Our Political Brains

I stumbled across this article by Joshua Holland at  Bill Moyers website discussing the ways in which psychologists and sociologists are studying cognitive styles and how those styles shape and influence political positions.  The article is an interview of science writer Chris Mooney.  The basic insight that keeps coming up in these studies is that liberals and conservatives think very differently about the world.  Lakoff described as “strict father” versus “nurturant parent”, but that’s just one way of thinking about the differences.

For me, the key insights are in this graph:moral-foundations

What we see here is that when asked about various ideas, liberals, conservatives and libertarians respond differently.  In some areas, the differences are minor but you can see just by glancing at the chart that they are large in several areas – the three that caught my attention were Ingroup, Authority and Purity.

Purity refers to you how you respond when someone does something you regard as indecent or immoral – essentially Nussbaum’s argument about disgust for immoral acts and persons.  Ingroup and authority are related – they refer to “tribal” identification and following and obeying leaders.  The article goes on to talk about attitudes toward child-rearing and how those attitudes indicate or reveal authoritarian leanings.

Yeah, this is another way of measuring authoritarianism, because the theory is — and it seems pretty sound to me — that if you’re an authoritarian, one of the places it’s going to come out is in how you view child rearing. That is a situation in which the parent has to exert some level of authority, but parents interpret that differently. And if someone interprets parenting as sort of a strict father model — you need to obey the rules — then that’s an authoritarian style of parenting. So he’s just saying, ‘let’s ask about parenting and we’ll figure out who our authoritarians are,’ and what’s good about that as a scientific method is that you’re not actually asking anything that seems politically tinged. You could be confounding your variables if people get the sense that you’re asking them something political, but that’s not the case here — you’re just asking about parenting. That’s what’s nice about it.

The question of authority looms large in conservative thought – conservatism in its healthier forms is about identifying and sustaining the proper social order which means obeying proper authorities while accepting or adapting to change slowly and carefully so as to not lost what matters most.  This is also a measure about how one regards and reacts to authority.

Liberal and conservative authority are very different – and those differences show up in childrearing.  Ages ago, I wrote a post in which I argued that children have rights separate from their parents – responding to a post by a conservative writer who bemoaned the inability of parents to control their children’s every move.  When conservatives complain that teaching evolution or tolerance for sexual minorities in schools is violation of parental rights to control what children learn they are defending what they perceive as correct system of authority.

By contrast, liberals tend to think about “harm” and “fairness.”  It’s about how a person reacts to another person’s suffering and if they see that as a moral issue or not and whether or not the system is fair in the sense of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.

The differences in cognitive styles, in how liberals and conservatives make moral judgments, are central to our current political situation.  The teabaggers represent a minority of the population but they are also the group most threatened by the changes in our society.  How the teabaggers make moral and political decisions is shaping how they respond to various political figures and issues.  Since teabaggers basically control the Republican party, that means their responses, even as a minority of the population, play a sizable role in how our political discussion takes place.

Reaching out to the teabaggers, hearing their concerns without allowing their fears to dominate the discussion, seems a necessary step.  I doubt, however, that we can do it easily.  The teabaggers tend to reject as illegitimate any one with whom they disagree which means even if they get a chance to be heard, they won’t be willing to listen.

  1. #1 by Larry Bergan on November 3, 2013 - 7:56 pm

    Darnnit, Bill Moyers is going to retire again. 🙁 We NEED you Bill.

  2. #2 by cav on November 4, 2013 - 7:20 am

    The republican candidates for ’16 (and by virtue of ‘Overton’s shifty window, dems too), are going to make ’12 lunatics look like a sedate, informed panel of Oxbridge dons.

    Otherwise, I’m not buying the chart.

  3. #3 by Richard Warnick on November 4, 2013 - 7:40 am

    The Tea Partyers don’t actually have rational policy concerns. But they would be happy to cause another Republican Shutdown of the federal government and a default on the National Debt.

  4. #4 by Richard Warnick on November 4, 2013 - 11:31 am

    It’s just amazing how the insurance companies are trying to screw their customers now.

    “People who are afraid of the ACA should be much more afraid of the insurance companies who will exploit their fear and end up overcharging them.”

  5. #5 by brewski on November 4, 2013 - 1:04 pm

    Amazing or by design?

    • #6 by Richard Warnick on November 4, 2013 - 1:23 pm

      I meant their level of skill and dedication to screwing their own customers is amazing.

      • #7 by brewski on November 4, 2013 - 2:24 pm

        These are the people Obama got into bed with in 2009. It was their collective deal together.

        • #8 by Richard Warnick on November 4, 2013 - 2:44 pm

          That’s the whole purpose of the ACA, to extend the unsustainable health insurance model that’s all about profits, not health care.

          • #9 by brewski on November 4, 2013 - 5:17 pm

            It’s all about bundlers, fundraising and lobbying jobs for former Democratic staffers.

          • #10 by cav on November 4, 2013 - 7:38 pm

            You’ll think “…all about…Democratic staffers”… when president Walker and chief justice Cruz assume their positions.

          • #11 by brewski on November 4, 2013 - 10:19 pm

            Walker and Cruz aren’t the ones who passed the corrupt bill to make their friends rich and screw the poor people.

  6. #12 by brewski on November 4, 2013 - 10:26 pm

    Obama’s job approval rating stands at 40% vs 53% disapprove. Or a -13% rating.

    So the majority of Americans think he is doing a bad job at being President and his signature legislative achievement is in shambles.

    And everyone who disagrees with you deserves to be censored by the self-appointed authoritarians?

    You need to take a long look in the mirror.

    • #14 by brewski on November 5, 2013 - 2:37 pm

      Couldn’t be any worse than what we have.

      • #15 by Richard Warnick on November 5, 2013 - 2:41 pm

        OK, good joke. You can’t be serious.

        • #16 by brewski on November 5, 2013 - 3:23 pm

          I thought it was a joke when someone suggested that we should elect someone with 1 year in the US Senate with zero accomplishments to date.

          • #17 by Richard Warnick on November 5, 2013 - 3:51 pm

            What got President Obama elected was the fact that most of the politicians WITH so-called “accomplishments” had nothing to be proud of, particularly after the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.

            Ted Nugent’s proudest “accomplishment” was faking mental illness to avoid getting drafted into the Army. Or maybe he wasn’t faking?

          • #18 by brewski on November 5, 2013 - 4:12 pm

            What got Obama elected was a MSM who declined to scrutinize him the way it scrutinized everyone else. He got a “pass”.

          • #19 by Richard Warnick on November 5, 2013 - 4:39 pm

            That’s a myth. The Hillary campaign did everything they could to attack candidate Obama. Remember the 3 am phone call ad?

          • #20 by brewski on November 5, 2013 - 5:20 pm

            You are talking about Hillary’s paid ads.

            I am talking about the MSM itself.

          • #21 by Richard Warnick on November 5, 2013 - 5:27 pm

            The media used to all love John McCain, and a lot of them still do. Even though he has flipped and flopped on every issue.

          • #22 by brewski on November 5, 2013 - 10:39 pm

            “used to be” being the operative phrase.

          • #23 by Richard Warnick on November 6, 2013 - 8:23 am

            Senator McCain still gets more air time on the Sunday talk shows than any other politician. Despite the fact he’s not even a committee chairman.

          • #24 by cav on November 6, 2013 - 8:33 am

            As the victor in the 2008 election, this is only right.

          • #25 by brewski on November 6, 2013 - 8:40 am

            The NYT printed a half-page editorial by Obama, and refused to print McCain’s.

            End of story.

  7. #26 by pithyCavtus on November 6, 2013 - 11:27 am

    Yes, it’s the end of the story as the republicans would have it told.

    Democrats only win if they win by a lot. Otherwise it’s a loss, see?

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