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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.
 
 
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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.

Holland: Right. And it all seems fairly consistent to me. I’ve interviewed George Lakoff at UC Berkeley. He talks about how people don’t judge a political issue on its merits, but tend to filter the world through a moral lens. He talks about a “moral cascade,” where we connect policies with deep-seated values. All of this research seems to be very consistent with what other people are doing.

Mooney: That’s right. And you wouldn’t want to believe it if it were just one paper in just one journal by just one researcher. That’s what, as a science writer, we’re skeptical of. We look for multiple people working in multiple fields all converging and then we say, ‘okay, there’s knowledge here,’ something reliable is being discovered. With the psychology of politics – the psychology of ideology — it is actually surprising how rapidly all of this knowledge has come together. I don’t think we’re completely there yet, but I think that you can’t miss the fact that there are huge commonalities between Lakoff, Haidt and a lot of other people that we haven’t mentioned who are doing research in this same field.

Holland: Let’s dig a bit deeper into Haidt’s moral foundation theory. In your Mother Jones interview with Haidt you have a graph comparing how liberals, conservatives, and then also libertarians score on what Haidt calls the “seven moral foundations.”

 

And when you look at the graph, the biggest disparities between liberals and conservatives — and, again, libertarians — are “purity” and “authority.” That’s where you see the biggest gaps between the groups. What is purity in Haidt’s reckoning?

Mooney: Purity is basically whether you feel moral emotions when someone does something you view as disgusting or indecent. A lot of this is going to involve your judgments about what’s sexually proper, but it could be other things that are disgusting. Basically, this is a way of measuring the emotion of disgust, and what this shows — this is the most striking disparity of all of them — is that liberals and libertarians really don’t sense disgust very much. And they’re together on that completely. There’s an amazing number of things that liberals and libertarians are together on. But conservatives feel it much more than either of them. And so this can explain a great deal in politics — it’s most regularly invoked to explain gay rights and how people respond to that, which I think is very appropriate. But I think it also gets into a lot of bioethical issues.

Holland: And we’ve discussed authority before. That’s really central to understanding the conservative mindset. There’s been a lot of research on the so-called authoritarian personality type, and I want to connect this with the idea of political polarization.

One of the things that we understand about authoritarians is that they have a stronger sense of the importance of loyalty to one’s own in-group. How does that factor into this equation, do you think?

Mooney: Again, this is an area where liberals and libertarians differ from conservatives markedly. Liberals and libertarians aren’t particularly tribal in the sense of having loyalty to their group, and they aren’t particularly authoritarian in the sense of thinking you have to follow a strong leader. And basically, authoritarianism is also associated with sort of black and white, ‘you’re with me or you’re against me’ thinking. But it’s also about deference to authority, whether that’s the police officer or your father or God. You must obey authority and if you don’t, that’s a moral wrong.

Holland: Jonathan Weiler at the University of North Carolina did a study which found that you can predict a person’s ideological leanings by how they answered just a few questions about child rearing. And one of the questions was whether someone values obedience or creativity more in a child. It’s really — it’s telling stuff.

Mooney: Yeah, this is another way of measuring authoritarianism, because the theory is — and it seems pretty sound to me — that if you’re an authoritarian, one of the places it’s going to come out is in how you view child rearing. That is a situation in which the parent has to exert some level of authority, but parents interpret that differently. And if someone interprets parenting as sort of a strict father model — you need to obey the rules — then that’s an authoritarian style of parenting. So he’s just saying, ‘let’s ask about parenting and we’ll figure out who our authoritarians are,’ and what’s good about that as a scientific method is that you’re not actually asking anything that seems politically tinged. You could be confounding your variables if people get the sense that you’re asking them something political, but that’s not the case here — you’re just asking about parenting. That’s what’s nice about it.

Holland: Now, George Lakoff says that our brains have both liberal and conservative moral circuits — if you will — neural pathways. And when one set gets activated again and again it grows stronger and the other set becomes weaker. How does Fox and the right wing blogs and the whole conservative media bubble play into this pattern of polarization, if we accept Lakoff’s argument?

Mooney: Right, and I don’t think Lakoff would be necessarily inconsistent with others here. You’re reinforcing a circuit in the brain, so to speak, and the more it’s used the more powerful it becomes and the more it becomes habitual to use it. I think it’s a very different thing, but if you just think about how if you’re a musician, and you practice the guitar every day, then basically you wire your brain to have a certain aptitude, and every time you pick up the instrument, you’re going to be just as good. But if you then don’t practice for a year, you pick it up, and boy, some things are still going to be there, but some things are going to be lost. If you reinforce these political/emotional circuits, it’s a similar effect. The more you use it, the more it becomes part of you.

So what this is getting at is that the brain is plastic to a certain extent, but at the same time, a lot of the research suggests that there’s something very deep about political differences. So you’re probably predisposed to feel a certain way, but then if you reinforce the circuit you can strengthen that, or if your life experiences take you in a different direction, it can weaken those views.

Holland: You spoke earlier about how we all have a tendency to marshal evidence that confirms our previously held worldview and reject evidence that contradicts it — this is known as motivated reasoning. Is that something that both liberals and conservatives do to a similar degree, or do we see differences in this area?

Mooney: There’s no doubt that both do it. All the studies show that. And this is a debated issue right know — whether there’s asymmetry or not. I can point you to a number of papers that seem to suggest some sort of asymmetry. But there are researchers who are not convinced, and there are some papers that don’t show asymmetry. So it’s a big debate and it depends largely upon what kind of evidence you buy.

I would expect you to have asymmetry. I would at least expect that on those issues where conservatives have a stronger moral sense, say about an in-group thing, I would expect their emotionally motivated response to be stronger just because they’re feeling this more strongly. So I would certainly expect more response in one of those areas where just generally it’s something they feel more strongly about. That doesn’t seem like a hard thing to assume.

But an interesting question is this: if you get something that liberals feel really strongly about, something about equality or something about harm, are they equally biased? And I think that we still need more research on this, but I’m suspecting that we’re going to see real differences. And I think that there’s some evidence which points that way already.

Holland: One of the things that I think does point that way is the tendency of people with authoritarian personalities to be really sensitive to cognitive dissonance. That would seem to lead to a more fervent desire to ignore contradictory evidence that causes kind of a psychic pain, if you will.

Mooney: Right. There was the recent study — and this can show you both why I suspect you’re right, but also why these researchers are unsure — there was a recent study that actually showed that conservatives were less willing to entertain cognitive dissonance than liberals were. It was by some political psychologists at NYU, and what they did was they asked people, ‘would you be willing to write an essay talking about how the president you dislike did a good job?’ So in other words, would liberals write an essay on the good things about George W. Bush and would conservatives write an essay on good things about Barack Obama—and the liberals were more willing to write that essay. It required them to entertain cognitive dissonance for a time.

But what’s difficult when you break it down is this: what if liberals just don’t hate George W. Bush as much as conservatives hate Barack Obama? I mean, what if the emotions are not as raw anymore? After all, a lot of time has passed. What if this isn’t the perfect apples to apples comparison? And that’s why these kinds of studies are hard to conduct.

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

 
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