Green Room

The Righteous Mind

posted at 11:09 am on April 1, 2012 by

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).

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I am generally skeptical of pseudo-science trotted out in the service of politics.

And should remain so. Although I sometimes fall victim myself to the temptation to report on these “academic” studies (whatever that term means), the only thing I’ve discovered to be reliable is that another study contradicting the current one is usually in the wings, awaiting publication.

Howard Portnoy on April 1, 2012 at 11:42 AM

Howard,

I don’t mind it when you get the conflicting studies. After all science should be driven by skepticism and debate over the confirmation bias of scientists. In fact, that’s a point Haidt makes in an interview with Mooney, i.e., there are areas of science so dominated by liberals now that groupthink from the left (and reflexive skepticism from the right) become problems.

Karl on April 1, 2012 at 1:49 PM

I don’t mind it when you get the conflicting studies. After all science should be driven by skepticism and debate over the confirmation bias of scientists.

Karl, I quite agree. What I have grown increasingly skeptical of is the rigor with which scientific method is applied (or lack thereof). Then again, what do conservatives know about science anyway?

Howard Portnoy on April 1, 2012 at 2:20 PM

If it makes conservatives look good it must be true.

Akzed on April 1, 2012 at 3:51 PM

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.

Anyone who spends more than five minutes a week watching television knows everything liberals believe, and precisely WHY liberals believe it.

People who formulate opinions through subjectively perceived consensus (i.e., liberals) have a wildly stilted conception of a small handful of things that conservatives believe — and absolutely no idea why we believe any of it.

logis on April 1, 2012 at 9:12 PM

So liberals vote their self-interest, yet claim to be generous and altruistic. And they think conservatives are selfish and greedy, yet so foolish that they don’t vote their own self-interest. I think conservatives vote for the country’s best interest, because we really are generous and altruistic, not selfish and greedy like the liberals.

Pervygrin on April 1, 2012 at 11:20 PM

I’ve just read it. Although it’s heavy (freighted and over-freighted) with evolutionary psychology arguments, these are as much the author’s own journey as they are pillars of his case. I don’t think he’s exactly right–there are arguments to be made for morality on connectedness and unforseen consequences–but his 3 factor/6 factor argument explains an awful lot.

The problem is that this is 318 pages to state a case that can be made in six, and it is not a cheap book. The good news is that it sums up rather nicely the blind spots induced by the liberal echo chamber, and tells us how what moral senses we need to reawaken in our wayward fellow Americans.

njcommuter on April 2, 2012 at 4:48 AM

A followup thought: It may be that the whole “Political Correctness” gambit is a way to provide the Left with something it can use as a center for the Sanctity “foundation” that modern Liberalism–Leftism–otherwise denies.

There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

njcommuter on April 2, 2012 at 5:02 AM