The Righteous Mind
posted at 11:09 am on April 1, 2012 by Karl
This is generally not the opening usually seen for a Nicholas D. Kristof column:
Conservatives may not like liberals, but they seem to understand them. In contrast, many liberals find conservative voters not just wrong but also bewildering.
One academic study asked 2,000 Americans to fill out questionnaires about moral questions. In some cases, they were asked to fill them out as they thought a “typical liberal” or a “typical conservative” would respond.
Moderates and conservatives were adept at guessing how liberals would answer questions. Liberals, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal,” were least able to put themselves in the minds of their adversaries and guess how conservatives would answer.
That may not be surprising to conservatives, but — if the study is correct — it is likely shocking to so-called liberals. One of the authors of the study, University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, has written a book, The Righteous Mind, from which Kristof summarizes an explanation for the disconnect:
Americans speak about values in six languages, from care to sanctity. Conservatives speak all six, but liberals are fluent in only three. And some (me included) mostly use just one, care for victims.
“Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much difficulty connecting with voters,” writes Haidt, a former liberal who says he became a centrist while writing the book.
I am generally skeptical of pseudo-science trotted out in the service of politics. Liberals who are usually quick to discount scientific (especially biological) explanations for phenomena inconvenient to their ideology are much more flexible in trotting out “studies” to paint the right as racist neanderthals. Kristof veers near this territory in his column, but it’s not clear that Haidt buys all the implications ideologues draw from such studies. Indeed, the NYT book review from William Saletan suggests Haidt does not think much of much psycho-punditry himself:
The usual argument of these psycho-pundits is that conservative politicians manipulate voters’ neural roots — playing on our craving for authority, for example — to trick people into voting against their interests. But Haidt treats electoral success as a kind of evolutionary fitness test. He figures that if voters like Republican messages, there’s something in Republican messages worth liking. He chides psychologists who try to “explain away” conservatism, treating it as a pathology. Conservatism thrives because it fits how people think, and that’s what validates it. Workers who vote Republican aren’t fools. In Haidt’s words, they’re “voting for their moral interests.”
I plan on reading the book and expect I may disagree with chunks of it. For example, Saletan says the book is short on solutions for ideological segregation, but one suggestion is to attack gerrymandering. That may sound good to a psychologist, but political scientists have not found gerrymandering to be an important cause of political polarization. If people like me do not read the book, who will? Liberals are probably more likely to ignore it. They will be reading less objective, less scientific twaddle on the subject from Chris Mooney, which even Kevin Drum doesn’t buy (As someone on Twitter whose name I didn’t get permission to use noted, Mooney might consider that he is the exact sort that has caused more educated conservatives to become skeptical of scientists).