Warm Southern Breeze

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Liberals & Conservatives: The difference really is in the way they think

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Monday, April 16, 2012

It’s been said that minds are much like books and parachutes.

They’re useless unless opened.

So, it seems evident that there really is something to be said about being “open minded.”

Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote differently. They think differently.

By Chris Mooney, Published: April 12

“Follow the money.” As a young journalist on the political left, I often heeded this well-worn advice. If conservatives were denying the science of global warming, I figured, big fossil-fuel companies must be behind it. After all, that was the story with the tobacco industry and the dangers of smoking. Why not here?

And so I covered the attacks on the established scientific knowledge on climate change, evolution and many more issues as a kind of search for the wealthy bad guys behind the curtain. Like many in Washington, I tended to assume that political differences are either about contrasting philosophies or, more cynically, about money and special interests.

There’s just one problem: Mounting scientific evidence suggests that this is a pretty limited way of understanding what divides us. And at a time of unprecedented polarization in America, we need a more convincing explanation for the staggering irrationality of our politics. Especially since we’re now split not just over what we ought to do politically but also over what we consider to be true.

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 to whether his stimulus package created any jobs. But it’s not just that: Partisanship creates stunning intellectual contortions and inconsistencies. Republicans today can denounce a health-care reform plan that’s pretty similar to one passed in Massachusetts by a Republican — and the only apparent reason is that this one came from a Democrat.

None of these things 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.

“Open people everywhere tend to have more liberal values,” said psychologist Robert McCrae, who conducted voluminous studies on personality while at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Conservatives, in contrast, tend to be less open — less exploratory, less in need of change — and more “conscientious,” a trait that indicates they appreciate order and structure in their lives. This gels nicely with the standard definition of conservatism as resistance to change — in the famous words of William F. Buckley Jr., a desire to stand “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’ ”

I call myself a liberal, so this description of openness resonates with me. But I think it’s vital for everyone to understand, and it needn’t be seen as threatening or a put-down; it seems to be part of the nature of politics.

We see the consequences of liberal openness and conservative conscientiousness everywhere — and especially in the political battle over facts. Liberal irrationalities tend toward the sudden, new and trendy, such as, say, subscribing to the now largely discredited idea that childhood vaccines cause autism. This assertion was tailor-made for plucking liberal heartstrings, activating a deeply felt need to protect children from harm, especially harm allegedly caused by big, rich drug companies.

But the claims about vaccine risks happened to be factually wrong. And how do we know? Scientists — who themselves lean liberal — debunked them. Over time, so did many other liberals. And in significant measure, it worked: There are still many people who cling to this inaccurate belief, but it is much, much harder these days to defend it, especially in the news media.

Compare this with a different irrationality: refusing to admit that humans are a product of evolution, a chief point of denial for the religious right. In a recent poll, just 43 percent of tea party adherents accepted the established science here. Yet unlike the vaccine issue, this denial is anything but new and trendy; it is well over 100 years old. The state of Tennessee is even hearkening back to the days of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, more than 85 years ago. It just passed a bill that will weaken the teaching of evolution.

Such are some of the probable consequences of openness, or the lack thereof.

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.

The trait is assessed based on responses to survey statements such as “I dislike questions which could be answered in many different ways” and “In most social conflicts, I can easily see which side is right and which is wrong.”

Anti-evolutionists have been found to score higher on the need for closure. And in the global-warming debate, tea party followers not only strongly deny the science but also tend to say that they “do not need any more information” about the issue.

I’m not saying that liberals have a monopoly on truth. Of course not. They aren’t always right; but when they’re wrong, they are wrong differently.

When you combine key psychological traits with divergent streams of information from the left and the right, you get a world where there is no truth that we all agree upon. We wield different facts, and hold them close, because we truly experience things differently.

The political psychological divide goes beyond science. Factual disputes over many issues feature the same dynamics: Does the health-care reform law contain “death panels”? Did the stimulus package create any jobs? Even American history is up for debate: Did the founders intend this to be a Christian nation?

However, there only is one reality — and we don’t get to discount it forever. And liberal-conservative differences are part of reality, too; inescapable, and increasingly difficult to deny.

Chris Mooney is the author of “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — and Reality.”

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5 Responses to “Liberals & Conservatives: The difference really is in the way they think”

  1. I as a republican don’t deny science. I embrace and have a major in it and have worked in a scientific field for a number of years. I appled “real science” as well as the Scientific Method to debunk global warming claims. Here is the deal among many scientific proofs discrediting global warming.
    The very fatally flawed computer models foisted upon us by the far left scientific radicals posits that CO2 will rise into the atmosphere and stay there for a 100 years or more and become cululative thus causing global warming. The utter fallacy is that CO2 is a heavier than air gas literally weighing 152% more than air and thus sinks to the ground when released. It is why they use it in fire extinguishers and spooky ground fog effects in scary movies.


    • CO2 is a greenhouse gas because it traps heat, not because it’s “lighter than air.” So, an increase in in heat-trapping CO2 hovering around the surface of, say, a polar ice cap or the Pacific Ocean would lead to an increase in melting ice and evaporating water. The term “greenhouse” is a bit of a misnomer in that it describes the effect, not the process (and oversimplified at that).

      Climate models that do not track CO2 levels CANNOT explain the increase in temperature over the last 30 years. Climate models that DO track CO2 levels CAN account for that 30-year rise in temperature–with over 90% accuracy. It is reasonable then to assume that this model can predict FUTURE climate trends…until we know better. But waiting for 100% accuracy might prove disastrous.

      And 97% of active climatologists are “far left radicals?” Where’s the proof of that?


  2. […] Liberals & Conservatives: The difference really is in the way they think (warmsouthernbreeze.wordpress.com) […]


  3. Grumpa Joe said

    I tend to agree with your premise that Libs and Cons think differently. I don’t necessarily agree with your statement that Cons don’t accept new information. I am as conservative as can be, and yet I listen to both sides and seek out anything that I might find acceptable and explainable. Man made global warming is a good for example. I agree there is global warming, I cannot deny I see ice caps melting. What I can’t find acceptable is that the minuscule amount of CO2 emissions we put out on this planet as compared to the total volume of the atmosphere is in any way responsible. I do believe the Lib need for income redistribution by carbon taxation to be a motivating factor, and income redistribution is in no way connected to the science of man made global warming. Income redistribution is also not a new idea, it dates back to serfdom, when the King owned everyone and they were all equals. A few years ago we went totally ballistic over the hole in the ozone layer caused by freons escaping into the atmosphere. We ran like lemmings over the edge of the cliff to repsond to the problem, why did it suddenly die down? The hole was always there. Another terror foisted upon the world by scare tactics was the abolition of DDT. Was the unsupported effect on birds worth the many deaths by malarial mosquitoes worth it? Or, are avians more important than mankind?
    I also believe in evolution. The evidence is too strong not to believe that nature changes incrementally to adapt to its environment. Some Conservatives are different when they confound their religious belief with science and they cannot resolve the science with their religious beliefs.
    I also believe that Cons welcome new ideas when they are truly new, and not ancient failed ones that Libs like to retry because the time was not right when the idea failed in the past.
    Yes, Cons do like stability. Some of the ideas we cling to are those that are, or are very close to being Natural Law, i.e. unchangeable because that is the way nature and evolution intended them to be. The concept of equal outcomes is one that I cannot accept in any way because it is so unnatural. It defies natural order and the essence of mankind. In a world that is solely based on equal outcomes mankind will be supremely unhappy. There will always be a segment of the population that will seek ways to be creative, inventive, and more self fulfilled than his neighbor because he will in no way be satisfied with being an equal to everyone else. In the world of equal outcomes, there will also be a faction of people who will be a cut above the others. They are the leaders, bureaucrats, and those who lead the equal outcome souls around by the nose. What is it that makes them more equal than those they lead? In my world of logic that doesn’t compute.
    Yes, Libs and Cons are as different in their thinking as men are from women.


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