Studies purporting to establish why conservatives and so-called progressives think they way they do have been all the rage of late, with brain scans and the like alleged to have established that political orientation is influenced as much by biology as reason. An interesting notion, it is well worth a closer look
According to lots of politico-psychological studies, conservatives are less open-minded or, alternatively speaking, more closed-minded or dogmatic than progressives. As a conservative (full disclosure), am I a stick-in-the-mud? It is difficult to say because I’m trying to assess it and might not be best positioned to form an objective view. I have some conservative friends. I tend to think that they have, shall we say, settled views. Is this evidence of conservative closed-mindedness? Well, it’s a small sample. I also have a small sample of progressive friends. I tend to think they too have settled views. In fact, I find that everyone I know has mostly settled views. To look at it the other way: how many people have you met who have changed their minds on any profound political question? Not many, I bet.
I will switch interchangeably between using the terms “right” and “conservative” and “left” and “progressive”. Of course, the postmodern leftists of today are not the cloth-cap socialists of yesteryear fighting for workers’ rights. They have evolved, certainly since Saul Alinsky wrote his Rules for Radicals in 1973. My progressive friends, all of an age, are not a close match with my dad and his union mates. Though I sometimes think they haven’t spotted the profound change in the ideology to which they cling.
I have to admit to being on the left in my early adult years. Shameful, I know. But I am one of those relative few who saw a light glimmering to my right in the distance. I was helped to make the journey to enlightenment by Hayek via directions from Professor Geoffrey Harcourt. He was my post-graduate supervisor at Adelaide. He is a dying breed: someone of the academic left who acknowledges, at least he did at the time, that thinking right is not wickedly aberrant.
I want to have another look at this personality trait of “openness”, as it bears on political ideology. It is one of the “big five” personality traits according to psychologists. The others are conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It is worth mentioning that numbers of studies point to conservatives being more conscientious than progressives. I won’t say more about this because, so far as I can tell, nobody else does.
I will also go a little further than looking at whether conservatives and progressives fit into different personality types. To borrow the style of Daniel Kahneman’s nomenclature in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, I want to reconsider the mystery of why some people think left and others right. As part of doing that I will conjecture about something that looks very much like impatience among progressives. Now, beyond some threshold, impatience is one facet of neuroticism. I will leave that alone as being a step too far. I will, however, comment on the tendency of impatience to lower cognitive ability as a prelude to considering the clashing way progressives and conservatives weigh and make decisions. I claim no breakthrough. My goal is the modest one of imparting a fresh perspective in an effort to trigger a bout of slow (that is, deliberative) thinking.
A biological experiment at the University College London, apparently inspired by the actor Colin Firth, caused a stir at the beginning of 2011. Firth was reported as saying that he just wanted to find out what was biologically wrong with people who didn’t agree with him. There is no prize for guessing which way the actor leans. A paper detailing the experiment was published later the same year in Current Biology (Vol. 21, No. 8). The brains of ninety students were scanned. A correlation was uncovered between being left- or right-wing and the size of particular parts of the brain.
A statistically significant positive correlation was found between those thinking right and the size of their amygdalae. The amygdala is thought to be responsible for feelings of emotions such as anger, fear and sadness. It also stores memories of events and emotional responses and therefore allows you to think fast when, say, a speeding car is heading your direction. Its size is positively correlated with aggression. On the other side, a significant positive correlation was found between those thinking left and the size of their anterior cingulate cortexes. The pertinent role of this area of the brain is to regulate emotions.
I don’t get the impression that any of this is “settled science”, to use a recently popularised term. But, let’s take it at face value. Those on the right respond emotionally and angrily. Those on the left keep their emotions in check. Other things equal, which side would you want to be on? We also know what happens when we let our emotions get the better of us in debates. We become more entrenched in our views, more dogmatic, less open-minded. And, it should be noted, the researchers replicated their experiment with a separate group of twenty-eight students and got the same results.
It seems, therefore, that we who think right have relatively large amygdalae and are prone to aggression and dogmatism. This is not a happy state of affairs to contemplate. I reject it out of hand and angrily to boot. Is there hope, I ponder, once my amygdala-fuelled anger has subsided. Well, not much, if most of the psychological studies are to be believed. Note, for example, Professor John Jost of New York University, the leading light in the field of political psychology, writing in American Psychologist (October 2006): “Research suggests that conservatives are often prone to expedient, close-minded, and authoritarian solutions.” However, before guilt and self-censuring among conservatives takes hold, all is not settled. Some recent research puts a new light on old results.
The received psychological wisdom about left and right thinkers started with a “dogmatism scale” developed by Milton Rokeach in 1960—The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems. Rokeach defined dogmatism, intelligibly if not pithily, as “a relatively closed cognitive system of beliefs and disbeliefs about reality, organised around a set of beliefs about absolute authority which, in turn, provides a framework for patterns of intolerance and qualified tolerance towards others”. Thereafter, psychological experiment after experiment showed that conservatives were more dogmatic than progressives when measured against Rokeach’s scale.
It is said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. This aphorism should always be uppermost in our (sceptical) minds whenever being presented with statistical evidence. Such evidence is often misleading. Results turn on the state of knowledge, conscious and unconscious biases, construction of the experiments, the choice of variables and the slant of questions being asked to extract data.
For example, if a random group of people were simply asked whether same-sex couples should be discriminated against, almost certainly and hopefully, outside of Islamic states, the predominant answer would be no. As we know, the numbers get closer if people are asked whether same-sex couples should be discriminated against in being allowed to marry and would undoubtedly switch the other way if people were asked whether ministers of religion should be allowed to refuse to marry such couples. The question matters. This, of course, is common knowledge. Yet, so often, the published results of surveys and experiments are gobbled up as unvarnished fact.
Enter Professor Lucian Conway of the University of Montana together with six others. Their research challenges the received wisdom. “Are conservatives really more simple-minded than liberals,” they ask (Political Psychology, Vol. 37, 2016). Their answer is no, though they are unwilling, as it were, to be dogmatic about it. Don’t worry about the use of the term “simple-minded”. This is contrasted with complex-minded, which by extension, connotes the relative absence of dogmatism. Their thesis is that Rokeach’s dogmatism scale has biases within it by including components like religion and national defence for which conservatives have stronger feelings. Stronger feelings can be read as dogmatism.
Just suppose that Conway et al are right. Almost sixty years of expert psychological testing has been undertaken with a biased scale. Perforce, conclusions that conservatives are closed-minded and progressives open-minded are all suspect. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Ergo, expect challenges, not recantations.
Conway et al took components of Rokeach’s dogmatism scale but, critically, made them domain-specific rather than general as in the original scale. I will give a sample to illustrate the method. Participants were identified as being either conservative or progressive (“liberal” in the paper). In accordance with standard practice they would, for example, have been asked “whether a group which tolerates too much difference of opinion among its own members cannot exist for too long”. Instead they were asked to comment on the statements: (1) “A religious group which tolerates too much difference of opinion among its own members cannot exist for too long” and (2) “An environmental group which tolerates too much difference of opinion among its own members cannot exist for too long.” It was found that while conservatives where less open-minded about religion than were progressives, they were more open-minded about the environment.
Separate studies were conducted on accommodating conflicting points of view and on the complexity of responses. As before, the subject matter determined whether conservatives or progressives were more or less accommodative or responded more or less complexly. On complexity, the responses of George Bush and John Kerry in the three presidential debates in 2004 were studied. Bush, the supposed “simple-minded” conservative, spoke more complexly on religion, terrorism and homeland security, stem cells, healthcare and affirmative action as against Kerry speaking more complexly on Iraq, foreign policy, economic issues, abortion and education. Overall there was no discernible difference.
Another take on the issue was canvassed by Matthew Hudson in Politico on May 9, 2017. He referred to research presented to the annual meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology in January 2017. This showed that conservatives and progressives are equally intolerant of each other. “While liberals might like to think of themselves as more open-minded,” he wrote, “they are no more tolerant of people unlike them than their conservative counterparts are.” Seemingly, Hudson is providing cover for conservatives, as are a number of psychologists he quotes. I won’t be lulled. I don’t buy it. My observations sit totally at odds with conservatives and progressives being equally tolerant of each other. I can’t recall a mob of conservatives threatening a progressive speaker. I’m sure the media would have covered it.
How do you square the trashing and firebombing of the University of California, Berkeley, last year, when Milo Yiannopoulos was due to speak, with any tolerance at all for the opposing view or with well-relegated emotions befitting ownership of large anterior cingulate cortexes? It must be a psychological and biological puzzle for those wedded to the received wisdom. Ann Coulter, Charles Murray, David Horowitz, Dinesh D’Souza and Ben Shapiro are among many conservatives who have been uninvited to speak recently because of security concerns, or have been shouted down.
No, it is clear enough from common observation. Progressives are less tolerant of conservatives than conservatives are of progressives. I’m guessing but this might, in part at least, come down to the mob factor. Conservatives tend to be more individualistic than progressives. Try and get a bunch of them to demonstrate. Progressives more easily assemble. Assemblies can morph into mobs and normal human behaviour deteriorates. Though, as I will come to, the “virtuous” face of progressivism might also encourage a strident reaction to those holding contrary (to wit, “wicked”) views.
So far, I have looked at the supposed biological and personality make-up of conservatives and progressives. Of course, this will never be resolved no matter how much research is done. When partisan politics is involved debate is eternal. I want to turn to the way conservative and progressive positions play out on some defining matters. I think this provides further clues towards uncovering and understanding the different mindset of left and right thinkers. Take the economy as the first illustrative example.
I was talking to Geoff Hogbin (the author of Free to Shop, CIS, 1983) about the issue. He made, to my mind, an incisive comment. Why, he posed, if conservatives are stick-in-the muds do they embrace the primacy of markets governing the economy while the supposedly more adventurous progressives disdain market forces? Think about it, as I did. There has been no bigger driver of change in the world than competitive market forces. Stitched together with technological progress, they have produced revolutionary waves of profound change in the way people work and live, particularly in the industrial West. And it’s happening again.
Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, suggests that we are living through the fourth industrial revolution (Foreign Affairs, December 2015). He describes the first as steam power mechanising production; the second as electric power facilitating mass production; and the third as electronics and information technology automating production. The fourth he describes as the digital revolution (AI, robotics, 3-D printing and the like) “disrupting almost every industry in every country”. However described, the current industrial revolution is testimony to the power of competitive market forces in driving out the old and bringing in the new. Staid and painstakingly cautious conservatives embrace it, precisely because the institution of the market itself is tried and tested. There is no puzzle here.
In contrast, those supposedly more open to change at every turn are forever proposing impediments to market forces; the very forces which have been primarily responsibility over recent centuries for profound technological and economic advancement. Put sufficient curbs in place on market forces and ossification results—as in old Eastern Europe—as increasingly inefficient industrial processes are protected from competition. There is a puzzle here which I will try to resolve after a couple more illustrative examples of the different stance of conservatives and progressives.
Take same-sex marriage. I have heard it described offhandedly by one or two conservatives as an absurdity on its face. My thinking-fast self is sympathetic to that reaction but my studied objection to same-sex marriage is that its consequences have not been thought through. It seems reckless and foolhardy to me to make a profound change to a millennia-old foundational institution in the blink of an historical eye. To be clear, my objection is not religiously based. Am I being closed-minded? Clearly progressives would think that I am. They see benefits arising from allowing same-sex couples to enjoy the same status as heterosexual couples. They summarily dismiss the possibility of adverse consequences; certainly, when weighed against the immediate gains for same-sex couples.
Take affirmative action as a final example. Conservatives object to affirmative action because it implicitly discriminates against those who might otherwise succeed on merit and because it potentially promotes those whose talents fall short of those required to excel or even get the job done properly. Meritocracy is a core conservative principle. There is biblical support which has, arguably, informed our Judeo-Christian civilisation: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly” (Leviticus 19:15). Progressives support affirmative action because it gives a lift to those groups that they see as having been systematically disadvantaged. The strategy of working to provide, so far as is possible, equal opportunities for all is regarded as being too slow to produce the desired effect. There is a perceived urgency to tilt the playing field to advantage women and people from minority ethnic groups.
What do these examples say about the conservative and progressive mindset? It is useful to go back to the domain-specific model employed by Conway et al—but, in this case, to focus on the very broad domain of institutional change. It is self-evident, almost definitional, without the need for surveys and studies, that conservatives are reluctant to overturn or make profound changes to well-established institutional arrangements. Here is Jonah Goldberg (in Liberal Fascism, 2007) on the subject: “what the conservative understands is that progress comes from working out inconsistencies within our tradition, not by throwing it away”. In contrast, there would appear to be no corresponding reluctance on the part of progressives to undo tradition in the cause of “progress”.
Accordingly, in the particular sense of embracing institutional change, it is clear that progressives are more open-minded than are conservatives. Supposed beneficial societal advances, such as more equal income and wealth, homosexual rights and improvements in the position of women and minorities, outweigh consideration of longer-term consequences which might flow from undoing traditional institutions and mores. This can be characterised, I suggest, as a species of “impatience”.
Impatience is not always a bad thing when set against prevailing institutional arrangements. No one these days believes that slavery or child labour were got rid of precipitately or that women’s suffrage came too soon. Probably developments like the universal availability of socialised medicine to supplement private medicine and the provision of old-age pensions could be added to a mix of desirable changes brought about by impatience with the institutional status quo.
What this means is that conservatives are not always right in upholding existing institutional arrangements or progressives wrong in wanting to overturn them. Conservatives can be too stick-in-the-mud. At the same time, impatience is fraught with risk. By definition, too little time is allowed to explore consequences. Moreover, there is evidence that impatience itself—a species of Kahneman’s “thinking fast”—lowers cognitive ability.
Thomas Dohmen, Professor of Microeconomics at the University of Bonn, headed a large-sample intertemporal study of adults in Germany in 2005. The results are captured in a report titled, “Are Risk Aversion and Impatience Related to Cognitive Ability?” It was found that “individuals with higher cognitive ability … are significantly more patient”. J.H. Lozano et al found that “impulsivity was negatively related to academic performance and intelligence” (Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 61–62, 2014). Paolo Russo et al found that “impulsivity exerts a disadvantageous influence on the performance of tasks … in which exclusive concentration and sustained attention are necessary” (International Journal of Psychophysiology, Vol. 69, 2008). There are many studies showing similar results.
I don’t want to make too much of this and am certainly not saying that progressives have lower cognitive ability (intelligence) than conservatives. Perish the thought. What I am saying is that acting without due cognisance of consequences mirrors a symptom of lower cognitive ability. On the whole, it is reasonable to think that this leads to more wrong decisions than result from thinking and acting deliberatively. Let me take an educated shot in the dark. I don’t believe it’s wide of the mark. I suggest that what mirrors impatience among progressives is a mode of thinking informed by a series of “moral axioms”. These axioms act to short-cut deliberative thinking. I will list a version of some of them. You will recognise them, I think, in substance, if not in the precise form I give them.
A woman has a right to decide what to do with her own body. Refugees must be treated humanely. People should not face discrimination because of their gender, race or sexual preference. People who have suffered past injustices because of their gender, race or sexual preference are entitled to a helping hand. Western colonial history contains many instances of the oppression of indigenous peoples for which reparations may be justified. Children should be taught to respect different cultural norms. People are entitled to a fair deal at the workplace. It is iniquitous for a few to get very rich while many remain very poor. The planet must be protected and nurtured. Hate speech is obnoxious.
As they stand, it’s hard to reject these beguiling and virtuous axioms. For those holding to them they are elemental to a just society. It’s not hard to imagine some “true believers” reacting stridently towards “heretics”. Hence conservatives require beefed-up security at their speaking events. It’s also not hard to imagine life being made difficult for conservatives in academia and in segments of the media. If you are “wicked” you deserve what you get. I will sum up.
It appears that conservatives are not less open-minded than are progressives when mapped against different subject areas. At the same time, it is self-evident that conservatives are less open to undoing traditional institutional arrangements than are progressives. Progressives prioritise what they regard as progress over tradition. I have surmised that they are driven by an appetite to satisfy numbers of moral axioms which, taken together, are thought to underpin “social justice”.
Conservatives dispense with the qualifier “social” in front of justice and this leads them into the world of individuals and consequences. This world is complex. It doesn’t lend itself to short-cuts. To illustrate, giving particular groups preference can disadvantage others. Women’s rights can be at the expense of millions of aborted babies. Sympathy for refugees can open the door to uncontrolled border crossings. And collateral damage doesn’t stop at the first pass. Consequences build on consequences, which conservatives find impossible to put aside and out of mind.
Thinking left and thinking right occupy different time horizons. One is intent on pressing ahead regardless. The other is filled with concern about the lives of our grandchildren, so to speak. No accommodation is possible. Bipartisanship is a flight of fancy. Confrontation is inevitable. Those occupying what they think to be the moral high ground are bound to turn on those standing in their way. We are seeing a taste of this demonstrated in the silencing and bullying of conservative academics and commentators. It is the taste of fascism, which Jonah Goldberg has exposed on a larger canvas.
Peter Smith is a frequent contributor. He wrote the article “Robotic Reductio ad Absurdum” in the January-February issue.