Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Conservative Mind And Conservatism As Disease

After yesterday's post, "Can The Conservative Mind Be Changed?," we have decided to stay on the subject of the Conservative mind with an article by the author of The Thing You Think You Cannot Do'Gordon Livingstone, M.D. at the Huffington Post, aptly titled, "The Conservative Mind," AND a second article by Joachim I. Krueger, Ph.D., professor in psychology at Brown University, in Psychology Today, "Conservatism As Disease."

Both articles are relatively short and like yesterday they're both based on psychology, rather than the neuroscientific area that we've posted about over the last year.

Both articles are filed as the 85th and 86th articles under the label, "Conservatives Are Stupid.":

First, "The Conservative Mind.":

"Psychotherapy teaches us that identifying patterns of behavior and beliefs is the key to understanding what people really value. These themes often exist at an unconscious level and may be different from the rationalizations used to disguise, even from themselves, people's true motivations.

"The same can be said of beliefs about how the world works, which also tend to exist in identifiable configurations. For example, look at the following political positions and think about what the underlying thesis might be:

• American exceptionalism and the need to protect it by strict immigration policies; anti-abortion under all circumstances ("Life begins at conception");
• Pro-capital punishment;
• Pro-gun rights;
• "Law and order" attitudes favoring harsh penalties for criminal behavior; supporters of the "war on drugs;"
• Anti-affirmative action;
• Anti-reductions in nuclear weapons;
• Anti-entitlements; anti-gay;
• Anti-science (e.g., denial of evolution and climate change);
• Belief in the promulgation of "Christian values" in schools, courts, and public ceremonies;
• Reverence for people in uniform; given to patriotic display;
• A fondness for military solutions to international problems;
• Biblical certainty in matters of morality;
• A conviction that those who disagree politically should be the objects of coercion;
• A view of oneself as beset by evil forces conspiring to take what one has;
• The equation of compromise with "weakness."

"This partial list of conservative beliefs may not appear to have a coherent theme. Indeed, some of these positions seem contradictory (e.g., a conviction that life must be protected at all costs while favoring capital punishment). A closer examination, however, reveals that all of these ideas reflect a core belief in punishment as an instrument of socialization and enforcement of a rigid moral code based on fundamentalist religious beliefs.

"Why is punishment such an important concept? If one believes in the idea of original sin, that human beings are by nature prone to selfish and immoral behavior, then societal rules and rigid child-rearing practices are the only means by which these instincts can be controlled. If we live in a two-alternative world in which the forces of light and darkness are always competing for our immortal souls, then we must be constantly alert and committed to overcoming our baser nature and hedonistic impulses in the interest of insuring our own salvation. There can be no compromise with 'evil'; we will all be judged on the basis of adherence to God's word as spelled out in our particular interpretation of the Bible. Those who disagree with us are legitimate objects of coercion. So, for example, people who have a different definition of when personhood is achieved by an embryo are not just wrong, they are child-killers.

"In fact, the theme of punishment is prominent in anti-abortion theology. People seeking abortions are harassed, not just by being shouted at by demonstrators, but by being forced to undergo procedures (e.g. trans-vaginal ultrasounds) that are not medically indicated. Doctors who perform abortions are objects of threats and violence. What is being punished here? Sex! This is the pre-occupation of those who see licentiousness as a symbol of the unrestrained human appetites that are such a threat to public morality, that must be controlled (and punished) if we are to live as God intended. If women become pregnant they must be forced to accept the consequences and bear the child, however unwanted. Opposition to contraception (which would reduce the need for abortions) is the giveaway that what is at issue here is not the protection of the unborn so much as the punishment of sexually irresponsible women.

"Nowhere is the contradiction between beliefs more apparent than with conservatives who profess the need for a small government that will not intrude on our affairs while simultaneously endorsing legislation to enforce religious beliefs, especially those related to our most intimate decisions. Prohibiting gay people from marrying or adopting, punishment of the children of illegal immigrants, the wish that government control the outcome of every pregnancy, the requirement that we all be subjected to Christian prayer in schools, attempts to suppress minority voting -- all outcomes that require costly government enforcement.

"The peculiarly American affection for guns (the classic instrument of control and punishment) is another example of how focused we can become on our fears and how determined we are to punish those who we imagine threaten us: intruders in the night, a robber on the street, or a suddenly despotic government.

"If one believes that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked, then those who have 'succeeded' materially are naturally favored over those who have failed. The latter have not made use of their opportunities to better themselves and should not be objects of concern for those more successful. It follows therefore that the poor are simply not taking responsibility for their lives, only seeking 'entitlements' when they should be looking for jobs.

"In highlighting the most extreme right-wing positions that are advocated by perhaps 25 percent of the population I have doubtless been unfair to those conservatives who still believe that compromise between people of good will with differing views about the role of government is the only way to achieve a just and tolerant society. But in recent years the extreme quarter of the population has taken over one of our two political parties and we are all suffering as a result. We face important issues on which our survival depends: economic, environmental, social. If we cannot make progress on the question of climate change, for example, all the rest of our debates are meaningless. If we choke on our own air, or starve in our own droughts, then we better hope the religious people are right about heaven, because there will be no place left for us on earth."

(Follow Gordon Livingston, M.D. on Twitter:

Dr. Krueger's piece, "Conservatism As Disease," aptly follows with the cautionary subtitle, "Sociology masquerading as psychology.":

"There are two kinds of people, conservatives and liberals. This is a handy way of sorting people into social categories that are easily understood and widely accepted. As social categories, conservatism and liberalism claim awesome inductive power. Having placed Tom in one category and Dick in the other, Harry is ready to expect them to disagree on virtually everything (Tajfel & Wilkes, 1963). Psychologists, most of whom abhor stereotyping – but study it for a living, are happy with these categories. They yield all sorts of results that vindicate their own existence. When conservatives are found to differ significantly from liberals on some other, hitherto ignored, behavior, voilĂ , the belief in the reality and relevance of these categories becomes stronger.

"Psychological Science, the flagship journal of the Association for Psychological Science, professes to publish the proudest accomplishments in contemporary research: advances, breakthroughs, and discoveries. Research that is tedious, trivial, or tendentious should be published elsewhere, or not at all – or so you’d think.

"The journal’s latest offering – available online – is a paper by R. Khan and colleagues on yet another way conservatives differ from liberals. Their research suggests that conservatives have 'a systematic preference for established brands' (p. 1). We immediately feel the pleasure that comes with recognition. This assertion must be true because that’s what conservatism means, 'a preference for tradition and the status quo' (p. 1).

"Surely, research showing that conservatives are more adventurous, novelty-seeking, and nonconformist – along with a theory to explain how and why this is so – would not have been tedious. But this? The authors seem aware of this objection, and in a maneuver that is almost elegant, they morph the triviality of the behavior (buying Kleenex instead of the no-name product) into a virtue. The power of life-guiding conservatism must be awesome indeed if it does not stop at the inconsequential. Of course, the anti-counterargument is that if political ideology radiates indiscriminately like a lump of plutonium in Kazakhstan, it will have many trivial side-effects. To find one of them adds to science – infinitesimally.

"Scientific research and the reports that communicate the results are embedded in a social environment awash with preferences, goals, and agendas. This I accept as a fact of life. Researchers, individually and as a community, bring their own prisms to refract the light. Social psychology in general and the Khan lab in particular are no exception. In their hands, political conservatism becomes subtly pathologized. It is conservatives and their behavior they seek to understand. The stem 'conservati-' appears 20 times in the text compared with 7 mentions of 'liberal.' This reveals the frame. 'Compared with liberals, individuals who gravitate toward conservative ideology tend to score lower on measures of integrative complexity, openness to new experiences, and tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, and to score higher on measures of conscientiousness, dogmatism, and need for order, structure, and closure' (p. 1). This phrase could as easily have been framed as the task to understand liberals. Also notice that most of the traits attributed to conservatives are undesirable, at least from a psychologist’s point of view. Taken by itself, the trait of conscientiousness could be a redeeming quality, but in the context of low complexity, dogmatism, and a need for order, a conscientious person looks like a fascist in waiting.

"If we could only find a joint scale for researchers’ ideological commitments and the relative contribution of their work! I would then propose to raise a red flag when the score for the former is higher than the score for the latter.

"I could stop here as I am sure you catch my drift. But before I do, let me humor you with comments on method. Khan and colleagues study counties, not individuals. The data are aggregate rates of conservative activity (voting Republican, religiousness) and aggregate rates of buying familiar brand-name products. This is a bit of a surprise because this is Psychological and not Sociological Science, and because the authors start with a build-up of individual psychology. They talk of 'psychological needs, cognitive styles, and personality traits' (p. 1), 'self-expression,' and 'implicit cognition' (p. 2). If the data cannot speak to these issues, the authors shouldn’t either.

"The correlations between conservatism-liberalism and preferences for familiar vs. unfamiliar projects can only be interpreted down to the level of the unit of observation (here: county). Since they are not, another red flag goes up. View research with skepticism if the story is about elements smaller than the smallest unit of data analysis. The inverse difference is not as bad. It is better to infer the properties of an anthill from the behavior of individual ants than to infer the behavior of individual ants from the properties of the anthill.

At the level of numbers, Simpson’s paradox looms. Simpson (1951) showed that when two variables are found to be related across categories, their relationship can have the opposite sign within category. In the Khan case, it is possible that within counties, it is the liberals who cleave to the familiar brand. To suggest that they do not is to follow the dictate of a good story, one that liberal psychologists want to hear. But do we not need to listen to the data before throwing rocks? Khan and colleagues advise us not to worry. After noting, that 'ideally, an examination of the relationship between political ideology and brand consumption would be based on data from a consumer panel with accurate measures of ideology and pur¬chase behavior for a greater variety of products,' they cheerfully proclaim that 'the consistency of our results across a large set of product categories suggests that aspects of ideology may indeed be reflected in daily behavior at an unconscious level or in an implicit manner' (p. 7). Non sequitur: it does not follow.

"With a possible delusion of hindsight, I seem to remember a time when political attitudes were just that: attitudes. During that mythical era it was fun to debate with individuals who saw things differently. Perhaps you could move them on one point or another, or lo!, one of your own opinions might change.

"In the current era, of which I see the Khan research emblematic, political attitudes are reified as matters of character, matters that run so deep that their ripple effects are felt over a great distance. The conservative mind rumbles deep underground, and way up, at the surface, the consumer’s hand reaches for the Hershey’s bar instead of the Ritter Sport (which, trust me, is far better). Try the Alpenmilch some time. It might make you more liberal."

(See here for more.)

Khan, R., Misra, K., & Singh, V. (2013). Ideology and brand consumption. Psychological Science, published online 4 February. doi: 10.1177/0956797612457379

Simpson, E. H. (1951). The interpretation of interaction in contingency tables. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Ser. B, 13, 238–241.

Tajfel, H., & Wilkes, A. L. (1963). Classification and quantitative judgment. British Journal of Psychology, 54, 101-114.


Both articles seem to pertain to the Conservative Sheeplets rather than the Conservative leadership, as anyone who has encountered on of them in a forum or online "debate."  But there are Conservative fellow travelers to contend with also.

Dr. Krueger's statement that " the context of low complexity, dogmatism, and a need for order, a conscientious person looks like a fascist in waiting" is telling, but Dr. Livingstone's notion is even more telling, that "(we)e face important issues on which our survival depends: economic, environmental, social. If we cannot make progress on the question of climate change, for example, all the rest of our debates are meaningless. If we choke on our own air, or starve in our own droughts, then we better hope the religious people are right about heaven, because there will be no place left for us on earth."

Next: More On Psychological Aspects of The Conservative "Mind."


“It is better to be silent and thought to be ignorant then to open one's mouth and
remove all doubt.”

R. G. Risch. (American engineer, technical and science fiction writer.)


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