Born This Way?

Nature, nurture, narratives, and the making of our political personalities

(Page 2 of 4)

After analyzing the DNA of 13,000 Australians, 15 researchers, led by Penn State political scientist Peter K. Hatemi, found several genes that differed between liberals and conservatives. Most of them related to the functioning of neurotransmitters, particularly glutamate and serotonin, both of which are involved in the brain’s response to threat and fear. This finding, published in The Journal of Politics last October, fits well with many studies showing that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as sudden blasts of white noise. Other studies have focused on genes related to receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has long been tied to sensation seeking and openness to experience, among the best-established correlates of liberalism. As the Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne said: “The only things I find rewarding…are variety and the enjoyment of diversity.”

Even though the effects of any single gene are tiny, these findings are important because they illustrate one sort of pathway from genes to politics: the genes (collectively) give some people brains that are more (or less) reactive to threats and that produce less (or more) pleasure when exposed to novelty, change, and new experiences. These are two of the main personality factors that have consistently been found to distinguish liberals and conservatives. A major 2003 review paper by political psychologist John Jost in Psychological Bulletin found a few other traits, but nearly all of them are conceptually related to threat sensitivity (e.g., conservatives react more strongly to reminders of death) or openness to experience (e.g., liberals have less need for order, structure, and closure).

Step 2: Traits Guide Children Along Different Paths

Where do our personalities come from? To answer that question, we need to distinguish among three different levels of personality, according to a useful theory from Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams. The lowest level of our personalities consists of what he calls “dispositional traits,” which are the sort of broad character dimensions that manifest themselves in many different situations. These are traits such as threat sensitivity, novelty seeking, extraversion, and conscientiousness, and they are fairly consistent from childhood through old age. Don’t think of them as mental modules that some people have and others lack; they’re more like adjustments to dials on brain systems that everyone has.

Let’s imagine a pair of fraternal twins, a brother and sister raised together in the same home. During their nine months together in their mother’s womb, the brother’s genes were busy constructing a brain that was a bit higher than average in its sensitivity to threats, a bit lower than average in its tendency to feel pleasure when exposed to radically new experiences. The sister’s genes were busy making a brain with the opposite settings.

The two siblings grow up in the same house and attend the same schools, but they gradually create different worlds for themselves. Even in nursery school, their behavior causes adults to treat them differently. One 2006 study in the Journal of Research in Personality found that women who called themselves liberals as adults had been rated by their nursery school teachers as having traits consistent with threat insensitivity and novelty seeking.

Future liberals were described as more curious, verbal, and self-reliant, but also more assertive and aggressive, less obedient and neat. So if we could observe our fraternal twins in their first years of schooling, we’d find teachers responding differently to them. Some teachers might be drawn to the creative but rebellious little girl; others would crack down on her as an unruly brat, while praising her brother as a model student.

But dispositional traits are just the lowest of the three levels, according to McAdams. The second level is our “characteristic adaptations.” These are traits that emerge as we grow. They are called adaptations because people develop them in response to the specific environments and challenges that they happen to face. Let’s follow our twins into adolescence, and let’s suppose they attend a fairly strict and well-ordered school. The brother fits in well, but the sister engages in constant battles with the teachers. She becomes angry and socially disengaged. These are now parts of her personality—her characteristic adaptations—but they would not have developed had she gone to a more progressive and less structured school.

By the time they reach high school and begin to take an interest in politics, the two siblings have chosen different activities (the sister joins the debate team in part for the opportunity to travel; the brother gets more involved with his family’s church) and amassed different friends (the sister becomes a goth; the brother joins the jocks). The sister chooses to go to college in New York City, where she majors in Latin American studies and finds her calling as an advocate for the children of illegal immigrants. Because her social circle is entirely composed of liberals, she is enmeshed in a moral matrix based primarily on the psychology of care and compassion. In 2008 she is electrified by Barack Obama’s promise of change and concern for the poor.

The brother, in contrast, has no interest in moving far away to a big, dirty, and threatening city. He chooses to stay close to family and friends by attending the local branch of the state university. He earns a degree in business and then works for a local bank, gradually rising to a high position. He becomes a pillar of his church and his community. There is occasional talk in church sermons of helping victims of oppression, but the most common moral themes in his life are personal responsibility (based on concerns about not being a free rider or a burden on others) and loyalty to the many groups and teams to which he belongs. He resonates to John McCain’s campaign slogan, “Country First.”

Things didn’t have to work out this way. On the day they were born, the sister was not predestined to vote for Obama; the brother was not guaranteed to become a Republican. But their different sets of genes gave them different first drafts of their minds, which led them down different paths, through different life experiences, and into different moral subcultures. By the time they reach adulthood they have become very different people whose one point of political agreement is that they must not talk about politics when the sister comes home for the holidays.

Step 3: People Construct Life Narratives

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories. Among the most important stories we know are stories about ourselves, and these “life narratives” are McAdams’ third level of personality. McAdams’ greatest contribution to psychology has been his insistence that psychologists connect their quantitative data (about the two lower levels, which we assess with questionnaires and reaction-time measures) to a more qualitative understanding of the narratives people create to make sense of their lives. These narratives are not necessarily true stories; they are simplified and selective reconstructions of the past, often connected to an idealized vision of the future. But even though life narratives are to some degree post hoc fabrications, they still influence people’s behavior, relationships, and mental health.

Life narratives are saturated with morality. They provide a bridge between a developing adolescent self and an adult political identity. Here, for example, is how Keith Richards describes a turning point in his life in his recent autobiography. Richards, the famously sensation-seeking and nonconforming lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, was once a marginally well-behaved member of his school choir. The choir won competitions with other schools, so the choirmaster got Richards and his friends excused from many classes so they could travel to ever-larger choral events. But when the boys reached puberty and their voices changed, the choirmaster dumped them. They were then informed that they would have to repeat a full year in school to make up for their missed classes, and the choirmaster didn’t lift a finger to defend them. It was a “kick in the guts,” Richards says. It transformed him in ways that had obvious political ramifications: “The moment that happened, Spike, Terry and I, we became terrorists. I was so mad, I had a burning desire for revenge. I had reason then to bring down this country and everything it stood for. I spent the next three years trying to fuck them up. If you want to breed a rebel, that’s the way to do it.…It still hasn’t gone out, the fire. That’s when I started to look at the world in a different way, not their way anymore. That’s when I realized that there’s bigger bullies than just bullies. There’s them, the authorities. And a slow-burning fuse was lit.”

Richards may have been predisposed by his personality to become a liberal, but his politics were not predestined. Had his teachers treated him differently—or had he simply interpreted events differently when creating early drafts of his narrative—he could have ended up in a more conventional job surrounded by conservative colleagues and sharing their moral matrix. But once Richards came to understand himself as a crusader against abusive authority, there was no way he was ever going to vote for the British Conservative Party. His own life narrative just fit too well with the stories that all parties on the left tell in one form or another.

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  • Suki||

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    From a great hight.

  • Suki||

    +1

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    With the fraternal twins, the sister's concern for the plight of the poor led her to worship Che, and the brother's experience at youth ministry made him gay. Right?

  • Suki||

    It is not any of that at all. World famous neurologist Janeane Garofalo said to the most expensive chandelier in media, Keith Olbermann, that it was limpid brain size. The science is settled.

  • Mickey Rat||

    "Politics used to be hardball: very competitive, but at the end of the day, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could meet for a drink and a private conversation. Congressmen and senators had the sense that they all belonged to a grand institution."

    Could that period have anything at all to do withnthe fact that the Democrats had majorities in Congress for decades? And that the Republicans running their caucus were very interested in rocking the boat? The assertion that politics in Congress was "competitive" in that ers is dubious, to be generous. That the Dems did not have a lock on the House was unthinkable. Now, Congress can flip from election to election.

  • ChrisO||

    Politics was also more local prior to the 1960s, since the federal government was smaller and less intrusive. And there was plenty of nastiness in local politics, just as there is today.

    People in general are more open and coarse in their speech today, and that also has something to do with it. Much nastiness in the old days was cloaked in less obvious speech, and of course much of it happened behind closed doors.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    People in general are more open and coarse in their speech today, and that also has something to do with it

    John Adams is an "old, querulous, blind, bald, blind, crippled, toothless" man.

    "John Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

  • Bucky||

    wasn't there a infamous caning incident just before the Civil War broke out?
    and that happened in one of the houses, i think it was the house of representatives...
    and somehow the divisiveness is worse today?

  • Mickey Rat||

    "Because her social circle is entirely composed of liberals, she is enmeshed in a moral matrix based primarily on the psychology of care and compassion."

    Only have time to skim through the article, but describing liberalism as "compassion" and the conservative as staying at home motivated by fear is poisoning the well and indicative of bias by the writer or the researchers.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Only had time to skim your post, but it completely misreads reality and the article.

  • ||

    Not really. The simplistic narrative is: liberalism = compassion and love of liberty, conservatism = exaggerated fear response. It's easier to buy the simplistic conservative narrative since it's relatively well reflected in conservative political policy. Liberals, on the other hand, don't seem that terribly concerned with the values that supposedly motivate them when they are making policy. Only through the most absurd mental gymnastics can you possibly cast massive federal interventions into every conceivable lifestyle choice as liberty, or bankrupting social welfare institutions as compassion.

  • Amonite||

    Very true ^.^ Conservatives outpace liberals 30% when it comes to charity, and the charity they give is -more- focused on the poor/needy/actual needs vs. the arts or public causes of the moment.

    Plus, it was the republicans who were founded to fight slavery...
    And the social conservatives who are fighting against the genocide of abortion...

    I don;t think liberal shave a monopoly on compassion. It is true many democrats have a 'heart' for a world where everyone lives in peace, has enough stuff, is equal, etc. This is no different from the conservative heart - except for a conservative we believe everyone is *born* equal (not made equal by social engineering), that you get people out of poverty by introducing micro-businesses into a region or otherwise lifting people *up* - not lowering everyone down to the same common denominator, and that *peace* is achieved by fighting against tyranny and genocide, not by embracing it. Slavery and subjugation and death are not peace, even if there is no resistance or fighting.

  • Fluffy||

    This article is a good example of why psychological explanations of politics are bunk.

    It relies on just-so stories that are invented out of whole cloth in order to sound plausible.

    Maybe "friction with schoolmasters" produced liberal voters in the 1930's, but that nice little story about the Latin American studies major couldn't have happened anywhere in the United States in the last 40 years. It just couldn't. So there's no way that's where "young Obama voters" came from.

    Every liberal do-gooder student I ever encountered was showered with adoration and plaudits by the entire educational command structure. Every one. The liberal students weren't the rebels; they were the joiners. They figured out early that if you can grit your teeth long enough to write schmaltzy vomit about how much you love the poor little childrenz and the poor widdle twees and fishies, the world is yours and you get to see your name on the blimp. And it's been that way for decades.

    So how does the little "liberal generation" scenario, and all the little seritonin tests and claims about "comfort level with diversity" account for that? It can't.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    It relies on just-so stories that are invented out of whole cloth in order to sound plausible.

    Yes. This is why I'm disappointed that the two Kiplings of our age are guests of honor aboard the Reason cruise.

  • Fluffy||

    In fact, a much more convincing narrative of the genesis of the modern liberal personality is Rand's:

    That the hippies were the most completely subordinated "organization men" of all time, and that they swallowed their parents' dime-store Christianity and civics classes so thoroughly that they set out to try to put them into literal practice.

    Far from being rebels against the power structure, they completely capitulated to every last parable they heard in church and in their Deweyite classrooms, and their anger against their parents was a revivalist crusade, and not a revolution in kind at all.

  • SugarFree||

    Born after the New Deal, hippies were rebelling against little more than an already vanquished requirement for personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. They stirred the cold ashes of a house already burned down and then claimed the mantle of arsonist.

  • John||

    A lot culture in the 50s was stifling. What the baby boom didn't get was that their parents had been through World War II. They craved normalcy so much in the 1950s because they knew what abnormal looked like. And they didn't want anymore of it. If you had been through World War II, you too would probably want a nice house in a good neighborhood and not be bothered with any more change or instability for the rest of your life.

  • R C Dean||

    A lot culture in the 50s was stifling.

    Like the Victorian era, the '50s had a public culture of propriety, and a rather different approach behind closed doors.

    Anyone who felt like they had to rebel against the public culture just didn't have the tools to get their freak on without public approbation.

  • Bucky||

    where do all the Me generation and slackers come from?
    if i heard it once, i heard it a thousand times...'i want give my children all the things i didn't have'. and this same crap has morphed into 'he who has the most toys wins!'
    here is where the Gub'mint comes in and says everyone can have more crap even if some didn't work for it...
    no sense of reality that the rest of the world lives in.
    no gratitude that you're not living in some cesspool of a third world country.
    which results in the cesspools of the mind... Occupy This and That
    gimme more 'cause, 'cause, 'cause we wants it, we needs it, precious.

  • Alan||

    It may have had to do with their parents growing up during the Great Depression rather than living through World War II. World War II was a unifying event for Americans on the homefront, which probably meant more normalcy for those who didn't go to war than they had during the hard times that preceded it.

  • John||

    I think Rand had it right. And proof of her correctness is the flip side of the hippies, the Evangelical movement. The Evangelical movement is the product of the baby boom. It started a little later than the hippie movement, the 70s versus the 60s. But it has much of the same "tune in, turn on, drop out, build a better world" ethos that the hippies had. Both groups swallowed the civics classes and both groups tried to build Utopia in their own manner.

  • ChrisO||

    That's a very good point, and one that isn't always fully appreciated. The neo-conservatives are also a product of the baby boom, and for much the same reason.

  • ||

    Neo-conservatism was/is liberalism that ends at the New Deal. Any expansion of government that came after the New Deal is suspect. Except war and stuff.

  • ||

    Every liberal do-gooder student I ever encountered was showered with adoration and plaudits by the entire educational command structure. Every one.

    They'll still manage to convince themselves that they're heroic and risking it all for speaking truth to power

  • Shirley Temple of Doom||

    Exactly. They love to imagine they're "speaking truth to power" when more accurately they're only making a power grab-- trying to inflict their morality (essentially religious dogma) upon the rest of us.

    Conformists demanding conformity are annoying; when they also fancy themselves heroic NON-conformists, it's infuriating!

  • Suki||

  • ||

  • Suki||

    +1!

  • Jeff||

  • Lord Humungus||

    her de dur - I was exceedingly liberal when I was younger, so much that I wrote letters to the Socialist newspaper. Post-college, after kids, marriage, taxes, the whole disaster, I started to swing to the right, realizing that personal responsibility was paramount to a civilized society. 9/11 made me temporarily swing even further right and I started donating money to Republicans. After all that brief spell of insanity - and my distaste for so-cons and fundies - I started reading about Libertarianism - where I eventually ended up here at Reason. I initially read the comments for the lolz, lurking in the background. But after awhile, I found myself agreeing with much of the philosophy/tenets or whatever word you want to use. So here I am today.

    Genetically speaking, my dad is a Christian Conservative, while my mom is a Liberal Agnostic. Maybe I'm just a fusion.

  • Matrix||

    abomination

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    The problem is not limited to politicians. Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves within cocoons of likeminded individuals. In 1976 only 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide counties”—counties that voted either Democratic or Republican by a margin of 20 percentage points or more. But the number has risen steadily; in 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in a landslide county. Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned. If you find yourself in a Whole Foods store, there’s an 89 percent chance that the county surrounding you voted for Barack Obama. If you want to find Republicans, go to a county that contains a Cracker Barrel restaurant; 62 percent of these went for McCain

    I don't see this as a problem. Free association and all.

  • Joe R.||

    Yeah, I agree. I found myself asking why we needed to make these decisions at the federal level instead of the local one.

  • Brandon||

    What about a Cracker Barrel down the street from a Whole Foods?

  • Brian from Texas||

    I Actually hate civility in politics. I refuse to be nice to people I don't like. Not only do I think elected officials should be allowed to carry guns in Congress and in the State Legislatures, I think dueling should also be legalized to help solve the long-term incumbancy problem.

  • sarcasmic||

    If dueling had never been outlawed there wouldn't be the as many liberals as there are today.
    Those mouthy pieces of shit would never have lived long enough to reproduce.

  • Brian from Texas||

    Well since liberals don't like guns we couldn't actually challenge them to duels. They'd just turn tail and hide under their beds, which is just as good.

  • sarcasmic||

    Sure you could challenge them. Dueling pistols come in pairs.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    And shooting a politician or a GS 9 or above should be redefined as misdemeanor littering.

    Although I advocate allowing them to shoot back.....

  • Candle||

    Monty Python, "Bring Out Your Dead":
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grbSQ6O6kbs

    Is it still misdemeanor littering if you make sure to recycle?

  • ||

    Congressmen and senators had the sense that they all belonged to a grand institution. They had enough in common, and enough friends across the aisle, that they could work together on solving the nation’s biggest challenges....

    Not any more. Now it’s cage-match wrestling, and there is a lot more blood.

    Did Olympia Snowe ghostwrite this article?

  • Tim||

    Nature or Nurture? Part MCMLXVII...

  • condottiero||

    Fortunately by this article's funny explanations I was born as someone who is 'prone' to reason, facts, evidence and objectivity. While other unfortunately are prone to idiocy, irrationality and lack of self-stem? If so, luckily for those born more prone to idiocy, et al there's a precious individual treasure called Free Will and they (no matter how idiots while still have to use their mind to reason) are still free to Change and Choose how/why to act upon a specific goal. However, choosing the right things is not easy and that is why Philosophy is so important.

  • grognard||

    Nozick pointed out years ago the fallacy of trying to create a one size fits all government. What we really need is a way to create communities where like minded people form their own governments and live under a system they agree with. If bible thumpers want a gun totin Jesus government let them have it. If gays want to get married and have universal heath care so what, if they are in their own little world and everybody is on the same page who cares. Libertarians and everybody else would then actually be able to live under a system they support and with out the constant petty bickering about who is right and who is wrong.

  • sarcasmic||

    What we really need is a way to create communities where like minded people form their own governments and live under a system they agree with.

    That was already tried in the form of a federal government with defined powers, and everything else left to the states.

  • John||

    Yeah. Why don't we create a Constitution that has a small limited government and a group of sovereign states that are free to have whatever government they like, provided it is Democratic and doesn't violate due process and a given set of inalienable rights.

    It is so crazy it just might work.

  • Wat Tyler||

    Sounds like a winner! But I'd differ with you on one small point - whatever government they like, provided it's a REPUBLICAN (no relation to a political party) form of government. (Got that idea from J. Madison, Article 4, Section 4.)

  • grognard||

    True, but with the polarization we have today you might be able to convince people to go back to the original idea. Look at the benefits, Libertarians would have a real life Libertarian state and no longer need to spend [or waste] their energies trying to convince others of the wisdom of their system.

  • sarcasmic||

    The whole reason it has gotten to this point is that people want to control things. Liberals want to control the economy, conservatives want to control more personal activity. Both agree on controlling what chemicals we may put into our bodies.
    Once people get control of something, they rarely give it up willingly.
    Decentralizing would mean a loss of control.

    Not gonna happen. Not without a fight anyway. And then the winner will simply be the new person in control.

    Liberty is dead.

  • Wat Tyler||

    Very good point about the urge to control. I think the author really screwed up when he and his colleagues failed to assess people on their level of dominance issues - the individualist/statist axis.
    Both libs and cons have an urge to impose their values on others, via the government.
    I really don't see how libs see themselves as anti-authoritarian and not bound by loyalty to a group or idea. Obamaites slavering devotion to their god-king who would command all to absolute obedience? How's that comport with anti-authoritarianism?

  • ||

    I've never understood the stereotype of liberal-as-heroic-anti-authoritarian-reformer. Isn't it liberals who want a government so large and intrusive that it can intervene in every personal/social transaction to ensure the desired outcome of the New Boss, who is so clearly more capable and intelligent than the Old Boss?

  • ant1sthenes||

    I sort of like the Diamond Age approach that substitutes state/federal for phyle/common-protocol. Essentially, makes states about membership, rather than land, but preserve the notion of letting a diverse set of authorities wield day-to-day power, and having a bigger authority with powers that are mainly focused on inter-phyle relations and basic (widely-accepted) rights rather than policing the citizens of the phyles.

    It seems like it could be implemented in our system by converting the main parties and national third parties into the original phyles, and creating an alternate constitution. Clearly, since the old states would have no role, it would not be ratified by them. But if all the parties could agree on it, then it seems like it could stick regardless.

  • Wat Tyler||

    Been reading Heinlein, have you?

  • Alan||

    Uh, no. He just stated he was reading The Diamond Age (by Neal Stephenson).

    And I think that system wouldn't be a bad idea.

  • Wat Tyler||

    Sorry, it sounded like something out of one of Heinlein's masterpieces. I wasn't familiar with Stephenson and the Diamond Age. Thanks for turning me on to that, next book I'll get.

  • toolkien||

    Which community does the water flow through? The clash of philosophies, whether nature or nurture, is due to ever present scarcity. If it were so simple for such stratification to occur it would have, or more correctly it did once upon a time. Once the population exceeds the ability for the Pennsylvanias to founded, such simplicity goes out the window.

  • Muad'Dib||

    I really dislike the idea of subjectivism as reality. It seems to hinge on the idea that all viewpoints are valid e.g. "the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.". This is obviously untrue. It is cliche but familiar to say that Hitler had an ideology that many people agree with. How many 'good people' played for team Nazi. Manifest destiny and the wholesale slaughter native peoples according to god's decree was a very popular belief. And then there was/is the idea that people with dark skin are somehow less than human and can be treated as such. Why should any of us consider these viewpoints for a second? Who benefited the most when Faust made his deal?

  • Alan||

    But the fact is, "good" people support bad things all the time, frequently without really understanding just how bad the things they are doing are.

    Much better to talk to them as human beings and straighten them out before they murder their next ten million, don't you think?

  • Apple||

    These guys too.

    http://timeanddate.com

  • ChrisO||

    Politics in the USA also functions as a form of pseudo-religion. Fighting the "infidels," extreme self-righteousness, etc. etc.

    It's also become even more of a form of entertainment than it used to be...

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    "Politics in the USA also functions as a form of pseudo-religion."

    As opposed to where else? I'm willing to grant the point, but we aren't the only ones, or even abnormal in that regard.

  • ChrisO||

    I didn't mean to imply that the USA has an exclusive on that.

    We do, perhaps, take it to an absurd extreme.

  • KPres||

    I don't know. We're not the one's rioting in the streets over the smallest shit. I'll never get it. You see people take massive losses all the time in their private lives (particularly in the form of opportunity costs) and get up the next morning and carry on peacefully. Yet threaten one year of their government retirement and the next thing you know they're hurling molotov coctails through the local jewelry store window.

    Ideological self-interest is so much more powerful than financial self-interest.

  • Apple||

    Born This Way?

    If you don't know, just say, "I don't know." We don't need four pages of babbling.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Somehow this whole article, and the comments, strongly remind me of the old quote;

    "Were you born this stupid, or did you study it in school?"

  • Apple||

    I definitely studied it in school.

  • Brandon||

    I'm more of a natural.

  • Rick67||

    Good article, but I'm surprised a Reason writer would perpetuate what I think is a sloppy, inaccurate presentation of "liberal/conservative". Is "change/conserve" really the most important axis? I thought it was left/right, in the sense of "make everyone equal/allow people to be different". A modern statist liberal is a far cry from a classical liberal, one who believes in liberty, and I thought Reason was all about that. How many modern "liberals" are really conservatives in terms of their fear of danger, death, and change?

  • Doctor Whom||

    Good point. The standard boilerplate descriptions of conservatives sound an awful lot like the politically correct left.

  • Eric||

    Well said. The New Black Panther party, NOW, PETA (et al.) may represent "Liberal" causes, but their individual constituents are anything but squishy egalitarians. They and their conservative counterparts are much more alike than either would like to admit.

  • Alan||

    This author is not a libertarian, but a liberal who has come to appreciate some aspects of libertarian thought.

    Personally I think his theory could use a bit of work, but the fact that he is actually trying to understand is worth encouraging. The old political divisions are being altered, and a lot of liberals are going to be looking for a new home - perhaps it would be good to help them understand alternative views and to understand the problems with their own views.

  • KPres||

    As far as I can tell, there's three approaches to civic life:

    1. Live and let live

    2. All for one and one for all

    3. In God we trust

    And it really is that simple. Anybody who has to go through such agonizing detail trying to "understand" the other approaches is concealing some strategic motive.

  • KPres||

    Oh, and the strategy usually consists of:

    How do I (a) describe my opposition in a way that's accurate enough to be believable while (b) maintaining the narrative that at the core they're nothing but rotten, maniacal bastards and (c) congratulating myself on confirming my biases even after giving the subject such a sincere, honest and open evaluation.

  • Tommy_Grand||

    "To escape from this political mess, I believe that psychologists must work with political scientists to identify changes that will indirectly undermine Manichaeism."

    Only those blind to the fact that psychologists cause more problems than they solve could share this dangerous opinion.

  • Alan||

    Point taken, but not all branches of psychology are created equal. Some branches are even doing some interesting stuff.

    A friend of mine who recently passed away was in the psychology department at the same university as Haidt, and I think his specialty was in the physical aspects of the brain - that's a far cry from the idiot analysts.

  • lucius.junius.brutus||

    "It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say."

    No, we on the right must recognize that we are in the grips of a life and death struggle with stalinists who seek the destruction of liberty and the confiscation of property. We must adopt Feingold's injunction as our own and seek the extermination of those who would violate our rights.

  • Brandon||

    What's this "We" shit, Kemosabe?

  • ant1sthenes||

    Doesn't the left wing approach to the environment (some mythical stable, pristine state that man's greed and foolishness destroyed, and the remnants of which should be protected at all cost) tend to cover Sanctity/Degradation pretty well?

    And while they may have less racial or national loyalty, I bet you would find that they do have strong ideological and even partisan loyalty, especially if you define it terms of defense against hostile ideologies or opposing parties.

    Likewise, you would probably find that while they reject authority on the basis of tradition or social order, they afford authority on the basis of claimed/socially accepted expertise a great deal of respect, even on normative rather than descriptive subjects (e.g., they have technocratic tendencies).

    Seems like some other virtues are missing as well -- courage and self-sacrifice may be considered ends to some other means, but the same could be said of loyalty. It still covers an important distinction -- basically, to be considered "good", is it enough that a person merely avoids doing evil, or must they aggressively fight it, even at personal cost?

  • Alan||

    You are absolutely correct. I have already sent an email to Mr. Haidt concerning this, but I identified the liberal hysteria about genetically modified foods as my example of sanctity, union members murdering black strike breakers as an example of group loyalty, and adherence to stupid feminist dogma as my example of recognition of authority.

    There are some differences. As you note, the loyalty of the modern liberal is ideological rather than based on race or ethnicity (though we could say the same thing of the modern Evangelical). Authority, as in the case of feminist dogma, is delegated to an ideology or the false presumption of majority opinion.

    Sanctity is pretty much always ideological.

    The next question is why this didn't show up on the surveys that Haidt et al have been using - and I think it just didn't occur to them that these are examples of sanctity, loyalty, or authority. Those belonging to any ideology tend to be blind to its own shortcomings and assumptions, and so an ideology can only really be deconstructed by outsiders.

    That said, I hope that Haidt will seriously consider these criticisms and improve his survey. I think he is doing valuable work that can be much improved, and for that I applaud him.

    (continued)

  • Alan||

    One other thing: you will note that his research found that liberals are much less capable of understanding the beliefs of others than either moderates OR conservatives. Liberals are even worse than conservatives at identifying the beliefs of other liberals! I would like to applaud the Christian notion of sin here: when a core aspect of your belief system is that you are hopelessly fucked up, it leads to a lot more introspection than when your belief system says that you are basically a good person.

  • KPres||

    I bet they understand it better. How many conservatives used to be liberals in their 20s?

  • ||

    Both excellent points. It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the fundamental attribution error when analyzing the motivations of your ideological opposite, and the author is as guilty of it as anyone else. When you define the terms such that it is impossible for "liberals" to exhibit those nasty behaviors favored by "conservatives", and/or vice versa, you are essentially begging the question (although the effort in this particular case seems genuine rather than an ideologically-driven vendetta. There's a difference between ignorance and maliciousness).

    The best political solution to a society of diverse ideologies, of course, is to have a government small enough that it allows for a broad range of ideological expressions at the individual and local level rather than shoe-horning a centralized meta-ideology onto every subordinate system and individual. That, unfortunately, is a solution that neither ideological side can accept. Like General Turdigson in Dr. Strangelove, they each fear they will emerge from the nuclear winter 1,000 years in the future only to find themselves the victim of a mine-shaft gap with the other side having gained dominance while their backs were turned. And it's really not an irrational fear.

  • Torontonian||

    Here's how you escape the mess... a system proven repeatedly when faced with the problem of how to divide one cupcake fairly among two children while keeping both happy. Have one divide the cupcake into two pieces and allow the other one to choose first.

    In a political context, you allow one side to determine whether a matter is within the government's authority or not, and then let the other party decide how to execute that authority.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    *snark on*

    Here's an original idea! Let's write a core document that expressly limits what the government can do! Then we can make BOTH parties keep to that!

    *snark off*

  • Tommy_Grand||

    You allow?? If idiots weren't in control, there'd be no mess to escape. How do you solve the cupcake dilemma when the kids are alright but the 'parent' is an irrational authoritarian control freak with nukes and predator drones and militarized police & a congenital hankerin' to regulate all interstate cupcake consumption?

  • Doctor Whom||

    Team Red and Team Blue overlap considerably in terms of the freedoms that they would deny us. Freedom, unlike the cupcake, is not a zero-sum game.

  • toolkien||

    While the article was interesting, my experience is that both the left and the right, Republicans and Democrats, traditionalists and progressives have very similar mirror traits in their respective populations. Old people, young people, happy people, miserable people, calm people, frightened people, smart people, stupid people, peaceful people, violent people, sane people, insane people. But there is one more - collectivistic or individualistic. Those who choose to use Force against peaceful and productive people and those who don't.

    I may be wired differently, but I find compatriots among the anti-Force crowd versus those for whom State Force is the first option. It doesn't matter how you are wired, and under what manner you process information, it's how you come to the conclusion you can use Force against others so blithely. The biggest challenge is to get all people, no matter how they are wired or how that wiring is further modified by experience, to accept political and economic forms that require the least amount of coercion to function. To detect when their desire to unleash Good is rooted in Machiavellian-ism, or when their Fear is not clear and present and swinging blindly in the dark is not a solution. Both forms take on the form of righteousness for which offensive Force is justified.

  • DWC||

    WTF is this shit? The good old days when Congress and the President all worked together for the greater good? The good old days when the weasels who are screwing us did it in unison?

  • Ecdysis||

    Very insightful but the author needs to define his labels.

    If this nation was founded on classical liberalism, are the "conservatives" the liberals under this definition?

    If liberals tend to be anti-authoritarian why do they support "leftist" policies such as socialism and communism - very authoritarian, and not individualistic.

    When you say "right" do you mean laissez-faire economics, its traditional meaning, or do you mean social conservative?

    The political spectrum is far to complex for this article to have much meaning.

  • Wat Tyler||

    Quite right, the labels used by the author confused the hell out of me. I think he may be looking at right/left from a leftist view, whereby conservatives are controlling, death-dealing, uncaring bastards, oblivious to the tendencies of the hero of neo-coms, Che, Malcolm X, etc.
    Yeah, some conservatives talk like that, but on the whole, not so much.

  • Amonite||

    Interesting article, and it fits in with what I have read about behavioral genetic traits.

    There is one aspect that seems a bit off (actually a few, but I will focus on one):

    Conservatives do not seem to operate/be concerned at a 'lesser' level when it comes to care/harm.

    Consider:

    *The republican party was founded to fight slavery
    *Social conservatives have consistently been against abortion - fighting to protect the most helpless/innocent group of humans alive
    *In America, conservatives outpace liberals by 30% in donations to charity
    *Conservatives work to support opressed people around the world (ie women in muslim countries, martyrs)
    *Conservative charities tend to be for the poor/opressed, giving blood, etc, liberal charities tend more towards the arts

    True care demands personal sacrifice. If the only sacrifice is picketing your greedy neighbor (who is already giving a bigger share than you) or getting the government to pay for a cause, then you haven't shown any personal sacrifice (besides time) at all. It's like showing a giant display of care and concern that makes the whole world capplaud your care, but in the end you are just stealing from others for the funds. If you personally give something you need to someone who needs it more, that's charity.

  • Sean Mack||

    "And when political scientists looked into it, they found that self-interest does a remarkably poor job of predicting political attitudes."

    And just how did they determine what was objectively in people's self-interest?

    Cause, you know, if that information is really available it would be worth a Nobel prize, and indeed a lot more interesting than this article was.

  • Doctor Whom||

    Don't you listen to NPR or read The New York Times? The people who matter, just by using their mystical insights, can determine infallibly what everyone else's self-interest is.

  • Russ Davis||

    So hilariously true! The saddest thing about "liberals" (not that I as a student of history can possibly take the "liberal/ conservative" labels seriously) is that you simply CANNOT parody them because they always seem to beat you to it, self-parodying, which would drive comedians crazy in the attempt if they weren't already on board with the agenda and furiously covering for them/it. Only God can save us now.

  • isafakir||

    quote:There is no foundation used by the left that is not also used by the right.endquote

    absolutely categorically not true. the categories chosen to test are strictly arbitrary.

    the characterization of the liberal narrative is a caricature, leaving out altogether fundamental core features of progressive and liberal belief.

    one case in point. a core feature of liberal thought is collective, social consensus, cooperative. as opposed to authority. that is the fundamental core contribution of liberal political thought.

    the opposite of authority is not subversion. that is a peculiarly conservative idea. the real opposition and core ideal is authority vs. consensus.

    this entire discussion is a perversion of both conservative and liberal core values with its conclusions built into its research design.

    no where do the authors even mention the core beliefs of liberals. and it leaves out core beliefs of conservatives it finds inconvenient, punishment and retribution vs. reconciliation, ideology vs. fact and science, selfishness vs collective responsibility, power vs. equity. transparency vs. chronyism.

  • RoninX||

    And for a libertarian, what matters is not authority or consensus, but freedom and autonomy. Being a slave to the hierarchy is no better or worse than being a slave to the majority.

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  • Russ Davis||

    For true Christians, the few there are who are informed about more than just the rudiments of the faith, Mani & Manicheanism is a heresy grossly contrary to the true nature of the true God (http://www.theopedia.com/Manicheanism "A key belief in Manicheanism is that there is no omnipotent good power." [which of course is key to the Christian faith]) and one America's Founders would have condemned as evil, bad news, contrary to the true God's true Gospel Good News of new life in Jesus Christ. Mr. Haidt's convenient self-serving and dishonest avoidance of even the basics of the Christian faith-religion that undergirded the very foundation and fabric of America and the West for America's Founding Fathers and to a small degree Reagan
    (considering how, for all his religious claims, what a mess his personal life was, with two wives, even if consecutively, so contrary to the faith he professed, even with his "conservative" political contributions) cannot succeed in hiding the truth about history and Christianity's infinitely large (as large as its Almighty, infinite God), crucial & pivotal role in that history forever. See "Don't Waste Your Life" & "Desiring God" at www.desiringGod.org. Soli Deo gloria!

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