Below, please find the program of the Spring series of meetings organised by the Network! Meetings will be on Microsoft Team. To join write an email to, and you will soon receive an invitation to join.

Next meeting: 19/05/2022 Simulating elections: A computational approach to assessing the effectiveness of micro-targeting, Jens Madsen

Abstract: There has been much ado about micro-targeted campaigns (MTCs) since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in 2016. While there has been a lot of debate on these campaigns, people disagree on the effectiveness of MCTs. Some have argued that they are extremely powerful tools that have substantial potential for influencing elections while others have argued that they amount to little more than marketing ploys with little to no effect. The challenge for assessing MTCs is the one-off nature of elections. It is, of course, not possible to rewind time and do RCTs for the same election. Further complicating the matter, each election exists in a specific cultural zeitgeist that does not repeat in future elections. To engage with this challenge, it is possible to gauge the effect of MTCs by simulating election campaigns under different conditions. In this talk, I will present a simple Agent-Based Model that allows us to represent individual voters, communication strategies, and election outcomes. This enables controlled simulations where otherwise fluctuating elements (e.g. perception of candidate’s credibility, likelihood of voting, etc.) can be kept constant, which allows for exploration of the effect of MTCs in principle. The model shows that MTCs can be effective tools in simple elections – beyond the results presented in the talk, I discuss how to extend the model to represent more sophisticated electoral scenarios to probe the effectiveness of MTCs in differing political, cultural, and personnel conditions.

Past meeting: 20/04/2022 Religious morality: Care-oriented or self-centered and rigorist?, Vassilis Saroglou

Abstract: Are religious people more moral? Does religion promote morality in general or (only) some aspects of it? Across different conceptualizations in the history of moral psychology, we can globally identify two major domains: (a) a caring for others, mostly prosocial, morality and (b) a morality of obligations to other entities: the self, groups, and God/natural order. The latter morality is rather independent from prosociality and can often be qualified as self-centered, coalitional, and/or hygienic. A close distinction is the one between consequentialism and deontology. The question of this talk is: Does religiousness indeed imply (1) a prosocial morality, (2) an “extended” to all domains morality, or (3) a principlistic/rigorist morality over, or even at the detriment of, a care-oriented morality? I will examine this question based on (our) work using various research traditions (Schwartz values, Haidt’s moral foundations, deontology vs. consequentialism dilemmas, lab experiments, moral opposition).

Past meeting: 31/03/2022 Attitude Centrality Does Not Appear to Reduce Persuasion, Mark Brandt

Abstract: Are attitudes stronger when they are more central to a belief system? Theories of inter-attitude structure and belief system dynamics both suggest that the answer is yes. We test this idea with simulations and then empirically test this idea in three pretest-posttest experiments aiming to persuade US conservatives (Experiment 1 N = 890) and US liberals (Experiment 2 N = 1305, Experiment 3 N = 1293) using moral reframing persuasive strategies. Although we find that moral reframing was persuasive (9 of 12 attempts), there was no evidence that central attitudes were more difficult to change than peripheral attitudes. This was the case across all experiments, target attitudes, and methods for assessing belief system structure. The results suggest that moral reframing persuades people, but that theories of inter-attitude structure and belief system dynamics both do not make accurate predictions in this situation.

Past meeting: 16/03/2022 Affect Control Theory: Basic Concepts and Political Applications, Tobias Schroeder, Jesse Hoey

Abstract: Bayesian affect control theory is a model of affect-driven social interaction under conditions of uncertainty. In this talk, we investigate how the operationalization of uncertainty in the model can be related to the disruption of social orders -- societal pressures to adapt to ongoing environmental and technological change. First, we study the theoretical tradeoffs between three kinds of uncertainty as groups navigate external problems: validity (the predictability of the environment, including of other agents), coherence (the predictability of interpersonal affective dynamics), and dependence (the predictability of affective meanings). Second, we discuss how these uncertainty tradeoffs are related to contemporary political conflict and polarization in the context of societal transitions. To illustrate the potential of our model to analyze the socio-emotional consequences of uncertainty, we present a simulation of diverging individual affective meanings of occupational identities under uncertainty in a climate change mitigation scenario based on events in Germany. Finally, we sketch a possible research agenda to substantiate the novel, but yet mostly conjectural, ideas put forward in this paper.

Past meeting: 03/03/2022 The Computational Origins of Ideological Rationality and Dogmatism, Leor Zmigrod

Abstract: Political discourse and polarization are rooted in the assumption that those who hold opposing ideological beliefs are fundamentally irrational. Propaganda and misinformation are hypothesized to work by amplifying and toying with citizens’ emotions, and authoritarianism emerges when citizens are thoughtless and excessively emotion-driven. Nevertheless, new strands of research in the science of political cognition illustrate that we can rigorously model the computational mechanisms underpinning ideological choice and conviction. Bayesian models highlight how human brains seek to build predictive models of the world by updating their beliefs and preferences in ways that are proportional to their prior expectations and sensory experiences. Consequently, incorporating Bayesian principles into formal models of ideological choice and conviction will provide a more wholistic understanding of what happens when a mind enters the market for belief systems – and why a mind can, at times, purchase toxic doses of the ideologies that sellers and entrepreneurs offer on display. It will be demonstrated that in order to build a robust sense of the rationality behind ideological thinking, it is useful to incorporate principles of uncertainty and probability-based belief updating into mechanistic models of ideological choice and conviction formation. The talk will outline instances when ideologues adhere to and deviate from rational principles, and in so doing reveal that often the problems of ideological thinking lie not wholly in the brain but in the surrounding informational ec

Past meeting: 03/02/2022 From the many to the one: paths of conversion, Kenneth Harl

Abstract: I propose to discuss what we as historians know about the facts of dramatic acts of conversion in from the first through tenth centuries A.D., and how these accounts support, modify, or clashes with theories about the psychology of conversion. I am not a trained psychologists or psychiatrist, but rather a historian, trained to glean events from imperfect record of very different sources (texts, coins, inscriptions, an archaeological evidence). Yet, I respect these disciplines with methods that offer insights as to why individuals or groups replace their traditional beliefs inherited from their family and society for new faiths. In particular, I have studied why the inhabitants of the Roman world embraced Christianity whose missionaries preached not only the worship of a single God, but a transcendent one. As Sallustius, a prominent pagan philosopher of the fourth century put it, the problem with Christians is they empty the world of gods and make it a lonely place. In the talk, I will discuss the well-documented individual conversions of Saint Paul, the emperors Constantine and Julian, and Saint Augustine. Moreover, I will overview a variety of collective conversions occurred during the first millennium A.D., involving different people dwelling in the Eurasian landmass

Past meeting: 19/01/2022 Utopian thinking: themes and functions of contemplating an ideal society, Julian Fernando

Abstract: Utopian thinking is an emerging area that can help us understand attitudes about, and motivation for, social change. In this talk I present an overview of my colleagues and my recent research in this area. I begin with comments on our theoretical approach to this issue (i.e., what utopian thinking is/consists of). This is followed by research findings from two interrelated areas of utopian thinking: 1) function (i.e., how utopian thinking affects motivation) and 2) content (i.e., what people think about when they imagine an ideal for society), and how these two factors may together predict motivation for social change.

Past meeting: 15/12/2021 Decomposing the rise of the populist right, Noam Gidron, Oren Danieli, Ro'ee Levy

Abstract: Over the past three decades, the support of populist radical right parties has dramatically increased. Broadly, proposed explanations for this development can be classified into three categories: changes in voter characteristics, changes in party positions, and changes in the weights voters place on certain issues. To examine the driving power of these sets of explanations, we merge Integrated Values Survey data with Comparative Manifesto Project data on party positions. We develop a probabilistic voting model to estimate voting weights based on the interaction between voter characteristics and party positions. Using a decomposition method, we find no evidence that shifts in voters' opinions or demographic pushed voters to the populist right. Changes in partisan supply--mainly the entrance of populist radical right parties--explain a small share of these parties' growing support. The major driver behind their success lies in the rising importance voters attach to the issues on which populist radical right parties campaign. Our findings contribute to theoretical debates about sources of support for radical parties. Methodologically, they demonstrate the benefits of applying decomposition methods to political economic questions.

Past meeting: 01/12/2021 Political extremism: extreme values in a global perspective, Francesco Rigoli

Abstract: Political extremism has been growing in several Western countries. This has prompted scholars to understand why. To contribute to this research endeavour, I will present two studies on the social and psychological factors shaping political extremism in the contemporary world. Adopting a sociological perspective, study 1 examines data from the World Value Survey to assess the success of political extremism on a global scale. This study integrates prior research where the focus has been exclusively on the West. Study 2 explores the psychology of extremism focusing on the notion of values (e.g., equality, freedom, wealth etc.) - an aspect poorly investigated so far. It asks the question: do people embracing extreme ideologies (both on the left and on the right) process values differently compared to people supporting moderate ideologies? The last part of the talk will propose an extension of modernization theory where findings from part 1 and 2 are integrated in a coherent framework.

Past meeting: 17/11/2021 Prosociality beyond in-group boundaries: Lab-in-the-field experiments on intergroup contact, Delia Baldassarri

Abstract: How does prosocial behavior extend beyond in-group boundaries in multiethnic societies? Building on Durkheim's intuition that solidarity in complex societies derives from interdependence and division of labor rather than cultural similarity and mutual acquaintanceship, we develop a three-step model of out-group exposure to capture the tension between the human tendency to favor the ingroup and societal pressures that force people outside the comfort zones of their familiar networks to constructively interact with unknown, diverse others. Using a large-scale lab-in-the-field experiment with a representative sample of Italian natives and immigrants from the multiethnic city of Milan, we study behavior toward coethnics and non-coethnics in strategic and non-strategic interactions. We find that when given the opportunity to select their interaction partners, Italians favor coethnics over immigrants. However, when forced to interact with non-coethnics, as it happens in many economic transactions, Italians generally treat them similarly to how they treat coethnics and value signs of social and market integration. Taken together, these results confirm contact theory intuition that interaction with outgroup members, especially when individuals have common goals, is likely to foster prosociality, while also documenting the persistence of discriminatory behavior in selection processes.

Past meeting: 20/10/2021 Paradoxical Effects of persuasive messages, Rahul Bhui

Abstract: The same persuasive message can be interpreted in a positive or negative way, challenging our ability to predict its effectiveness. Causal reasoning can contribute to this process of interpretation and produce attitude reversals due to the network structure of beliefs. I will present the results of two vignette experiments, one based on the famous slogan of the car rental agency Avis (“We're No. 2—that means we try harder”), and the other based on online product reviews. When participants’ contextual beliefs about the economic environment are manipulated, message effectiveness changes as predicted by a Bayesian mechanism in which seemingly negative information is “explained away” in a more positive light, or vice versa. Thus, causal reasoning may help account for certain counterintuitive kinds of high-level attitude change.