Wired World Views: Preserving the Other’s Truth

FireTagdiversity, general, Government, liberal, Mormon, politics, science 14 Comments

In a February 2, 2008, cover story in New Scientist, Jim Giles asked whether political leanings were genetic:

“…Across the land, liberals and conservatives are slugging it out, trying to convince each other that their way of thinking is right. They may be wasting their breath.

“According to an emerging idea, political positions are substantially determined by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to reason. ‘These views are deep-seated and built into our brains. Trying to persuade someone not to be liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown eyes. We have to rethink persuasion,’ says John Alford, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

“Evidence to support this idea is growing. For example, twin studies suggest that opinions on a long list of issues, from religion in schools to nuclear power and gay rights, have a substantial genetic component. The decision to vote rather than stay at home on election day may also be linked to genes. Neuroscientists have also got in on the act, showing that liberals and conservatives have different patterns of brain activity.”

The article goes on to tie genetics to political views through the mechanisms by which genetics influence the formation of basic personality types, which are highly heritable. These, in turn, seem to be readily correlated with modern American political party preferences. (The genetic linkage is not limited to Americans, but other nations express the linkage to policy through different political institutions unique to their cultures.)

According to an existing and well-respected personality model, five basic personality axes can be defined: conscientiousness, openness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The latter two seem to have little to do with political orientation, but the other three axes do show strong differences between Liberals and Conservatives.

Conscientious people are defined as being organized, self-disciplined, and responsible, and likely to follow rules. Conscientious people tend to favor conservative political positions and oppose liberal positions.

Open people are defined as anticipating new experiences, seeing change as presenting opportunities rather than problems, and as envisioning the possibilities of the world that might be.  Open people tend to favor liberal positions and oppose conservative positions.

Extroverted people are quick to self-disclose, process information out loud and like to be seen as being busy. Extroverted people also tend to favor liberal positions and oppose conservative ones.

Now, no psychological model can reproduce the complexity of a human being, and the article itself is filled with qualifications and limitations of the various research studies involved. But it ends with a quote that I find very relevant to discussions we’ve been having on Mormon Matters:

“So the guy at the bar [blog] may never agree with you, but perhaps realizing that can be liberating. ‘We spend a lot of energy getting upset with the other side,’ says Alford. ‘We often think our opponents are misinformed or stubborn. Accepting that people are born with some of their views changes that’, Alford points out. ‘Come to terms with these differences, and you can spend the energy now wasted on persuasion on figuring out ways of accommodating both points of view.”

In fact, perhaps God (and/or evolution, if you prefer) designed humanity that way quite intentionally – with separate preferences imparting resistance for society to various “spiritual diseases”. After all, different strains of wheat protect the field from the emergence of a new fungus.

Perhaps, rather than either liberals or conservatives being right or meeting in a middle ground, we actually need to preserve each other to hear truth.

Do we, as spoken of in Genesis and Ether, metaphorically speak to each other with “confounded languages” that prevent communication before it even begins?  And do we also need to pray that our languages “be not confounded”?

Comments 14

  1. I’ve never been a fan of studies purporting to demonstrate psychological bases for factional allegiances. For one thing, what is the “conservative” and what is the “liberal” position on an issue fluctates. To the Old Guard Republicans (McKinley and earlier), tariffs were good and free trade was bad. It was the liberals who wanted a less protectionist trade policy. Now the allegiances are exactly reversed.

    During the 1930s, the strongest opponents of an activist and militaristic foreign policy were the Old Right types (like J. Reuben Clark), while the “liberals” were much more comfortable engaging the United States in foreign wars. Again, the positions are now reversed.

    The original Progressives, in the nineteen-teens and twenties, were heavily into eugenics. Now pretty much nobody is, except that the people who (disingenuously) accuse their opponents of “eugenic” thinking (based on things like suggestions to give drug addicts, etc. financial incentives to use Norplant) tend to be located on the left.

    Anyway, what kind of liberals, or what kind of conservatives, are we talking about here? There is a world of psychological difference between the comical “we are doomed” paleoconservatism of a John Derbyshire, vs. the happy-skippy neoconservative optimism of a Bill Kristol.

    Also, I’m skeptical of the stereotype of liberals as being “open to new experiences” and “envisioning the possibilities of the world that might be.” My experience with plenty of actual liberals is that they are as terrified of entertaining challenges to their worldview as the more white-knuckled type of Mormon.

    My perception is that more people are more alike than these kinds of studies would have it. Between two randomly-selected people, one liberal and the other conservative, there is likely to be little difference in their actual personalities. (I’m comparing myself to a liberal attorney in my office of similar age, family configuration, interests, etc.) The difference is that at some point, each of us located ourselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and it’s off to the confirmation-bias races: We each see the same facts, but no matter how hard we try to remain objective, there’s at least a marginal tendency to select for facts that support rather than diminish our chosen worldviews.

    As for “twin studies,” etc., I suspect it would be very hard to control for the fact that people do tend to adopt something resembling the political outlook of their parents.

  2. Thomas:

    You make several interesting points that I should amplify, because your points are well taken.

    First of all, the various points you make about how liberal and conservative positions flip over time are something related to what I was trying to recognize by noting: “The genetic linkage is not limited to Americans, but other nations express the linkage to policy through different political institutions unique to their cultures.” The same thing applies to how basic personality types tend to view issues differently in different eras. Certainly my personal political positions have evolved over time without a basic change in my personality type. I’m as risk adverse as I ever was, for example, but my judgments of which risks I’d better worry about have certainly changed.

    So there is certainly a lot of variability among “libera;s” or “conservatives” on policy issues, but those scoring high on the “conscientious” personality dimension are about twice as likely to hold conservative as liberal positions (on current issues), and the correlation is even stronger on the openness axis.

    The twin studies refer to studies of identical twins versus fraternal twins, even though both sets are raised by the same parents. When the identical twins hold views more similar to each other thasn the fraternal twins do, that’s considered evidence in all phychological fields for genetic rather than environmental influences playing a role.

  3. Interesting. Still skeptical. Will have to look further into these studies.

    But when I see things like this:

    “Trying to persuade someone not to be liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown eyes. We have to rethink persuasion,’ says John Alford, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.”

    …I think of the original “neoconservatives,” virtually all of which were former left-liberals. I do think that liberalism has obtained an increasingly strong authoritarian streak (as many of its “countercultural” ideas became the new conventional wisdom), while American conservatism has grown increasingly libertarian.

    What issues, specifically, were used by this study to classify people as “liberal” or “conservative”?

  4. Hi, FireTag,

    With an academic and professional background in science, psychology, and ministry, I find your post very intriguing. You write: “Perhaps, rather than either liberals or conservatives being right or meeting in a middle ground, we actually need to preserve each other to hear truth.” This makes me wonder if perhaps there is some biological correlation for those who can see both sides of view or transcend the either/or dilemma. Thanks for the post.


  5. The study in New Scientist is just one of *many* attempts to pathologize the political Other. Examples of such are too many for me to list here now; I’ve been reading them for years.
    “Science” has been enlisted to promote political philosophy for as long as I have been paying attention. Be skeptical of claims as to how science can explain how some people are good and positive, and other people are incorrigibly bad and therefore we should enact policy type X. Look at the assumptions and presuppositions.

  6. Oh come now, N. Surely Soviet-era psychology was pure as the driven Siberian snow, and was certainly never employed to classify dissenters as psychotic.

    That said, a well-meaning member of my MTC branch presidency did suggest I see a Church-provided therapist when I confessed to some “testimony issues,” so maybe the temptation to this kind of thing is more universal than we’d suspect.

  7. N:

    The New Scientist article itself emphasizes the point you make that many people DO try to pathologize the differences. That’s the problem we’ve got to be mindful about in other to preserve the other’s truth.

    Because we do usually lie on one side of most personality dimensions, we do start out with a bias that one of those sides is “good” and the other is “bad”.

    I’m trying to suggest that God designed us as a species to have those biases for a “wise purpose” to protect and balance each other, not because one side was “better” than the other.

    TH: Is there a biological type for seeing both sides? I don’t know of any research on the subject in the American culture, but I have seen some things to suggest that Asian cultures may be more conducive to holding opposing views simultaneously. In fact, the New Scientist article discusses a study that indicates differences between liberals and conservatives in brain activity in which conflicting visual information is presented to test subjects.


    The article mentions some fairly long questionaires designed to explore political attitudes, but one has to subscribe to the peer-reviewed journals in which the studies were published to look at the original data, and I’m just not willing to do that much homework. The New Scientist article specifically mentions religion in schools, nuclear power, day rights, and property taxation as being among the questions asked.

    The nucleear power issue should be a particularly interesting one to follow in regard to your earlier comment about changing policy positions. In the 1960’s, opposition to nuclear power was a strong liberal environmentalist marker; in the current environmental movement, nuclear power is seen as part of the solution to global warming and no longer such a marker of right or left.

  8. “in the current environmental movement, nuclear power is seen as part of the solution to global warming and no longer such a marker of right or left.”

    Good point. Probably should modify to “in part of the current environmental movement,” because the “deep” wing of the movement tends to be averse to a technological (as opposed to hair-shirted Puritanical) solution to environmental problems, and doesn’t like nuclear power any more than they did in the sixties.

  9. I’ve pretty much done the full flip-flop from liberal to conservative and back to liberal.

    Actually, I couldn’t see myself voting for parties. They’re self-interested more than anything else, IMO. So I always vote policies and people.

    Before we know it, we’re going to have a new eugenics movement on our hands. Although I’d be interested in how they have controlled the upbringing of identical twins.

  10. There is a verse in the Qur’an that I think is beautiful. “O Mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” The verse leads us to believe that God created the differences in Man, not so we might fight, but that we might have something to overcome in order to love each other.

    A further explanation is here: http://www.soundvision.com/Info/racism/quran.asp

  11. #11 Arthur: A beautiful sentiment, but it only goes so far:

    “Fight those who believe not in Allah and the Last Day and do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden — such men as practice not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book — until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled”

    “We have learned by sad experience” that a movement that negates one brand of tribalism, invariably slips into another.

  12. Pingback: WIRED WORLD VIEWS: PRESERVING THE OTHER’S TRUTH « The Fire Still Burning

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