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The Conservative Psyche: How Ordinary People Come to Embrace Paul Ryan's Cruelty

Scientific research into the way we think explains the reasons decent people wind up supporting horrific policies.

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Writing in the New York Times, David Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers, explains that “we are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested.

We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”

Everyone does this, but some research suggests that political conservatives, perhaps because they are more set in their views, and more averse to cognitive dissonance, tend to display more motivated reasoning than liberals.

When you hear someone like Paul Ryan proposing, for example, to shift $4,700 in health costs onto the backs of seniors living at the poverty level by 2022, it's important to understand that the consequences of those actions – the factual, real-world results of these policies – are often inconsequential to like-minded people on the Right not because they're (necessarily) bad people, but for the simple reason that the consequences don't register. 

While a half-dozen analyses paint a sharp picture of the cruelty inherent in the Ryan plan, it is this process of motivated reasoning that allows conservatives to simply block out any details that contradict their ideas about the need to avoid fostering a “culture of dependency.”

And here, one of the apparent differences between conservative and liberal cognitive styles comes into play: the “backfire effect.” The term was coined by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, who found that when conservatives' erroneous beliefs were confronted by factual rebuttals, they tended to double-down on those beliefs. The same dynamic wasn't observed with liberals (they weren't entirely swayed by the facts, but didn't show the same tendency to believe false information more strongly after being presented with them).

This is not to suggest that Ryan's plan – now effectively Romney's as well, despite some efforts to distance himself from it -- won't prove toxic to most people when they get a sense of what it does. That's because, as Lakoff notes, there are very few people who hold a primarily conservative or liberal moral framework – most have a bit of both. But it does help explain why seemingly ordinary citizens can embrace such such cruel public policies. It also suggests that Ryan's vision can't be attacked with facts and figures alone; it has to be challenged with a progressive moral vision of a society that values fairness and understands that in a modern economy, the public sector serves and sustains the private.

* Cultural explanations for why some groups do better than others go back a long way, but the modern iteration of the “culture of poverty” narrative originated with sociologist Oscar Lewis’s 1961 book, The Children of Sanchez.

Joshua Holland is Senior Digital Producer at BillMoyers.com, and host of Politics and Reality Radio. He's the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter