Psychologists have been trying to explain why people have the political opinions they do since the 1930s at least, and that industry is still going strong.
Because psychologists are mainly Left-leaning, however, most of the explanations have been ludicrous. The psychologists concerned mostly seem to have been governed by a manic desire to prove that conservatives are deranged, and in their desperate attempts to prove that, they have thrown all plausibility and scientific caution to the winds. See here for a short and rather hilarious history of the main effort in that direction.
There has recently emerged however one psychologist who really does seem to want to understand. Proving conservatives mad is clearly not his dominating ambition. He actually studies real conservative thought instead of constructing a straw-man caricature of it -- which is what most psychologists do. And his discoveries seem to have had some influence on him. He even says that they have led him from being a liberal to being a centrist.
And you can see why when you look at his findings. He finds that conservatives are the ones who make complex moral judgments while Leftists make very simple ones -- which is the diametric opposite of what Leftists usually say about conservatives.
He is still learning, however, so has in my view missed a major point in his research. Much of what he says is reasonable but he has one large blind spot. His name is Jonathan Haidt and I reproduce below a few excerpts from a large essay by him which has just gone online. After the excerpts I will point out what I think he has failed to consider. I have myself had over 200 articles on political psychology published in the academic journals so it is possible that I have come across some things that he has not.
In the last 10 years we psychologists have discovered a great deal about the origins of ideology and why ideology makes it so hard for people to understand, respect, and accept each other. This research partly confirms what Gilbert and Sullivan said in the light opera Iolanthe: “Nature always does contrive / That every boy and every gal / That’s born into the world alive / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative!” But the story is more interesting than that.
Political theorists since Marx had long assumed that people chose ideologies to further their self-interest. The rich and powerful want to preserve and conserve; the peasants and workers want to change things (or at least they would if their consciousness could be raised and they could see their self-interest properly, said the Marxists). But while social class may once have been a good predictor of ideology, that link has been largely broken in modern times, when the rich go both ways (industrialists mostly right, tech billionaires mostly left), and so do the poor (rural poor mostly right, urban poor mostly left). And when political scientists looked into it, they found that self-interest does a remarkably poor job of predicting political attitudes.
So for most of the late 20th century, political scientists embraced blank-slate theories in which people soaked up the ideology of their parents or the TV programs they watched. Some political scientists even said that most people were so confused about political issues that they had no real ideology at all.
But then came the studies of twins. In the 1980s, when scientists began analyzing large databases that allowed them to compare identical twins (who share all of the same genes, plus, usually, their prenatal and childhood environments) to same-sex fraternal twins (who share half of their genes, plus their prenatal and childhood environments), they found that the identical twins were more similar on just about everything. What’s more, identical twins reared in separate households (because of adoption) usually turn out to be very similar, whereas unrelated children reared together (because of adoption) rarely turn out similar to each other, or to their adoptive parents; they tend to be more similar to their genetic parents. Genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities.
We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash; your religiosity; and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: Genetics explains between one-third and one-half of the variability among people in their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.
How can that be? How can there be a genetic basis for attitudes about nuclear power, progressive taxation, and foreign aid when these issues emerged only in the last century or two? And how can there be a genetic basis for ideology when people sometimes change their political parties as adults?
After analyzing the DNA of 13,000 Australians, 15 researchers, led by Penn State political scientist Peter K. Hatemi, found several genes that differed between liberals and conservatives. Most of them related to the functioning of neurotransmitters, particularly glutamate and serotonin, both of which are involved in the brain’s response to threat and fear. This finding, published in The Journal of Politics last October, fits well with many studies showing that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as sudden blasts of white noise. Other studies have focused on genes related to receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has long been tied to sensation seeking and openness to experience, among the best-established correlates of liberalism.
In the 2003 book Moral, Believing Animals, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith writes about the moral webs or networks of meaning within which human life takes place. He agrees with French sociologist Emile Durkheim that every social order has at its core something sacred, and he shows how stories, particularly “grand narratives,” identify and reinforce the sacred core of each matrix. Smith is a master at extracting these grand narratives and condensing them into single paragraphs. Each narrative, he says, identifies a beginning (“once upon a time”), a middle (in which a threat or challenge arises), and an end (in which a resolution is achieved). Each narrative is designed to orient listeners morally—to draw their attention to a set of virtues and vices, or good and evil forces—and to impart lessons about what must be done now to protect, recover, or attain the sacred core of the vision.
One such narrative, which Smith calls the “liberal progress narrative,” organizes much of the moral matrix of the American academic left. It goes like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism.…But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”
In my own research, I have sought to describe the major elements of these narratives. With my colleagues at YourMorals.org, I have developed Moral Foundations Theory, which outlines six clusters of moral concerns—care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation—upon which all political cultures and movements base their moral appeals. Political liberals tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care/harm, followed by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. Social conservatives, in contrast, use all six foundations. They are less concerned than liberals about harm to innocent victims, but they are much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together, i.e., loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order, traditional families), and sanctity (the Bible, God, the flag as a sacred object).
Smith wrote the “liberal progress” narrative before Moral Foundations Theory existed, but you can see that the narrative derives its moral force primarily from the care/harm foundation (concern for the suffering of victims) and the liberty/oppression foundation (a celebration of liberty as freedom from oppression, as well as freedom to pursue self-defined happiness). In this narrative, fairness is political equality (which is part of opposing oppression); there are only oblique hints of fairness as proportionality. Authority is mentioned only as an evil, and there is no mention of loyalty or sanctity.
Contrast that narrative to one for modern conservatism. Emory University clinical psychologist Drew Westen is another master of narrative analysis, and in his 2007 book The Political Brain he extracts the master narrative that was implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the major speeches of Ronald Reagan.
Reagan defeated incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980, at a time when Americans were being held hostage in Iran, the inflation rate was over 10 percent, and America’s cities, industries, and self-confidence were declining. The Reagan narrative goes like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.…Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hardworking Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to ‘understand’ them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals.…Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle…and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles.…Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism.…Then Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”
The Reagan narrative is also visibly conservative in that it relies for its moral force on at least five of the six moral foundations. There’s only a hint of care (for the victims of crime), but there are very clear references to liberty (as freedom from government constraint), fairness (as proportionality, which means it’s wrong to take money from those who work hard and give it to welfare queens), loyalty (soldiers and the flag), authority (subversion of the family and of traditions), and sanctity (replacing God with the celebration of promiscuity).
The two narratives are as opposed as they could be. Can partisans even understand the story told by the other side? The obstacles to empathy are not symmetrical. There is no foundation used by the left that is not also used by the right. Even though conservatives score slightly lower on measures of empathy and may therefore be less moved by a story about suffering and oppression, they can still recognize that it is awful to be kept in chains. And even though many conservatives opposed some of the great liberations of the 20th century—of women, sweatshop workers, African Americans, and gay people—they have applauded others, such as the liberation of Eastern Europe from communist oppression.
But when liberals try to understand the Reagan narrative, they have a harder time. When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations—loyalty, authority, and sanctity—I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.
In a study I conducted with colleagues Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than 2,000 American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right. Who was best able to pretend to be the other?
The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with statements such as “one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or “justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan narrative, what else could you think? Reagan seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people. He is more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.
If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in care and fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal weekly The Village Voice, when he wrote in 2004: “Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet.…Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.” One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic—who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living—to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own.
That is all pretty interesting stuff even though some Leftist bias is still evident in it. The finding that conservatives are the insightful ones must be REALLY toxic to those on the Left!
Where I think Haidt goes wrong is that he believes what the Left say about themselves. He accepts that they report their attitudes accurately. They do not.
A major focus of my own research was attitude to authority. And I always found that Leftists describe themselves as great enemies of authority and as being contemptuous of it. They answer questions about authority almost as libertarians would. Yet in practice, they are unremitting in their attempt to impose authority on others. They are the ultimate authoritarians. Extreme socialists such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro and Pol Pot are of course a byword for authoritarianism but even in America today, liberals never cease in their attempts to fashion chains of law and regulation around the necks of their fellow citizens. Even what we eat has now come under scrutiny and regulation under the guise of a war on "Obesity". We no longer even own our own bodies.
Environmentalism has also been a godsend to the Left, with the global warming scare being an hugely useful excuse for imposing immense regulatory burdens on the population, most notably in California. The most recent example being here.
And Warmism is now as politically polarized as it could be. Practically all conservatives ridicule it and practically all liberals embrace it tenaciously. And how the two sides talk about it is itself revealing. Conservative generally present scientific facts to refute warming -- such as the trivial warming we have in fact experienced over the last 150 years (only tenths of one degree Celsius over that whole period) while Warmists appeal to what? AUTHORITY! "The experts say" is the typical defense that Warmists give for their beliefs. They talk vaguely about "The science" but almost never mention any. So sometimes their real authoritarianism does break the surface in words as well as in deeds. I have documented that difference many times on GREENIE WATCH.
So I cannot avoid the conclusion that Leftists are systematically dishonest about their own attitudes and motivations. They presumably know what their own attitudes and motivations really are but those attitudes and motivations are too dismal to be acknowledged. Instead they present a facade that they think will make them look good.
So Haidt's analysis of Leftist motivation is built on sand. What I think really motivates Leftism, I present at length elsewhere. It is not a pretty picture but it explains a great amount.