There are storms, and then there are “storms” — reassurance from the world of survey science

In yesterday’s Washington Post, columnist Karen Tumulty described her concerns about the Republicans’ failure to endorse the January 6 investigation for which they’d helped set the terms. Some of her worries are based on recent non-partisan polling. As she put it:
“Fully 20 percent of more than 5,500 adults questioned in all 50 states — and 28 percent of Republicans among them — said they agreed with the statement that ‘there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.’”

Without questioning Tumulty’s conclusions, or the accuracy of the polling, I do want to reassure all of you reading this that it’s probably not quite that bad. Years of experience in designing and conducting surveys about worldview beliefs have taught me something not obvious — when people are answering questions like that, they’re often not describing their thoughts and beliefs up to that point, but instead, just their emotional reaction to the question. And in this case, the question was emotionally loaded.

Here’s an example from my own research. When I did my dissertation study, I asked people to do an online survey, telling me how much they agreed or disagreed with a whole list of beliefs. The beliefs were meta-narratives covering topics like politics, the economy, environmentalism, general beliefs about our societies, and of course, spiritual beliefs.

Here are some of the spiritual beliefs I asked about.

  • “The first humans ruined our chance of living in a paradise, but redemption has become available for humanity through God’s sacrifice and human repentance.”
  • “If we don’t share the truth with others, their souls will be damned for all eternity.”
  • “God calls us to submit to his authority, and to worship him and follow his commands; those who obey will receive eternal joy in paradise.”
  • “All of reality is moving toward unity with the cosmic Absolute, but each of us can make mistakes and bad decisions can block our paths to salvation, so we should focus on securing our own destinies through good works, knowledge, and devotion.”
  • “All humans have within them the seed of the divine, which can reach its true potential after death and reunite us with our divine origin.”

When I analyzed the data, I discovered that all these beliefs tended to cluster together: If you said you believed one of them, you probably said you believed all of them, and vice versa. But I’d just asked them to describe their beliefs, without putting words in front of them, it’s unlikely they would have come up with all of that.

Most likely, the loaded words “God,” “worship,” “repentance,” “sacrifice,” “divine,” “salvation,” and so on triggered a response like, “That one’s about God — I believe in God — I like the way that sounds — sure, I think I believe that!” Imagine, though, if I’d asked about the spiritual beliefs like this:

  • “The core Christian belief that the first humans ruined our chance of living in a paradise, but redemption has become available for humanity through God’s sacrifice and human repentance.”
  • “The core Evangelical Christian belief that if we don’t share the truth with others, their souls will be damned for all eternity.”
  • “The core Islamic belief that God calls us to submit to his authority, and to worship him and follow his commands; those who obey will receive eternal joy in paradise.”
  • “The core Hindu belief that all of reality is moving toward unity with the cosmic Absolute, but each of us can make mistakes and bad decisions can block our paths to salvation, so we should focus on securing our own destinies through good works, knowledge, and devotion.”
  • “The core ancient Egyptian belief that all humans have within them the seed of the divine, which can reach its true potential after death and reunite us with our divine origin.”

Would the results have been the same? I think not. And yet many Christians agreed with the Islamic, Hindu, and ancient Egyptian beliefs — in fact, the core Islamic belief was the one that self-identified Christians endorsed most strongly.

I suspect this type of emotional reaction to words and concepts is what was going on when a North Carolina survey found that 41% of the state’s likely Trump voters (in 2016) agreed that “Hillary Clinton is the Devil.” Most likely, the survey respondents weren’t thinking of her in those terms before doing the survey, but when they heard the question, it tapped into their strong negative feelings about her and gave them an emotionally effective way to articulate it.

So let’s go back to this new survey question, with its phrase, “a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.” Words like “storm,” “sweep away,” “restore,” and “rightful” are all emotionally laden terms — more vivid and expressive than dry analytic talk. They’re what I call “charismatic concepts” — words or ideas that resonate with us emotionally because they’re more dramatic, with sharper contrasts or greater extremes than we typically encounter in everyday life.

So, sure, some people might think, “Hey, that’s exactly what I was saying a couple of nights ago to Matt and Corey, when we were sitting around watching the Rangers game.” But for many if not most people, it’s a matter of, “Huh, I like how they put that, that gets at my feelings exactly.” And for others, it’s likely that on a subconscious level it’s reminding them of how they’re supposed to express or “perform” their political affiliation these days, “I recognize that — it’s what people like me think. I suppose I think it too.”

So even though on the surface, the survey is measuring how insurrectionist some factions in the country are, it’s more accurate to say that it’s measuring, “How hot are their feelings?” And they’re still hot.

In more normal times, only the most emotionally expressive people would react positively to statements like that. Usually, even people who are greatly looking forward to a change in government would roll their eyes when hearing words like “storm” and “rightful.” So the survey was a good indicator that we’re not there yet.

Unfortunately, for the people who completed the survey, saying “yes” to a question like that helps solidify their beliefs and their identity as someone who approves of political drama. That’s a cost that survey teams need to take into account, especially if being non-partisan is important to them.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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