Psychology of the Base: Why Do Some Canadians Still Support the Harper Government?

I believe that all the important problems of war and peace, exploitation and brotherhood, hatred and love, sickness and health, misunderstanding and understanding, the happiness and unhappiness of mankind will yield only to a better understanding of human nature. […]
Psychology should be more humanistic, more concerned with the problems of humanity, and less with the problems of the guild.
A. H. Maslow. Toward a humanistic psychology

There will be a general federal election in Canada On Monday, October 19th. The international press and even the leading conservative Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail, have been extremely critical of our prime minister, Stephen Harper. According to polls, the vast majority of Canadians want to replace this government. But because of our “first past the post” electoral system, the Harper Conservatives might still be returned to power.

Given the glut of well publicized facts about the Harper Tory record, and given the viability of the Liberal Party and New Democratic Party (NDP), it is difficult for me to fathom how Canadians, some of them our esteemed friends, would still support the Harper Conservative government.

Much has been written about the dark recesses of the mind of our prime minister. Very little serious attention however has been paid to the internals of the minds of the people by virtue of which his party rules: Harper Conservative voters.

How can we explain, in terms of broad cognitive science (which includes psychology), current Harper Conservative support?

For a chapter of my next book, I have drafted a long answer to this question. In the current blog post, I offer a few quotes and ideas from that chapter.

Caveat emptor: in my opinion, for most Canadians, a Harper Conservative (CPC) vote at this point is self-defeating. Beyond including a thin bibliography taken from my chapter, with a particular emphasis on Jeffrey (2015), I won’t substantiate my fundamental assumption here. However, I think this article raises important questions even under  a weaker assumption. One could use the major concepts to understand progressive voters and all kinds of other behavior.

People, animals, and machines normally behave in a manner that we can easily explain using what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance” —folk psychology. This involves postulating beliefs and desires. But sometimes, particularly in the case of error, belief/desire explanations of behavior fail. Then we must take a different approach, such as the “design stance”, which refers to mental mechanisms and their designs. Another stance is evolutionary psychology (e.g., social signaling of voters themselves).

Here then are some concepts I consider pertinent to analyzing the mind of Harper Tory supporters. These notes and experts don’t form a complete argument. Hopefully this document will nevertheless stimulate reflection and further reading.

NB: The temporal scope of this inquiry is Oct. 2015.

Some Context and Caveats

Excerpt from the chapter:

Different people may vote for the same party for different reasons. So, voting decisions cannot all be explained by one factor. Further, decisions cannot fully be explained by putative stable attributes such as personality or values. Behavior is, in critical respects, the result of the individual’s information processing. I aim to resist as much as possible imputing stable characteristics, because my focus is on a a specific vote in a specific election. Multiple processes at different scales normally must interact with information processing (the mind) in order to influence behavior. Furthermore, I do not claim that progressive voters are less susceptible to each of the psychological foibles mentioned here.

Why focus on errors? Cognitive psychologists routinely study cognitive errors, illusions, biases, etc. Behavioral economists also study biases. Cognitive neuroscientists try to infer the function of brain areas from behavioral effects of damage in those brain areas. Motivation researchers study addictions to understand normal motivation. Scientists do all this not to insult people, but to understand the human mind/brain. Similarly, I am focusing on voting errors not to insult Conservatives but to illustrate psychological concepts and principles, and to understand important phenomena.

When cognitive psychologists study errors, they tend to use behavioral tasks where there is a clear right and wrong. Some readers will object that voting is not an appropriate domain to study decision making mishaps because they believe there is no clearly right or wrong vote. Or perhaps even some Canadian cognitive scientists believe that Harper Conservative affinity is an equally defensible choice. My premise, as noted, is that for the vast majority of electors, a Harper Conservative vote is objectively self-defeating.

I will focus on a small set of concepts I consider helpful. Obviously, I cannot discuss all potentially relevant areas of psychological research, e.g., on upbringing, habits, social influence, prejudice, indoctrination, inoculation and persuasion.


Excerpt from the chapter:

there is a difference between values and psychological value. Andrew Ortony, Gerald Clore, & Allan Collins distinguished between three sources of psychological value: our goals are the measure of desirability of events; our norms and standards determine the praiseworthiness of actions; whereas our attitudes determine the “appeal” of objects (likes and dislikes). All forms of value are motivators. Our decisions involve complex, heuristic assessments in relation to these different, sometimes conflicting, forms of value (motivators). What is important with respect to one’s moral or political standards may conflict with what is important with respect to our goals. Moreover, one’s goals, standards and attitudes can conflict internally. For example, two goals may be at odds.

The human mind contains mechanisms that generate motivators and determine their relatively unconscious properties, such as their insistence (propensity to consume mental resources) and intensity (propensity to drive behavior), and relatively conscious properties, such as their importance and urgency. There are also mechanisms for comparing motivators and making decisions about them. The processing of motivators is very complex and under-researched.

Arguably, individuals’ lack of explicit knowledge about the three different sources of values that drive their behavior increases their vulnerability to affective political (and more generally, social) signaling. As a result, they may fool themselves into believing that a message that appeals to their motives (e.g., to save money) also agrees with their moral standards, and vice versa. They may even generate moral standards to match a goal-congruent signal (e.g., that exploiting the tar sands is praiseworthy because it spurs global warming R&D.)

Keith Stanovich’s various contributions to the concept of mindware.

Excerpt from the chapter:

Stanovich used George W. Bush as a leading example of his 2009 book, What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought. (In turn, I use this book as an example in Cognitive Productivity.) Several of the concepts in that book and related publications by Keith Stanovich are relevant to our question.

To explain this, Stanovich invokes a tripartite model of mind similar to the one my colleague, Aaron Sloman, and I developed. He suggests the mind contains an autonomous system, for very automatic processes (e.g., when driving a car in routine circumstances); an algorithmic mind, for behaviors that require controlled attention; and a reflective mind, to control the algorithmic mind. “Fluid intelligence”, measured by IQ tests, reflect properties of the algorithmic mind. If someone tries hard to perform well on a reasoning test but performs below average, it’s normally because they lack fluid intelligence —an algorithmic mind deficiency. To have high IQ means one is potentially very smart.

Social Signaling Theory

Social signaling involves a signaller selectively transmitting information to a receiver in order to influence their behavior.

Social signaling operates in two major directions in elections: from the party to the electorate, and from electors to people in their network.

Harper Conservative Signaling to the Electorate

It has been well documented that many of the Conservative Party’s decisions, in their permanent campaign without quarter, are geared mainly towards furthering their chances of re-election via “signaling”. The Conservative Party systematically endeavours to identify and exploit powerful motivators in the electorate. Each signal they devise is a hypothesis, a bet on their ability to identify a point of gullibility in one or more targeted segment of voters.

Excerpt from the chapter:

In any context, the receiver of social signals face several information processing challenges such as:

  • determining a signal’s meaning and implications for their own multiple motivators,
  • determining the signaller’s veracity (honesty) and the signal’s predictive validity,
  • integrating multiple signals.


In any event, the Conservative Party’s zenophobic signals are inherently valid indicators of the Harper Conservative’s values. The signals are not pretend; they are not play; they are not humor; they are speech acts. The signals ought to be treated very seriously, despite the fact that Conservative Party is also a very low veracity signaller (outright mendacious) on many important fronts, such as the economy and the environment. 587 Canadian academics signed a letter of protest against the Conservative Party’s “sinister”, divisive campaign.

Integrating multiple signals can be cognitively challenging. However, helpful, simple heuristics are available […]

Ignoring Negative Signaling about the Harper Conservative’s Actual Relative Disregard for the Economy

Discussions of signaling almost exclusively focus on positive signals. However, there are is also the concept of negative signaling, meaning refraining from sending a certain message. Many errors of omission may be considered as negative signals. Standing up a date sends a clear negative signal. However, some negative signals are more subtle (e.g., the PM failing to make himself and his MPs sufficiently available to the press.)

From my chapter:

Humans have considerable difficulty integrating negative information, negative signals and errors of omission being cases in point. There are individual differences in susceptibility to cognitive biases.


Signaling From the Electors to Their Networks

Above, we briefly considered signaling from the Harper Conservatives to the electorate, and how signals are processed by Conservatives.

Perhaps the most most important, subtle and under-acknowledged psychological explanations of public support for Harper Conservative is social signaling from the voter to his social network is essential. In a nutshell, social signaling is one of the most important but under-disseminated explanations of social behavior in general and self-handicapping behavior in particular. The idea is that humans have evolved to convey signals that will (a) help them be accepted and protected by individuals, groups and society; (b) help them find mates for sexual selection. On this direction of social signaling, I highly recommend The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller and “Most human behavior is signaling”, an interview of Robin Hanson. Hanson has argued for instance that social signaling explains why Americans spend so much on ineffective medical treatments rather than engage in salubrious behaviors. (See also Hanson’s Politics isn’t about Policy).

Until my explanation of how this type of social signaling is available in my Discontinuities book, I will simply recommend the highly accessible resources listed in the previous paragraph.

On Conspiracy Ideation

I delve into recent cognitive science on conspiracy ideation it is pertinent to many voters, regardless of the political affiliation, and regardless of whether they subscribe to conspiracy theories.

Excerpt from the chapter:

A conspiracy belief is a belief that a previous event was, or an ongoing process is, the result of a secret plan by a collection of people (the conspirators). Conspiracy ideation is of particular psychological interest when credible evidence is available that the belief is in error. For example, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many people believe that the September 11 attacks involved an American conspiracy

While many are tempted to assume that conspiracy ideation reflects a constellation of the Big Five personality dimensions, evidence for this is at best weak (Bost, 2015).

Also, whereas it might be tempting to think that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to seek simple explanations, or rapidly need closure, this association does not seem to hold (Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999; Leman & Cinnirella, 2013). If anything, conspiracy theorists tend to expend cognitive effort in building, applying and talking about conspiracy theorists.

Of course, enduring, but potentially malleable dispositions can influence judgments. Interestingly, feelings of alienation, powerless and being disadvantaged are significantly associated with conspiracy ideation (Abalakina-Paap et al, 1999). These feelings are not fully explained by personality; they can be elicited through circumstances—in real life and in the laboratory. Abalakina-Paap et al. suggest that people with these feelings seek to blame specific groups for their difficulties, including the supposed conspirators.

Another important and worrisome finding is that if a person believes one conspiracy theory, he or she is likely to believe another, even if the theories are mutually inconsistent (Bost, 2015).

It also appears that conspiracy ideation is significantly facilitated by the perception that the conspirators have a motive to engage in the conspiracy (Bost & Prunier, 2013). For example, the belief that the “military-industrial complex” had something to gain from the September 11 bombing might facilitate beliefs that they did. People who are prone to conspiracy ideation are prone to assigning more (too much) weight to the perception of a motive. They make an unwarranted leap from believing that a fact is plausible to believe that it is true.

Bost (2015) emphasizes that the processes underlying conspiracy ideation are relatively normal, in that they can operate in rational decision making. Giving some weight to motive and plausibility, for instance, is a helpful heuristic.

Conspiracy ideation researchers advise that it is important to catch such ideation before it happens, or early.

The Conservative Party’s Exploitation of Conspiracy Ideation

From my chapter:

The Conservative Party has an awesome track record of using dubious tactics to manipulate public opinion. This dates from well before they were said to have engaged Lynton Crosby, an Australian “master of dark arts” according to the Globe and Mail (Thanh Ha, 2015).

An example of The Conservative Party attempting to exploit the [Conservative supporter’s] vulnerability to conspiracy theory was recently published by the Globe and Mail (Simpson, 2015) Conservative Party president John Walsh apparently penned a letter to potential donors saying:

[…] you’re seeing the professional Harper critics and left-wing press pundits striving to pre-dispose public opinion and shape the post-debate public reaction their way – long before the First word is spoken!

Simpson argued that the Conservative Party is unique in that it not only criticizes other parties, it systematically peddles the idea that “elist” institutions are conspiring to harm their party and ideology.

It is true that the Conservative Party’s base tactics have caused millions of people to oppose them. The electorate in a democracy expects the press to criticize the government when they see fit. The Conservative Party’s insinuation that journalists and editors have a hidden agenda to criticize the Harper Conservatives is to stoke conspiracy ideation.

The Conservative Party’s conspiracy theories are particularly irresponsible because cognitive science suggests that once a conspiracy theory sets in, it is particularly difficult to dislodge. Furthermore, it makes its believers more susceptible to further conspiracy ideation.

Instilling ideation against sources of knowledge, however, is an extremely dangerous form of conspiracy theorizing. This type of conspiracy theory is what Stanovich calls “parasitic mindware”. It deceives the host into believing that it is helpful. It has what Stanovich calls “evaluation-disabling properties”.It debilitates the mind. Basically, it can cause the infected mind to reject helpful journalistic knowledge. What happens to society in general and to individual minds in particular when good journalism, and scientifically based publications are discarded? Thus, the Conservative Party’s fund raising propaganda further closes the mind of the [Conservative supporter].

Transfer of Knowledge

From my chapter:

A particularly important aspect of meta-effectiveness (the ability and dispositions to use knowledge to become more effective) is the ability to “transfer” knowledge from one case to a relevantly similar case. Ample research demonstrates that transfer of knowledge is very difficult for most people (see Cognitive Productivity). However, in many cases, once the similarity between the source case and the target is cued or explained, people quickly get it.

I suspect transfer failure frequently plays out in elections, this one in particular.

I have alluded to examples of this above, and will consider only one example explicitly: Watergate and the Duffy affair. Imagine a voter watching All the Presidents Men, which dramatizes Watergate, and then being exposed to a comparison between Richard Nixon and Stephen Harper. Would this help them to make the connection? And would the connection motivate them to change their voting intention? By what processes would some discard the association? This real world experiment would be fascinating because, unlike other experiments on transfer, it taps deeply into affective mechanisms.

It is interesting to note a possible transfer failure in progressive and conservative minds here. Comparisons with Watergate have been made. But I have yet to read the risk of blackmail being mooted. The Watergate coverup made Nixon vulnerable to blackmail. Nixon paid people to keep them quiet. Given the documented contradictions in the PMO’s account of the Duffy affair, it is likely that people at the top of the PMO are susceptible to blackmail attempts or implicit blackmail by people “in the know” for publicly misrepresenting their handling of the Mike Duffy affair. Suppose a PMO employee, even a chief of staff, is known by the PMO to have evidence that the PMO broke the law or lied to the House about the Duffy affair. How easily could he or she be fired? If a hostile foreign agent is privy to damning evidence—a goal of espionage—could they use it to blackmail a member of the PMO? Does this pose a threat to a key conservative value, national security?

I do not mean to propose a conspiracy theory. However, we are not merely in the realm of plausibility. The court records already contain grave inconsistencies about the PMO’s account. Given the three classic laws of thought, someone at a very high level of the PMO is not telling the truth. The psychologist’s task here is to explain what is happening “under the hood” (in the mind) of a voter who initially feels Nixon and his cohort were worthy of his expulsion from office and yet forgives egregious behavior in the PMO.

In some Conservative minds, the similarity between the Duffy affair and Watergate will be noted but rejected, perhaps countered by transfer from other cases. For example, Harper Conservatives might be focus on examples of dubious behavior from previous Liberal governments (that progressives in their opinion fail to highlight), perhaps resigning to a cynical position that all politicians are rotten but that the Harper Conservatives are the least objectionable. Or they might claim (as even progressive have) that the Duffy affair is not in the same league as Watergate. Each of these alternatives involves some measure of undervaluing critical evidence against a vote, particularly in light of the preponderance of unparalleled egregious behavior of the Harper Government.

See Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective for a discussion of transfer of knowledge and a compendium of tips to promote the application of knowledge.

Concluding Remarks

It would be natural and easy enough in a post on this topic to invoke the usual list of cognitive biases, and to focus on cognitive dissonance. We are certainly all prone to such biases, and they are certainly operative at voting time. I agree with Lilienfeld, Ammirati & Landfield (2009) that (a) the dismantling of cognitive biases is a critically important research topic; and (b) there are many potential barriers to such debiasing.

One of the major problems we are concerned with here at CogZest is meta-effectiveness: the motivation and abilities to use knowledge to become a more effective person. Voting is interesting and difficult because it requires that one apply a very large amount of knowledge towards a very specific behavior in the light of considerable uncertainty and manipulative, often mendacious signaling from political agents. In a previous post), I have provided examples of how the strategies presented in Cognitive Productivity can be applied to political information processing.

I will echo the panel that spoke on last week’s CBC News Network’s Power & Politics episode, when Andrew Coyne, Michele Hebert and Bruce Anderson answered questions from a young audience seeking voting advice. They suggested to focus on values.

As I mentioned in the introduction, there has been an unprecedented expression of revulsion against the current prime minister over his attacks on our multicultural society, the justice system, parliament and the government itself. These concerns have been substantiated by a wide array of journalists and scholars. Let me therefore end with a quote from Winston Churchill.

Let not [the failure to say “No“] be the epitaph of the English-speaking peoples or of Parliamentary democracy […] There, in one single word, is the resolve which the forces of freedom and progress, of tolerance and good will, should take.
Winston Churchill, 16 October 1938, The Defence of Freedom and Peace (The Lights are Going Out)


Thanks to several anonymous reviewers for comments on a prior draft of this document. However, I take sole responsibility for this essay. The views represented in this essay are my own; they do not represent the views of any of the institutions to which I am affiliated.

Disclosure. — I am a Canadian citizen, knowledge worker, investor, and mortal Earthling, and as such I, too, stand to benefit from the defeat of the Harper Government.


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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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