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Inside the Tea Party Brain: Can Science Explain Their Seemingly Irrational Rage?

Research suggests we may be a nation divided by different cognitive styles.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Lisa F. Young


A growing body of research suggests that we are a nation divided not only by partisanship or how we view various issues, but also by dramatically different cognitive styles. Sociologists and psychologists are getting a better understanding about the ways that deep seated emotional responses effect our ideological viewpoints.

Last week, Moyers & Company caught up with Mother Jones science writer Chris Mooney, host of the  Inquiring Minds podcast and author of  The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality, to talk about what this research may tell  us about the attitudes of those involved in the tea party movement. Below is a lightly-edited transcript of our discussion.

Joshua Holland: Chris, let’s talk about morality. I’m personally offended by the tea partiers’ resistance to giving uninsured people health care. I find it a bit shocking that a political movement could be so filled with animosity toward the idea. But according to NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt — and other scholars — conservatives have a different moral compass entirely. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Chris Mooney: Absolutely. There are many people doing research in the psychology of politics. Jonathan Haidt is a pioneer in the psychology of morality and how that feeds into politics, and it really helps with something like this where you have strong emotional passions that are irreconcilable on the left and the right.

So what you’re describing is his moral foundation of “harm,” which liberals tend to feel more strongly about. These are emotions relating to empathy and compassion – measured by the question of how much someone is suffering and how much that suffering is a moral issue to you. How much is caring for the weak and vulnerable a moral issue to you?

It’s not that conservatives don’t feel that emotion, but they don’t necessarily feel it as strongly. They feel other things more strongly. So to Haidt, this explains the  health care debate because liberals feel, most of all, this harm-care-compassion thing. Conservatives feel it a little bit less strongly, even as they have this other morality. Haidt compares it to karma — it’s really interesting — where basically, you’re supposed to get what you deserve. And what really bothers them is somebody not getting what they deserve. So the  government getting involved and interfering with people getting what they deserve is really bad. That, I think, is the clash.

Holland: Jared Piazza — a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania — did a study which found that political and religious conservatives tend to avoid what he called ‘consequentialist thinking.’ So basically, they tend to see something as right or a wrong, in black and white, and if a policy that they believe to be right — say, not having the government get involved in health care — causes real world harm, they’re more likely to dismiss that. That seems consistent with what Haidt is saying, right?

Mooney: Sure. Part of his whole theory is that you feel these views before you think these views, and then you rationalize your beliefs.

Now, he would say that both sides do it. But it’s actually an open debate whether one side does it more. But certainly, if conservatives have reached a position for moral reasons, are they then more likely to discount evidence suggesting some problem with their position? Absolutely. They’re also more likely to take whatever evidence there is out there and twist it so that it supports their view. And, the more intelligent ones will be better at doing that. [laughs] That’s what all the research shows.

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