The Sciences

More on the Psychology of Liberals and Conservatives

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMar 2, 2011 3:57 PM

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My post last week on "Liberals, Conservatives, and Science" triggered a response from a researcher, Everett Young of Washington University in St. Louis, who studies and teaches about the psychology of political opinion formation. (See his syllabus here.) In the initial post, I had asserted that the burden of proof falls on those who would claim that left-right splits are caused by anything more than standard political jostling, interests coming into conflict, coalitions forming, etc. In contrast, Young argues that the burden actually falls on those of us who don't know the psychology literature or understand how well, in his words, the "psychology-ideology link" is now supported. Huh. Well this is going to be interesting, at any rate, so let's go through what he has to say. Young starts out like this:

I think if you look at the political science literature over the last few decades, the burden of proof has shifted dramatically onto those who would deny a psychology-ideology link. Even without Jost, the evidence has grown into somewhat of a mountain. And Alford, et al.’s findings on genetics are only controversial insofar as people don’t like them. The evidence for a genetics-ideology link is also overpowering, even if we haven’t mapped out exactly how it happens.

Young is talking about the work of John Jost at NYU and John Alford at Rice. I've read some of it, but being a mere journalist, it's hard for me to say how well their results--suggesting a correlation between psychology and ideology and genes and ideology, respectively--are "established" or "accepted." It certainly does seem that research in this area--explaining the root causes of our ideological differences--is growing. Young's next assertion is critical for our debate about liberals, conservatives, and science--because it helps to neutralize my "it's just politics" explanation:

Moreover, the suggestion that the Republican party’s being less anti-science in the early 1970s than it is today is evidence that science is, under the right cultural circumstances, equally compatible with a conservative psychology says little, too, because the Republican and Democratic parties were very different then than they are today, and surely aren’t synonymous with right-left ideology. Even today they are STILL not synonymous with conservatism and liberalism, but they were much farther away then from being so. The reason why more scientists are liberal can hardly be divorced from the question of why academics generally are liberal. If the psychological profile that produces curiosity and the desire to learn both makes one liberal and makes one more likely an academic, then its making one a scientist is barely in need of explanation.

I guess the explanation here would be, tracking how the parties have changed in their alignment with science over the years does not refute the claim that there are underlying differences between liberals and conservatives. The Republican Party of Eisenhower, in this view, really just wasn't very conservative. I certainly do agree that American politics was way more centrist in that era than it is now, and ideological divides were less sharp. As for liberals and academia: Young's explanation seems fairly close one of the explanations that had already come up in comments on a prior post--many discussants cited a "traditionalism vs. openness/progress axis, in which liberals/scientists were depicted as being in search of the different and new (new findings, new experiences) where as conservatives were painted as resistant to change and attracted to routines, stability, and long existing structures." It would appear that Young accepts this psychological sorting exercise. He then continues:

Chris is right that some model must be proposed to explain HOW a cognitively flexible (rigid) psychology produces liberal (conservative) opinion formation. However, Jost and others (including me) have done exactly that. I agree more with some researchers’ ideas than others’, however, I don’t think it can be said any longer that the default assumption, against which we are Quixotically tilting, is that there are no psychological differences between libs and cons. The psychological differences are well documented, and the hypothesis that they are the RESULT of ideology rather than the other way around is by far the less parsimonious, more strained one. The need to map out HOW, in greater and greater detail, psychological variables produce systematic left-right differences opinion formation is the task set before political psychology. However, the need to establish that, at least to some extent, it happens, has been surmounted in my opinion.

Here, again, is where being a journalist is tough: You're reporting on the views of experts, not being one yourself. So when I hear "well documented," I pause. I agree there's lots of research on this subject--and, as Young admits, lots more to be done. But how well accepted is it within the relevant expert community? My sense is that a lot of researchers hold this stuff at arm's length--perhaps out of bias or closed-mindedness or political correctness, or perhaps for more legitimate reasons. So I guess my question for Young would be: If it's as well established as you say, why isn't it treated that way?

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