Interview with Roderik Rekker

This interview with Roderik Rekker was conducted online on the 7th of October, 2021. Roderik discusses many topics, including his research career across two subjects, and the possibly self-reinforcing nature of political polarization. The interviewer is Knowledge Resistance‘s project administrator, Alexander Stathopoulos. Interview questions are in bold text.

Roderik Rekker

Your bio starts out saying that you’re both a political scientist and a psychologist. Could you describe how you ended up with this combination of expertise — why two subjects?

I studied political science first, and I always liked it most when you could look at the intersection between different fields. So, after a year I started a second bachelor in psychology alongside political science. After this I did a research master in clinical psychology, and then a PhD in developmental psychology. 

After that I actually returned to political science, so that was a bit of a career switch, but there’s a connection because my PhD was on the development of political attitudes among young people.

I don’t call myself a “political psychologist”; I always say I am a psychologist and a political scientist.

What makes me maybe a bit different from the other psychologists in Knowledge Resistance is that my background is not in social psychology but in clinical and developmental psychology. I even considered therapy as a career option, and worked for a few years as a volunteer for a phone help line, before getting my PhD in psychology. So I don’t call myself a “political psychologist”; I always say I am a psychologist and a political scientist.

Have you found that your background in these two subjects has helped you locate any particular research gap?

I did encounter some gaps. For example, when I was in my research group on adolescent psychology — the phase between age 12 and 18 — I realized hardly anyone in that field was studying political attitudes, whereas hardly anybody in political science was studying adolescence. Even though it’s often assumed in political science that people form their political attitudes during adolescence, hardly anybody makes the effort to collect data among actual adolescents. 

Also, political science and psychology generally have different methodological approaches. I think I’ve been able to see the strengths of both, but also the limitations. I think some methods are overused in psychology. When I studied psychology at the University of Amsterdam, we received the message in every course that only one type of research is valuable — and that is experimental research. 

On the other hand, I always felt that experimental research was underused in political science, but that might be changing. Nowadays I sometimes hear political scientists saying it’s not worth doing studies that aren’t experimental.  

Roderik Rekker in the interview.

I always felt that even though there’s great value in experimental research, you can learn the most by using different methods, using the strengths of one to compensate for the limitations of another, and seeing if you can find similar results using different methods.

Why do you think that political scientists don’t typically look at adolescents? 

Most datasets just start at age 18, because that’s the age that you’re allowed to vote. So, it’s actually quite a challenge to collect data among younger adolescents. A PhD student in my research team here in Amsterdam is now doing just that, but it takes quite a lot of money to collect the data.

So that’s a practical issue. There’s also been the theoretical issue, that political scientists typically examine human beings in their capacity as a voter.

As I mentioned I did my master’s degree in clinical psychology and I applied for a PhD project on juvenile crime. When I started there, I was told — “we have a dataset on political attitudes lying around here” — which had been unused for years, because there was little interest in political attitudes. 

It was an astonishing dataset and apparently nobody had used it, because, well, that’s just not what they do in developmental psychology.

It turned out that it was a longitudinal study with three waves, following young people all the way from 12 to 31. It included information about their voting behavior, attitudes, and also their parents’ attitudes. It was an astonishing dataset and apparently nobody had used it, because, well, that’s just not what they do in developmental psychology.

It sounds like a lot depends on the ’traditions’ or habits within the disciplines?

Absolutely. It’s very interesting but also very challenging to try to cross these boundaries.

After my PhD on juvenile delinquency, I did multiple things: 

  • I did some research on legal prosecution of politicians,
  • I coordinated the data collection for the Dutch parliamentary election study of 2017,
  • And then I started on two research topics. In the Knowledge Resistance program I started working on factual belief polarization, and via a Dutch research grant I started research on generational differences in voting behavior. There, I’m examining why younger generations vote very differently than older generations. 

On belief polarization, I found this article of yours: “The nature and origins of political polarization over science”. There it seems you’re trying to clean up the terminology. You talk about different kinds or concepts of polarization.

Writing a conceptual article was not necessarily my initial plan – I just wanted to write a review article, but I realized that the literature on this issue is dispersed across different research fields who all have their own terminology and their own approaches.

If you’d ask a sociologist, a political scientist, and a psychologist — “why are people rejecting climate change?” — you would get pretty much different explanations, with different terminologies, etc.

If you’d ask a sociologist, a political scientist, and a psychologist — “why are people rejecting climate change?” — you would get pretty much different explanations, with different terminologies, etc., so I realized you cannot write a regular review article integrating all these research findings, without clarifying what it is that all these different fields are talking about: When they talk about polarization over science, is that the same thing, or a different thing, or is it partially the same thing? 

The main challenge was to integrate the explanatory models from sociology which focus a bit more on the content of the ideology, from those of psychology which focus a bit more on the actual mental process, but I also realized that there’s some overlap in how they understand the phenomenon. So, I thought, let’s take this problem and turn it into an opportunity, and try to integrate these literatures.

I came up with this distinction between ideological science rejection and psychological science rejection. 

Psychological science rejection is what psychologists are talking about when people overlook certain information, or form incorrect beliefs, or disregard science based on some psychological need. For example, there’s research on liberals and conservatives, on whether one group is more likely to reject science, and this research focuses on individual psychological needs, personality type, variations in “need for closure”, etc., but it’s rarely about the actual content of the ideology.

Here it seems that ideologies can form and turn against science, either on a specific issue like climate change, or sometimes even against science as a whole — a true form of anti-intellectualism.

Ideological science rejection is more about the content of an ideology. It’s less about what’s going on in the mind of an individual person and more about the society as a whole and how ideologies are formed and reproduced — as in think tanks, universities, political parties, or the media, etc. Here it seems that ideologies can form and turn against science, either on a specific issue like climate change, or sometimes even against science as a whole — a true form of anti-intellectualism.

On this I would argue that conservatives are a bit more likely to view science as just one source of information alongside others — like the church, or common sense, or tradition, etc., whereas progressives have had the idea that science is the only source of knowledge, and that we should use that as a tool to rationally reform society. 

That’s a very different way of looking at why people with a certain ideology reject science. It’s no longer about something that happens within the mind of an individual but something that happens with an ideology over the course of decades or even centuries.

Do you think these types of explanation are pulling in different directions, or are they complementary?

I think they’re mostly complementary. To understand why people would reject science based on their ideology, you always need to have some grasp of the psychology to even understand why people would do that. And the other way around, to understand the psychological mechanism of what’s happening in people’s minds you will need at least some assumptions about the content of that ideology.

A psychologist might say that people reject information because they have psychological needs to reject information that’s not consistent with their ideology — but then that’s assuming that that the information is not compatible with the ideology in the first place: Why would, for example, the idea that climate change is man-made, not be compatible with conservatism? 

How do you view the research in this “conceptual field” that you’re working in? Are there other people trying to work on this? How far along do you think we are in trying to align these different disciplines, with conceptual clarity?

When it comes to science rejection I indeed hope that my article will be among the stepping stones to integrate literatures a little bit better, and examine the interaction between things like ideology and psychological mechanisms. 

When it comes to my broader research agenda on factual belief polarization, I chose the topic because I feel that it that brings together two literatures that are very important but are rarely combined.

In the literature on political polarization people ask why, for example, democrats and republicans diverge in their attitudes over decades, why they become increasingly hostile towards each other, and so on. On the other hand, there’s a literature on misperceptions where people ask why people have incorrect factual beliefs about reality.

I think these literatures are rarely combined with each other and I think they should be. It’s important to look at misperceptions from a perspective of political polarization and to see why people’s factual perceptions are correlated with their political viewpoints. 

It seems plausible that people are more likely to diverge in factual viewpoints when they hate each other, but it’s also quite plausible that people start to hate each other when they diverge in viewpoints. 

It seems plausible that people are more likely to diverge in factual viewpoints when they hate each other, but it’s also quite plausible that people start to hate each other when they diverge in viewpoints. 

For example, if you actually believe that climate change is man-made and you think the planet is going to hell, but you just think it’s way too expensive to build windmills, etc., then you probably won’t hate people like climate change activists. You’ll think: “I understand their viewpoint, climate change is pretty bad. Personally, I just think we can’t afford to do much about it.” But if you actually think that climate change is a hoax, you’ll probably hate these people with every fiber of your body. 

And the other way around — if you really believe that all highly educated progressive people are completely evil — then you’re not going to listen when they have something to say about climate change.

So, I think polarization is a really important part of the picture when it comes to misperceptions. When you want to understand why people reject climate science, for example, it’s really important to understand the dynamics of political polarization. 

And again, the other way around: When you don’t “share a reality” anymore, hostilities can really escalate, because you don’t have the slightest minimum of understanding for each other’s viewpoints anymore.

These dynamics are what I want to focus my entire research on right now — to view misperceptions from a perspective of polarization, and polarization from a perspective of misperceptions. 

Based on what you say, it’s a natural thought that you would get self-reinforcing patterns — where differences in factual belief cause conflicts, and conflicts cause more differences in belief, and so on. Is that something you’ve looked, or thought about looking at? 

Yeah, this is really what my research is about. I’m actually designing the first experiment right now. 

There are actually very few people who reject climate policies without rejecting climate science or vice versa — the connection is that strong.

One of the things I’m looking at is how people’s factual beliefs correlate with party preference and political attitudes, which is a pretty dramatic association. People have totally different perceptions about the share of immigrants in the population. The real shocker was actually beliefs in climate change. We knew this was bad in America, of course, but we’re also seeing dramatic levels of polarization here in Europe. There are actually very few people who reject climate policies without rejecting climate science or vice versa — the connection is that strong.

I’m also doing some regressions on that to examine, for example, how that correlates with affective polarization — hostility between groups. You see that people who are more hostile towards each other are also more likely to have their own separate factual beliefs.

I’m in the process of designing an experiment to look a bit more at the causal effects. It could indeed be that factual beliefs and affective polarization create a positive feedback loop, where polarization becomes self-reinforcing.

In an ideal world you would hope that people would first form their factual perceptions about the world, then form their political attitudes, and based on that choose a political party, but I think what many people do is precisely the opposite: They first choose a party that they want to vote for, then they accept the issue positions of that party. So, the republicans are against climate policies so I’m also against climate policies.

And then they form a factual perception: ‘I’m against climate policy so I also don’t believe in climate science’.

Did we miss anything — anything else you wanted to bring up in this interview?

I’m interested in the overarching normative issue — which is talked about in Åsa Wikforss’s recent book though I unfortunately can’t read Swedish. We can distinguish three kinds of polarization: ideological, affective, and factual. 

In a democracy you would always hope that people share a factual perception of reality — because that is just an essential prerequisite to even have a democratic debate.

The first is not really a big issue — it’s normal in a democracy. With affective polarization, there’s debate on how normatively undesirable that is. My personal position is that it is undesirable. In an ideal world, if you disagree with someone, that should not change your feelings towards that person. At the very least, a very high level of affective polarization — when you actually want to kill each other — is a bad thing. But then factual belief polarization – I would say that is really without question normatively undesirable. 

In a democracy you would always hope that people share a factual perception of reality — because that is just an essential prerequisite to even have a democratic debate. When you lack a shared sense of reality, there’s just no way you can actually have a normal democratic process. Connectedly, if science is no longer recognized as an impartial and trustworthy authority, and people start to say: “we have our own sources of knowledge”, it really undermines the state’s ability to act. Right after I finished that article you mentioned, the pandemic started, and it really made the case just perfectly. 

This is the broader normative picture where my research fits in.