July 8, 2013

The difference between progressives and the clay feet crowd

A friend accused me over the weekend of wearing "rose colored glasses." This came because my friend, a conservative, posted a Facebook meme that made little sense. It was one of those "feel good" things that conservatives like to post to confirm a bias that has little factual basis. This one tenuously tied the amount of foreign aid money in the U.S. budget somehow to our failure to take care of our veterans. 

The connection is garbage and I said so, adding a few easily researched facts to debunk the idea. For that I am accused of a too rosy outlook. So this little thesis is for my friend. Maybe he'll read it, maybe he won't.

The difference between progressives and the clay feet crowd
A scientific perspective

Berkeley professors Jack and Jeanne Block began a landmark study of childhood personality in 1968… a year before I graduated high school. The methodology was a bit unscientific and they didn't even start with the intention of measuring political leanings. They simply surveyed nursery school teachers, asking them to rate children's temperaments. The study involved 100 3-year-olds. 1

In 1989 the Blocks returned to their subjects, comparing the recorded childhood personality traits with the adults and relating it to the political proclivities of the now 23-year-old subjects. What they found was certainly interesting.

The adults describing themselves as having liberal or progressive leanings had been children marked by their teachers as developing closer relationships with other children, having more self-reliance, being more energetic, impulsive, and resilient. In short… these children were far more adventuresome and much less fearful.

Inversely, the adult subjects now describing themselves as conservative had been described by those same teachers as shy, fearful, weak, easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, rigid, and inhibited. These children did not deal well with change and the Blocks hypothesized that they found comfort in tradition and reassurance in authority, which transferred into conservative politics as adults.

Taken as it was published in 1989 the Block study would offer too little from which to formulate a theory, but when combined with more recent and far more scientific studies we may have found a peg on which we can hang a hat.

In a far more recent study 2 researchers reported that conservatives and liberals boast markedly different home and office decor. Liberals were messier than conservatives, their rooms having more clutter and more color, and they tended to have more travel documents, as well as maps and flags from other countries. Conservatives on the other hand were neater, more organized with rooms that were cleaner and less cluttered. Conservatives rooms were also more brightly lit and more conventional. Liberals had more books, and those books covered a far greater variety of topics.

Liberals were shown to be optimistic about life yet skeptical of dogma. Conservatives were more likely to be religious than progressives. Liberals leaned toward classical music, blues and jazz while conservatives were more prone to country music, Elvis and Frank Sinatra. Conservative men were more likely than liberal men to prefer serial television programs, movies and talk radio while liberals preferred news programs, documentaries or just reading. Liberal women were also more likely than conservative women to enjoy books.

So far so good, but likely the most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a meta-analysis of 88 studies involving 22,000 participants.3 This study found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it in spite of new information, have less tolerance for ambiguity, were far more resistant to environmental or situational change, and rejected data that did not agree with opinion. Conservatives tended to believe the world a highly dangerous place and have a greater fear of death. On a positive note conservatives scored higher on conscientiousness, neatness, orderliness, duty, and sticking to the rules.

Liberals, according to the results of this project, rated higher on truthfulness, openness, intellectual curiosity, empathy, sensitivity, creativity, thrill seeking, seeking and savoring new experiences and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature. They were shown to be more open to honest debate and accepting of factual data. The study's authors also say that Liberals are "more likely to see gray areas and reconcile seemingly conflicting information.” Liberals tend to be less fearful of danger and death.

These differences could possibly be explained in simple psychological terms, but they may also be the product of physiologic variations.  In a 2007 study4 using MRI scans, researchers at University College London found that conservative students had an enlarged amygdala when compared to liberals. The amygdala is a brain structure that becomes active during states of fear and anxiety. The study also determined that liberals had on average more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that scientists say helps people cope with change and complexity.

So is it fear or the inability to logically cope with fear that produces the political conservative? Is it fearlessness or simple curiosity that produces the liberal? Like all of science we can make conjecture but can we ever know? We’ll just have to keep on studying this and learning more as we go along.

If these studies tell us anything we can hypothesize that liberal scientists will discard old theories in favor of new as fresh data become available, while the conservatives will do as they always have and cling to discredited beliefs with great tenacity.

1 Block, J., Block, J., (2005) Nursery school personality and political orientation two decades later, Journal of Research in Personality

2 Carney, D. R., Jost, J. T., Gosling, S. D., Porter, J., (2008). The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives, Personality Proļ¬les, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind. Political Psychology, 29, 807–840

3 Jost, J. T., Kruglanski, A. W., Glaser, J., Sulloway, F. J., Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition, Psychological Bulletin, 2003, Vol. 129, No. 3, 339–375.

4 Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., Rees, G., Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 8, 677-680, 07 April 2011