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5 Things the Science Doesn't Say About the Conservative Brain

The science of cognition and ideology has been greeted with a number of common myths.
 
 
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Recently here at AlterNet, and around the web, there’s been a lot of discussion of the science of political ideology—basically, the differing psychological or even physiological traits that separate liberals from conservatives. (For a scientific overview of how strongly personality in particular predicts one’s political views, see here.) The debate tends to produce an odd effect: Liberals are intrigued, but many conservatives seem to take it all as an insult--based on a major misunderstanding of what the research actually means.

It’s time to set the record straight. So herewith, we dismantle five major myths about the science of ideology, and what it has to say about conservatism.

1) No, Scientists Aren’t Calling Conservatives Dumb.

Conservatives seem to wrongly interpret the new science of ideology as a slight to their intelligence. On the contrary, research on the differences between liberals and conservatives has centrally focused on personalities and styles of thinking, which is quite a different thing.

The idea is that there seems to be something about liberalism, with its openness to new ideas and new things, that does make liberals more science friendly, and more willing to change their minds over time. However, this is not at all the same as saying that conservatives are stupid. The personality trait in question, openness to experience, does tend to produce a higher verbal SAT score, but not necessarily a higher math score. And that makes sense—openness is about exploring (including through curiosity and reading), and seeing the world in a nuanced way, but not about raw intelligence.

In other words, to distinguish between liberals and conservatives on this personality dimension of openness is not at all to call conservatives “dumb”—rather, it’s to say they see less nuance in the world and are less tolerant of ambiguity, uncertainty and change. It’s about a style of thinking, not about differences in abilities.

But of course, there’s an irony: Maybe it’s because conservatives see less nuance that they wrongly think their intelligence is being insulted, when it isn’t.

2) No, Conservatives Do Not Have a Brain Disorder.

Just as insulting to conservatives—and just as baseless—is the claim made by some (like pundit Jonah Goldberg) that the research suggests there is something wrong with conservatives’ brains.

On the contrary, this science falls within the boundaries of normal psychology, not abnormal psychology. It appears that human beings fall along a spectrum on any number of personality traits—ranging from neuroticism to agreeableness or politeness. The spectrum itself is normal. However, falling at different places on it has political implications—particularly scoring lower on openness to experience, or higher on conscientiousness (which tends to make one more conservative).

Once again, there’s an irony here. Intellectual conservatives think we should have a healthy respect for human nature, and build our societies to reflect it. Well, this research seems to suggest that conservatism itself is part of human nature--as is liberalism. Both seem a core part of who we are. So if you want to respect tradition and our heritage, like a good conservative, you really ought to be pretty psyched about the science of ideology.

Indeed, we can go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson on the matter, who stated of the political parties of his day:

The same political parties which now agitate the U.S. have existed thro' all time. And in fact the terms of whig and tory belong to natural as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution and mind of different individuals.

Modern science is suggesting that Jefferson was absolutely right.

 
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