How Coherence Defines Conservatism

September 21st, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

One of the pitfalls in doing political psychology research is that it is tempting to define an ideology using the perspective of whatever you study.  Researchers necessarily (and I’m sure I do this too) talk about the novelty and uniqueness of their findings in order to convince editors of journals of the objective importance of their work.  In my technology career, we often think of connected variables as part of a “graph”, indicating that any individual finding is likely part of a larger pattern.  I believe that there are a number of psychology findings and news stories about conservatives that are actually part of a larger pattern, where each finding is actually an example of how conservatism can be defined by a desire for greater coherence.

What is coherence?  It is an idea that grows from the common psychological finding that cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, so people seek to create the absence of dissonant thoughts, beliefs, and emotions in their lives.  This absence of dissonance is what we can call coherence.  My graduate school advisor, Stephen Read, has studied it extensively in a variety of contexts, and, in a project led by my colleague Brian Monroe, modeled a variety of social psychological findings about attitudes.  My suggestion in this blog post is that, in a similar fashion, a large number of observations about conservatism can be explained by the idea that conservatives seek more coherence than liberals.  Below, I will list these observations and you can judge for yourself whether there is a broader pattern.

  • A lot of political psychology work concerns liberals greater “cognitive complexity”.  A quote from this paper: “There is both survey and content analytic evidence that liberals rely on more integratively complex cognitive strategies in reaching policy conclusions than do conservatives (Tetlock, 1989), suggesting that liberals may be more tolerant of cognitive dissonance…liberals receive higher scores on measures of tolerance of ambiguity..(Stone & Schaffner, 1988).”  In political discourse, you can see this division played out in terms of conservative ridicule of Kerry’s “for it before I was against it” in favor of the Texas straight shooter.  Note that cognitive complexity can be thought of as both an indication of intelligence and an indication of lack of core beliefs.
  • It is certainly more coherent to think that the group that you belong to does good things, rather than bad things, and conservatives are more likely to be more patriotic (see their identification with country results in this paper) and display more ingroup bias.  In contrast, it would generate cognitive dissonance to believe that your group should apologize for past bad actions and conservatives do not seem eager to apologize.
  • There is work suggesting that conservative judgments are more likely to be consistent/coherent with their emotional reactions.  Jesse Graham has a number of working papers showing how conservatives are more likely to make moral judgments that are consistent with their emotional reactions, while liberals may at times, override their gut reaction with an intellectual judgment.  In the news, we often see conservatives use their gut intuitions, even as liberals second guess basing judgments on coherence with the gut.

It bears noting that most of the above differences can be framed as positive or negative, depending on one’s ideological desires.  Coherence, by itself, is neither good nor bad, and can be both adaptive and maladaptive in different situations.  One of my colleagues once said that there is value in reviewing research from a particular perspective and pushing that review as far as one can go, even if one might be wrong.  There is certainly a ton of research I am unaware of and perhaps there is research showing contradictory evidence for my conclusion that conservativism is defined by coherence.  Or alternatively, perhaps readers are aware of more research on liberal-conservative differences that can be explained through the lens of coherence.  I would appreciate either type of information via comment or email.

– Ravi Iyer

Posted in coherence, conservatives, differences between republicans and democrats, liberals, moral coherence, political psychology, yourmorals.org13 Comments »

13 Responses to “How Coherence Defines Conservatism”

  1. When morality is based on fewer foundations there’s less reason for the elephant to prefer one path over another, which in turn places more onus on the rider to carry the decision making load. The automatic cognitive processes do less of the work, which means the controlled cognitive process must do more of it. Thus greater cognitive complexity in liberals. I think this narrative might also explain the three-foundation tendency to place its faith in reason as the arbiter of truth, as well as its tendency toward literal-minded analytical thinking (i.e., cognitive complexity) and even moral relativism.

    Conversely, when morality is based on all of the foundations the elephant is better equipped and prepared to experience a “flash of affect” in a Malcolm Gladwell “Blink” sort of way, where “one possibility usually jumps out … as the obvious best one,” which in turn means that the rider has less to do. The automatic cognitive processes do more of the work, leaving less for the controlled processes to handle. Thus, relatively speaking, less cognitive complexity in conservatives. I think this may be behind the six-foundation tendency to place its faith in experience – as manifested, for example, in institutions, customs, and traditions – as the surest guide for decision making, as well as its tendency toward more conceptual, or intuitive-minded holistic thinking, and attention toward “moral capital” (as Haidt describes it.)

    In other words, liberals test higher in cognitive complexity because their rider necessarily does more of the decision making work (i.e., analytical reason). For conservatives, complexity rests more in the elephant (i.e., blink-like experience, or holistic intuitive “feel.”) ( I might also suggest, therefore, that conservatives have every bit as much cognitive complexity as liberals do, they just carry it in a different part of the brain – this may not fit the scientific definition of cognitive complexity, but I think you know what I mean – but all that is beside the point of this post.)

    I got the idea for this narrative from the following passage on pages 12 and 13 of “The Happiness Hypothesis:”

    “The neurologist Antonio Damasio has studied people who, because of a stroke, tumor, or blow to the head, have lost various parts of their frontal cortex. In the 1990s, Damasio found that when certain parts of the orbitofrontal cortex are damaged, patients lose most of their emotional lives. They report that when they ought to feel emotion, they feel nothing, and studies of their autonomic reactions (such as those used in lie detector tests) confirm that they lack the normal flashes of bodily reaction that the rest of us experience when observing scenes of horror or beauty. Yet their reasoning and logical abilities are intact. They perform normally on tests of intelligence and knowledge of social rules and moral principles.

    So what happens when these people go out into the world? Now that they are free of the distractions of emotion, do they become hyperlogical, able to see through the haze of feelings that blinds the rest of us to the path of perfect rationality? Just the opposite. They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or to set goals, and their lives fall apart. When they look out at the world and think, “What should I do now?” they see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings of like or dislike. They must examine the pros and cons of every choice with their reasoning, but in the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other. When the rest of us look out at the world, our emotional brains have instantly and automatically appraised the possibilities. One possibility usually jumps out at us as the obvious best one. We need only use reason to weigh the pros and cons when two or three possibilities seem equally good.

    Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains work so well that our reasoning can work at all. Plato’s image of reason as charioteer controlling the dumb beasts of passion may overstate not only the wisdom but also the power of the charioteer. The metaphor of a rider on an elephant fits Damasio’s findings more closely: Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work. When the neocortex came along, it made the rider possible, but it made the elephant much smarter, too.”

    Now, obviously I’m not suggesting that people with the three-foundation morality have somehow lost parts of their frontal cortex. All I’m suggesting is that for liberals reason, the rider, does more of the work of decisions making, and for conservatives emotion, the elephant, does more of the work. In other words, liberal thought is more analytical, and conservative thought is more holistic, as described in this passage from page 97 of The Righteous Mind:

    “Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts), but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object.)

  2. Above post is my take on cognitive complexity only, not the larger topic of coherence. Sorry I didn’t say that at the outset.

  3. What’s fascinating to me is the fascination with conservatism in academic social science research, especially in light of the fact that, according to Dr. Haidt, six-foundation moralities are the norm worldwide and three-foundation moralities are the outliers.

    Why is it that the outliers spend so much of their time studying the mainstreamers?

    Could this fascination have anything to do with the fact that for all practical purposes there are no six-foundation social science academics, as Dr. Haidt pointed out in his “Post Partisan” presentation?

    The simple fact that the research is done virtually only by liberals, and such a large percentage of it is focused on tying to understand and explain conservatives is, in itself, a form of “pathologizing the other side” which, in an earlier blog post, you said isn’t helpful because it is subject to bias.

    If moral foundations really do result from natural selection as Dr. Haidt suggests, then their purpose is most likely to act as threat detection modules in the human social environment.

    I have not read every single blog post here at YourMorals, so I may put my foot in my mouth here, but I would think that an obvious and fascinating question to ask would be how and why a morality which eschews half of our naturally selected threat detectors comes to be. I would think that if we discovered in the animal kingdom a subset of gazelles that were slow moving, or tortoises with soft shells, we’d be fascinated with these anomalies and want to find out why they happened. But in the world of academic social science I don’t see much of that approach. Instead, the slow gazelles spend a great deal of their energy trying to figure out what’s up with all the speedy runners.

    At the risk of again putting my foot in my mouth, I can’t help but wonder, in light of Dr. Haidt’s “Post Partisan” findings has there been any serious effort to recruit true six-foundation thinkers onto the YourMorals team?

    From the perspective of one whose morality is based on all the foundations I offer for consideration the proposition that your conclusion that conservatism is defined by coherence is a case of the tail wagging the dog.

    Coherence is a trait, that’s all, and it’s only one of many. Defining a morality by single trait is a little like defining the flu by the runny nose. It does not get to the root of the matter.

    I would say that moralities are defined by their moral foundations and many, if not all, traits such as coherence follow from that.

    For example:

    Conservatives are more threat sensitive; liberals are less threat sensitive ( i.e,. open to new ideas.) This makes sense. If moral foundations are threat detection modules then it follows that people who employ fewer threat detection modules would be less threat sensitive, and consequently more “open” to new ideas (which is not to be confused with curiosity). The character trait of openness, therefore, is really not a character trait at all. Rather, it’s just a label for the subset, or the region within, or the leftmost limit, of the bell curve of threat sensitivity in which there’s a greater chance of finding liberals. To my knowledge there’s no corresponding label for the ranges within which conservatives or libertarians reside.

    Liberals tend toward moral relativism more than conservatives. With fewer moral foundations there’s less reason for the liberal intuitive elephant to lean one way or another when faced with a choice. There are fewer “redeeming values” intuitively apparent in any given choice. It is more likely, therefore, that every choice will be perceived as the moral equal of every other choice.

    Liberals tend toward relatively more cognitive complexity. As with moral relativism, when fewer foundations are employed there are fewer reasons for the elephant to prefer one path over another, which means the rider must carry more of the cognitive load. Since morality is more or less relative to liberals, moral choices are natural subjects for cost/benefit style cognitive analysis, or what Haidt describes as the liberal tendency to see politics as “shopping.”

    I could go on – for example, moral foundations, in my view, are also behind the liberal emphasis on “reason” and the conservative emphasis on experience (as represented by custom, tradition, institutions, etc.); the liberal focus on the individual (i.e., the bees) and the conservative focus on balancing the needs of the individual with the needs of the community (i.e., the hive); the liberal tendency to think analytically and reductively, and the conservative tendency to think intuitively and holistically – but I hope you’re getting the idea.

    In the introduction to The Righteous Mind Dr. Haidt says:

    “People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything. Books have been published in recent years on the transformative role in human history played by cooking, mothering, war . . . even salt. This is one of those books.”

    I think he was right. Moral foundations are the dog, and things like coherence, and empathizing vs systemizing, and “openness,” are all tails.

  4. If I were to define conservatism and liberalism I would not focus on the traits, rather, I’d say that conservatism is defined by its relatively equal balance of all the foundations, and liberalism is defined by its by its almost exclusive use of only the individualizing foundations, and of those mostly just care.

    Everything else follows from there.

  5. Scott Wagner says:

    A few points, tiw. First, I’m pleased to be equated with a soft-shelled turtle- I’d never heard that one. I like it. In that sense, it’s true that I, at least, run around asking conservatives what’s wrong with me, and they’re pointing out my soft shell. Among other sins.

    Secondly, high valuation of coherence (I just stick with certainty to be simple, but coherence is a richer concept) is best thought of as a metatrait of the conservative foundations- that’s a point I make all the time, as I have in a new blog entry. Research seems to support this: more important to me, it’s quite apparent to me, in hundreds of conversations with conservatives, that that underlying impetus toward certainty- the impetus that prompted John Wayne to say ““If everything isn’t black and white, I say, “Why the hell not?”- runs through and under loyalty, sacredness, tradition, a relative reverence for hierarchy and order, dutifulness, etc. Certainty-seeking is a left hemisphere orientation and set of techniques that’s recruited more by conservatives, almost certainly due primarily to genetics, secondarily by strong socialization. Evidence of higher bias and inappropriate use of heuristics (decision-making shortcuts) tilts toward conservatives, because these techniques have advantages and disadvantages. The cost of effecting certainty systematically, as an implicit, underlying value, is dimension reduction, and thus risk of inaccuracy in complex situations; the advantage is efficiency, particularly in time and effort. The tradeoff is a classic one, with ins and outs the ideologies like to dumb down for each other simplistically.

    Thirdly, conservatives do much less academic research because conservatives are fundamentally less interested in academic research. It has to do with your cognitive complexity point. Even business researchers are mostly liberal, which is astonishing if you think about it, especially when my impression of MBA students was they were overwhelmingly conservative (an MBA is a practical degree, a Ph.D. is not). Engineering Ph.D’s are more split evenly. Conservatives tend to be better educated on average, but their interest in education is much more practical, (the standard deviation of their education level is significantly lower: they get educated, but they don’t go crazy with it). They can be cognitively complex on demand, but they choose to apply it in practical ways, bless their hearts, and are relatively less interested in theoretical issues. They are quite literally out there on the front lines, getting the tough stuff done. Sure, there’s liberal bias in academia, and it shouldn’t be ignored, particularly with existing conservative researchers. But whining about the lack of conservative input is a little silly to me because, relatively speaking, conservatives are fundamentally not interested in doing social research. They’re simply not built that way, personality-wise: were never in the room. Even if they do enter the field, they’re out doing stuff with it with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. The reason over 85% of social science research is done by liberals is because liberals want to do it.

    Having said that, I like the spirit and gist of your point. Yes, we should encourage conservative researchers to join us. Dr. Haidt has addressed that explicitly. The other direction to go is that we should be much more cognizant, in the spirit of your argument, that we’re running down liberal ratholes simplistically, that we get to our ergos quickly and neatly. Even doing this a little cheapens the work tremendously- and we don’t do it a little, in my opinion. We don’t need conservatives on the team to catch ourselves, so much as execute better designed research. Review by a somewhat qualified conservative outsider might be huge in the design stage, and should be considered a must; a much greater effort to avoid judgmental wording, which ends up often funneling the results section and bleeding into the pop output; more research on the cognitive and social advantages of conservatism, which are significant but systematically overlooked.

    Finally, a minor point, one I’ve batted at you elsewhere implicitly. In their latest blogs, both David Brooks and Mr. Frum join Andrew Sullivan to bemoan the lack of balance in our empirical version of conservatism, and- horrors- they’re both beginning to sound as if they might even join Mr. Sullivan to prefer Mr. Obama as president. I would submit that’s a ridiculous, ironic turn of events. These men are conservative, no matter the right’s increasing acrimony with their views. To me, it helps to frame the popular right’s approach today as a natural but misplaced emphasis on coherence/certainty, as a reaction to a world that is proving uncomfortably interdependent and (economically) structurally dynamic. That perspective provides a handle into the groupthink and brittleness of the retrenchment that seems to be leading to their defeat this presidential election. Your arguments that conservatives are balanced rings hollow for me when I look at the misplaced certainty, compromise avoidance, and excessive dimension reduction going on in congress and by Gov. Romney. To me, and to many conservatives, their good points- and they make many- are lost in a sea of unbalanced rhetoric and reactionary perspectives.

  6. Ravi Iyer says:

    Thanks for both of your thoughtful comments. Yes, we should get more view points represented and we do actively seek it out, even if it’s not easy to find in liberal academia.

    Re: traits vs. moral foundations as the core difference – I think most psychologists would consider a proclivity toward coherence to be a more fundamental disposition that leads to moral concerns, rather than the reverse causality. Dan McAdams has a good theory of personality that puts dispositions (such as an aversion to dissonance) at a level that leads to 2nd level goals and values that I would subscribe to. The idea that liberals use their rider more is completely consistent with that. One might hypothesize that liberals are more ok with dissonance between the rider and the elephant, while conservatives want coherence between the two.

    Thanks again! – Ravi

  7. Scott,

    If “coherence is a metatrait of the conservative foundations” then you agree with me that such traits follow from the moral foundations; they are the tail that is wagged by the foundational dog. They therefore do not define the six-foundation morality as Ravi suggests, rather they follow from it. I’ll point out, too, that “the conservative foundations” are all of them.

    If conservatives are “out there on the front lines, getting the tough stuff done” then “whining about the lack of conservative input” is like whining about the inputs of test pilots or soldiers in the field in our efforts to design and build better airplanes, weapons, and armor. To suggest that all I’m doing is “whining” is to suggest that academic researchers need test pilots, soldiers, and conservatives like fish need bicycles. Why not just leave conservatives out of the conversation entirely and let the liberal academics design the airplanes, weapons, armor, and social policy?

    Dr. Haidt answers that question in two ways. First, he says, and I’m paraphrasing, that we humans are terrible at seeing the flaws in our own arguments and therefore the only way to find truth, or the right answer, is to invite others to point out our flaws for us, as you correctly point out in your paragraph which starts with “Having said that…” Second, he says that the miracle of human sociality comes from “all the tools in the toolbox,” (TED talk) and he gives examples of how communities fail when they are built on only, or mostly, the liberal foundations (The Righteous Mind.) I submit that theories about what really makes people tick and social policies that result from those theories, if left up to liberals only, would suffer the same fate. And I further submit that the history of human civilization in which the three-foundation morality gained enough power to run things, or mostly run things, would show this to indeed be the case.

    What you see as “misplaced certainty,” “excessive dimension reduction,” (which are variations on the same theme, judging from your description), and “compromise avoidance” I see as the misperception and then misrepresentation of conservatism which results from viewing it through the lens of the three-foundation matrix, like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, in which one of the men runs his hands over the elephant’s tail and concludes it is a snake. I would add, as an aside, that I think the fable is a rather apropos narrative for characterizing the liberal grasp of Republicans. The reductive, analytic, thought style of liberalism tends to look at the Republican elephant in just this way.

    I submit that much of what is pointed to as evidence of the downside of conservatism – too much authority, for example, which results in oppression, or claims that fascism is an example of the binding foundations run amok – have nothing to do with conservatism at all, but rather are examples of some other morality which is NOT a balance of all the foundation as conservatism is.

    As to misplaced certainty and excessive dimension reduction, could it be that they’re just the all too natural reaction of circling the wagons, around sacred values – of digging in the heels and pulling even harder to the right – which is a natural human reaction when those values are violated and liberals try so incredibly hard to pull society to the left? I submit that they exactly that. I think that what you call misplaced certainty and excessive dimension reduction are not traits that are inherent to conservatism per se, but rather they are responses to the violation of conservative sacred values and incessant leftward pull of liberalism. See Dr. Haidt’s “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege” talk. If liberals weren’t so busy trampling on loyalty, authority, and sanctity and were instead more appreciative and respectful that those foundations underlie many conservative sacred values then wouldn’t one think that conservatives would be less prone to circle the wagons and defend their views so staunchly?

    And the opposite argument is not true. That is, if you listen carefully to conservative arguments you really don’t hear them saying that the individualizing foundations or policies that result from them are necessarily wrong in and of themselves, what you hear is conservatives saying, “but there’s more to civil society than just that. If we don’t balance the needs of the individual against the needs of the organism of the society itself – the hive – then we end up, in the long run, doing more harm than good to everyone.” But the liberal “tin ear” just can’t hear that.

    Is it within the realm of possibility that conclusions of misplaced certainty, excessive dimension reduction, and compromise avoidance are better indicators of perception and interpretation from within the three-foundation matrix than they are of any reality about the six-foundation one? I suggest not only that it is possible, but that it is a significant contributing factor of those conclusions.

    As to compromise, I submit for consideration that it is a liberal sacred value which follows from the moral relativism and “shopping” style analytic thinking which in turn follows from the three-foundation morality.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, morality is emergent. It is greater than the sum of its parts. It is also internalized. It is a major portion, if not the majority, of the intuitive elephant. The elephant may not be able to define morality – our sense of right and wrong – in a formulaic way that allows right and wrong or good and bad to be determined by some sort of checklist (like a list of moral foundations), but it knows it when he sees it. Morality is a feeling. It is a sense of self, and of one’s relationship with others, in the true meaning of the word “sense.” It is Sandel’s situated self. It is a flash of effect. It is a way of perceiving, and of inhabiting, one’s physical body and of existing in one’s social surroundings.

    The conservative morality is made up of all of the foundations in equal balance – foundations which, by the way, resulted from millions of years of natural selection. ALL of the moral foundations are conservative atoms. Together they form the balance, the ‘sense,’ that results is who we are.

    Moral foundations are the color receptors of the moral eye which perceives human nature, and they are the cognitive tools of the moral mind which interprets and reacts to that which it perceives.

    But liberalism, practically speaking, is made up of only half of the foundations. The liberal moral eye “sees” only half of human nature. The liberal moral mind “thinks” with only half of its naturally selected cognitive tools.

    So for conservatives to “compromise” with the liberal world view in a way that moves society closer to liberal perception and interpretation of the human social animal, and thus farther away from conservatism, is to move away from who we are. It is to say that half of what makes us us is not valid. It is to say that natural selection was wrong to design all of the foundations into the human psyche. It is to suggest that liberal “reason” knows what’s good for humanity better than natural selection does.

    To ask the six-foundation morality to compromise with the three-foundation morality is to ask it to un-see what it sees, to un-know what it knows, and to forget the lessons it has learned about human nature from millions of years of natural selection.

    But the reverse is not true. For liberals, a move toward conservatism does not require them to “forget” anything at all about human nature. It requires them to learn more about it. It requires them to see the full spectrum of human nature; it requires them to “taste” with the full palette that human nature gave them, rather than with just half of it; it requires them to think with all the tools – all of the threat detection modules that moral foundations are – that natural selection has given to them.

    This is why, by the way, I disagree with Dr. Haidt’s characterization of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism as that of morally equivalent, opposite but complementary, Yin/Yang. That’s simply not what’s going behind the scenes within the human psyche, and his own work shows it.

    Dr. Haidt talks about moral dumbfounding; about the inability to describe why something is wrong even when one is certain that it is.

    Moral dumbfounding works the other way too. It is an inability to understand something that is outside one’s moral matrix. It is to be befuddled when someone does not see the world as you do. Many liberals are dumbfounded in their attempts to understand conservatives because half of conservative morality, half of the moral foundations, half of human nature, is outside the liberal morality. Liberals are therefore left with no other choice, no other possibility, but to ascribe many conservative views to some sort of mental deficiency like a failure of “reason,” or to some sort of psychological dysfunction like closed mindedness, or bigotry, or “racism, straight up” (Janeane Garofalo), or meanness, or greed, or lack of empathy.

    All of this is why my recommended solution for shrinking the political divide, and my response to how we might move closer to answering Rodney King’s question “can we get along?” in the affirmative, is to teach MFT in age-appropriate modules in practically every subject in every public school from K to 12 and beyond. We need to “tune up,” to steal a phrase from Haidt, ALL elephants to perceive and appreciate the FULL spectrum of human nature, and we need to teach ALL riders to process what they see with ALL the cognitive tools and threat detection modules that natural selection has given us.

    I know what some who may read this might be thinking; “Oh, I see. He wants to turn everyone into conservatives through some sort of Orwellian indoctrination administered through the public schools.”

    No, not at all. Not in the least. First of all, because I believe that many (most) conservatives do understand where their own morality really comes from, and if they did they’d be a little more focused on the balance, and thus a little more open to listening to ideas that come from the individualizing foundations. Neither side really understands, from a psychological perspective, where it comes from. And if it does not know where it is coming from then it will be – actually currently is – much harder to get where it wants to go. And, as my critical thinking professor taught us in college, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.

    And besides, it’s not even possible to turn liberal elephants into conservative ones. The more we learn about who we are, including our morality, the more we realize how heritable our moral foundations and our personality traits really are. The more studies that are released the more we know this to be true. Dr. Haidt describes identical twin studies which show that twins separated at birth and brought up in homes at practically opposite ends of the political spectrum end up, after becoming adults and leaving those homes, “who they are” almost in spite of their upbringing rather than because of it.

    Have you ever watched the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” which studies the genealogy of celebrities? Time and time again what those studies reveal is that the celebrities are descended from long lines of personalities and moralities just like them. In Martin Sheen’s ancestry, for example, there are some very strong political activists.

    So there’s virtually no likelihood, no “danger” from the liberal perspective, of “training” liberals to become conservative if that’s what anyone is afraid of.

    But what we do know is that there is little to no chance of making any serious progress AT ALL toward shrinking the political divide unless and until EVERYONE has a solid understanding of the psychological reasons it exists. And we cannot possibly expect future generations to get along unless and until we “change the path” in a way that gives them a truer grasp of why it can be so hard to do. I would have a much greater confidence that our future leaders will make the right choices of they understood the true nature of human nature.

  8. Ravi,

    RE: “I think most psychologists would consider a proclivity toward coherence to be a more fundamental disposition that leads to moral concerns, rather than the reverse causality.”

    I realize that. I understand that’s what you’re saying.

    And I disagree.

    First, because consensus does not mean correctness. For many years most psychologists thought group selection was a silly idea and practically ostracized anyone who suggested it might actually be true.

    Second, because it fails the test of Occam’s razor. The way I see it, it’s like saying molecules create atoms, or houses create two-by-fours. It’s the wrong way around. The simplest explanation is the best, and the simplest explanation is that moral foundations are the atoms, and traits – like coherence, openness, and thinking styles – are the molecules which make us who we are.

  9. Two Corrections are needed in my long post above

    1) The CONSERVATIVE morality is Sandel’s situated self, and

    2) the sentence should read “First of all, because I believe that many (most) conservatives do NOT understand where their own morality really comes from, and if they did they’d be a little more focused on the balance, and thus a little more open to listening to ideas that come from the individualizing foundations.”

  10. Scott Wagner says:


    Re whining, I wasn’t clear: I was referring to the common conservative complaint that conservative team members are not included in social science research. They’re not included because they’re vanishingly rare. Obviously, I side with you in trying to get the conservative perspective included in research, and could’ve made your points for you, and have. But it is definitely engaging in fantasy to expect conservatives on research teams. I know you hate it when this happens, but we are making the same general point: research bias is one of my biggest problems with trying to explain conservatives to liberals (for two reasons: it’s really subtle but powerful; and it dictates the type of research engaged in to a surprising degree). Even so, conservatives often imply that balanced research is easy, or is prevented through discrimination, and that’s facile. Ideologies have strengths and weaknesses. Statistically speaking, liberals are not captains of industry, and conservatives are not academic researchers. Those differentiations are personality-based. With you guys off elsewhere, statistically speaking, it requires creativity and hard work to get your viewpoint accurately represented. It should also be clear that prejudice is invisible to the bearer when playing within ideological settings: these are errors researchers are making- they’re not willful distortions.

    Re my ‘metatrait’ comment, which was also unclear apparently, I meant that valuing closure is a fundamental, neurology-driven, inherited proclivity that extends far beyond ideological concerns into unrelated behaviors. I would be more definitive about that than Ravi is. “Morality is a feeling.” Yes, and feelings are an expression of an amalgam of unconscious drives and characteristics, many of which we have a good sense of through research. Moral foundations don’t create personality or basic urges like the need for closure- they express them. That’s one of the reasons for significant variation in morals across cultures. You, my friend, are a relatively big closure fan, which causes you to have moral values and engage in behavior that, among other things, act out that need for closure.

    Your point that conservative overreach is a reaction to liberal overreach is accurate, to a point, of course. To me, it goes beyond that to conservative frustration with the current pace of structural (economic) change, and the interdependence that is being inexorably forced on mankind, at an increasing rate, in the modern age. You didn’t address that point, but went directly to ‘maybe we’re a little bad, but you guys were way bad first’. I wish you had. Each ideology will excel in certain conditions; I’d submit that conservatism has a rough time with large, involuntary social dynamics because society’s foundations are viewed as under attack. There’s a feeling of panic, withdrawal, and anger that, to me, seems to be well represented by your overt advocacy of abandoning compromise with liberals. It’s interesting to me to have you name compromise as a liberal value, as if it wasn’t a conservative one. Framing compromise as betrayal of conservative values is exactly what I’m talking about, I think- a brittleness that, in the end, ironically may result in less success for these conservative values we both want. I’d submit that attitude is relatively new in conservatism, at least among the mainstream. Perhaps it’s a matter of ‘gotta ramp it up’ for you. I recruited the center-rightists Frum and Brooks in the argument because their despair at mainstream brittleness has become surprisingly strong, and has been growing these last few years.

  11. Scott Wagner says:


    Thanks much for the article- as pointed out elsewhere, I think this subject is a real key to the whole business. Though your response

    >Yes, we should get more view points represented and we do actively seek it out, even if it’s not easy to find in liberal academia.

    is confusing and vague. It reads like you assuring us that all researchers actively seek to eliminate bias. I don’t believe that- at least, I don’t believe their efforts are efficacious enough to respect the effort made. Your statement is obviously true, but so vague as to be useless.

    I guess what I’d love to see is a serious treatment of the subject of addressing ideological prejudice in research systematically and well, perhaps via procedure, or using a checklist approach, particularly during the design phase. That may be something a conservative researcher in psych/poli sci/sociology/anthro could get recruited for easily.

  12. Scott,

    I enjoy and appreciate your comments. I think we’re more in agreement than not.

    A few clarifications.

    This forum does not lend itself to full explanations. Even though my comments are lengthy they still don’t really capture the full flavor and nuance of my thoughts. My positions are not as black and white as they might appear. It is not my intent to be drawing lines in the sand. I understand that practically everything we’re talking about is based on trends and tendencies, statistical averages, greater or lesser shades of grey (but not 50) and not either/or, us/them kinds of hard differences.

    For example, OF COURSE compromise is sometimes a good thing, and it IS sometimes what allows progress, or change, to happen. Note that I was careful to cite only a certain type of compromise: that which moves society away from the six-foundation morality and toward the three-foundation one. Not all compromise is like that. Sometimes compromise is the exact right thing to do.

    Also, please understand, I’m not trying to convince or persuade. I’m only trying to describe the way my brain connects the dots, which, for some strange reason, maybe my own ego, I think adds value to the conversation.

    Your comments offer a nice segue for me to express some things I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d like to get off my chest about the work of Haidt and the YourMorals team.

    But first, speaking of nuance and fully explained ideas, a comment about The Righteous Mind. I recently reread it. Actually, I listened to the audio version of it in my car during a two day drive from the Washington D.C. area to New Orleans. Even though I’ve read it a couple of times already, I was reminded that there’s a lot more nuance and flavor in that book than ever comes across in interviews of Haidt or his essays in various publications or even in his talks. In those places, and even here, it’s mostly just the “take away” ideas which are discussed. That’s too bad. The book is much better, deeper, more nuanced, more careful, than the impression that’s given in today’s world of PowerPoint bullet style communication.

    Also, Haidt is the narrator. He’s very good. He could probably have a second career as an audio book narrator if he wanted it. Also, he sings. It made me laugh. He’s great.

    Anyway, back to the topic of this comment.

    I hope this does not come across as harsh or mean spirited or polemical. It is not meant that way. I am sympathetic with The Righteous Mind and I think they’re doing terrific and needed work that nobody else is doing, and have given the world a whole new lens through which morality and politics can be seen and understood much more clearly. I’m on their side, not against it. This is, again, my honest assessment, in which I am trying to follow Haidt’s lead and be descriptive but not prescriptive.

    Wth all that sait, I thinkg there’s a tendency for the YourMorals team to think like liberals, which means to me that they sometimes fail (in my opinion) to see some of the nuance that is seen from the perspective of the six-foundation matrix; nuance that can have a profound effect on understanding what’s really going on inside the psychological dynamic of the six-foundation psyche, and between it and the three-foundation psyche.

    I once read a book titled “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.” I’d never before read a book that “gets” men so well. And the greatest thing about it, in my view, is that it was written by a woman. The upshot is that simply because it was written by a woman I would venture that there is a much greater chance that a woman will pick it up and read it, and also a greater chance that she’ll take seriously what it says.

    The same sort of thing applies, in my view, to The Righteous Mind, and the work of the Your Morals team. It is fabulous that this work is being done by liberals, that it displays such great insights into conservatism, and that it goes to such great lengths to avoid taking sides. Because of this the work is much more likely to be read by liberals, and much more likely to be taken seriously and believed by them.

    But, I think, some of these strengths are also weaknesses. It just seems to me that the liberal tendency to think analytically and be more rider-rational, in combination with the generally reductivist approach of the scientific method, and the team’s dogged insistence on not taking sides, limits the team’s thinking and thus its findings and conclusions. I don’t know, it just seems to me that all this focus on data, statistics, and graphs ends up putting bounds on imagination and limiting the view of the “big picture.”

    All of Haidt’s work, culminating with The Righteous Mind, tells a rich, detailed, backed up by research story which proves that liberalism and conservatism are anything but equivalent-yet-different in a Yin/Yang sort of way.

    He published a book to argue that human nature and morality have more dimensions than just “care,” that the reason natural selection gave us those dimensions is so that we can perform the miracle of forming ultra social communities, and that the conservative moral mind perceives and thinks with all of the dimensions and the liberal mind does not.

    He argues that the six-foundation morality understands the three-foundation morality better than the other way around; that the six-foundation morality understands human nature better than the three-foundation morality does; that the miracle of human ultra-sociality requires all the tools in the moral foundations toolbox; that societies built on all the tools last longer than societies that aren’t , and he points to real-world examples which prove it.

    His entire body of work supports the argument that the best metaphor for describing liberalism and conservatism is that of Flatland and Spaceland, where liberals are “square” Flatlanders and conservatives are “sphere” Spacelanders in this excerpt from page 182 of his book “The Happiness Hypothesis”:

    “One day, the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plain-in other words, a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then reentering it). The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square, though skilled at two-dimensional geometry, doesn’t get it. He cannot understand what it means to have thickness in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the north. The sphere presents analogies and geometrical demonstrations of how to move from one dimension to two, and then from two to three, but the square stilI finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous.”

    But then, with his characterization of liberalism and conservatism as that of Yin/Yang, and with it the connotation that the two are equivalent-yet-different in the vein of Dr. Doolittle’s pushmepullyou, he yanks the rig out from under his own argument.

    It’s a mixed message. Are the liberal and conservative psyches fundamentally different, perceiving the social-moral world differently as if from Flatland and Spaceland, as his evidence shows and he explicitly argues, or are they fundamentally equivalent as if they’re both from Flatland but happen to see the world differently in a half-full/half-empty, pushmepullyou, Yin/Yang sort of way as he ALSO explicitly argues? Which is it?

    I suggest that the mixed message results from the fact that the diagnosis is being performed from within the three-foundation moral matrix, which brings with it a reductivist, “shopping,” examine the trees yet still draw conclusions about the forest, morally relative, style of analytical thinking.

    If the societal symptom Haidt wants to relieve is the runny nose of demonization then the treatment depends on whether the cause is Flatland/Spaceland viral or Yin/Yang bacterial. Is it the flu or a sinus infection? Which is it?

    The diagnosis matters because it determines the treatment. It has to be either viral or bacterial but it can’t be both.

    It seems that often times when I make a comment here, or even on free-wheeling anonymous discussion boards that can sometimes be more like cage matches, in which I try to illustrate what I see as the next logical step in the argument laid out in The Righteous Mind; whenever I try to make a point along the lines of “Given everything in The Righteous Mind, here are some of the real-world consequences,” the response from liberals seems consistent and predictable: “Things aren’t as black and white as you apparently think they are. It’s really not as bad as you say. Conservatives and liberals do and say just as many stupid things. The distinction you point out does not lead do the difference you apparently see.”

    There’s that liberal moral relativism again. There’s that reductivist-style analysis of morality and of world views. There’s that insistence that clear distinctions in moral foundations and thus morality, style of thought, personality traits, grasp of human nature, and the facts of history, in the end really don’t make the differences I think they make and try to point out. The responses seem to say, “Liberals and conservatives are really not as different as you seem to think they are. At bottom they’re really alike. They’re equally subject to the foibles of “reason.” They both circle the wagons around their sacred values in the same way. They both believe equally strongly that they’re right. So come on, get with the program. Get off your high horse. Compromise. Meet us in the middle. Stop trying to show how we’re different when we’re really not. Stop imagining distinctions where there’s really no difference. Imagine, instead, there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.”

    OK, I admit that that last bit is a little glib, but I think it helps to make my point. Even though The Righteous Mind is a Rosetta Stone for understanding the political divide, its tone, and the tone here at YourMorals, still seems to have an overriding flavor of the moral relativism of liberalism, and that tone tends to dilute and even undermine the message. It’s as if the team found its own way to the water of moral and political insight, but it just can bring itself to drink fully because the insight contains too many flavors from the six-foundation cuisine to be satisfying to its palette.

    Instead of calling a spade a spade and diagnosing the disease of demonization as being caused by a Flatland/Spaceland dichotomy of perceiving and reacting to human nature, the team seems to insist instead on calling it something it’s not, which is Yin/Yang, and diagnosing it as little more than the difference between glass is half empty vs. half full, equivalent-yet-different, pushmepullyou, world views.

    Either conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives or they don’t and instead each understands the other equally badly, albeit from the different perspectives of Yin and Yang.

    Either conservatives understand human nature better than liberals do or they don’t, and instead the two understandings are equally flawed and equally insightful, just in different ways, like Yin and Yang.

    Either communities built on all the moral foundations last longer than communities built on half of them or they don’t, and instead it’s just that some communities are more Yin and some are more Yang but other than that subtle distinction there’s really no practical difference between the two.

    Either the research and findings of Haidt and the rest of the YourMorals team proves that conservatives are Spacelanders who see all the dimensions of the moral universe and liberals are Flatlanders who see only half of them or it doesn’t, and instead conservatives see only Yang and liberals see only Yin.

    But it can’t be both.

    Why spend years trying to understand what morality is and where it comes from, and then upon achieving that understanding using it to discover and then prove that the liberal and conservative psyches are like those of Flatlanders and Spacelanders and are therefore anything but “equivalent yet different,” only to then try to force fit the square peg you just discovered into the round hole of a Yin/Yang metaphorical model which fits neatly into the liberal meme of moral relativism and thus explicitly claims that they indeed are equivalent yet different?

    Your observation about conservative and liberal overreach is an example of what I mean by the consistent and predictable liberal response. You acknowledge the distinction I make, but then you go on to say “each ideology will excel in certain conditions,” thus diminishing real differences my distinction might possibly identify and implying, once again, that what’s really going on is Yin/Yang moral equivalence which seems to be a subtle yet profound meme which permeates the discussion here at YourMorals and within three-foundation argumentation generally.

    Getting back to compromise, I did not say that it is not a conservative value. All I said was that compromise is a liberal SACRED value. Big difference. Huge difference. All the difference in the world. But your comment “as if [the value of compromise] wasn’t a conservative one” belittles that difference and instead pushes the conversation toward Yin/Yang equivalence. You may as well have said it explicitly: “Compromise may be important to liberals, but it’s important to conservatives too. I understand that you’re trying to show how the two moralities are fundamentally different, but really they’re not. What you are pointing out is actually just a distinction without a difference.”

    You may be right that conservatism is frustrated with the current pace of structural change, but that analysis, like my John Lennon quote above, is too glib. It’s too pat. It fits too neatly the liberal meme of conservatism as resistance to, and even fear of, change.

    There’s much more to conservative frustration than just that. In my view, even the first chapter of the book “Conservatism” by Jerry Muller which “floored” Haidt with the concept that conservatism might actually be a reasoned and rational formulation aimed at doing the most good for the most people, in my opinion, does not get conservatism completely right. (And by the way, the fact that it does not get conservatism completely right is a large part of the reasoning behind my recommended solution of teaching MFT in our public schools: Conservatives as well as liberals do not have a complete grasp of what conservatism is really all about.) With all due respect to folks like Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, and other intellectuals who may at some point argue that conservatism is about resistance to change and preservations of institutions (Muller uses the word “institution” 141 times in that chapter) I strongly disagree. In fact, conservatism is not about “resistance to” anything at all. Conservatism is about “respect for” the lessons learned directly from human experience, not the least of which are the moral foundations themselves. Those lessons are manifested in the institutions, customs, traditions, and laws, of the local culture, but those things are only the secondary effects. Respect for lessons learned, as manifested in the local culture, is the primary force behind conservatism. This also explains, by the way, why conservatism is seemingly inconsistent, supporting, as it sometimes does, different things in different places and times. It’s not the things themselves that conservatism defends, it is the lessons learned that they represent. In this way conservatism is perfectly consistent across time and place. There’s a huge difference between “resistance to” and “respect for.”

    Rate of change, by itself, is low on the list of causes of conservative frustration. Our worry is not about “interdependence” as you suggest, it is DEpendence. Huge difference. Further, your phrasing “structural (economic)” change seems to yet another brush off stemming from the moral relativism of liberalism. It seems to say “All that Yin wealth redistribution stuff that you Yang types are so worried about is really not the big deal you think it is.”

    The “brittleness” you speak of is a reflection of the desperation of Spacelanders trying to shake Flatlanders out of their “comforting delusion” (TED talk) about what conservatives and conservatism is all about. Quoting further from page 182 of Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis:”

    In desperation, the sphere yanks the square up out of Flatland and into the third dimension so that the square can look down on his world and see it all at once. He can see the inside of all the houses and the guts (insides) of all the inhabitants. The square recalls the experience:

    An unspeakable horror seized me. There was darkness; then a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing; I saw space that was not space: I was myself, and not myself. When I could find voice, I shrieked aloud in agony, “Either this is madness or it is Hell.” It is neither,” calmly replied the voice of the sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three Dimensions: open your eye once again and try to look steadily.”

    The problem, from the conservative perspective of Spaceland, is not, per se, that too much “structural (economic) change” is coming too fast through the various redistributive policies like stimulus packages and more generally Keynesian economics, but in fact that it is the mentality behind those changes – the world view, the psyche, which results in those “solutions” – which is the root cause of many of the problems. The conservative Spacelanders are desperately trying to say “Look! The universe is not just two dimensional like you think it is. There are more dimensions, and they matter!” But it’s not working, and the liberal reaction is not unlike the reaction of “square” Flatlanders that Haidt describes in The Happiness Hypothesis when a “sphere” from Spaceland tries to, rather than benefit from the additional insight the extra dimensions offer they react in horror at the ability to see “inside” their world and themselves.

    Unless and until we face up to the fact that Yin/Yang is not what’s really going on, and that it is instead the Spaceland/Flatland difference between policies which are based on a solid grasp of fundamental human nature and those which are not, we’re pretty much resigning ourselves to stay on the current path toward greater dependency on government largesse at the expense of the nation’s producers – with all of the social side effects that come with it – not the least of which is increasing debt and insolvency – and an ever increasing political divide.

    Taking the red pill and setting aside the “comforting delusion” of Flatland, if only for a moment, can’t hurt in the battle against the disease of demoniztion, but it’s not enough of a treatment to have a significant impact on it.

    The need to teach the Rider and the Elephant, the fallacy of reason, and MFT, and to show the linkages between them and economic theory, the events of history, and their consequences, is great, and unless and until we do those things liberals will continue to believe in their hearts that “flyover country” is “dumb f***istan,” (TED talk) and “care” is a virtue not only above all others but practically to the exclusion of all others, and the more they will insist on increasing it through ever more redistribution, and as a result, the more conservatives will try to maintain the balance between the individualizing and binding foundations by pulling farther and harder to the right.

    I’ll say it again, I would have a much greater confidence that the leaders of our future generations will make the right choices if they had a better understanding of the true nature of human nature.

  13. correction. Sentence should read:

    “the liberal reaction is not unlike the reaction of “square” Flatlanders; rather than benefit from the additional insight the extra dimensions offer they react in horror at the ability to see “inside” their world and themselves.”

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