Chris Mooney gives a careless, almost entirely uncritical review of two books that I recently read: Predisposed, by John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford; and Our Political Nature, by Avi Tuschman. Mooney writes,
Liberals and conservatives, conclude Hibbing et al., “experience and process different worlds.” No wonder, then, that they often cannot agree. These experiments suggest that conservatives actually do live in a world that is more scary and threatening, at least as they perceive it. Trying to argue them out of it is pointless and naive. It’s like trying to argue them out of their skin.
Note that it is conservatives who Mooney characterizes as intractable. The implicit assumption is that progressives have it right. Political psychology helps to explain the persistence of the wrong-headed view.
Mooney waxes enthusiastic about the genetic/psychological explanations for political differences. The authors of both books are careful to point out that the correlations between personality traits and political beliefs are, while statistically significant, not overwhelmingly large. They explain much less than half of the variation in political beliefs.
Mooney leaves readers with the impression that psychologists explain a larger share of political differences than they themselves claim to explain. In contrast, my guess is that they explain less. These are the sorts of studies that tend to suffer from publication bias (20 studies are tried, one out of 20 passes the “significance test” of having a 5 percent probability of being true by chance, and that study gets published). In these sorts of studies, attempts at replication sometimes fail completely, and even when successful the effects are smaller than in the original published study.
In fact, my guess is that we are approaching peak political psychology. I would bet that ten years from now the links between political beliefs and psychological traits will be regarded as a very minor field of inquiry.
For me, the main problem with this research is that it is almost impossible to reconcile with well-established findings on voting behavior. In my own review of Tuschman’s book, I wrote,
Consider, for example, the fact that Jews and blacks vote predominantly for liberal Democrats. According to Tuschman’s model, this must mean that Jews and blacks are less ethnocentric than other voters (notwithstanding the apparent tribal solidarity of their voting behavior), as well as more Open and less Conscientious. That seems doubtful.
In his conclusion, Mooney advocates tolerance for other political points of view. That is generous of him. Others who have thought that their political opponents had psychological issues came up with idea of the Gulag.
Want more fun? Read Ethan Watters on the germ theory of political beliefs.
he is certain that the most effective way to change political values from conservative to liberal is through health-care interventions and advances in providing clean water and sanitation. “That is clearly the conclusion that the bulk of evidence supports,” Thornhill says. “If you lower disease threats in countries they become more liberal, and that is true for states in this country. The implication is that if you effectively target infectious diseases then you will liberalize the population.”
That explains why Japan liberalized earlier than England. It explains why Germany turned to Hitler. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this theory before. Pointer from Tyler Cowen, who is not buying it, either.
This is not charitable, but what I want is a psychological explanation for why progressives need to make disagreement with their outlook a pathology. I want to know why their capacity for critical thinking disappears when they read studies that make them feel better about being on the left.