Is the Right-Wing Psyche Allergic to Reality? A New Study Shows Conservatives Ignore Facts More Than Liberals
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
This story was originally published at Salon.
Last week, the country convulsed with outrage over Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin’s false suggestion that women who are raped have a special bodily defense mechanism against getting pregnant. Akin’s claim stood out due to its highly offensive nature, but it’s reminiscent of any number of other parallel cases in which conservative Christians have cited dubious “facts” to help rationalize their moral convictions. Take the twin assertions that having an abortion causes breast cancer or mental disorders, for instance. Or the denial of human evolution. Or false claims that same-sex parenting hurts kids. Or that you can choose whether to be gay, and undergo therapy to reverse that choice. The ludicrous assertion that women who are raped have a physiological defense mechanism against pregnancy is just part of a long litany of other falsehoods in the Christian right’s moral and emotional war against science.
In fact, even as Akin reaped a whirlwind of disdain and disgust, a new scientific paper has appeared with uncanny timing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, underscoring what is actually happening when people contort facts to justify their deep seated beliefs or moral systems. Perhaps most strikingly, one punch line of the new research is that political conservatives, like Akin, appear to do this significantly more than political liberals.
In recent years, the field of moral psychology has been strongly influenced by a theory known as “moral intuitionism,” which has been championed by the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Dealing a blow to the notion of humans as primarily rational actors, Haidt instead postulates that our views of what is right and wrong are rooted in gut emotions, which fire rapidly when we encounter certain moral situations or dilemmas—responding far more quickly than our rational thoughts. Thus, we evaluate facts, arguments, and new information in a way that is subconsciously guided, ormotivated, by our prior moral emotions. What this means– in Haidt’s famed formulation–is that when it comes to evaluating facts that are relevant to our deep seated morals or beliefs, we don’t act like scientists. Rather, we act like lawyers, contorting the evidence to support our moral argument.
But are we all equally lawyerly? The new paper, by psychologists Brittany Liu and Peter Ditto of the University of California-Irvine, suggests that may not actually be the case.
In their study, Liu and Ditto asked over 1,500 people about their moral and factual views on four highly divisive political issues. Two of them–the death penalty and the forceful interrogation of terrorists using techniques like water-boarding–are ones where liberals tend to think the act in question is morally unacceptableeven if it actually yields benefits (for instance, deterring crime, or providing intelligence that can help prevent further terrorist strikes). The other two–providing information about condoms in the context of sex education, and embryonic stem cell research–are ones where conservatives tend to think the act in question is unacceptable even if it yields benefits (helping to prevent unwanted pregnancies, leading to cures for devastating diseases).
In the experiment, the subjects were first asked about their absolute moral beliefs: For instance, is the death penalty wrongeven if it deters others from committing crimes? But they were also asked about various factual aspects of each topic: Does the death penalty deter crime? Do condoms work to prevent pregnancy? Does embryonic stem cell research hold medical promise? And so on.
If you believe some act is absolutely wrong, period, you shouldn’t actually care about its costs and benefits. Those should be irrelevant to your moral judgment. Yet in analyzing the data, Liu and Ditto found a strong correlation, across all of the issues, between believing something is morally wrong in all case–such as the death penalty–and also believing that it has low benefits (e.g., doesn’t deter crime) or high costs (lots of innocent people getting executed). In other words, liberals and conservatives alike shaded their assessment of the facts so as to align them with their moral convictions–establishing what Liu and Ditto call a “moral coherence” between their ethical and factual views. Neither side was innocent when it came to confusing “is” and “ought” (as moral philosophers might put it).