I listened to Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur on National Public Radio describe the dire consequence of government cutbacks on workers, homeless people, poor people and injured veterans. She mentioned also the giant profits being raked in by rich investors, bankers, defense contractors and corporations. Cutting taxes for the richest while balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans, Kaptur declared, was just an unacceptable solution.
Let’s face it: These budget debates make the Republicans sound a little piggy. But is that a fair conclusion? Are liberals just kinder, gentler people than conservatives? And if so, would the world be better off getting rid of everyone else?
Not surprisingly, psychologists and other social scientists have tackled this question before. What is the connective tissue, personality-wise, between conservative positions on subjects such as gun control, penal codes and sentencing, gay marriage, the death penalty, taxation, abortion, and defense spending. What are the personality traits, in other words, of someone who takes the conservative or liberal view? How did he or she come by them?
To get to the bottom of the question without too much bias, recent investigators have made a number of new assumptions. For instance, they’ve tried to adopt the perspective that conservative politicians and voters are, like liberals, acting out of a set of genuine beliefs and values, not just selling us a bill of goods to line their own pockets. This is a big leap. Most Americans are suspicious of all politicians. And Democrats quite regularly see Republicans as the party of redneck bigots and cynical burghers. Besides that, much of the academic writing about political psychology over the past half-century took the explicit view that conservatives of all stripes, when they open their mouths, are mostly just trying to shape opinion to maintain oppressive control.
If you assume that conservatives and liberals alike are sincere in their beliefs, then the next interesting question for social science is this: What kind of person would advocate strongly for cutting taxes and cutting programs for the poor?
The simplest explanation, and probably the most widely accepted, is that conservatives are more anxious and uncertain about the future, resist change and aren’t particularly concerned about equality. Liberals, in this version, are more sanguine about human nature generally, less fearful and highly concerned about the fair distribution of benefits and costs across society. The terms “left” and “right,” after all, date back to the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly huddled into groups, those supporting the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left (you remember this from high school, right?). Since then, supporters of the old order have been called Right, while promoters of new political ideas and the redistribution of wealth and power are termed Left.
While this serves as kind of quick shorthand to keep track of the players, saying that the right wing just wants to block social progress while the left wants to promote it doesn’t add much new information. Besides, it only makes limited sense. Is a proponent of any change or new idea a left-winger? And why would curbs on your right to smoke marijuana be attractive to right-leaning voters, while curbs on your right to own a gun be attractive to those on the left. What are the common threads?
A slightly more complex picture of liberal and conservative personality types was offered by John Jost of New York University and his colleagues in a 2006 paper. Based on the idea that political ideology stems from a social psychological orientation toward uncertainty and threat, Jost describes six related personality traits that determine where you fall in the spectrum.
“Specifically, death anxiety, system (political) instability, fear of threat and loss, dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and personal needs for order, structure, and closure were all positively associated with conservatism. Conversely, openness to new experiences, cognitive complexity, tolerance of uncertainty, and … self-esteem were all positively associated with liberalism.”
While Jost’s research is peer-reviewed and credible, he seems to be saying here that, not only are liberals nicer, they are brighter and more open-minded as well. Frightened, anal-compulsive and closed-minded people tend to be conservative. I have to say, this doesn’t even slightly comport with my own experience in the world. Nor does it match up with the extreme brightness, self-confidence and mental agility of conservative writers I read in college or in the opinion sections. I can’t help but wonder if Jost’s conclusions may be tempered by the political climate among his peers: 80 percent to 90 percent of social psychologists self-identify as liberal.
I watched a TED (Television, Education and Technology) talk recently by Johnathan Haidt, a University of Virginia professor of psychology who has a different take on this liberal/conservative divide. Haidt is a pioneer in the scientific study of how you come by your moral and philosophical positions in life. His idea is that human infants come equipped with kind of primitive moral temperament — he calls it their “first draft” — made up of five foundational personality traits. Your temperament is determined by how much of each trait gets expressed, either as a result of inheritance or experience — especially early life experience.
Here are the five traits that Haidt believes comprise the basis of our moral temperament:
» Harm /care: protection of ourselves and helpless others
» Fairness: giving and getting equally
» In-group loyalty: In his TED talk, Haidt shows pictures of a snarling wolf pack and cheering Celtic fans to illustrate this characteristic.
» Respect/authority: strong leaders and respectful followers
» Sacred/purity: For this idea, Haidt offers examples of restrictive sexual mores on the right and natural food obsessions on the left.
According to Haidt, liberals (possibly from birth) have high levels of harm/care (concern about the world or people in general) and fairness (they want to share the abundance equally). Haidt calls these the “individualizing foundations,” relating to how we want society organized to protect its individual members from the selfishness of others. In-group (e.g. loyalty to one’s family), authority (law and order) and purity (e.g. sexual mores) are minimally expressed in liberals. Haidt calls these the “binding foundations” because they represent the trait that pulls you to protect and care for your family and close social group. In contrast to liberals, with their sole focus on care and fairness, conservatives have all five traits equally turned on and balanced, with less of an intense focus on the first two.
Haidt’s ideas fit easily with earlier ideas that view political ideology as a reflection of your anxiety about the world around you. In a storm, we first look for a port for ourselves and our kin, then we start pulling others out of the water. Conservatives may be temperamentally more inclined to see the world as a dangerous place where, without the safety of laws, stable mores and strong local governance, life is nasty brutish and short. By the way, twin studies demonstrate pretty conclusively that about 50 percent of the variance in these aspects of personality are inherited — so it’s no surprise that political temperament tends to run in families.
How Did We Get This Way?
If you’re interested in the question of the evolution of political temperament — how we got this way — Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has a fascinating explanation in his bestseller The Blank Slate. In making his point, he ranges from genetics to anthropology to economics to political philosophy. Because human nature evolved for the sole purpose of genetic transmission, the innate strategies that promote survival and reproduction of each human and his closest genetic relatives comprise much of his inborn behavioral repertoire. This includes taking a bullet for his brother and giving his last grain of rice to an offspring. But it also includes backstabbing and treachery, murder, cruelty, adultery and the rest of the deadly sins.
“According to evolutionary biology, all societies — animal and human — seethe with conflicts of interest, and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation.” Pinker has no argument with those who want to strive for the utopian dreams of cooperation and human perfectibility that underlie liberal philosophies. But social reality, he says, looks more like the cruel, competitive and only sometimes caring vision of life held by conservatives. Liberals are nicer, he might say, but conservatives are more rational.
The Soft Political Center
A final idea about political temperament was put forth in a recent paper by Jeff Greenberg and Eva Jonas. I have to say that this is the idea that, to me, rings truest to life. According to these authors, the simple personality schemes promoted by Jost and others correctly identify some of the personality traits at play (anxiety and dogmatism, especially), but incorrectly apply them to the political spectrum. Anxious, dogmatic people can fall into either camp, liberal or conservative, but they will fall at the extreme wings. Your level of fearfulness and mental rigidity are not a marker of your political persuasion, but of your militancy in support of any ideology.
Why We Need Conservatives
The final five minutes of Haidt’s TED talk are devoted to an idea that reinforces the importance of political diversity and the tension it produces. Successful modern political cultures — at least in the West — evolve at least partly through the mechanisms of conflict and competition between factions. Old guard and new guard factions, especially, wrestle for control in our governments and institutions. We accommodate this process through democratic means.
To get a sense of the importance of this, imagine what would happen if the conservatives suddenly switched sides, and every social program or budget item was suddenly passed, the borders were thrown open to all, 100 percent of defense spending was reallocated to education, etc. I hope it’s obvious that government as we know it would quickly cease to be. We need liberals pulling forward toward a utopian future of perfect equality, arguing passionately for social programs. But we also need conservatives pulling hard on the reins, warning against the waste or exploitation of our collective resources, and buying at least a few F17s.
Haidt called this the yin and yang of American politics and argued for accepting the package, “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” (Winston Churchill).
— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.