations. While the logic of this paper implies that expertise and the need to evaluate should have a causal impact on the evaluative structure of individuals’ ideological commitments—and the structure of their evaluations of objects linked to ideology—the fact that these variables could not be easily manipulated in the context of the NES data precludes firm causal inference.
A related issue has to do with the present study's relatively novel methodological approach to the assessment of deviations from ideological bipolarity. Most studies in this area of inquiry have relied on factor-analytic methods where correlations between latent dimensions corresponding to conservatism and liberalism were examined at the sample or subsample level (Kerlinger, 1972, 1984; Sidanius & Duffy, 1988). However, the analyses reported here have attempted to measure the structure of ideological commitments at the individual level. While the latter approach avoids the repeated sample-splitting necessary for multigroup factor analyses, it also has a number of shortcomings. First, it makes the results of this study less comparable to the results of prior studies. Second, it precludes some of the adjustments for measurement error possible in confirmatory factor analysis. For example, the individual-level approach used here does not allow for the construction of a factor-analytic measurement model to account for random error in the operational definition of variables corresponding to “conservatism” and “liberalism” (Kerlinger, 1980; Sidanius & Duffy, 1988) or the inclusion of error covariances capable of accounting for nonrandom error due to method variance (Green, 1988).7 Where possible, future studies will need to consider these issues.