Judgments of Extremism and Social Information

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Principal investigator:

Ethan C. Busby

Brigham Young University

Email: ethan.busby@byu.edu

Homepage: https://ethanbusby.com/

Sample size: 4061

Field period: 05/07/2021-07/22/2021

The manifestations of political extremism are legion: they can involve specific attitudes (e.g., Fernbach et al. 2013; Crawford and Ruscio 2021), focus on general dispositions (Greenberg and Jonas 2003; Crawford and Pilanski 2014), attach themselves to the left, right, and center of the ideological spectrum (Lipset 1960), and emerge among political leaders and citizens (Salmon 2002). Given these challenges, how readily do citizens recognize and respond to the types of extremism that challenge democracy? How do people take social cues about what people, beliefs, and actions are extreme? Building on prior research (Busby 2022), this project considers how the judgments Americans make about extremism are conditioned on their own similarity with a potential extremist and the cues they receive from others. It relies on a conjoint experiment to evaluate how Americans weigh social messages about extremism with specific kinds of extremist beliefs. I find that people consider someone to be more extreme when they are violent, uncivility, advocate for breaking the law, and are members of an outgroup (including partisan groups). Social information also has a strong effect – respondents consider someone to be more extreme when that individual’s party or the respondent’s party calls them extreme. These effects also extend to electoral support and some civil liberty judgments. This research contributes to a growing literature about the connection between citizens’ perceptions and political divisions (e.g., Ahler 2014) and the health of American democracy (e.g., Carey et al. 2020; Graham and Svolik 2020).

H1: Americans should be more willing to consider someone to be extreme when that person believes extremist things

H2: People should also be more likely to label someone from the opposing political party as extreme, all else equal

H3: When a potential extremist is described as extreme by the profile’s own party, I expect judgments and the political costs of extremism to increase

H4: When a profile is described as extreme by the respondents’ own political party, I also expect judgments and costs of extremism to increase

H5: Factors that promote judgments of extremism to also decrease political support and tolerance

H6: Consequences of different forms of extremism – on perceptions of extremism, political support, and political tolerance – should be reduced when people share more characteristics and beliefs with the potential extremists

Experimental Manipulations

The experiment involved a conjoint design, where different characteristics of a hypothetical individual were randomized. These included gender, race, the individual's partisanship, if most Democrats consider the individual extreme, if most Republicans consider the individual extreme, incivility, violation of various social norms (racism, sexism, etc.), if the individual is politically engaged, and support for political violence, support for the rule of law.

Respondents each evaluated 3 profiles.


On a scale from not at all extreme (1) to very extreme (5), how would you rate the person described above?

On a scale from definitely would NOT vote (1) to definitely would vote (5), how willing would you be to vote for the person described above in a local election?

Still thinking of the person above, how much do you agree or disagree that this person should be allowed to...?
–Make a speech in your community
–Teach in your local public schools

Summary of Results

I find strong support for H1. Specifically, I observe the following (all are significant differences at at least the 0.01 level)
–Political violence increases perceptions of extremism
–Support for breaking the law increases perceptions of extremism
–Talking about politics frequently increases perceptions of extremism
–Holding anti-American and sexist views increases perceptions of extremism
–Incivility increases perceptions of extremism
–Partisan extremity increases perceptions of extremism

I find support for H2. Respondents were more likely to rate members of the other party as extreme than members of their own party (p<0.01).

I also find support for H3. When a profile's party labels them as extreme, respondents are more likely to consider that profile to be extreme (p<0.01)

I also find support for H4. When the respondent's party labels the profile as extreme, respondents are more likely to consider that profile to be extreme (p<0.01)

I find some support for H5. Party match between respondent and profile increase voting support and decrease speech and teaching restrictions. When the profile's party labels them as extreme, this only influences electoral support (not civil liberties). When the respondents' own party labels the profile as extreme, electoral support decreases and support for civil liberties restrictions increases.

I find multiple levels of support for H6, irrespective of how similairity is coded. Sharing group memberships with the profile decreases perceptions of extremism, increases electoral support, and decreases civil liberties restrictions.


Busby summary of findings – Figures.pdf