What explains conservatism? Famous left-leaning magazine MotherJones wants to know, and Chris Mooney writes about new research that might explain the puzzle in a piece that’s making the rounds on Facebook: Scientists Are Beginning to Figure Out Why Conservatives Are…Conservative. Here’s a part of the solution to the puzzle, right from the article:
The occasion of this revelation is a paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. (The paper can be read for free here.) In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including their own experiments using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of “a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it,” as one of their papers put it).
In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.
The reason I love this paper is because it’s not often that life hands me an example of prejudicial thinking so perfectly gift-wrapped for analysis. In this case, there’s absolutely no reason why the exact same underlying experimental evidence couldn’t be presented using a totally different frame. Instead of talking about a “negativity bias” and wondering why conservatives are so negative and speculating that this might explain conservatism, one could take the exact same data and talk about a “Pollyanna bias” and wonder why liberals are so unaware of threats and speculate that this might explain liberalism.
This is how political partisanship works, folks. It’s not that conservatives and liberals have different conclusions. Sure, that’s what most of the debates are about (for or against gun control, abortion, gay marriage, etc.) Those debates never get anywhere, however, because they miss the point. Conservatives and liberals see the world in different ways, and the way their conflicting world views actually compete with each other for followers is by spreading the assumptions that–if you accept them–lead logically to their policy positions. The way to win a debate is not by having more evidence or better reasoning because people don’t actually pay very much attention to evidence or reason. The way to win the debate–or at least to gin up your own side–is to frame it in such a way that you must be correct before the debate even starts.
Thus, in this case, Mooney starts out with the question: how do we explain conservatism? What he doesn’t actually come out and say–but what is actually the most important part of his piece–is the assumption that conservatism is an aberration and liberalism is the norm. There’s nothing about liberalism we have to explain; it’s just natural. But conservatism? It begs for some kind of explanation. Once you accept that premise, there’s really not much left to talk about. C. S. Lewis even invented a term for this debate style: bulverism:
The modern method [of argumentation] is to assume without discussion that [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth [and Twenty-First] Century.1
As pleased as I am to have such a clear case study of Bulverism / winning the argument through framing ready at hand from now on, the thing that makes me sad is that it isn’t just MotherJones engaging in it. The researchers, by using the term “negativity bias” without an accompanying “positivity bias”, are jumping right in as well. (The name of their paper is: “Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology.”) Although sad, it’s hardly surprising. Dr. Jonathan Haidt was quoted about this very problem in the NYTimes back in 2011. Commenting on total domination of social psychology by the political left, he has said:
Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation. But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.
The article goes on to quote him again:
Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.
It’s bad enough to have MotherJones serving up the Kool-Aid, but it’s really quite sad to have academic researchers as their direct suppliers.
As a coda: I do think that there are real and interesting psychological differences to study with regards to politics. But I think that this research is most useful when, as Haidt’s own Moral Foundations Theory does2, it seeks to take all sides seriously and create room for understanding and common ground. And not when, as with the articles in question, it serves as a flimsy excuse to pathologize your political opponents.