If Men Were Angels: Policy Support At Denison

By Abigail Zofchak, emeritus 127er

Hello, old friends. Since I have started working on my Masters of Public Policy, I have thought a lot about how different types of individuals respond to certain policies. Creating public policy is a two-way street. It’s not just about what, but also about who. Can we better understand how an individual will feel about a certain policy if we know more about who they are? In thinking back to my Denison experience, there was a lot of debate about who dominated social life, academics, and extracurriculars. Does social dominance permeate how students feel about campus policies as well?

My nostalgia has brought me back to OneTwentySeven to look into this issue. Using data collected by Djupe’s senior seminar this past fall, I analyzed how social dominance is related to different campus policies.[1] The survey asked students how much they supported a variety of campus policies, including creating spaces for multicultural organizations and punishing hateful speech.

The social dominance orientation (SDO) is a measure that reflects an individual’s preference for hierarchy within society and domination over lower status groups. High SDO indicates that an individual is dominant, driven, seeks power, and prefers group-based hierarchical societies. You’re no doubt familiar with SDO since Oliver used it in a post on 2016 vote choice. But just in case you aren’t familiar, this is what the distribution of views of the four components looks like at Denison (see figure below). There is strong, but not unanimous support for the equality project (the last two items). And there is some equivocation about whether group hierarchy is expected and good (first two items).

About 9% of Denison students overall had high SDO scores while approximately 91% had low SDO scores. To no major surprise, Figure 1 below shows us that the 9% percent that have high SDO scores show less support for designating campus space to multicultural organizations. This reflects the preference that high SDO individuals have for maintaining a hierarchy between groups. But is this a just function of physical space? What about a policy that is less tangible?

Figure 1: Students with High SDO Show Lower Support for Designating Spaces for Multicultural Groups on Campus

OneTwentySeven has already looked at how Denison students feel about hate speech overall here, but what do students with high SDO think about a policy that would punish hate speech? In theory, anyone can engage in hate speech, but Figure 2 arguably reveals a pattern of ownership – high SDO students are less supportive of a policy that would punish hateful speech on campus. High SDO individuals prefer one or a small number of dominant and hegemonic groups at the top and one or a number of subordinate groups at the bottom. On the other hand, lower SDO individuals prefer greater equality between social groups in society and will be more likely to support policies that prevent any sort of degradation or aggression against individuals based on what social groups they identify with.

Figure 2 : Students with High SDO Show Lower Support for Punishing Hate Speech

Perhaps these patterns are a function of campus hierarchies. What does this mean for policy outside the Denison bubble? Do students with high SDO hold similar opinions on U.S. policy as they do campus policy? The survey asked students how much they support the following policies:

1: The US government must obtain a warrant before it can listen in on phone calls made by Americans who are suspected of being terrorists.

2: US government should be allowed to intercept Americans’ private emails to help protect national security.

3: The US government should require all airline passengers to undergo an extensive security screening before they can board an airplane.

Figure 3 shows that high SDO students actually prefer more government surveillance. While these students seem reluctant to support any campus policy that regulates social interaction and campus life, they do not seem to mind if the US Government is all up in their business. I believe this finding has something to do with policy proximity. Policy proximity is the idea that opinions differ on similar policies if one policy is likely to impact your daily life when the other policy will not – certainly they are not the sort that would be surveilled by government. Campus policies are closer to the lives of these students, while national security policies can be imagined from a distance and are not perceived to change their lives directly or be targeted at their group. So it makes more sense that high SDO students are not as hesitant to support US government surveillance.

Figure 3: Students with High SDO are Pro-Government Surveillance

It is important to note that the means for high SDO opinions on all of these policies hovered around “neither agree nor disagree.” There were not any findings to suggest that the high SDO students strongly oppose these policies. Rather, these findings highlight the reluctance of high SDO students to strongly support these policies while low SDO students showed very strong support for social regulatory campus policies (and opposition to government surveillance).

Although SDO is often used to predict an individual’s attitudes towards other groups in society, SDO scores might help us create better public policy in the future. Defining the problem is vital to creating the right solution. Looking into how SDO drives different processes involved in social interactions and group identities can better equip policy analysts to address problems of inequality, intolerance, and (combative?) group behavior. Having a better understanding of the problem upfront can help policymakers construct preventative policies instead of adaptive/reactive ones.

Abby Zofchak is a washed up Denison alum who is now working on her Masters of Public Policy at Duke University.


1. OneTwentySeven took a look at some of these results here.

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