"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Liberal vs. Conservative Brains

An article in the Washington Post (4.15.12) discusses the differences in the way conservatives and liberals think.  They don’t simply view the issues differently, but have a completely different psychological makeup, the author argues.  Liberals tend to have an open view of the world in which they are willing to consider new ideas, experiences, and perspectives; while conservatives are more closed and tend to come to conclusions more easily and quickly because for them the decision-making process is framed within a pre-existing belief system. There is no point in debating abortion, conservatives would say, because it is murder, a God-given injunction.  Liberals, on the other hand, consider the issue from a constitutional, biological, equal rights perspective.

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Liberals and conservatives have access to the same information, yet they hold wildly incompatible views on issues ranging from global warming to whether the president was born in the United States…
These things do not make sense — unless you view them through the lens of political psychology. There’s now a large body of evidence showing that those who opt for the political left and those who opt for the political right tend to process information in divergent ways and to differ on any number of psychological traits.
Perhaps most important, liberals consistently score higher on a personality measure called “openness to experience,” one of the “Big Five” personality traits, which are easily assessed through standard questionnaires. That means liberals tend to be the kind of people who want to try new things, including new music, books, restaurants and vacation spots — and new ideas.
Another aspect of the difference in processing information is the need for closure – conservatives seem to want to cloture debate on issues more quickly than liberals, for, largely because of their belief-based decision-making process, have little use for sorting through complex multi-sided arguments:
Now consider another related trait implicated in our divide over reality: the “need for cognitive closure.” This describes discomfort with uncertainty and a desire to resolve it into a firm belief. Someone with a high need for closure tends to seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information. Those who have this trait can also be expected to spend less time processing information than those who are driven by different motivations, such as achieving accuracy.
A number of studies show that conservatives tend to have a greater need for closure than do liberals, which is precisely what you would expect in light of the strong relationship between liberalism and openness. “The finding is very robust,” explained Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychologist who has pioneered research in this area and worked to develop a scale for measuring the need for closure.
While the author correctly frames the difference – conservatives are more apt to decide issues on the basis of a pre-existing belief system – this is only part of the story.  Economics is the other.  Consider, for example, the fact that conservatives are themselves divided into two wildly different camps – the Wall Street bankers, captains of industry, and intellectual columnists like George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and William Buckley; and the red-dirt Alabama farmer.  How could they both have the same desire for belief-based decision-making and the need for quick cognitive closure?  The answer is they do not, but the common thread between them is economics.

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Conservative politicians may trumpet the importance of  limited government because it frees the spirit of the individual, the little man; but they are really promoting the cause of the Eastern Establishment – the captains of industry who stand to benefit enormously from a political system with fewer government regulations, fewer taxpayer dollars flowing into inefficient bureaucratic and unnecessary public programs, and lower taxes on capital gains. 

However, it is the brilliance of the conservative political argument that it can appeal to individual liberty and freedom and resonate both with those voters far down the socio-economic chain and with the captains of industry.  How can it do both?  Appealing to the rich is easy, but what about the poor? Economists have known for decades that risk is related to economic stability.  People who live on the margins are unlikely to take economic risks, and therefore remain isolated in their traditional ways.

Indian farmers in the early days of the Green Revolution said no to new seeds and farming techniques.  They would prefer to farm as they had always done.  

These farmers were rejecting new information and experience and relying on an old belief system.   Nevertheless upon scrutiny it was very understandable.   They knew quite well what the new seed varieties could do, but the risk of failure, no matter how small, would mean ruin for them.  A farmer with capital was very different than a farmer with only labor.

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American conservatives now – as opposed to decades ago before when conservatism was reserved for the wealthy – are not necessarily well-off.  Ronald Reagan captured the votes of working class whites despite the fact that he was promoting big capitalism at their expense and changed the political landscape completely.  He did it thanks to his big, simple themes of patriotism, liberty, and Christian values.  Donald Trump has tapped into the resentment, frustration, and anger of lower-middle class Americans in a populist political movement.

It is easier for these relatively less well-off conservatives to vote their beliefs rather than see their taxpayer dollars disappear into a morass of byzantine public programs.  The Republicans are promising that citizens will be able to keep their money and not throw it away in Washington.  “Why risk the promise of public investments when we don’t have the disposable income to spend?”, ask these voters.  Of course the appeal to social values and Christian fundamental beliefs resonates as well, for it provides an acceptable rationale to voting for money.  Who wants to admit they are poor and voting for dollars when they can say they are voting for God?

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There is another important element of the political equation that the author of the article omits, and that is regional historical memory.  The South still hasn’t gotten over the Civil War nor the Civil Rights era and conservative voting patterns have a lot to do with a visceral and now habitual hatred of government.  From this perspective, there is absolutely no need to examine the intricacies of health care, welfare, or tax reform.  Get government out of our lives has been the rallying cry in the South for over 200 years.  This has little to do with the type of individual psychological patterns of openness or closed mindedness reported in the article; but a collective political consciousness reinforced over generations by families who are still in their ancestral homes.

Anyone travelling in the United States will quickly be exposed to all of the ‘irrational’ arguments suggested in the article and many more.  Before travelling East Coast residents might think that the ‘birther’ phenomenon is very much a fringe issue, hot in some remote enclaves in northern Idaho, but not very common.  However, one hears it all the time.

Although casual critics may assume that fundamentalist principles are held by a significant proportion of the American public, only when they see how they are at the core of social and political life, not just religious life, can they understand how they provide the context for conservative thinking.

If one believes that the Bible is the word of God, then there can be no debating issues of abortion or homosexuality; and there can only be a reflexive condemnation of liberal social trends. The real difference between liberals and conservatives is between logic and belief; and there is no point in arguing the case concerning currently contentious political issues on the basis of reason.  Reason is not the highest authority for everyone.

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Using the same themes of liberty, lower taxes, and smaller government, Republicans have formed a coalition of the super-rich and the working poor.  The thinking middle is left to liberal Democrats, and that majority is slowly shrinking.

Despite the author’s statement that both liberals and conservatives fall into non-thinking, assumptive conclusions, he is disingenuous.  He is clearly on the side of reason and logic, and the article is more about the pernicious influence of illogic, irrational belief, and foundational thinking than giving both sides a fair shake.

What is troubling for liberal-minded thinkers is that they have not yet fashioned a new world-view which will combine reason and belief.  It happened in the Sixties when rational experts concluded – if only eventually – that the war in Vietnam was wrong; and so did irrational, emotional, rabidly passionate young people who protested as much out of a plea for humanity, justice, and righteousness as out of intellectual conclusion.  These same young protesters were behind the civil rights movement which changed forever the condition of women, blacks, and gays.  It was a coalition of reason and belief.

Today there are only dry, practical arguments of reasonable balance – reduction in spending combined with an increase in taxation – but liberals are not passionate about any issue; and after the election of Donald Trump they only have something to rally against. 

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There is certainly no such thing as a physiological or structural difference in liberal and conservative brains; but a fundamental difference in the way they think, itself conditioned by history, economics, geography, family, and a thousand other environmentally conditioning factors.  That is enough to chew on.

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