Chris Mooney changed his mind in writing his book. Can his insights help conservatives change their minds? (More)

The Republican Brain, Part III: Changing Minds, a Q&A with Chris Mooney (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. Thursday we considered some of the false beliefs held by Republicans, and whether Democrats are equally committed to false beliefs. Yesterday we explored the research on why the two parties are not mirror-images, each stubbornly clinging to opposing false beliefs. Today we conclude with a brief interview with Mooney, and his proposals for bridging the partisan gap.

Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a contributing editor for Science Progress. In 2009, he was a visiting associate at Princeton University’s Center for Collaborative History. In 2009–10, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chris Mooney is traveling this week and was unable to join our discussion in the comments. However, he graciously agreed to answer several questions by email:


How much did researching and writing the book require you to “change your mind,” and how difficult was that process for you?

There have actually been several mind changing moments for me here. And in each case, the process is somewhat difficult, but I feel that you have to follow the evidence over time because, well, you respect science too much not to.

First, and like many journalists and many liberals, I was initially resistant to the fundamental idea that liberals and conservatives are just different people. For instance, if you read my Mother Jones article about motivated reasoning that preceded the book, I basically argue there that both sides are biased, end of story, no reason to go any further.

However, the more I read the research being produced by people like NYU’s John Jost and his colleagues, the more I became convinced that they had compiled a body of evidence too compelling to ignore. The evidence came from multiple researchers and disciplines, and it supported the idea of liberal-conservative differences in interlocking ways. This is what we expect to see in serious science, of the sort that points to reliable conclusions. So that was one mind-changer.

The second one is that I initially thought that in terms of how they process information, the key difference between liberals and conservatives would indeed be a difference in a specific mechanism called motivated reasoning. And that’s what the study at the end of the book is designed to test.

Note: Mooney helped Dr. Everett Young design and conduct a study at Louisiana State University to test whether conservatives are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning on any issue – political or non-political – and their initial data do not support that hypothesis. While conservative subjects were more likely to resist new information that related to political issues, there was no statistical difference between conservatives’ and liberals’ resistance to new information on non-political issues such as a favorite athlete, musician, or university. However, Mooney and Young found a difference they had not predicted: conservative subjects spent much less time reading the new information they were presented, regardless of the issue.

But the study didn’t really show this – though it contained some fascinating hints. So as of now, I cannot say that motivated reasoning is the key source of the difference that we’re seeing, between left and right, in terms of how they respond to inconvenient realities.

And in fact, it turns out that isn’t really necessary to postulate that the left and right, on average, differ in a tendency towards motivated reasoning in order account for the results we’re seeing. There are many ways in which they do differ, such as personality and openness to new information (with conservatives less open), or tribal and in-group commitment (with conservatives more group-oriented), that could produce a “reality gap” between left and right of the sort that we actually see in the world today.

So that was another mind changer.

You offer research showing that Republicans find it harder to “change their minds,” at least in terms of new information that challenges conservative orthodoxy and identity. Have progressives’ and conservatives’ responses to your book been consistent with that hypothesis?

Oh yes, absolutely. Note that in the new study reported in the book, we found that conservatives were spending a lot less time reading the essay materials we gave them – and indeed, the conservatives who are angriest about my book show little evidence of having read it.

So, yes: The conservative response to the book, perhaps epitomized by Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, but also Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard, smacks of closed-mindedness. The irony is here is sort of staggering. These people are willing to dismiss an entire scientific field – and it just happens to be an entire field which suggests that they’re willing to dismiss entire fields.

In The Republican Brain you focus on the importance of respectful conversations that identify and build on shared values – what we at BPI call Fred Whispering – and on using evocative and true stories rather than reams of facts. What advice would you offer for advocating progressive ideas to conservatives?

In general what we find is that it is possible, to an extent, to get conservatives to change their views in controlled psychology experiments, depending on how you frame information for them. The real word is not a controlled experiment, though, so whether this actually works very often there is another matter. But based on the experiments, these are the sorts of things you want to do if you want to open a conservative mind about ideas like global warming.

First, have an exchange in person. Interpersonal exchanges always work better and force people to listen to one another, rather than demonize one another.

Second, frame the science in a way that supports this conservative’s core values. So show that climate science is consistent with religious values, free market values, entrepreneurial values.

Third – and this is where liberals inevitably fall short – it would help to, er, be a credible conservative messenger. A religious leader, for instance, or an industry leader. But liberals have far too few of those in their ranks.

Clearly, speaking as an authority that conservatives respect will help change their minds.

You also call on progressives to be ‘more conservative,’ not in policy but becoming better organized and self-disciplined. Do you worry that may prove as difficult as convincing conservatives to be more open to science and/or that practicing greater organization and self-discipline might nudge progressives’ policy ideas toward greater conservatism?

Not really. I think this is unnatural to progressives, just as circling the wagons to defend the team or tribe is natural to conservatives. But the big difference is that by definition, progressives are open to change and trying out new things. That’s the mark of who they are. So they should, by definition, be more adaptable. They should be better able to come up with different strategies when the ones they’re using aren’t working.

I think progressive movements have, for too long, splintered into disloyal factions or rambled a disorganized fashion. In terms of disorganization, I think Occupy Wall Street epitomizes this problem.

But I know that progressives want to do better and are deeply intellectually interested in why they so often do not. To me, over time, that means they are going to embrace this knowledge, look in the mirror, and organize themselves better.


Changing minds: ours and others’

I agree with Mooney that we progressives must become better organized and more self-disciplined in our advocacy. We discussed one example last week: why words like “marriage equality” matter in political dialogue. Too often we adopt the language of Conservative rather than rigorously speaking the language of Progressive. Ironically, in resisting pressure to “repeat the party line,” we often end up repeating the other party’s lines.

However, while the Occupy Movement have not (yet) shown the organization or discipline of the Tea Party – who found and supported Republican candidates for federal, state, and local elections in 2010 and 2012 – they did introduce the phrases “Top One Percent” and “99 Percent” into the Progressive language. Those have been stickier and more effective in pushing the issue of income inequality than President Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s “Wall Street/Main Street” frame.

I was delighted to see Mooney emphasize the face-to-face political conversations that we at BPI call Fred Whispering. It’s not enough to talk among ourselves, online or in progressive and Democratic offline groups. We must also talk with our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors in our communities, and focus more on forming relationships than on ‘winning’ arguments. We can’t all be religious or industry leader Authorities, but we can often become another, equally convincing kind of Authority … trusted friends.

Finally, Mooney also reminds us to become better storytellers. As we discussed in January, stories are ‘stickier’ than facts and logic. And as Chip and Dan Heath emphasize in Made to Stick, stories better embed nuance and – more important – work as “flight simulators” that better prepare us to take action.

Research suggests conservatism may be the ‘default’ attitude, but history shows that progressives can overcome that if we work together, reach out to people we meet, and tell our stories.


Happy Saturday!