Political rhetoric and numerous studies agree that conservatives tend to be stricter and more hierarchical, and liberals more nurturing and egalitarian. Are these rooted in genetic adaptations to family life? (More)

Our Political Nature Part II: Conscientiousness, Discipline, and Inequality

This week Morning Feature explores Avi Tuschman’s new book Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us. Yesterday we saw how ‘social issues’ like racism and gender roles reflect evolutionary impulses for inbreeding and outbreeding. Today we see the familial evolutionary roots of our different views on wealth inequality. Tomorrow we’ll examine why conservatives see life through the lens of competition, while liberals see it through the lens of cooperation. Saturday we’ll discuss how to apply these insights in talking with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

Avi Tuschman earned a Ph.D in evolutionary anthropology from Stanford University. He has worked with presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and legislators on five continents, as well as with multilateral banks to mediate social and economic conflicts in developing countries.

Please welcome Dr. Tuschman as he joins our discussions this week.

“The anxiety-provoking idea of living in an unjust world”

Both the left and right talk about “fairness” but, as we saw in our discussion of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, we disagree on what that means. Liberals tend to see fairness as implying equality, unless there is a clear and compelling reason to vary from that. For example, we all want every child to be safe at school, but even liberals agree that the special threats faced by the president justify the extra protection the Secret Service provides for Sasha and Malia Obama. Conversely, conservatives tend to see fairness as proportionality and, in general, accept and often celebrate wide gulfs of wealth and income.

Indeed if you tell a liberal and a conservative a story about someone in need, they are likely to find very different reasons. The liberal is more likely to propose situational factors – inherited wealth and social privilege, government policy, or bad luck – while the conservative is more likely to focus on that individual’s own actions. As Dr. Tuschman writes:

Political psychologists call the conservative attitude toward power hierarchies a “Belief in a Just World” (BJW). The BJW asserts that “the world is a fair place wherein people get what they deserve and, often, deserve what they get.” Social psychologist Melvin Lerner first postulated the just-world hypothesis in the 1960s. Lerner was originally interested in the psychological tendency of some people to blame the victims of crimes or accidents for their own misfortune. He originally theorized that this thought pattern served as a defense mechanism against the anxiety-provoking idea of living in an unjust world.

“The right to be master of existence”

The BJW echoes often in conservative rhetoric. Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% comment described the working poor as people who refuse to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), routinely talks about “makers” and “takers.” When accepting the V.P. nomination in 1992, then-Sen. Dan Quayle (R-IN) objected to progressive income taxes, asking “Why should the best people be punished?”

The BJW is not limited to American conservatives. Dr. Tuschman quotes Keith Joseph, a British Conservative Party leader, denigrating the poor a 1974 speech:

The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened…. A high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence…. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment…. They are producing problem children, the future unmarried mothers, delinquents, denizens of our borstals, sub-normal education establishments, prisons, hostels for drifters.

And celebrating the opposite extreme, we find this, written in 1925:

Nature does not know political frontiers. She first puts the living beings on this globe and watches the free game of energies. He who is strongest in courage and industry receives, as her favorite child, the right to be master of existence.

Those were not the words of Ayn Rand. They were Adolf Hitler’s, in Mein Kampf.

Conscientiousness, Sibling Rivalry, and Infantus Interruptus

Dr. Tuschman presents studies showing that conservatism is linked to higher scores of Conscientiousness, the personality trait that predicts organization, the need for achievement, attention to detail, and a preference for rules and structure. Like Openness, Conscientiousness is a naturally varying trait that appears in a normal distribution curve within each culture. And like Openness, the means and variances shift between cultures.

But why do humans need rules and discipline? The answer, as Dr. Tuschman describes, is obvious to any parent. A child has 100% of his/her own genes, but shares only 50% of the parents’ and siblings’ genes (25% for half-siblings). Meanwhile a parent has an equal evolutionary (50% gene) stake in each child, and a substantial stake in the parent’s own survival, staying alive to help them reach adulthood and assist them as a grandparent. Simply, those numbers don’t match … and each child wants more of a parent’s time and resources than the parent can reasonably commit to that one child.

The predictable result is sibling rivalry, and it begins even before a sibling is conceived. In hunter-gatherer societies, diseases and other threats kill about half of children before age five. That coin-flip chance for survival drops dramatically, to mortality rates of 70% or higher, if a younger sibling is born before an older sibling reaches age five. Thus, nursing a baby interrupts ovulation, reliably for the first 8-9 months and diminishing by age two. But toddlers often resist going to bed at night, and wake up crying during the night … an evolutionary contraceptive strategy that Dr. Tuschman calls “infantus interruptus.”

A note about “selfish genes”

An interrupting three-year-old doesn’t think of stubbornly refusing to go to bed, or crying at night, as a contraceptive strategy to maximize his/her parental attention and probability of survival until he/she reaches age five. The child doesn’t need to think of that. That analysis is coded into his/her “selfish genes.”

That is, infants and toddlers who nursed longer and fussed when their parents wanted to have sex had an evolutionary advantage over children who didn’t. More “infantus interruptus” infants would reach adulthood and have more offspring, and in time more of the human population included people whose genes predisposed them for “infantus interruptus.”

All genes are “selfish,” in the sense that they produce traits that help ensure their survival. But as we’ll see tomorrow, the “selfish genes” theory does not mean that human beings, or other animals, are exclusively selfish.

Fear or guilt: strict vs. nurturing parents

Because young children evolved to demand more time and resources than parents can commit to a single child, all parents have to set rules and enforce discipline. But not all parents do that in the same way, and that difference both reflects and is reflected in conservative and liberal attitudes on hierarchy and fairness.

Liberal parents are more likely to be egalitarian and nurturing. In cultures around the world, liberal parents are more willing (than the average for their cultures) to encourage children to question authority, and more willing to explain the reasons for a parental decision. In punishing misbehavior, liberal parents are more likely to leverage guilt (“I’m very disappointed in you”) or to withdraw attention (“Go to your room until you calm down enough to behave properly”). Liberal parents are also more likely to wonder if their own actions or other situational factors contributed to the child’s behavior, and to apologize if the parent believes he/she did so.

Conservative parents are more likely to be hierarchical and strict. In cultures around the world, conservative parents are less willing (than the average for their cultures) to allow children to question authority (“You live in my house and you live by my rules”), and less willing to explain decisions (“Because I said so”). In punishing misbehavior, conservative parents are more likely to leverage fear (spanking or the threat of spanking) and to continue confrontations until the child submits (“Don’t you dare walk away from me!”). Conservative parents are also less likely to wonder if their own actions or other situational factors contributed to the child’s behavior, and less likely to apologize. (Personal note: my father once accidentally dropped a cigarette ember on me, and spanked me for complaining.)

As cognitive linguist George Lakoff has noted – and Dr. Tuschman presents survey data and case studies to support – the same poles of egalitarian vs. hierarchy, nurturing vs. strict, and guilt vs. fear distinguish the liberal and conservative political worldviews. Indeed, as we’ll see tomorrow, fear is one of conservatism’s most defining attributes: fear of the Other, fear of the Enemy Within, and fear of Moral Decay.


Happy Thursday!