July 26, 2003
Adventures in social science

There's been a lot of laughing and snorting lately directed at a Berkeley study that purports to identify the personality traits that lead to political conservatism. Most of the response, such as from Telford, Josh Claybourn, or Julian Sanchez, has been to call it too silly to argue against. Jonah Goldberg in NRO makes an attempt, but his response amounts to, "Liberals are too, at least as much," which he supports entirely with anecdotal evidence.

Goldberg has actually read the study (PDF file), which is a considerable improvement on the press release, which seems to be going out of its way to be condescending and provocative. An argument about the study between two actual psychologists appears here and here; Brett Marston also has a good response to Goldberg's piece.

I looked over the study but it's hard for me to form an opinion about it. It's a meta-analysis -- a study of previous studies -- so it doesn't go through the usual explanations of exactly who was studied, who the control group was, the measuring tools etc. But it does seem to me that a lot of the laughter and outrage coming from the rightward blogosphere comes from a couple of basic misconceptions about psychology, which I've run into more than once.

First of all, a lot of conservatives seem to be saying, "They think I'm sick in the head!" Goldberg asserts, "I have no doubt there is no shortage of psychological studies of murderers, rapists, people who think they're Napoleon, and people who think Carrot Top is funny. But I suspect there's very little data on people who like to have cereal and orange juice in the morning. Why? Because the former category of people are considered abnormal." He goes on to darkly speculate that this is the first step to medicating all the righties.

But actually, psychologists study "normal" people all the time. When I was a psych student I took only one course in abnormal psychology -- the others were called things like Social Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Personality (which this study would fall under). This misconception arises, I think, from the confusion of psychology with psychotherapy. Obviously therapists are about treating illness, but psychologists are trying to get a more general understanding of how the mind works. Many studies I've seen -- relating to things like how memories are formed and retrieved, how children learn to reason, what influences our buying decisions, and so on -- have nothing to do with mental illness.

The psychological language here doesn't help matters -- when people hear themselves described as having a "need" for this or that, it sounds like they're being diagnosed. But believe me, psychologists talk about everybody like that. In fact, I think the language is a lot of the problem here. Another common reaction to a study saying you have more of trait X than the average is to think it's saying you have too much of trait X. But who's saying what the correct amount is? If you reword some of these traits a bit, they don't sound that different from what conservatives say about themselves.

For instance: are conservatives resistant to change? Goldberg points out that this is situational -- which in fact the authors of the study point out too, saying their results might be different if they had results from Communist countries. But the concept of conservatism as a defense of tradition hardly seems controversial to me. The founding manifesto of Goldberg's magazine had that famous line about standing athwart history crying, "Stop!" As Brett points out, when conservatives want change, it's usually a change back to the way things were before.

Or take "dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity." Sounds bad, but especially since 9/11, I've been hearing a lot of conservatives favorably contrast their own moral clarity with the murky moral relativism of the left. Conservatives are willing to use words like good and evil, to call Islamo-fascism what it is, etc. In other words, if you think there's too much ambiguity floating around, intolerance of it isn't a bad thing.

Even the most negative-sounding trait, "fear and aggression," depends on context. There's nothing wrong with fear if you have something to be afraid of, and aggression can be justified under certain conditions. Someone who had none of either would be really weird, and probably dead. Back when I was at the Easter service at All Saints, listening to the priest talking about how Saddam Hussein could be dealt with by international law, I wondered if maybe a little more fear wasn't in order.

Like I said, I'm not defending the study per se, I'm just warning against flying off the handle here. Psychologists have their own lingo, and it sounds goofy to outsiders. So do all disciplines. (Theology certainly does. I remember telling Telford that I don't know what "creaturely freedom" is, but it would be a great name for a rock band.)

By the way, Dormouse Dreaming, one of the psychologists I linked above, also has a good post about that survey of Germans asking if they thought Bush could have been behind the 9/11 attacks. Those survey questions asking, "Is it possible that ..." are one of my peeves, because it all depends on your definition of "possible." What kind of probability does that mean? 70%? 50%? One-half of 1%? But of course, the results get translated to saying those people believe that absolutely ...

Posted by Camassia at July 26, 2003 09:11 AM | TrackBack

No comments on this topic? My take on the hostility toward psychology exhibited by the right--perhaps I should say 'by the neocons'?--is that it is just symptomatic of a general loathing of intellectuals, the academy, and any of the sciences that have homo sapiens and homo sapien's behavior as the field of study. They don't like psychology, and neither do they like sociology, or most types of philosophy, or anthropology. The neocons are, in fact, all acolytes of Ayn Rand to a greater or lesser extent, whether they come by these proclivities directly, through study of her philosophy, or by osmosis due to the company they keep. Many are prevented from being card carrying Objectivists only by Rand's disdain for religion, which does not play well with the constituency that the conservatives must cultivate in quest of political power. Neocons favor scientific disciplines that concern the manipulation of material goods (economics) and the manipulation of mass man (political science and the law), rather than disciplines that speak to the needs, problems and aspirations of individuals, or social units smaller than states, regions or nations. Atlas Shrugged says it all.

Posted by: Rob on July 26, 2003 05:31 PM

thanks for the great post (and mentioning my blog). Your explanation is indeed far superior to mine (in fact I didn't really offer one) and should help somewhat calming those on the right that were offended.


Posted by: markus on July 26, 2003 05:58 PM

Talk of "needs" is anathema to conservatives because one tenet of conservative economics is that there are no absolute needs. Once when I was in an economics class taught by one of these types, he said that "for everything there is a substitute". Someone raised his hand and asked "What is the substitute for food?" Reply, given with a straight face: "Starvation."

Posted by: Joel on July 26, 2003 07:24 PM

I was also a psych major: one course in abnormal psychology, and pretty much everything else covered normal psychology. Even my one clinical psychology course - being a course in behavior therapy - had plenty of normal psychology in it. So, yes, I agree with your cautions; well put.

Posted by: Lynn on July 26, 2003 07:59 PM

Personally, I have trouble with the study because it so sharply contradicts my own experience, which is that the personality traits cited in the study seem to be easy to find on both sides of the political spectrum. Certainly, one could argue that Rob's comment above is dogmatic and aggressive. Joel's comment, which sounds like it comes from the left, expressly embraces absolutism, at least in some areas of life. The mass rallies against the recent war in Iraq could be characterized as having been driven, at least in part, by fear.

On the other hand, it is generally the conservative side of the polity that is more willing to consider innovations such as school vouchers and privatization of social security (I'm not trying to argue that these are necessarily good things, but just that they represent change). Certainly, a willingness to overthrow a Middle East government and throw that region into tumult is hardly an embrace of the status quo, and, while it can be characterized as aggressive, a supporter of that policy could also characterize it as hopeful and optimistic. As one of the articles you cited points out, there are studies that purport to show that conservatives in general are happier with their lives, which does not suggest a mindset of fear and aggression.

Certainly, my examples are all anecdotal. I can't tell from the study, though, why they're wrong. Camassia, you point out that psychology, like any discipline, has its own jargon, and that psychologists talk about everyone in the same terms. As I see it, though, part of the outrage is that these researchers did not talk about everyone; they did not provide a similar analysis of the personality traits that may make one take the left fork on the political road. So, instead of a study that attempts to cover the range of political beliefs, there is a group of psychologists from Berkeley (and thus presumptively leftist, at least in most people's minds) describing their likely political adversaries in loaded terms. OK, there may be elements of truth in what they're saying, but if they're going to dress up in rabbit suits and walk around the forest, then people are going to take shots at them. Metaphorically, of course. :-)

Moreover, I have not seen anything to suggest that the terms that are causing so much outrage (fear, aggression, dogmatism, intolerance) have any specialized meaning in psychology. Camassia, you have interacted with religious communities quite a bit; don't you think that those people would be offended if someone tried to reduce their religious beliefs to a fear of death and an intolerance of the amibiguity inherent in the random evolution of life?

I suspect that, in general, no one likes to see one's political or cultural beliefs ascribed to behaviorism. Rather, one prefers to think that one forms one's own opinion of the world through the exercise of intellect and moral judgment. If the University of Chicago released a study on the behavioral traits that lead one to a belief in socialism, or if the Cato Institute released a study on the behavioral traits that lead one to a belief in God, I have to imagine that the outcry would be quite similar.

Posted by: Tom T. on July 27, 2003 09:40 PM

I think part of the problem here is we're talking about different definitions of conservatives. Rob and Joel are talking about free-market extremists, with a materialist ideology that wouldn't sit well with religious conservatives or just more traditionalist types. I don't think Ayn Rand is a conservative, and I don't think the study was looking at that sort of person. The conservatives I know would be perfectly happy to say they have needs, I just meant that "need for cognitive closure" and so on sounds sort of like you're an ape some zoologist is observing. (Which you are, kinda.)

Tom, the short answer to your question about why the study covered conservatives and not liberals is that psych studies only do one thing at a time. Generally speaking, their focus is pretty narrow. But the authors also say they did it partly because there are more studies of conservatives than liberals, and I agree that seems a bit odd.

I do not think, though, that the point of the study is to "reduce" political orientation to those particular traits (not behaviorism -- that's something else, but that's another story). The study's authors discuss the other factors that go into political decisions (Brett has a good excerpt in his post of this), so I don't think they're saying, "These personality traits are the ONLY reason you're a conservative." In my experience, though, it does not seem implausible that certain personality types are more attracted to one sort of politics than another, and acknowledging this might actually help people understand each other. It's often very hard to realize how different the world looks to someone else, or how their needs might differ from mine. I've found that certain trait analyses, like the extrovert/introvert thing, help me understand behavior that's otherwise pretty incomprehensible to me, for instance. But like I said, I'm not defending the validity of the study's findings per se, which I have no particular way of evaluating. It just seems to me that some people are overreacting, is all.

Posted by: Camassia on July 27, 2003 10:34 PM

Only listen to how Republicans (i.e. conservatives) talk about the academy and the "elites" that find their professions there, and compare that to how Ayn Rand characterizes intellectuals in Atlas Shrugged. I think you will find that I'm not being "dogmatic and aggressive", but merely descriptive.

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