Can Science Explain Tea Party Success, 'Occupy' Fade-Out?

11/21/2013 12:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2013
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Are liberals their own worst enemy? A new study suggests that may be the case, with its examination of why some political movements succeed and others fail.

The study showed that liberals overestimate the uniqueness of their political beliefs and that they are eager to have views that set them apart from others -- characteristics that might undermine their ability to maintain a cohesive political movement.

The psychologists behind the study said their findings may explain why the Tea Party movement succeeded in gaining lasting traction, while "Occupy Wall Street" fizzled out.

“The Tea Party movement developed a succinct set of goals in its incipient stages and effectively mobilized its members toward large-scale social change quite quickly,” study co-author Chadly Stern, a doctoral student in psychology at New York University, said in a written statement. “In contrast, despite its popularity, the liberal Occupy Wall Street movement struggled to reach agreement on their collective mission and ultimately failed to enact large-scale social change.”

For the study, the psychologists surveyed 300 men and women between the ages of 18 and 82. The participants indicated agreement or disagreement with political statements, such as "I support labor unions," and non-political statements, such as "I like coffee." They were also asked to estimate how many people with the same political ideology would agree with their beliefs and preferences.

What did the study show?

Liberals displayed "truly false uniqueness," underestimating the number of other liberals who shared their same beliefs. Moderates and conservatives showed "truly false consensus." That means they overestimated agreement with their beliefs and preferences among their peers, thinking that their own views were more common than they really were.

These effects extended across the board, regardless of whether the questions were about politics or a cup o' joe.

The researchers said the effects can be explained by the different psychological desires seen in liberals and conservatives.

"We found that liberals and conservatives differ on the basic desire to feel unique, in that liberals have a greater desire to feel unique and conservatives have a greater desire to conform," Stern told The Huffington Post in an email.

In addition to explaining why certain liberal movements, like "Occupy," might struggle to maintain solidarity among its members, the study suggests that conservatives, too, can shoot themselves in the foot.

“Conservative social movements might initially capitalize on perceiving agreement to galvanize their ranks," Stern said in the statement, "but their inaccurate perceptions could impair group progress when actual agreement is necessary.”

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