Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"All people are born alike- except Republicans and Democrats"- Marx (Groucho)

About a month ago, a friend of mine sent me an e-mail forward. It was one of those forwards written by presumably a bored office drone, somewhere, that ended up being sent all around. The purpose of the little forward was to be like "Ha ha... the funny, snarky differences of Conservatives and liberals. I can usually laugh at these things, taking them at face value, but this one kind of dug at me. So anyway, to tie this little story up; last night I was reading a back copy of "Psychology Today" and was surprised to come across the article "The Ideological Animal". It is an article about several recent studies that have concluded choice of political party is not just linked to values or reason as we may have thought, but actually rooted in childhood temperament, education and fear of death.
I found this article fascinating and that's why I'm about blogging about it. A little political banter is fun sometimes and while the credibility of anonymously written forwards is low,on the flip side, these studies from researchers at Harvard, Berkley, NYU and the university of Texas have more integrity.

I would like to point out that the forward I received last month stated that liberal men were more often girly-men than conservative men, and that as you will read below in one point, that actually might be true! So I'll give you one correct point for forwarded e-mail. Anyway, pretty interesting stuff, here is a brief summary of the article: (Oh yeah, and by the way, I'm a liberal, in case you couldn't tell!)
Wait! one more thing....Please keep in mind as I do, that the following does not describe all conservatives or all liberals. Everybody is their own unique blend of traits. These are just statistical generalizations found more often to be true, but not always.

  • We tend to believe our political views have evolved by a process of rational thought, as we consider arguments, weigh evidence and draw conclusions. The truth is more complicated. Researchers have found that our political preferences are equally the result of factors we are not even aware of, such as how educated we are, how scary the world seems at any given moment and personality traits that are seen in early childhood. One of the most potent motivators surprisingly is fear. Americans response to threat and attack is more clear than ever after 9/11, the fear of death alone is a much more powerful deciding factor in politics than ever known. More power often, than thought alone
  • It has been found that there are real, stable differences between conservative and liberals in personality, not just differences in views and value alone. The underlying difference is temperament.

  • Psychologists John Jost of NYU, Dana Carney of Harvard and Sam Gosling of the University of Texas have have demonstrated that liberals and conservatives have markedly different home and office decor. This might seem insignificant at first, but look further... Liberals are more messy than conservatives. Their rooms have more clutter and more color, they tend to have more travel documents, maps of other countries and flags from around the world. Conservatives are neater and their rooms are more brightly lit and conventional. Liberals have more books and their books tend to cover a greater variety of topics.
  • Multiple studies have found that in general, liberals are more optimistic, conservatives are more likely to be religious. Liberals are more likely to enjoy classical music and jazz, conservatives, country music. Liberals are more likely to enjoy abstract art. Conservative men are more likely to enjoy conventional forms of entertainment like TV and talk radio. Liberal men like romantic comedies more than conservative men. Liberal women are more likely than conservative women, to enjoy books, poetry, writing in a diary, acting and playing musical instruments.

  • In 1969, Berkley professors Jack and Jeanne Block embarked on a study of early childhood personalities, asking nursery school teachers to rate children's temperaments. They weren't even thinking of political orientation at the time. Twenty years later, they followed up by comparing the subject's childhood temperament with their political preferences as adults. They found arresting patterns. As kids, liberals had developed close relationship with peers and were rated by teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid,inhibited and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference the Blocks hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics. *(Ok, I know these finding can be a bit offensive. Please remember that this doesn't describe every child who goes on to become a conservative or a liberal. I have liberal and conservative adult friends who don't fit these descriptions as children. I'm just relaying what the study found, this is information that startled even the researchers.)
  • The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. the researchers-John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkley- found that conservatives have greater desire to reach a decision quickly and to stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement seeking, novelty, creativity for it's own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art a, music and literature.
  • The study's authors concluded that conservatives have less tolerance for ambiguity, a trait they say is exemplified when George Bush says things like, "Look, my job isn't to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think," and "I'm the decider." Those who think the world is highly dangerous and those with the greatest fear of death are the most likely to be conservative.
  • Liberals , on the other hand, are "more likely to see gray areas and reconcile seemingly conflicting information." As a result, liberals like John Kerry, who see many sides to every issue, are portrayed as flip-floppers. "Whatever the cause, Bush and Kerry exemplify the cognitive styles we see the research," "Bush appearing more rigid in his thinking and intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity, and Kerry in appearing more open to ambiguity and to consider alternative positions."
So what do you think? There had been some controversy thrown up by the House Republican Study Committee claiming that there had been federal funding, and some conservatives claim that many of the less than flattering results were tabulated by the researcher who are themselves liberals. Yet the researchers point to the study's "rigorous methodology" and point out that "the study used political orientation as a dependent variable, meaning that where subjects fall on the political scale is computed from their own answers about whether they're liberal or conservative." Psychologists then compare factors such as fear of death and openness to new experiences, and seek statistically significant correlations. "The findings are quintessentially empirical and difficult to dismiss as false." Also, Jost pointed out what one might see as an unflattering trait, another might not. "There is nothing inherently good or bad about being high or low on the need for closure or structure. Some may see religiosity as a positive, whereas others may see it more neutrally, and so on."

I believe these studies and trust the researchers. Psychologist, researchers, college professors, don't tend to make up complete BS. They are pretty scientific . Again, while I do know that these are just descriptions of conservatives and liberals as a whole on likelihood, and do not describe each individual, I have found many statements seem to have a ring of truth. I think many of these general statements reflect a vast percentage of each group. By the way, if you want to read about these studies and more, you can find this article on page #81 of the February 2007 issue of Psychology Today.

Ok, so why am I posting all of this? To be annoying? To anger? No, I just found this story so amazingly fascinating and it has been on my mind a lot. I have vastly different friends and I love it that way. As I often say, "Variety is the spice of life!" and isn't that so true? I actually seek out friends different than I am because honestly, I have so much to learn and I wouldn't be learning much from someone just like me.

Many times I take in new view points from my friends and in the very least, give those new views some good thought. Once in a while, I even change my opinion after hearing from the other side. Occasionally one of my more conservative friends stands staunchly on a subject and I find it difficult to understand why they might not be willing to consider it from all the angles, but this article gave me a really interesting look into the workings of both of our minds. I kind of get it now.

Anyway, that's my food for thought today.


Sarah said...

I read this article over the weekend - I have a totally different take on it (what a surprise, right?) and we'll have to discuss...thanks for the lead - it was an interesting read.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame I don't get this periodical in Hong Kong... :(
I want to find out more about their methodology. How had they defined conservative and liberal? Or, at least, find out what their respondents thought it meant.

From my recollection, conservative and liberal can be used in different groups of spectrums, related to our government.
Politcal theory (amount of impact of the government, in general, in the people's lives -- conservative thinking less is more, liberal thinking more is more)
Moral theory (this is more complicated but in my mind I define it this way -- conservatism leaning towards tradition, liberalism towards change)
Fiscal theory (where money is utilized best for the people -- conservativism believing the people will use the money for the most bennefit overall, liberism believing the government will use the money for the most bennefit overall)
and the list continues.
What I am trying to say is that not everybody who identifies themselves as "conservative" or "liberal" are conservative or liberal on each of the spectrums. In fact, when I identify my own beliefs, I break it down by the main spectrums because I vary.
It would be useful to know if they were trying to identify traits of Republicans and Democrats, socially conservative and liberals, or what?
If the latter, do they weight the responses impact by the degree of conservatism or liberalism? Because there are many people that are "slightly" conservative or liberal as well as people who are "very" conservative or liberal.
And what about my people? What about the independent and third-party folk that don't like any of the over-generalized labels?
Sounds like they could be squeezing square pegs through round holes here.
While I don't question their independence or the empirical nature of their results, I am a skeptic by nature, so I question if they just decided to get showy results that would move their careers and get them tenure rather than truly meaningful associations that might (in some way) further the science of psychology.
Let's just say, I see a lot of grey here to be navigated. I don't like just hearing the answers, I want to know exactly what the questions were first.
By the way, Red and Blue make me a Sickly Green. :)

Anonymous said...

Okay, have more to say after re-reading this. First, I don't take exception to the results of this stody nor your finding the study very interesting (it IS very interesting) but I like to get into the guts of a study like this, especially when social scientists claim that a study is emperical. Society is not an empirical animal. The human mind is not see easily qualified or quantified (that's to say there is a LOT of grey in grey matter and the more absolute the category, the less it fits any individual). That is unless the questionaire is of a much simpler nature with results found in the physical world (i.e. people who identify themselves as ______ are, on average, 3 years older than those that identify themselves as _____). From what I see in your post, they do acknowledge that the people self-identify themselves into these groups but they do not identify any instruction as to how they are defining the categories or to the degree to which the respondents feel they fit into categories. I just worry that this study would be like a judge instructing a jury, "do you feel that the denfendent more closely identifies with the 'Murder 1' category or the 'Murder 2' category" and deciding it is best to let the jury decide what category fits by what is the common belief of how each is defined.
I am NOT saying that is what the study is, just that I don't know and I would like to.

Only other thing is thank you for posting this. It's very stimulating and love things like this!