Nicholas Kristof in today’s New York Times:
If you want to tell whether someone is conservative or liberal, what are a couple of completely nonpolitical questions that will give a good clue?
How’s this: Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?
And, second: Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?
Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed by actions that seem disrespectful of authority, such as slapping Dad. Liberals don’t worry as long as Dad has given permission.
Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.
The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.
These are depressing findings. We believe we are reasoning about Judge Sotomayor’s judicial opinions–or at least about the relevance of ethnicity and gender to a judicial appointment–when all that really matters is our visceral reaction to authority figures and sharing drinks. This research reminds me of the application of birth-order theory to politics. Supposedly, first-borns are conservative; younger siblings are more radical. That’s another example of a basically immutable trait that shouldn’t have any relevance to our political views, but that seems to affect them.
But such theories have two huge limitations. First, they do not explain historical change. Maybe the French revolutionaries of 1789 were more comfortable than their royalist opponents were with slapping their fathers in jest and sharing glasses. But there are always people with these traits. So we need an entirely different explanation for why the French Revolution happened in 1789 instead of 1750–or never. We also need a different kind of explanation for why the Revolution took the course that it did. Immutable traits won’t explain change, unless the distribution of those traits shifts, which would itself require an explanation.
Second, these theories don’t explain the content of our political views. Today, liberals tend to favor legal gay marriage, and conservatives tend to oppose it. Fifty years ago, liberals tended to favor racial intermarriage, the opponents of which tended to be conservatives. The psychology of this debate may have remained the same over the fifty years. That is, opponents of “miscegenation” in 1950 might have had the same attitudes toward sharing glasses of water that opponents of gay marriage do today. But it makes an enormous difference that interracial marriage is now a settled issue–as gay marriage will likely be in another 20 years.
I am open to the possibility that immutable and non-rational traits help determine who takes which side in political debates at any given time. But what the two sides believe and who wins the debate must be determined by other factors. We should hope that the strength of arguments is one of the factors that counts.