Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Explaining the Conservative Mind: Are You Born With It?

What determines our political orientation? The question transcends mere party identification. It speaks to our value system and moral compass. It helps us distinguish right from wrong, good from malevolent public policy; it determines the role we believe government has in society, the relationship between ourselves and the state, and to whom we owe our deepest allegiance.

It has a special resonance for me, as someone who was raised conservative but became progressive. The ideological difference between my family and myself is truly remarkable and the distance I have traveled since childhood more remarkable still. The question I am left with is why I and a few other family members made this transition, whereas the rest of my family did not.

In matters of politics and public policy, many ideologies compete for dominance in a democratic system, but there are two broadly-defined political personalities that orient one's thinking on almost every policy issue: conservative (or traditionalist) and liberal (or progressive).

What distinguishes these orientations? Broadly speaking, conservatives value tradition and authority, ingroup loyalty and respect, sanctity and purity; liberals value collective care, equity and fairness. These orientations are supported by distinct belief systems and even moral universes.

UC Berkeley Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science George Lakoff argues in Don't Think of an Elephant that liberal and conservative mindsets are gendered frames. In this formulation, the conservative frame is that of a tough but fair disciplinarian father--punishing those who fail and rewarding those who succeed. By contrast, the liberal frame is that of a nurturing and caring mother who shields all her children from harm. The frames explain why, for instance, conservatives might give more resources to the stronger than the weaker members of society--acting otherwise would skew the moral incentives in society, encouraging sloth and degenerate living. For liberals, on the other hand, the weakest members of society are those who most need a helping hand, so greater resources are directed to the poor and needy so that they have a chance to improve their lot. In this way, society is also made more equitable. Lakoff is quick to note that most people use both frames in their lives, depending on the circumstances. But conservatives emphasize the strict father frame in matters of politics and public policy, whereas liberals draw on the nurturing mother frame.

But what leads some people to gravitate more to the disciplinarian conservative frame than the nurturing liberal frame?

University of Virginia professor of psychology, Jonathan Haidt summarizes the current state of psychological research on the conservative mind:

conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity"—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

In this view, the moral system favored by conservatives appeals greatly to people who are fearful of change and prone to authoritarian thinking styles.

So how deep do these personality traits go? A team of scientists from UCLA and NYU published the results of an experiment in Nature Neuroscience showing that self-identified conservative and liberal students displayed different cognitive behavior patterns in computer simulations. Thus, liberal students proved far more sensitive to cues for switching response patterns, whereas conservative students tended to filter out the cues as distracting information. They conclude that the cognitive styles of self-reported conservatives were more "structured and persistent," whereas those of liberals showed "greater tolerance for conflict and ambiguity," suggesting they were "more open to new experiences." Similarly, a 2003 review of psychological research on self-identified conservatives across a number of countries concludes that individuals tend to adopt conservative ideologies "to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity; and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals." In short, people who gravitate toward conservative ideologies tend to be psychologically motivated by the need to manage uncertainty and fear.

But why does conservatism tend to run in families? Are some families more fearful than others? If so, is this innate or learned? And which came first--conservatism or the social cognitive need for conservatism?

A fascinating study published in the American Political Science Review in 2005 suggests that, to some extent, conservative and liberal orientations are heritable. The study reported the results of twin studies showing that monozygotic twins (those who share 100 percent of their genetic material) were far more likely to have the same attitudes on a range of political issues than dizygotic twins (those who share 50 percent of their genetic material), controlling for having been raised together or separately and a whole host of other factors.

Still, this does not explain my case. The authors of the 2005 study are clear that genetics only account for a piece of the puzzle, but then what explains the rest? Since both sides of my family are heavily right-wing, it would have to have been some seriously recessive liberal gene. Otherwise, the explanation lies elsewhere.

I find the reearch of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) helpful in this respect. Building on the authoritarian personality thesis, Canadian Psychologist Bob Altemeyer innovated RWA and refined an index to measure it in the 1980s (if you haven't done so, I recommend taking his RWA test). His argument was that conservative is strongly correlated with high scores of RWA, which consists of three broad traits: (1) submissiveness to established authority figures, (2) aggressiveness directed against social deviants, and (3) conformism with accepted traditions and social norms. He cautions that not all those with high RWA scores are conservative and not all conservatives have high RWA scores; moreover, many RWA types are not politically active at all. However, there is a strong correlation between the two.

What I find interesting about his argument is its social learning component. In his extensive testing of university students, he finds that entering university students tend to have higher RWA scores than leaving students, suggesting that exposure to people from diverse backgrounds, grappling with foreign ideas, and being encouraged to think critically tends to reduce conformism and increase social, religious and ideological tolerance toward others.

The upshot is that exposure to foreign people, ideas, attitudes, and philosophies tends to increase one's tolerance for ambiguity and conflict as well as openness to new experience...which in turn correlates with liberal ideologies. Which is exactly my story.

On the downside, Pew Research surveys consistently show that conservatives and religious right-wingers tend to be happier than the rest of us.

Son of a bitch.

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