The science of how liberals differ from conservatives

January 11, 2012 | By | 10 Replies More

Chris Mooney has presented “seven recent scientific studies showing that liberals and conservatives differ in ways that go far beyond their philosophies or views on politics. We’re talking about things like physiological responses when shown different kinds of words or images, and performance in neuroscience tests.”

I applaud these efforts. I hope we will see many more studies to come, and that they will shed substantial additional light on why liberals and conservatives see the world so differently. Mooney aptly sums up the promise of this scientific effort:

[T]he next time a Republican denies global warming, liberals ought to be better able to check the impulse to say “what an idiot!” and instead say something like, “I can understand why they have that kind of a response.”

Amen to that, based on the long sad track record of what happens when one group of people barks that out group members are “idiots.” We’ve been intensely doing that for at least the past decade, and that strategy only gets us increasingly pissed off at each other. It doesn’t lead to any fruitful understanding. It doesn’t allow us to work with each other to achieve the many common goals we can agree on.

Here is an earlier post I had written on this topic of applying science to understand differences between conservatives and liberals, concerning a study by Jay Dixit, Frank Sulloway et al.

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Category: cognitive biases, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (10)

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  1. Jim Razinha says:

    A political Myers-Briggs? (Still don’t like those labels.)

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jim: These are actually much more detailed, it seems (I’ve read only the summaries). It seems that there are many traits that seem to correlate meaningfully with political leanings. I’d like to see a lot more of these studies. Maybe we can determine why so many of us disagree with each other in a way that punctures tired rhetoric.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      I meant every time someone has presented M-B to me, the reasoning behind it (and other profiles) has been so the group better understands each other to work better together. Maybe that works for some, but from my observations and experience, only those “some” who place stock the results. I’m not “some” – I don’t someone’s test scores to work with them (if they are difficult, I have a hunch the scores are skewed anyway.)

      Another thing about surveys and studies: as with therapy and counseling, people won’t change unless they want to, even if they have a better understanding of the opposition. And I think the disagreement and tired rhetoric prevent people from accepting the study results without skepticism.

      Still, I’m interested in the studies.

  2. Xtech says:

    Interesting studies. That conservatives are motivated by fear, due to early in life emotionally traumatic experiences, fits with my personal experience of conservatives. The overly developed vigiliance of conservatives to threats from strangers, outsiders, aberrant ideologies and lifestyles has always seemed out of proportion to me. In psychology they would be described as low on the scale of openness to experience.

    Perhaps though, those of us who are liberal in outlook, who view with curiosity and openness those who are different, requires a confidence and sense of security that is in fact a privilege to have.

    I say this because those I know who perceive themselves to be on the front lines in life – my brother the former Marine; my cousin the commercial airline pilot who now carries a gun to work and is trained to use it against the inevitable (in his mind) Middle Eastern man who is going to attempt to break down the thin titanium cockpit door; my brother in law who is in law enforcement, and whose job requires he be constantly suspicious of the very worst that humans can be – are quite conservative in political views. They also hold a very bleak view of humanity.

    What I am asking is: do we liberals need to credit our conservative brothers and cousins who keep us safe from the threats (real and merely perceived) for the lives of relative safety that allow us to extend welcome to and understanding of ‘the other,’ fearlessly and with openness to new experience?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Xtech: I think this is an excellent question. Just like they say there are no atheists in foxholes (though I don’t really believe this), perhaps there aren’t many in those “front line positions. I’ll offer an anecdote. A friend of mine runs the legal department of a juvenile court. He/she has seen many a liberal-minded social worker join the court only to quickly change upon seeing dysfunctional family after dysfunctional family. The quiet talk among many liberal social workers is that we need to sterilize the parents who are convicted of harming their own children through abuse or neglect, even though most of these social workers would have been loath to say this sort of thing before joining the juvenile court. What it takes is seeing 11 kids from the same family all coming through the same juvenile court, year after year.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I’m certain I’ve commented on this somewhere in the past, (maybe even on DI), but I sometimes wonder if there are genetic traits that favor liberalism or conservatism.

    Consider this:

    In many isolated cultures, particularly in tropical regions, food was plentiful, the main threat to human life was storms, volcanic eruptions and such. In many of these places, the people survived by planning ahead, by working together, and by having a sense of community.

    In other places, where food shortages were common, the best hope for survival lie in imitating the close hierarchy of a wolf pack, attacking and raiding the neighboring groups. In these societies, survival became dependent on quick and decisive actions, individual strength and a strong sense of entitlement as well as materialism, and a winner-take-all competitiveness.

    In the first case, individuals attempting to dominate the tribe would be ostracized of leave on their own accord, reducing the chance of forwarding their genes to a child.

    In the latter case, someone who did fit in would be considered weak, and enslaved or killed, removing them from the gene pool.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus: It is striking that the American south is strongly conservative and the coasts tend to be liberal. The problem is that no one has inhabited those regions long enough to cause any genetic adaptation.

      Jonathan Haidt has offered an explanation for why areas with a lot of influx and out-go of people (coastal areas tend to be these, with more immigrants and generally more people coming and going) tend to to focus more on only two of his five foundations for moral decision-making. Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity.

      Looking at the entire range of human societies, the statistically “normal” human society is built upon all five foundations. It is modern liberalism (not the “continent” of all other cultures) which requires a special explanation. Why is it that in a minority of human cultures the moral domain has shrunk? How did it come to pass that in much of Europe, and in some parts of the United States, moral concerns have been restricted to issues related to harm/welfare/care and justice/rights/fairness? We believe that a team of historians and sociologists could easily tell such a story, probably involving references to the growth of free markets, social mobility, science, material wealth, and ethnic and religious diversity. Mobility and diversity make a morality based on shared valuation of traditions and institutions quite difficult (Whose traditions? Which institutions?). These factors help explain the electoral map of the United States in the 2004 presidential election. When viewed at the county level, the great majority of counties that voted for John Kerry are near major waterways, where ports and cities are usually located and where mobility and diversity are greatest. Areas with less mobility and less diversity generally have the more traditional five-foundation morality, and therefore were more likely to vote for George W. Bush – and to tell pollsters that their reason was “moral values.”

      http://dangerousintersection.org/2007/07/07/why-conservatives-and-liberals-talk-past-each-other-on-moral-issues/

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Not genetic, but perhaps memetic. And in the south (and west, such as Colorado), I’ll offer the ubiquitous megachurches – well, church on every corner, whether mega or not – as significant cultural sources of {negative?} memes.

  4. Xtech says:

    “Looking at the entire range of human societies, the statistically “normal” human society is built upon all five foundations. It is modern liberalism (not the “continent” of all other cultures) which requires a special explanation. Why is it that in a minority of human cultures the moral domain has shrunk? How did it come to pass that in much of Europe, and in some parts of the United States, moral concerns have been restricted to issues related to harm/welfare/care and justice/rights/fairness? We believe that a team of historians and sociologists could easily tell such a story, probably involving references to the growth of free markets, social mobility, science, material wealth, and ethnic and religious diversity. Mobility and diversity make a morality based on shared valuation of traditions and institutions quite difficult (Whose traditions? Which institutions?). These factors help explain the electoral map of the United States in the 2004 presidential election. When viewed at the county level, the great majority of counties that voted for John Kerry are near major waterways, where ports and cities are usually located and where mobility and diversity are greatest. Areas with less mobility and less diversity generally have the more traditional five-foundation morality, and therefore were more likely to vote for George W. Bush – and to tell pollsters that their reason was “moral values.” ”

    Liberalism is a Johnny-Come-Lately according to this, a hot house flower that thrives in the rare soils of Western Europe and the coasts of the US – where one is more likely to find educated cosmopolitan inhabitants. Yes the questions raised by multicultural living indeed are difficult – “whose traditions? Which institutions?” as Haidt says above. But the increasing urbanization and mobility of the world’s increasing population will compel us all to tackle those questions, as this is the wave of the future. Reaction is inevitable, and I would guess that we will see increasing anti-intellectualism and xenophobia among those who are being left behind by these trends. And who is being left behind? The traditional societies of those who remain in the countryside, of those who cannot or will not get education. In our country, I will guess that those would include suburbanites in their enclaves, and blue-collar workers.

    So there is understanding to be gained by studying the way conservatives think and why, but in my opinion it is basically a peek into the past. There are evolutionary reasons why we are motivated by Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, but Authority, Ingroup and Purity, the signature moral concerns of conservatives, are suited to a society that increasingly does not exist any more. Conservatives will have to adapt to the reality of our changing world and the process will continue to involve a lot of resistance and conflict.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Y’all missed my point.

    I’m not saying there is a conservative or a liberal gene. If you consider that American conservatives (they are conservative in the social sense, and liberal in the fiscal sense), have a preference for strict social order, leaders who make quick decisions often on insufficient information, and rationalizations that claim credit for all things good while blaming out groups for all things bad, the you might begin to see my hypothesis.

    The conservative view is militaristic, competitive, hierarchal and xenophobic.

    American liberals are co-operative, collaborative, individualistic and anything but xenophobic.

    Throughout world history are accounts of explorers from structured cultures encountering people from collaborative cultures: Cook’s description of the Hawaiian natives, Columbus’ observations on the natives in the new world, and so on. To me, this suggests the possibility that some of the emotional and mental characteristics favoring the adoption of conservative or liberal views may be genetic.

    Erich, demographic distribution actually favors the idea of genetic influence on the acceptance of ideologies. Places with a large influx of foreigners with great cultural diversity, such as coastal areas, major trade centers, and “melting pot cities” are fundamentally stressful conservatives, who react by either attempting to force their ideology on others or by seeking out more defensible locations.

    People with the characteristics favoring liberalism, are comfortable in large diverse populations. Major population centers are on the coasts and major waterways.

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