Psychologists and political scientists have been aware for awhile that liberals and conservatives have different psychologies. Conservative cognition tends toward order and constancy, while liberal cognition tends towards complexity and ambiguity. Conservatives are more startled by potential threats, liberals not so. Scientists have suggested that cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives have to do with how the brain monitors conflict – when one’s habitual response doesn’t accord with the current situation. This has been associated with neurocognitive activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. According to some scientists, these tendencies are inheritable, visible from an early age, and tend to persevere through one’s lifetime.
I myself am a liberal born to conservative parents who must be a little confused about how that happened. But, I can see the traces of who I am politically going way back, which makes me wonder if there are things going on biologically that predispose us to certain ways of thinking. I used to collect armloads of trash on my way home from schools, and my parents used to refer to me as the President of the International Club. I attended conservative churches devoutly and defended conservative positions but felt like there was always a dischord in myself, which I blamed on myself. When I finally “converted” and started coming slowly out of the closet as a liberal, it didn’t feel so much like a change as a simplification. I didn’t have to try and hold all these conflicting things together anymore. Others have converted the opposite ways, and often stell tories about being “lost” and finding a path, a structure that helped them find purpose in life.
However, it must be added that I started picking up trash when I lived in Colorado, and was president of the international community when I had classes at a school with – wait for it – a large number of second-generation Americans. Did my brain prepare me to change because I have a cognitive propensity to innovation? Or just cause I was still a kid when I had those experiences? I would be curious to see if anyone has studied people’s political views not in comparison to what they were in childhood but relative to the kinds of experiences they had. This, I imagine, would be difficult, as it would rely on almost entirely subjective information unless you did a longitudinal study and followed people from adolescence on.
According to an article in Psychology Today, people decide on political issues almost entirely based on emotion. Thus politicians try to illustrate that they are like the voters, and how the opponent does not share their values. Communist! or Out of touch! Also, they create a rich narrative – the son of a single mom, the war veteran. It’s interesting that many say rationality is the hallmark of our species when we actually make some of the biggest decisions based on emotion. Perhaps in the future we should do away with the presidential debates and just have them produce music videos with the most compelling sounds and pictures their team can come up with.
What does this mean pragmatically for things like the healthcare debate? If the scientists are, in fact, correct, it means we have a responsibility to think about whether we are being “hooked” (read: marketed to) by political messages. We have a responsibility to know ourselves. In the depressing bipolarity that is our current political system, perhaps what we need to start with is asking ourselves why something appeals to us. For myself, I know that I often say or think I value bipartisanship, but I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that what I really mean is that i hope we can bipartisanally do progressive things. Hence my constant disappointment at the political process. Maybe it means I just need to take my vote more seriously. If people are going to vote how they’re going to vote, then it comes down to who takes the time to show up at the voting booth.