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Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote differently. They think differently

April 14, 2012

Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote differently. They think differently.

Fascinating (if you are a political and policy nerd like me) article in the Washington Post about the differences in the way Conservatives and Liberals view things…spoiler alert…I am glad I land on the Liberal side of things.

I am not going to post the entire text of the article, you can click through above to read it in its entirety, but I will pull out some items that resonated with me, and I will comment on them.  Follow me over the illuminating illustration for more:

Notice the Illustration: Liberal = Open-Minded / Conservative = Closed-Minded

Liberals and conservatives have access to the same information, yet they hold wildly incompatible views on issues ranging from global warming to whether the president was born in the United States to whether his stimulus package created any jobs. But it’s not just that: Partisanship creates stunning intellectual contortions and inconsistencies. Republicans today can denounce a health-care reform plan that’s pretty similar to one passed in Massachusetts by a Republican — and the only apparent reason is that this one came from a Democrat.

There’s now a large body of evidence showing that those who opt for the political left and those who opt for the political right tend to process information in divergent ways and to differ on any number of psychological traits.

Perhaps most important, liberals consistently score higher on a personality measure called “openness to experience,” one of the “Big Five” personality traits, which are easily assessed through standard questionnaires. That means liberals tend to be the kind of people who want to try new things, including new music, books, restaurants and vacation spots — and new ideas.

“Open people everywhere tend to have more liberal values,” said psychologist Robert McCrae, who conducted voluminous studies on personality while at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Conservatives, in contrast, tend to be less open — less exploratory, less in need of change — and more “conscientious,” a trait that indicates they appreciate order and structure in their lives.

I was having a conversation about open-mindedness with a great teacher at my school, her and I were in agreement about how having an open-mind is a good thing, not something bad.  I wonder how many of my readers have stone-cold conservative types in their families.  Have you ever tried to have a meaningful conversation with a conservative who has an answer for everything and none of what they say is based in any logic at all?  They are all just talking points generated out of the vapid FoxNews sound machine.  Well, this article tells us why, research tells us that conservatives don’t like to consider new ideas, or thoughts…they just want something to be the way that it is because that point of view agrees with their worldview of things…see, I told you this was fascinating stuff.

This next part is what I find to be really interesting:

We see the consequences of liberal openness and conservative conscientiousness everywhere — and especially in the political battle over facts. Liberal irrationalities tend toward the sudden, new and trendy, such as, say, subscribing to the now largely discredited idea that childhood vaccines cause autism. This assertion was tailor-made for plucking liberal heartstrings, activating a deeply felt need to protect children from harm, especially harm allegedly caused by big, rich drug companies.

But the claims about vaccine risks happened to be factually wrong. And how do we know? Scientists — who themselves lean liberal — debunked them. Over time, so did many other liberals. And in significant measure, it worked: There are still many people who cling to this inaccurate belief, but it is much, much harder these days to defend it, especially in the news media.

When a liberal’s world view, or any other view for that matter, is challenged they can utilize the open-mindedness that is one of their innate character traits to change their opinion if new evidence presents itself that contradicts what was previously known.  Now, contrast that example with the conservative mind-set:

Compare this with a different irrationality: refusing to admit that humans are a product of evolution, a chief point of denial for the religious right. In a recent poll, just 43 percent of tea party adherents accepted the established science here. Yet unlike the vaccine issue, this denial is anything but new and trendy; it is well over 100 years old. The state of Tennessee is even hearkening back to the days of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, more than 85 years ago. Itjust passed a bill that will weaken the teaching of evolution.

Yes, conservatives are still debating evolution…yes, evolution.  We have seen this many times before, but two topics that aggravate me are the right-wing’s obfuscation of known science with regard to evolution and to global warming.

Now consider another related trait implicated in our divide over reality: the “need for cognitive closure.” This describes discomfort with uncertainty and a desire to resolve it into a firm belief. Someone with a high need for closure tends to seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information. Those who have this trait can also be expected to spend less time processing information than those who are driven by different motivations, such as achieving accuracy.

A number of studies show that conservatives tend to have a greater need for closure than do liberals, which is precisely what you would expect in light of the strong relationship between liberalism and openness. “The finding is very robust,” explained Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychologist who has pioneered research in this area and worked to develop a scale for measuring the need for closure.

The trait is assessed based on responses to survey statements such as “I dislike questions which could be answered in many different ways” and “In most social conflicts, I can easily see which side is right and which is wrong.”

The need for cognitive closure, yes, I know it well.  It is the old George W. Bush world of right or wrong, black or white, no grey areas needed.  Conservatives feel a need to just know something, well, because, they just know it…don’t let those pesky facts get in your way…I have never subscribed to this way of thinking and I never will.  To me, the world is choc-full of shades of grey, as it should be, because people are not one-dimensional…we are multi-dimensional and complicated…and when you can accept that and be alright with it, you have opened up your mind a little bit.  I posit that if the world were full of more open-minded people, it might be a little more pleasant to live in.


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