by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 19
May 2020
Spotted
07:00

Does blank slateism make us more intolerant?

That's the implication of a new research paper on polarisation
by Mary Harrington
‘America First’ protesters face off with opponents at California beach rally

It turns out that if you believe people freely choose their political viewpoints, it makes partisan polarisation worse. At least that’s the implication of a new research paper from Boise State University social scientist Alexander Severson.

Recent research in political science is suggesting that to a significant extent, our political worldview is less freely chosen than we think. Rather, there are strong correlations between differences of brain structure and of political outlook, while a conservative outlook is also correlated with generally higher disgust sensitivity (the ‘yuck reaction’).

So if that’s the case, then does it mean we should be more charitable to political opponents (because they can’t help believing what they do) or more determined to defeat them (because they’ll never see things the way we do)? To explore this, Severson studied what happened when people with strong partisan political beliefs were exposed to information designed to persuade them that political viewpoints are affected by biology.

The result showed two things: firstly, that some people simply reject the science and continue to believe their political opponents choose their views. But also secondly, that among the greater number who accepted the information about biological influences on political outlook, this significantly reduced their hostility toward political out-groups.

This makes sense. Jonathan Haidt argued in The Righteous Mind that there’s an asymmetry between the mutual assessment of liberals and conservatives in the US because they draw differently on the five moral foundations of Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Liberals, he suggests, are oriented toward the first two and conservatives more balanced across all five. Thus, he argues, liberals simply don’t understand where conservatives are coming from on a number of things that are of great concern to the latter — and conclude that they must be heartless or even evil.

When you add in a belief that we’re all blank slates at birth, and political viewpoints have been freely chosen, then this heartlessness (or evil) must seem infinitely worse. But if it turns out that political differences are grounded in physiology, then instead of interpreting differences as the result of calculated malice there’s suddenly more scope for curiosity about how we differ.

It’s also much more difficult to argue that our political opponents should be annihilated if their viewpoint is partly a consequence of biology and would likely reappear in the next generation even if we did succeed in wiping conservatism (or whatever) from the face of the earth.

But it also suggests an emergent social downside of our current tendency to idealise human freedom. If we believe others have chosen every aspect of their worldview, we’re less tolerant of their differences. Conversely, it’s easier to be forgiving of others’ quirks if we entertain the possibility that they’re not wholly in command of how they see things.

If others freely chose even the attitudes we like least, those attitudes will seem like a calculated affront. But if they can’t help seeing the world that way, there is at least room for grudging tolerance. From that it follows that the remedy for our slide into political polarisation isn’t denigrating ‘tribalism’ in the pursuit of even greater freedom, but charity based on a recognition of the limits to that freedom that are — it transpires — baked into our very physiology.

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Auberon Linx
Auberon Linx
2 years ago

The study where conservatism correlated with increased disgust failed to replicate, as do the majority of psychology studies. I know it is fun to use dubious findings to speculate on topics interesting to the general public, but this should be qualified, rather than suggesting that science has already provided all the relevant facts.

Furthermore, too much emphasis is put on the supposed effect of physiology on political choices. Even if there is strong support for this actually being the case (I am not sure there is), this would most likely still explain only a small amount of variation in political outlook. Statistically significant (meaning publishable) does not automatically mean relevant in the real world.

Finally, the blank slate position according to which humans would freely choose their worldview does not seem like something anyone would actually hold. How would that work? People have their values and beliefs, based on which they select their political allegiance. That is not a random process. Those values and beliefs change over time, and could be modified through persuasion or indoctrination. It seems strange to suggest that they could be freely chosen ““ what would the basis for such a choice be?

Scott Carson
Scott Carson
2 years ago
Reply to  Auberon Linx

The blank state idea strikes me as a bit fanciful tbh, practically everyone has at least a core of ideology and values instilled by parents and environment right from the start.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Auberon Linx

“The study where conservatism correlated with increased disgust failed to replicate”

Do you have a link re this?

Auberon Linx
Auberon Linx
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Here is a link to the claim that the results could not be replicated, and that the journal that published the original research refused to engage with the new findings in any way: https://slate.com/technolog

There are additional published articles (in lower impact journals) that cast further doubt on the interpretation of the original paper. It seems that the attitude of the establishment is along the lines of se non e vero e ben trovato.

Iliya Kuryakin
Iliya Kuryakin
2 years ago
Reply to  Auberon Linx

The paper refuting the replication claim does not appear to have been published in any peer reviewed academic journal.

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
2 years ago
Reply to  Auberon Linx

Re: measuring disgust for liberal/conservative determination. It depends on how the criteria for disgust is chosen. For instance, I’m seeing absolutely no difference in forum discussions of Covid between “sides” as to how disgusted and fearful they are of the idea of, for instance, breathing in all that yucky air that the jogger in front of you is pushing out of their lungs. In addition, I see from a very recent Nature abstract that the studies showing alleged extra sensitivity to disgust and fear possessed by Conservatives are not replicable.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

This analysis does not seem to take into account the fact that (most) people become more conservative as they get older. Either way, if there really are physiological difference that explain the two belief systems, this would support my idea that we should simply create Progressive and Conservative countries and assign people accordingly. The only problem with this, of course, is that the Progressive countries would soon collapse with everyone desperately begging the Conservative states for food and medicine.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“(Most) people become more conservative as they get older.” This is far from guaranteed (although older people do become averse to change) – but certainly, it’s not universally true in terms of voting for self-described Conservative parties. In the 1980s, pensioners disproportionately voted Labour.

What does happen, of course, is that people get more economically conservative as they get richer. The generation which is now in old age has largely followed this trajectory, having benefited from a unique and unrepeatable boom in house prices.

Some have questioned how the same baby boomers who voted for free love in the 1960s ended up voting for low taxes in the 1980s and for triple-lock state pensions in the 21st century. The common link, of course, is the unprecedented selfishness which motivated their voting decisions at each point.

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
2 years ago

As noted, this study does not account for political change over time. In addition, what I have seen in these types of studies is that their definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” are ill-defined and are definitely not sensitive to current political alignments. For example, I along with countless others in America were comfortable identifying as liberal for most of our lives and distinguished ourselves both from the far Left/hippies and certainly from stuffy, narrow-minded intolerant conservatives. Liberals were open to new ideas but usually did not doubt foundational principles such as the primacy of individual rights and freedoms, and the basic solidity of our system as a constitutional republic. Full civil rights for women and minorities were of high importance. Sexual freedom was also an obvious right and no one else’s business. Authority was entitled to some deference but should always be transparent and open to questioning and challenge. Well then along came massive changes in opinion drivers in areas such as academia and the media, beginning in the nineties and accelerating since then, so that now a person such as myself who holds the exact same foundational principles is forced to wear the label “conservative;” an ill-fitting mark of Cain, and unable to find support for my deeply held views anywhere except on the “Right.” At the very least, a researcher would have to allow that I am a political changer. I don’t think that I have changed much at all, it’s the political landscape which has become completely new territory.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

a conservative outlook is also correlated with generally higher disgust sensitivity (the ‘yuck reaction’).

And yet the attitude of the modern left to conservatives seems to be precisely one of disgust.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

Even more interesting would be the effect such findings have on our own beliefs. To genuinely believe that ones beliefs are determined causally rather than through choice or reason is pretty much to stop believing in them at all. One would certainly not bother to go out and vote on the basis of something one had simply been lumbered with by genetics.

And political debate wouldn’t last long. As soon as one was asked to justify ones beliefs the debate would be over. All that would remain would be to look quizzically at the person who had made such a dumb request.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Even if you believed that your beliefs were genetically determined, you surely might go out and vote, simply in order to try and ensure that the outcome suited your nature! If, for instance, a politician advocated draining a lake, you would be well advised to vote against him, if you were a fish!

But surely the truth is halfway – our beliefs are determined in part by temperament (innate) and in part by reasoned thought. (Obviously, though, they’re not determined through mere “choice”, as if deciding between Johnson and Corbyn were akin to selecting Pepsi or Cola).

I also wonder how “liberal” and “conservative” are defined in this kind of study. If “conservatives” favour Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity, then how could they support the modern Conservative Party, which seems committed to radical change and has long favoured that most disruptive of institutions, the free market? Today’s Conservative Party is basically a mix of classical liberals with Tory Leninists. Are there any serious Conservative politicians now who could declare, with Lord Salisbury, that “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible”?

When the former Communist Party of East Germany (now “Die Linke”) argued, a couple of elections back, that everyone should have a job for life in the town where they were born, I remember thinking, with a shock, that this was quite the most conservative policy on offer.

Where now is the kind of conservative party that would stand up for the parish church, the local pub, and the village shop?

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago

This science sounds highly parochial and not very convincing. An attempt to explain the specific circumstances of partisan politics in the last few years via reference to the structures of the brain (which presumably haven’t changed that much) must be wanting. The giveaway sentence is “our slide into political polarisation”. Something has recently changed; and it’s rather unlikely that that something is human physiology.

Liberals and conservatives, socialists and free marketeers, didn’t generally see themselves as members of opposing tribes, nor did they usually anathemise each other, even as recently as the 1990s. They saw themselves as people who had principled differences of opinion. Of course, what has actually changed is the media landscape, which increasingly encourages partisan polarisation and mutual hatred.

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
2 years ago

You have put a very logical point to it–partisan politics have changed drastically and it’s very unlikely that our brains, as they present at birth, have changed at all. Your sense of our new polarization and lack of common ground that has been in the works since roughly the 1990s exactly echoes my post above—except you managed to express it much more concisely.

J Cor
J Cor
2 years ago

“a conservative outlook is also correlated with generally higher disgust sensitivity (the ‘yuck reaction’).”

I call BS on this. These people are the ones who refuse to wear masks. I’d like to take a look at this study and see just how well-designed it really was.

Peter KE
Peter KE
2 years ago

I have tried to place a different view but have been blocked.

David Barnett
David Barnett
2 years ago

That false dichotomy between nurture and nature! I think it is a fair hypothesis that nature might predispose us to certain thought patterns, which can then be reinforced by our thought environment (including the “echo-chambers” in which we choose to locate ourselves).

That means it is possible to persuade people to switch even entrenched positions.

One barrier to changing one’s ideas is the degree to which one invests one’s self-identity in one’s opinion set. If one believes strongly one is one’s opinions, then even hearing a contrary view feels like an attack on one’s very being and makes one viscerally uncomfortable.

For my part, I regard my opinions as possessions that I have (rather than being in any sense the essence of me), so can discard those which are found to be faulty. Very helpful to me as a physicist, but also in my political thinking.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

When I was young, I was always struck by how much more difficult it seemed to be to have a honest political debate with Americans than with my compatriots. The Americans I knew always seemed to take political disagreements as a personal attack, whereas most of my British friends were happy to explore principled disagreements in a more abstract and impersonal way.

It has been rather dismaying,during the last two decades, to see the regrettable personalisation of American political disputes make its way, like Coca-cola and Hollywood movies, to these shores.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago

I am rather surprised the ‘Americanisation’ of the UK has taken so long.
We have in effect been a Client Sate of the US since 1916, when Balfour had to beg for financial assistance to continue and win the war. The first chairman of the Fed, Paul Warburg had done the sums and realised we were on the cusp of bankruptcy.
Our servile position was hammered home at the Washington Disarmament Conference of 1921, and the near simultaneous severing of the 1904 Anglo-Japanese Naval Alliance.
In June 1934 US very kindly allowed us to cease repayment of our still outstanding War Debt. We still ‘owe’ about £200Bn.
Come 1939, your namesake quite correctly sought to avoid war because he knew we could not pay for it.
However this did not discourage WSC who had lived his life on the brink of penury. Thus by late 1940 we were, yet again, grovelling before our US master for yet another ‘loan’. Then we had the 1946 Stafford Cripps bail out and finally the largest single tranche of Marshall Aid.
Thus, we blithely describe this as, the ‘Special Relationship’.

Peter KE
Peter KE
2 years ago

This is pathetic piece. Let’s not focus on conservatism but the true evil of our world the left.
Socialism needs to be eradicated, it is dictatorial and anti society, really just dictatorship such as china and russia. Pure evil exists in china, they even want to obstruct an investigation into the cov-19 crisis. We need retribution against this evil.