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'24' makes people support torture, and other discoveries political scientists made this year

Pictured: not an actual political scientist.
Pictured: not an actual political scientist.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Political science is becoming more and more influential in Washington, and that comes through in the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in Washington. Every year, political scientists come together to schmooze and present their research. This year's was rich with interesting findings, analyses, and debates. Here are six of the most compelling ideas I heard at APSA's end-of-August meeting, and what they mean for how the world works.

1. The show 24 makes people like torture more — and more willing to act to support it

jack bauer

Jack Bauer, 24's protagonist. (Friskytuna)

There was a theory, back during the Bush years, that the television show 24's depictions of torture actually shaped the Bush administration's decision to start torturing Guantanamo detainees. "The prime mover of American interrogation doctrine is none other than the star of Fox television's 24: Jack Bauer," Slate's Dahlia Lithwick wrote, citing internal administration discussions about the show, of which Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld were especially big fans.

At APSA, American University's Erin Kearns and Joseph Young presented an experiment that showed just how influential such TV shows can be. They showed torture scenes from 24 to 150 AU students. Sometimes, those scenes showed torture working (as it often does on the show), and other times, the researchers re-cut the show to remove any indication that torture had produced important information. Then they interviewed the students from both groups about their views on torture.

What they found was pretty startling. Even among a group of college students mostly made up of self-identified liberals, the students who saw the version of 24 where torture works were way more likely to say that they supported torturing detainees in the real world. The students who just saw torture, without any evidence that it succeeded or failed, hardly deviated from a control group.

What's more, seeing torture scenes made the students more likely to become pro-torture advocates. They were much more likely to sign a petition supporting the use of torture in interrogation than they had been before. That suggests that watching depictions of torture makes people actively pro-torture, not just passively more okay with it.

The concern that Hollywood could have some some responsibility for the Bush administration's torture policy, then, has some validity to it.

2. Are Republican and Democratic views of entitlements all about risk?

social security demonstration

Members of the Coalition of Labor Union Women protest Social Security cuts. Kevin G. Hall/MCT/Getty Images)

Most political scientists say that the most important reason Democrats and Republicans disagree about the size of the welfare state is because of political partisanship. The psychological affect at work is called motivated reasoning: the idea that we think to get the conclusions we want, not to arrive at the truth.

But Phillip Rehm (Ohio State), Jacob Hacker (Yale) and Mark Schlesinger (Yale) think something else is at work. Democrats tend to be more sensitive to financial risk than Republicans are, they argue, and so are more likely to support policies that help people in case of a financial catastrophe.

The researchers asked a sample of 2,084 Americans a series of questions about how much financial risk they expected "people like you to experience." A number of statistical regressions, controlling for wealth, found that Democrats were significantly more likely to say people like them were at risk from expenditure related risk — medical bills, family expenses, and the like — than Republicans were. And the researchers found that people who perceive more risk are more likely to support government policies that mitigate that risk; people who perceive less risk are less likely to support those policies.

What's more, the research doesn't fit the "motivated reasoning" model. The study was done during 2008-2009, much of it after Democrats had swept the 2008 election. Republicans, Rehm et al. say, should have been in general more sensitive to economic risk. With Democrats in control, they should have been more worried about the state of the economy, and thus concerned about potential risks to their own financial welfare. But they weren't.

3. Terrorists sometimes get fired like middle managers

iraqi jihadis

Pictured: dudes who have yet to file their TPS reports. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

You'd think that terrorist officers would ultimately end their careers in one of two ways: either by winning or by getting killed. But apparently, there's a third option: get fired.

Margaret Foster (SITE Intelligence Group) and David Siegel (Duke University) looked at a few publicly available cases of high, but not top, level commanders being dismissed from their jobs: Sajjad Momand of the Pakistani Taliban, Ivor Bell of the Irish Republican Army, and Agha Jan Mutasim of the Afghan Taliban.

The researched presented a complicated game theory model explaining how a terrorist group might come to give someone a pink slip, rather than doing simply killing the offending employee. But the basic logic is this: sometimes it makes sense for a group to fire to a commander when they need to get rid of him, but killing him would offend the local community or a major external supporter.

Foster and Siegel point out that governments could use this to help identify where a terrorist group draws its support from, by seeing which officers the group chooses to fire, rather than simply kill. Looking at who that officer is connected to could reveal a lot about the group's external supporters.

4. Sometimes, peace offers can actually fuel war

gilad shalit

A rally for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was formerly a Hamas captive. (Lilach Daniel)

International relations scholars have a lot of theories about what drives conflicts. At APSA, two Israeli researchers proposed a theory about how even peace offers can perpetuate conflict. If someone makes a peace offer but it gets turned down, then political leaders and citizens could become less likely to accept future peace offers — even if those offers are better than the status quo.

The researchers, Lesley Terris and Orit Tykocinski of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, cite a psychological effect they call "inaction inertia." Basically, if an offer for a deal gets turned down, that failed offer becomes the new baseline to judge any future offers. For example: let's say you're offered a deal to pay $40 for a $100 ticket to a ski resort if you buy before the October 15. You miss the October deadline, but find out there's still a $90 offer you can use. Weirdly, you're much less likely to take the $90 deal than someone who never had a $40 deal — despite $90 still being netting you a net discount on a trip, in this hypothetical, that you're going on anyway. That's because you're judging a $90 deal relative to a $40 one.

Terris and Tykocinski found this effect at work in an Israeli survey about prisoner exchanges. Israelis were less likely to support a prisoner exchange if they heard about past offers for prisoner exchanges that had not gone through if those past offers were better from an Israeli point of view.

The upshot of their research is that first impressions matter in conflicts. If, in a war, an early peace or ceasefire offer gets turned down, both sides may be less likely to accept future deals that aren't as favorable to their side. Theoretically, that could keep conflicts going well past the time that both parties are ready to sue for peace.

5. What Twitter tells us about anti-Americanism in the Arab world

A suporter of former Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi burns an American flag in October 2013. Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

A suporter of former Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi burns an American flag in October 2013. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

The drivers of anti-Americanism in the Middle East are complex and heavily debated. A new dataset, drawing principally from Twitter, seems to offer a lot of support to the theory that anti-Americanism comes in response to American foreign policy in the Middle East, rather than as a reaction against perceived failings or faults of American society itself.

Amaney Jamal (Princeton), Robert O. Keohane (Princeton), David Romney (Harvard), and Dustin Tingley (Harvard) used software to sift through massive amounts of tweets to study how Arabic-language Twitter reacted to events involving the United States. They studied two events where the US was seen as an actor: the Egyptian military coup against President Muhammed Morsi and the release of the anti-Islam Innocence of Muslims film. They also studied two events where the US was a victim: the Boston Marathon bombing and Hurricane Sandy.

The program found a great deal of animosity expressed at American policy during these first two events, but comparatively mixed feelings about American society in the latter two. There wasn't a ton of glee at American misfortune (though a fair amount of "things are worse in Palestine" type comments), but a great deal of anger expressed at perceived American involvement in the Muslim world. That suggests American involvement in the Middle East, rather than American culture, is the main anti-American grievance among Arab-language tweeters. Of course, Twitter is far from a complete or scientific sample of the Middle East — it tends to skew young and skew middle class — so consider this one piece of evidence.

The researchers also compared tweets about the United States to tweets about Iran. Anger at Iran also focused on its perceived interference with Arab countries.

6. The rise of women's gun culture in America

Historically, men have defined American gun culture. But that may be changing: there's a growing, and politically involved, bloc of American women who care about gun rights.

Washington College's Melissa Deckman is working on a book about the rise of women's gun culture. More women than ever are buying guns, she's found. She believes that's largely because of changes to the gun industry — principally, making guns technically more suited to women, such as models with smaller handgrips.

As female gun ownership has risen, a political women's gun movement has grown with it. Interviewing female gun rights activists, Deckman identified a set of beliefs unique to the women's gun movement: 1) women need guns to level the playing field; 2) the types of guns that gun control activists want to limit access to are uniquely useful for women; 3) self-defense is a deeply feminist value.

In policy terms, this movement translates into heavy opposition to gun control measures — principally among Tea Party and highly conservative women. In the aggregate, women tend to be much more open to gun control than men are. But very conservative women reported super-high levels of support for gun rights and opposition to gun regulations.

Interestingly, Deckman's regressions found the strongest predictor of pro-gun positions among women isn't ideology: it's whether or not she already owns a gun. So if Deckman is right that gun ownership among women is spreading, then it's likely that women's gun culture will too.