The conservative response to Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain has been almost as revealing as the book itself. (More)

The Republican Brain, Part II: Politics, Psychology, and Biology

This week Morning Feature looks at Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. Yesterday we considered some of the false beliefs held by Republicans, and whether Democrats are equally committed to false beliefs. Today we explore the research on why the two parties are not mirror-images, each stubbornly clinging to opposing false beliefs. Tomorrow we’ll 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.

“Both parties are (not!) the same.”

We often hear that “both parties are the same,” comprised of extremists who ignore inconvenient facts and stubbornly cling to false beliefs. Indeed the Americans Elect project was based on The Myth of the Missing Center, where both main parties are equally wrong and the truth lies somewhere between them. And as we saw yesterday, both Republicans and Democrats get facts wrong.

However, Mooney cites studies that show Republicans and Democrats get facts wrong for different reasons. As we saw in reviewing Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, progressives respond most strongly to stories about Harm and Fairness, a bit less to stories about Liberty, and much less to stories about Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. Conservatives respond about equally to stories about all six moral foundations, though “extreme conservatives” respond slightly more to stories about Loyalty, Authority, or Purity than to stories about Harm, Fairness, or Liberty.

Mooney and Haidt also agree that progressives and conservatives tend to evaluate Fairness differently, with the left more likely to favor equality and the right more likely to justify inequality in terms of unequal virtue or contribution. When an issue pushes our moral-emotional buttons, we are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning, constructing an argument to bolster intuitive emotional judgments rather than the Enlightenment model of weighing facts through dispassionate logic.

The studies Mooney cites also show Republicans and Democrats respond to new information differently. Progressives are more likely to change our beliefs when offered new evidence and highly-educated progressives are even more prone to do so. Conversely, the studies show conservatives more likely to defend their beliefs against new evidence and highly-educated conservatives are even more prone to do so. Mooney calls the latter “smart idiots” who use their intelligence and education to construct sophisticated arguments that dismiss contrary evidence and maintain false beliefs.

Drops in an OCEAN

If these studies are reliable, what explains the differences? The key, Mooney argues, may lie in the Big Five model. This proposes five broad personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism – thus the acronym OCEAN. While there is no definitive model of human psychology, the Big Five model has been refined over several decades and researchers have devised several tests that reliably measure the five traits.

Mooney cites studies that show Democrats score higher than Republicans on Openness, which corresponds to an appreciation for and tendency toward innovation, creativity, curiosity, complexity, and ambiguity. Conversely, Republicans score higher than Democrats on Conscientiousness, which corresponds to an appreciation for and tendency toward efficiency, discipline, duty, loyalty, and stability. Indeed Openness/Conscientiousness scores correlate to political ideology and voting patterns more reliably than income or religiosity.

Personality is biological, but …

They do it because they were born that way.

That is the essence of conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg’s withering criticism of Mooney’s book. Other critics like Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell follow the same path, criticizing Mooney for claiming that “Republicans are genetically inferior.” In fact, Mooney makes no such claim. While there is evidence that personality traits are heritable, Mooney repeatedly emphasizes that “the brain is highly plastic” and that our personalities are strongly influenced by our family and cultural experiences. Still, Mooney is correct that our personalities are biological. As he writes:

We’ve inherited an Enlightenment tradition of thinking of beliefs as if they’re somehow disembodied, suspended above us in the ether, and all you have to do is float up the right bit of correct information and wrong beliefs will dispel, like bursting a soap bubble. Nothing could be further from the truth. Beliefs are physical. To attack them is like attacking one part of a person’s anatomy, almost like pricking his or her skin (or worse). And motivated reasoning might perhaps best be thought of as a defensive mechanism that is triggered by a direct attack upon a belief system, physically embodied in a brain.

Our beliefs, moral values, preferences, attitudes, and knowledge exist as networks of neurons in our brains. We reinforce those networks when we repeat familiar tasks, or repeat familiar arguments. We rewire those networks when we learn new tasks, or adapt to new information and new ideas. As cognitive scientist George Lakoff writes, to “change our minds” is to literally “change our brains.”

Mooney’s thesis is that more Open people are more comfortable with changing their minds, while less Open people find that more threatening. Conversely, more Conscientious people are more comfortable with stability, while less Conscientious people find that more stifling. Combine the two traits and it makes sense that Democrats would lean somewhat more toward science and Republicans would lean somewhat more toward tradition.

… Personality is also situational.

These general tendencies are not fixed at birth. We can change our minds through study and reflection, and our minds can change depending on the situation. Indeed, research suggests that conservatism may be our ‘default’ ideology:

A research team led by University of Arkansas psychologist Scott Eidelman argues that conservatism – which the researchers identify as “an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo” – may be our default ideology. If we don’t have the time or energy to give a matter sufficient thought, we tend to accept the conservative argument.

“When effortful, deliberate responding is disrupted or disengaged, thought processes become quick and efficient,” the researchers write in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “These conditions promote conservative ideology.”

That study involved interviewing subjects on moral-political questions as they emerged from a bar. Subjects who were more intoxicated were more likely to give conservative answers, even if they self-identified as liberals and voted for Democrats. Dr. Eidelman and his colleagues emphasized this does not mean conservatism is either ‘natural’ or ‘stupid.’

We do not assert that conservatives fail to engage in effortful, deliberate thought,” they insist. “We find that when effortful thought is disengaged, the first step people take tends to be in a conservative direction.

Other studies have found that subjects are more likely to offer conservative responses if they are frightened, tired, unhappy, or standing near a hand-washing station or a smelly trash can. Another study found people more likely to offer progressive responses (and better able to solve complex problems) after watching a brief comedy clip.

In short, neither Mooney nor the scientists he cites argues that Republicans are “stupid,” or that “they are born that way.” Instead, the science suggests that our political beliefs reflect our personalities, that our personalities are partly heritable but strongly influenced by experience, and that our political beliefs are also subject to situational factors such as fatigue, mood, and even scents.

Given our growing understanding of how humans actually think, it’s hardly surprising that mere facts and logic are not enough to sway voters’ minds. Tomorrow we’ll hear from Chris Mooney and discuss what how we can better advocate progressive, evidence-based ideas.


Happy Friday!