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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.

3) No, All Conservatives Are Not Closed-Minded.

It is certainly possible to see the lack of openness as equivalent to closed-mindedness. In particular, scoring very low on openness to experience is associated with traits like authoritarianism, or seeing the world in a black-and-white way with little tolerance of difference.

But even if that’s so, not all conservatives are being tarred with that brush. Once again, we’re talking about a spectrum here. What’s more, we’re talking about imperfect correlations, so it is not like every single liberal is more open than every single conservative. On the contrary, the statistics suggest that you will find many open conservatives and closed liberals—and even some outright authoritarians among Democrats.

Think about it this way: If you were betting in Las Vegas, you’d win money betting that liberals are open, rather than betting they are closed. But you still wouldn’t win every time.

What this means is that it is no refutation of the science to say, “But what about my Uncle Albert, who’s a conservative who loves traveling the world and reading long novels?” There will always be lots of counterexamples, but they don’t refute the overall picture.

4) No, This Is Not Biological Determinism.

Another misconception is that because we’re talking about personalities—and personalities are at least partly genetic—we’re asserting a form of “biological determinism.” In other words, we’re saying that liberals and conservatives are “just born that way” and they can’t change their views.

That doesn’t follow. Genes are the basic recipe for making us who we are—but if you’re baking a cake, you also have to consider the type of oven, the temperature it’s set at, how long the cake stays in, and so on. In other words, genes are just part of the equation, and the “environment” remains crucial. If there’s any determinism, it wouldn’t be solely genetic or biological—it would have to be both biological and also environmental.

No wonder that genetic studies suggest that only about 40 percent of one’s political ideology can be traced to the influence of genes. Forty percent might sound like a lot—and it is—but that still leaves 60 percent up to “experience” and the “environment.”

And that, in turn, leaves quite a lot of room for a lot of conservatives to turn into liberals, and a lot of liberals to turn into conservatives, whatever their basic personalities or their DNA.

5) No, Conservatives Aren’t All Bad People.

Most baseless of all is the assertion that conservatives are being morally judged based on this research. If anything, the science points out many conservative strengths.

If you consider personality, for instance, the research suggests that conservatives have somewhat more extraversion than liberals—meaning, they are probably more outgoing—and more emotional stability—meaning, they’re less neurotic on average. Neither can be called bad news for conservatives. Quite the contrary. Having more conscientiousness than liberals, meanwhile, means that conservatives are more task-oriented, goal-directed and disciplined.

In the moral realm, meanwhile, there are traits like loyalty to one’s group or team that powerfully reflect conservatism. This research suggests that, relative to conservatives, liberals are less loyal, worse team players. (The flip-side of this is that conservatives tend to be more tribal in nature.)

All of these traits, by the way, also suggest that conservatives are likely to be more effective in mass politics—which, the evidence suggests, they indeed are.

The conclusion, then, if you’re a conservative who’s concerned about the science of ideology is …well, you might want to look at it more closely. In reality, there’s plenty of bad news here for liberals as well.

 

Chris Mooney is the author of four books, including his latest, "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality."
 
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