Patterico's Pontifications


The Righteous Mind

Filed under: General — Karl @ 7:38 am

[Posted 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).


36 Responses to “The Righteous Mind”

  1. Ding!

    Karl (6f7ecd)

  2. Jerry Coyne also doesn’t buy Chris Mooney’s pseudoscientific conjectures on conservatives and liberals:

    Yes, there may be genetic differences between liberals and conservatives, but even if the heritability is around 50%, as suggested by one study cited by Mooney, that still means that the other half of the variation in political attitudes is due to variation not in genes but in environments. Why concentrate on the genes, which we can’t change, on the environments, which we can?

    But in the end, evolution seems largely irrelevant here. At least in Mooney’s post, it appears to be a very fragile hook on which to hang his thesis. But we’re used to that intellectual strategy from him.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (f6a2a5)

  3. Dennis Prager said the thing that brought him out of the hard left was realizing that people on the right aren’t “evil.”

    Ghost (6f9de7)

  4. Brother Bradley,

    Having listened to Mooney interview Haidt, I get the impression that this is why he’s more interested in moral psychology in the first instance. In the interview, Haidt also makes a point of noting variation of personality among siblings.

    Karl (6f7ecd)

  5. Since left-leaning perspectives dominate the MSM, it’s not surprising that conservatives would be familiar with how lefties (I refuse to call them liberals) think. They can’t escape it.

    But lefties have to make a special effort to understand conservative or libertarian perspectives, and they usually don’t. Hence the flagrantly false and uninformed commentary about what they don’t understand.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (f6a2a5)

  6. Liberals who are usually quick to discount scientific (especially biological) explanations for phenomena inconvenient to their ideology…

    Well, unless it’s being gay. NEVER suggest THAT might be biological. THAT will mark you as a blatant homophobe.


    I Got Bupkis, Fomenter of "small-l" libertarianism (8e2a3d)

  7. Bupkis,

    Perhaps, but Haight notes in interview I mention above how quickly lefties become deniers whenever race or sex enters the picture.

    Karl (6f7ecd)

  8. Yes, there may be genetic differences between liberals and conservatives

    Excepting as there are genetic predispositions for certain basic mental states and perceptual acuities (i.e., art, math, social behaviors), this is a retarded concept because it ignores the general “wave nature” of liberalism and conservatism.

    A large portion of the reason for the “conservative wave” of the 80s was the experiences of the 70s, which were ALL ABOUT LIBERALISM

    The 70s brought us high gas prices, rampant inflation, a sense of defeatism, and a general “national malaise”, which was solved by a rejecion of postmodernist leftism for a sustained time, until there was a new generation which didn’t learn the key lesson of Watergate:
    “You can’t trust government“, not “You can’t trust Republicans“.

    Mark my words, the excesses of President Downgrade And The Dems Unleashed (lol, nice name for a band) will result in a fresh wave of strong conservatism sweeping the country,as they’ve just taught a generation of kids just coming of age what a load of crap the Dems are selling.

    [note: released from moderation. –Stashiu]

    I Got Bupkis, Fomenter of "small-l" libertarianism (8e2a3d)

  9. Bupkis,
    The political lines are drawn up the opposite way. Being gay is biological, say the lefty gay-rights activists, and therefore deserving of protected class status. Their conservative and religious opponents say being gay is a “lifestyle choice.” And gay rights activists take umbrage at that stance.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (f6a2a5)

  10. I refuse to call them liberals

    There is nothing “liberating” about them.

    Ghost (6f9de7)

  11. But lefties have to make a special effort to understand conservative or libertarian perspectives, and they usually don’t. Hence the flagrantly false and uninformed commentary about what they don’t understand.

    Bradley, I concur with you in general but this has an awful lot to do with typical liberal behaviors when faced with views anathema to their own. All the more likely when faced with a rational argument which they cannot overcome by their own (usually) meager reasoning and rhetorical skills.

    They move to shut it out.

    Yes, basically, they cover their hears and start humming “I can’t HEAR you!!” in some form or another. Pure, childish denial.

    I was in a comments thread over on Popehat discussing AGW and the merits of it. After it was clear I was asking hard questions the answers to which you didn’t need to be a technical genius to grasp had an impact on the issue, and which showed that “climate changed denier” was a propaganda phrase, it wasn’t very long before one of the liberals defending it suggested that Ken or one of the others “in charge” should ban me and shut me up. (To his/their credit, they totally ignored the censorious call — I might disagree with Ken on politics and a host of things, but I respect his intellectual integrity, which is much higher than most people who are liberal, as I believe Ken is)


    This issue of denial as a coping strategy is thoroughly discussed by Dr. Sanity (yes, she’s an actual MD Psychiatrist with some good chops) in:

    STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH DENIAL – Part I: The Many Faces of Denial

    (Part II here, Part III here)

    A long read, I grant, but a good overview of the concepts from a psychological perspective by a professional. You can see many of these behaviors in action on the Left regularly. She’s also written a lot more on the topic, which you can find by doing a blogspot search on “denial”.

    The basic point I’m making is that The Left would be sheltered from Our Views regardless of the message from The Media. The Right Mind tends to seek regular validation in the Real World survival of its memes. The Left has no such compunctions or interests, being essentially immature in most or all their defense systems.

    It’s one of the key differences between “Us And Them”, despite their endless presumptions and utterances to the contrary.

    IGotBupkis, Climate Change Denier and Proud Of It. (8e2a3d)

  12. Being gay is biological, say the lefty gay-rights activists, and therefore deserving of protected class status.

    No, because my experience with this is that they really want it both ways. If you suggest, for example, that it’s a flaw in brain chemistry (which it clearly is from a gene-survival POV, if you take the biological argument) and can thus be “fixed”, then they go bonkers and suddenly it’s no longer biological at all. NOW suddenly it’s a choice and they demand they get to make it regardless of brain chemistry.

    As you might be able to suspect, rational thought processes are not typically the strong suit of gays, or at least that’s been my own observation.

    IGotBupkis, Climate Change Denier and Proud Of It. (8e2a3d)

  13. Bupkis,
    Valid point — the left-wing mentality expends vast sums of psychic energy explaining away the contrast between reality and their political beliefs, as with catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. The CAGW believers are becoming ever more shrill and frantic as they lose credibility with the public.

    I used to be a strong CAGW believer, until contacting reality through some excellent, heated, blog arguments and above all Climategate. There’s an asymmetry. I know how CAGW types think. But they haven’t a clue about what CAGW skeptics think, or why.

    One of my favorite tactics with CAGW types is to point out that there’s no observed data that sea levels are rising at an accelerated rate. It’s all just computer models of what’s supposed to happen, but hasn’t. What are you going to believe, our computer models or your lying eyes?

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R. (f6a2a5)

  14. ________________________________________________

    Being gay is biological, say the lefty gay-rights activists, and therefore deserving of protected class status.

    A high percentage of such people also tends to lean left. I wonder how much of one tendency affects the other?

    Yea, there are some gays who are rightists, and plenty of liberals who are totally straight. But liberal instincts in general seem to make people more cavalier about upending traditional conformity, more prone to being flaky and impulsive, more trapped with the immature, disingenuous (and non-sensible) emotions of a teenager.

    The age of the Internet truly has made me more turned off by liberals and liberalism (certainly as it has devolved in the 21st century) than I’d probably otherwise be. I’ve come across information about them that I’d otherwise have been only vaguely aware of, or not aware of at all, in past years. Information that at one time couldn’t have been found easily except by roaming through the stacks of a library or going through endless rolls of microfiche.

    Reading surveys (posted or analyzed online) that indicate higher percentages of people on the left not only are less generous in donating their time, money and even blood than conservatives, but also are more likely to be oddly racist or bigoted (eg, Bill Clinton, Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson) is what has surprised me and opened my eyes. The “limousine liberalism” of a Franklin Roosevelt, who publicly nagged at the wealthy for not paying higher taxes but who tried to keep the IRS away from snagging his own sizable income, is another clincher that has further turned me off towards liberals.

    Mark (31bbb6)

  15. gerrymandering is further) polarizing the divide between african americans and hispanics in LA.
    Plans to redraw the district lines have blacks extremely worried. Many “historically black”areas of LA are now dominated by hispanics… many of whom don’t care about african americans, their history, their grievances… and in fact they do not like nor trust african americans.

    I predict that the hispanic/black power struggle for the inner city will continue to mirror the one going one in the prison system.
    So called hate crimes will rise as the gangs will fight it out mexican vs black until the blacks all flee to the suburbs.

    SteveG (e27d71)

  16. _______________________________________________

    The Left has no such compunctions or interests, being essentially immature in most or all their defense systems.

    The one aspect of the left that I dislike the most is their belief that liberal biases somehow imbue a person with great, noble qualities. That a liberal is automatically nicer, kinder, more generous, more humane, more tolerant, more loving, more worldly, more sophisticated than certainly their political opposites are. I wouldn’t be as irritated by that frame of mind if, as I mentioned in my post above, studies or surveys indicated liberals truly, exactly, absolutely were that way in reality.

    Mark (31bbb6)

  17. I can’t decide if my comment goes with this post or the following one about Supreme Court activism. Perhaps it’s a little of both, but they reminded me of this quote analyzing how liberals approach legal theory:

    There is a residual incoherence to progressivism as legal theory. It alternates between two poles. On the one hand, it expresses the desire to make decisions that are legitimate in the eyes of the community—ones that respond to something like the “felt necessities” of the age. On the other, it seeks to make decisions that counter what it claims is illegitimate majority will. Neither pole is rooted in constitutional text, tradition, logic, or structure, but rather in the judge’s view of just what necessities are most deeply felt, most in accord with social growth, and therefore most compatible with the dictates of History.

    This is a quote from Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence, by Bradley C.S. Watson, reviewed at the Claremont Institute.

    DRJ (a83b8b)

  18. “One academic study asked 2,000 Americans to fill out questionnaires about moral questions…”

    And, all the liberals said: I’m not familiar with the word “morals”.

    Dave Surls (46b08c)

  19. As I understand it, Haidt’s theory saya liberals have a hard time understanding those who don’t share their feelings or beliefs. In this context, is “understanding” a synonym for “empathy” or does it mean something more intellectual?

    DRJ (a83b8b)

  20. “Conservatives may not like liberals, but they seem to understand them.”

    It’s not that hard to understand someone else’s hand on your wallet.

    Dave Surls (46b08c)

  21. Another symptom of that echo chamber, eh Karl?

    I don’t say that sarcastically, I really do think this is just a matter of our American culture being spoon-fed liberal doctrine through media and some educational systems, and yet conservative ideas are largely dismissed. Conservatives may have considered liberal thought and found it wanting, but liberals rarely take the time to seek out conservative ideas.

    There is another idea (one pretty well endorsed by another favorite blog of mine) that the reason why liberals are so against listening to conservative ideas is mainly because they logically challenge their world view. Rather than confront their own beliefs- a process which is mentally painful for some- they deny that these ideas have any merit. Thus, we see liberals accuse conservative of racism when they dare disagree with the president. Or they will challenge certain news outlets as being media for idiots (that’s why they hire so many blondes!). Denial is a refuge that Democrats tend to take great comfort in.

    Book (3c420f)

  22. DRJ (19),

    I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know whether Haidt would view liberals as lacking empathy as such. Based on the articles I’ve read and interview I listened to, he might be persuaded of that, by the strict definition of empathy, given that libs only speak 3 of the 6 “languages” he has identified so far.

    Karl (6f7ecd)

  23. Thanks for responding, Karl. Empathy and intellectual understanding are very different to me. Reading the excerpt makes me think he’s talking about empathy more than intellectual ability, but I’m not sure.

    A person can learn how to change the way he or she thinks, but it’s very hard to learn empathy.

    DRJ (a83b8b)

  24. The true reason that the Left cannot understand the Right, from my own perspective, is that they don’t get to hear what the Right thinks.

    Where I work, all folks get to hear is what the Left thinks. Thus, I understand them quite well. The reverse does not work.

    At least, not until there is true appreciation for diversity..of thought.

    Simon Jester (9aa8cd)

  25. Curiously, according to the study’s premises regarding moral priorities, I’m a liberal. A hard left liberal.

    I split from my leftwing family’s political views not because I prioritize the moral views the study identifies as conservative priorities, but because I realized how completely cracked the left’s thinking is with regard to what really are the compassionate things for the government to be doing in terms of the real world impacts on people, and what really is the right way to nurture people in the society so they will develop strong and happy and healthy, and what really is the fair thing to do with regard to people’s rights to their lives and property, and what really is justice in terms of what really happens to real people in the real world.

    It appears to me the only real difference between me (a ‘fanatical’ conservative who would vote for a baboon over any Democrat) and them (McGovern-Obama Democrats) is that I actually care about how government policies actually affect people instead of only caring about how the policies are supposed to affect the people according to the brochure.

    Roland (5ff18d)

  26. Gerrymandering is the poster child for the category called “Things that suck badly, but all of whose alternatives suck much worse.”

    The Supreme Court is one vote away from simply coming out and saying that. It’s already the practical effect of the last several gerrymandering cases, which have resulted contentious votes and no clear precedents because no justice’s opinion could command a majority of the Court’s members.

    It is, and inevitably must be, an exercise in raw partisan power. Those who think it can be tamed and made pretty need look no further than the ugly farce of California’s supposedly nonpartisan commission, whose process stinks worse in my nostrils and whose results are functionally indistinguishable from raw majority legislative rule.

    No, the best that can be said for it is that the levers that control it are placed at the state legislative level, traditionally the branch of government that is closest to control and redirection by voters — meaning, most easily subject to replacement by them if consistently and thoroughly abused.

    I grew up a Texas Republican, from generations of Texas Republicans. Between Reconstruction and 2001, our party was gerrymandered into irrelevance; even in 2001, the Democratic legislators still managed to frustrate the new Republican statewide majority by the shameful expedient of fleeing the state’s jurisdiction to deny a legislative quorum. That broke down in 2003, when one honest Democratic state senator realized that the Dems’ own lawyers were blatantly lying to the self-exiled legislators about how well their legal challenges were doing in court. (He read the actual transcripts and reacted with profound disgust when they disproved the reports the lawyers had been provided to them and the press.) Now the main distortion of the problem continues to be the statutory presumption that Texans are racist which is embodied in section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    If you believe in small-d democracy — the worst system of government ever invented, except for all the others that have ever been tried — you must take its warts along with its best features. If you think your state representative and state senator have genuinely abused the system, then vote for different ones. That can be done, and it’s not a one-way ratchet like so many of the capital-D Democrats’ preferred solutions to the fact that elections have — and should have, indeed must have — important consequences.

    Beldar (6709d2)

  27. given stories like this one, it’s hard to *not* be skeptical of scientific studies these days…

    redc1c4 (403dff)

  28. Like Karl, I do plan on reading Haidt’s work. I don’t know whether its genetics or culture. I’m one of three siblings. Our late father was a born in Texas “yellow dog Democrat” with a distinct tinge of red to his neck on matters racial. He ran a Civil Conservation Corps camp in the late 1930’s–worked for the Federal government in one agency or another for all of his working life, and truly believed that the federal government was here to help you.

    I’m conservative; my sister and brother who live in San Francisco and Berkeley respectively are way to the left. Although I went to law school at Berkeley, the local politics didn’t seem to “take” with me.

    I live in Los Angeles and naturally I have a large number of friends who are “liberal”. [I know, I know, but it’s LA and what can you do?]

    I recently sent a short comment from Dennis Prager to one friend. He read the comment briefly; said he’d heard of Prager before–heard some good things, heard some bad things (but obivously has never read him) and said, “If he believes that–then I won’t waste my time on him.”

    I suppose at that point I heard the faint clink of a cell door shutting on a closed mind.

    Mike Myers (dc4fc0)

  29. I think I see a meaningful distinction between liberal close-mindedness in general, and Obama-worship in particular. The former isn’t intrinsically mean-spirited, but typically results from ignorance or shallow thought, or a combination of those two things. The latter is romantic, wholly irrational, and anyone who seeks to differ is treated as an implacable evil.

    A great many of my lawyer friends are committed Democrats. Two of them in particular became quite angry at me — and one’s no longer a friend at all — when I refused to agree with them that Obama demonstrated “great personal courage and creativity” in connection with the raid that killed bin Laden.

    I argued (and still maintain) that, surrounded by his Secret Service agents in Washington, Obama’s personal courage was negligible, indistinguishable in kind or intensity from what every POTUS must exhibit every single minute of every single day. I acknowledged that Obama may have exhibited a modest amount of political courage, at least compared to Bill Clinton — who, faced with similar opportunities, chose once to send cruise missiles and on another occasion to do nothing, both of which inadequate responses encouraged the plotters behind 9/11 — and that given the Clinton precedents and their results, Obama’s alternatives other than sending in a spec ops team had been so thoroughly discredited as to make even Obama’s decision a political no-brainer. I insisted that there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Obama contributed anything important to the planning or execution of the raid; he quite properly relied upon intelligence and military resources available to the Commander in Chief, and they were brilliant. But such evidence as has been made public or leaked suggests that by dithering for weeks while insisting on near-perfect intelligence, Obama had very nearly screwed the pooch; he moved with what hindsight shows to be adequate alacrity, mooting any potential issues relating to his old-maid’s tendencies in this instance, and I agreed that he’s entitled by virtue of the mission’s success to mostly escape careful scrutiny of his delays. In short, I credited Obama for making the correct decision, but not with any particular personal courage or creativity in so doing.

    My friends’ reaction to these arguments was exactly what I would expect if I had accused Obama of time-traveling back to 1780 to hand over West Point to the British. One of them insisted that I was “delusional,” and both of them insisted that I was arguing “in bad faith.”

    Beldar (6709d2)

  30. “Gerrymandering is the poster child for the category called ‘Things that suck badly, but all of whose alternatives suck much worse.'”

    – Beldar

    With respect, I disagree. There is an alternative to gerrymandering, one that doesn’t place district formation in the hands of any “nonpartisan” commission.

    Proportional representation does away with geographic districts altogether; in doing away with districts, it does away with the possibility of gerrymandering without opening the door to gerrymandering by another name. No districts = No gerrymandering; and gerrymandering is a huge, huge problem.

    It’s one of the big reasons I’m (obviously) in favor of proportional representation.

    Leviticus (870be5)

  31. We unnecessarily our restrict our imagination as to what reforms are possible.

    Leviticus (870be5)

  32. DRJ (23),

    The more I think about it, the more I think Haidt would agree. He tends to fall into the school of thought that reason is largely used to rationalize preexisting, basic intuitions or instincts. I don’t know that he would define those as emotion, but likely closer to emotion than the exercise of intellect.

    Karl (6f7ecd)

  33. This Psychology Today article says lack of empathy is one of the most striking features of narcissistic personality disorder:

    “Narcissists do not consider the pain they inflict on others; nor do they give any credence to others’ perceptions,” says Dr. Les Carter in the book Enough of You, Let’s Talk About Me (p. 9). “They simply do not care about thoughts and feelings that conflict with their own.” Do not expect them to listen, validate, understand, or support you.

    I’m not saying liberals have personality disorders, but I think Washington DC encourages politicians to feel superior and to view the rest of us as tools or sheep instead of people.

    DRJ (a83b8b)

  34. In contrast, many liberals find conservative voters not just wrong but also bewildering.

    Well, thats what happens when you only listen to the voices in your head, or other echo chambers.

    SGT Ted (5d10ae)

  35. This survey result was, of course, inevitable, as one of the premises of liberalism circa 2012 is a false understanding of what conservatives believe. It couldn’t come out any other way.

    Sammy Finkelman (d22d64)

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