2nd Edition: Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences

Here are some highlights from this 2024 book:

* Democrats: Sweaty, disorderly, offhand, imaginative, tolerant, skillful at give – and – take

Republicans: Respectable, sober, purposeful, self – righteous, cut – and – dried, boring
(Clinton Rossiter)

* the left and the right have different tastes not just in politics, but in art, humor, food, life accoutrements, and leisure pursuits; they differ in how they collect information, how they think, and how they view other people and events; they have different neural architecture and display distinct brain waves in certain circumstances; they have different personalities and psychological tendencies; they pay attention to different stimuli; and they might even be different genetically. At least at the far ends of the ideological spectrum, those on the left and those on the right are emotionally, preferentially, psychologically, and biologically distinct.

* Nineteenth – century philosopher John Stuart Mill called it commonplace to have a party of order or stability and a party of progress or reform. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that the two parties which divide the state, the party of conservatism and that of innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. Emerson called this division primal and argued that such an irreconcilable antagonism, of course, must have a correspondent depth of seat in the human condition.

* Instead of using the term predispositions, Gottfried Leibniz, a seventeenth – century mathematician and scientist, called them appetitions. He argued that, though these appetitions operate outside of conscious awareness, they still drive human actions. His ideas so troubled Descartes – addled Enlightenment minds that they were not published until well after Leibniz’s death. Even then, they were not taken seriously for a long time. Recent science, though, is fully on board with Leibniz’s ideas and is providing ever – increasing evidence that people grossly overestimate the degree to which their actions and decisions are based on rational, conscious thought…

* The political left typically is associated with support for equality and novel ways of doing things; the right, in contrast, with support for authority, hierarchy, order, and the traditional way of doing things. 14 William F. Buckley, Jr., famously described a conservative as someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop.

* Some prefer strict hierarchical decision – making while others prefer egalitarian arrangements; some believe in share and share alike while others believe everybody needs to take care of their own; some see out – groups as threats while others see them as potential sources of friendship and new knowledge; some are wedded to the group’s traditional practices while others can’t wait to try or at least to endorse the latest fad or lifestyle. Disputes over the best solutions to these dilemmas constantly churn human societies.

* attitudes toward out – groups, toward in – group norm violators, toward traditional as opposed to new lifestyles, toward strong, assertive as opposed to collegial and reflective leadership, and toward an egalitarian as opposed to skewed distribution of resources.

The Right
Aversion to out – groups
Strict punishment of norm violators
Eager to embrace traditional lifestyles
Desire for strong leaders
Dislike of redistribution (if it benefits outsiders)

The Left
Openness to out – groups
Lenient punishment of norm violators
Eager to embrace new lifestyles
Suspicion of strong leaders
Desire for egalitarian redistributions

* Constant throughout these variables, however, is the right’s strong belief (relative to the left) that security of the country and especially of the country’s insiders is paramount. Out – groups, whether they be Nazis, commies, commies, Cubans, Muslims, the Chinese, immigrants, or just vague and unnamed evildoers, should be treated as potential threats. That orientation resolves the dilemma — people who are not us are potential threats — but note that it does not resolve the issue of how to deal with those potential threats in a way that maximizes protection of the in – group.

One option is to just wall ourselves off, as advocated by Lindbergh and Trump, so that we can keep the others out. Another option is to intervene wherever necessary so we can get them before they get us. Two different strategies for achieving the same goal. Conservatives can and do differ over which of these strategies is most likely to succeed but agreement on that underlying goal — security from outsiders — is what sets conservatives apart. In contrast, those on the left are less likely to see the world in terms of in – groups and out – groups and thus are less likely to lose sleep over the threat posed by that Guatemalan immigrant. Conservatives support nation – building when it is framed as something that will stabilize a previously dangerous foreign entity; those on the left find nation – building appealing when it is framed as enhancing self – determination, the welfare of the people of that foreign entity, and integration with the international community.

* Conservatives may have advocated different foreign policy strategies before and after World War II, but their wariness of out – groups — their aversion to being pushed around by (and potentially made subservient to) out – groups — has never wavered. Conservative supporters of Brexit in the United Kingdom were repulsed by the idea of outsiders, such as decision – makers in the European Union, telling them what to do — especially if what they were being told to do was admit more immigrants into the country.

* Debates about capital punishment are contextually specific; debates about the appropriate treatment of in – group members who have violated social norms are universally bedrock.

* broad swathes of the most prominent social science theories are based on the assumption that the human condition is monolithic and that any variations in human behavior are exclusively the product of the situation. The problem with this assertion is that it is simply not true.

* It is time to give more than lip service to diversity; it is time to acknowledge that diversity extends all the way to behaviorally relevant biological differences.

* Accepting that major biological variations affect behavior makes it impossible to deny that minor variations do as well. Even without a tumor pressing on their orbitofrontal cortex, individuals have varying densities of chemical receptors at key areas in the brain, differently shaped neural organs, and neurotransmitter levels in synapses that are highly variable. The effectiveness of drugs such as Ritalin and Prozac makes it clear that decisions and behaviors are biological. If artificially adjusting chemical levels in the brain affects attitudes and actions, naturally occurring variations would have the same effect.

* Our claim is that these predispositions are biologically measurable and connect to a variety of generic psychological and cognitive patterns.

* conservatives were more likely to have items associated with organization and neatness, such as laundry baskets, postage stamps, and event calendars, while those on the left were more likely to have art supplies, stationery, and a broad variety of music CDs. Carney’s wide – ranging study concluded that political orientation seems to reflect everything from behavioral patterns to travel choices to the way we decorate our walls, clean our bodies and our homes, and … choose to spend our free time.

* Republicans tend to favor Porsches (nearly 60 percent of Porsche owners identify as Republicans), while Democrats favor Volvos. At the lower end, Republicans tend to like American – made cars; Democrats prefer Hyundais. Republicans tend to show more loyalty to a particular car brand while Democrats shop around more. In other words, Republicans seem to favor established, traditional automobile manufacturers and stick with them. Democrats have weaker brand loyalty and are more willing to check out alternatives.

* People who score high on openness, for example, tend to like envelope – pushing music and abstract art. People who score high on conscientiousness are more likely to be organized, faithful, and loyal… Those open to new experiences are not just hanging Jackson Pollock prints in disorganized bedrooms while listening to techno – pop reinterpretations of Bach by experimental jazz bands. They are also more likely to identify themselves as left of center. High conscientiousness types are not just hanging up patriotic posters in neat and tidy offices while listening to their favorite elevator music. They are also more likely to identify as conservative.

* when it comes to deciding the morally correct course of action, the left is particularly sensitive to the way in which an individual is being treated, but the right is more likely to factor in group considerations.
A person on the political left likely sees a moral wrong when another person is being, say, socially ostracized. A person on the right is more likely to base moral judgments on communal considerations.

* Those on the left wanted dogs that were gentle and related to their owners as equals. Those on the right wanted dogs that were loyal and obedient. These pet preferences mapped directly onto differences in underlying moral foundations, with left of center individuals emphasizing traits associated with just treatment and conservatives emphasizing traits reflecting loyalty and authority.

* when it comes to morality and values, the left is characterized by a desire for the new and novel, a commitment to individual expression, a tolerance of difference, and an interest in stimulation; the right by a desire for order and both familial and group security, as well as a commitment to tradition and group loyalty/patriotism.

* conservatives are more likely to lock on to a task and complete it in a fashion that is both definitive and consistent with instructions. Individuals on the left are more likely to be distracted, to equivocate, and to be flexible even to the point of not performing the task exactly as the authorities intended.

* the political right tend to be more sensitive to, more attuned to, and more on the lookout for threats posed by other human beings.

* those on the right are more likely than those on the left to perceive the country as having policies that tolerate new lifestyles, do little to protect against outside threats, mollycoddle criminals, and benefit the poor even if they are not making the effort. In particular, the difference with regard to the perceived treatment of the rich and the poor in the current United States was huge. In other words, it is not just that the left and the right prefer different policies; they see different policies currently in place. Those on the left see current policies benefiting the undeserving rich. Conservatives look at those same policies and situations and see the undeserving poor with their snouts in the public trough.

* conservatives attach greater emotional punch to whatever stimulus they are presented with — rating the positive images more favorably and the negative more unfavorably.

* conservatives consistently are found to be more optimistic than people on the left — even when controlling for differences in income and social status. 31 Similarly, despite the fact that those on the left score high on indicators of hedonism and sensation seeking, they consistently are more empathetic than conservatives.

* conservatives pay more attention to instructions, are less likely to be influenced by the behavior of people around them, are predisposed to spot angry faces, are more comfortable with clarity and hard categorization, minimize negative results by eschewing exploratory behavior, dwell on certain threatening stimuli, and are particularly attuned to angry faces.

* the correlation with many social attitudes was high and the correlation with gay marriage attitudes was highest at 0.44; in other words, the relationship between physiological disgust response and attitudes toward gay marriage was huge. 28 So sexual attitudes appear to be influenced by physiological responses to disgusting stimuli.

* Nativist, law – and – order, traditionalist conservatives (not conservatives in general) are more attuned and attentive (not necessarily more physiologically responsive) to other people (and especially to outsiders) in threatening postures.

* The core division in political systems is between those individuals who are suspicious of outsiders and new ideas and those who are welcoming of outsiders and new ideas. One side of this primordial divide wants to protect traditional insider culture at all costs, and the other side believes traditional insider culture is flawed and could benefit from new blood and new ideas. These differences can be traced to psychological predispositions, with the nativist side, relative to their opponents on the political left, being significantly more attuned and attentive to (but not necessarily more fearful of) human outsiders.

* Conservatives who support Trump – like candidates, greater military spending, harsher punishment for criminals, and restrictive immigration are not doing so merely to infuriate the left but because they are more attuned and attentive to negative eventualities that they believe will result from permissive attitudes toward outsiders, norm violators, and new, potentially risky ideas. These conservatives are predisposed to desire security from outsiders just as the individuals on the left who oppose them are predisposed to want to give norm violators a free pass and outsiders a big hug.

* Why are humans prone to holding religious beliefs and why do these beliefs vary so much? Some scholars argue religion is a byproduct of the adaptive tendency to attribute intentionality to objects and forces of nature. 23 Assuming intentionality even when there is none probably creates an evolutionary advantage compared to assuming no intentionality, even though it sometimes exists. This is because being very good at detecting patterns (even when they are not there) allows us to make sense of the world and perhaps to make quick choices about how best to survive and prosper in it. In contrast, being very good at detecting randomness — in other words, being able to recognize quickly the absence of intentionality — offers no such consistent advantage. As such, selection pressures push toward those who see intentionality where there is none. An unsurprising byproduct of these evolutionary pressures would be large numbers of people who believe in God, Gods, spirits, ghosts, angels, and demons — anything that injects a sense of purpose or intentionality into the universe. In this way, religiosity could be common even though the underlying genetic proclivities and variations that foster religious beliefs are not directly adaptive.

* Selection pressures in such [brutal] environments would likely favor individuals who approached novel situations and lifestyles with caution, who were vigilant against threats posed by other humans, who were loyal to their group, and who were suspicious of the tribe over the hill. These would be the individuals most likely to avoid danger, given that they would be less likely to open themselves up to situations in which they would be vulnerable. Given the evidence presented in previous chapters, in a modern mass polity, they would be the individuals who are conservative in general and nativist, anti – new – lifestyle, and vigilant in particular. They would be the supporters of movements such as those inspired by Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Erdogan, Putin, Milei, Meloni, Le Pen, and Brexit.

A sensible hypothesis is that in the rough and tumble of the Pleistocene, individuals who tried new things, welcomed new lifestyles, opened themselves up to members of other tribes, and had little to no negativity bias were rare — it simply seems a losing long – term strategy in the face of all the dangers swirling about back then. Social units relatively isolated from threats for long periods of time might have included some proto – lefties, but most hunter – gatherer groups would likely have needed to keep a constant eye on the horizon and maybe even on the next hut. Prehistoric hunter – gatherer tribes were likely conservative societies in the sense that they did not often make big changes in the way they did things. Those genetically inclined to take chances, to march to their own drummer, and to open themselves up to unfamiliar outsiders certainly existed but on balance were probably selected against. 40 As Jonathan Haidt puts it, we are likely descendants of successful tribalists, not their more individualistic cousins.

* Exploratory behavior, greater trust of others, and a more relaxed orientation toward negative elements of the environment certainly can be beneficial, given that these traits increase the possibilities of trading with other groups, learning from others, and discovering better ways of doing things. Trust has been shown to be remarkably beneficial to societies and is more difficult to display if the prevailing attitude is ethnocentric and fixated on potentially negative consequences. So positive selection pressures for open, trusting, and exploratory orientations might have increased a bit, but it is more likely that humanity’s shifting social environment merely relaxed the strong pressure to be cautious and attentive to the unfamiliar. A logical result of this would be for traits like attitudes toward out – groups and openness to new or novel experiences to vary more widely than they did in the Pleistocene.
Most people in the world today simply do not have the same constant, life – threatening worries that existed in the distant past. As a consequence, people today can expand their circle of social contacts and ethical concerns beyond family and tribe to people far away and perhaps even to animals.

* Left of center attitudes may thus be viewed as an evolutionary luxury afforded by life becoming less dangerous. If the environment shifted back to the threat – filled atmosphere of the Pleistocene, positive selection for conservative orientations would reappear and, with sufficient time, the resultant predispositions would become as prevalent as they were long ago. 45 In other words, in certain contexts, skepticism about new lifestyles and unfamiliar humans is advantageous. Biologists have a word for organisms that are insufficiently sensitive to threats in their environment and that word is dead.

…in other, less – perilous contexts these same traits are decidedly counterproductive and lead to an isolated, reactionary, inflexible, closed – minded group.
The basic evolutionary scenario we are sketching is one in which as humans gradually emerged from more violent earlier times, the selection pressures for being conservative in social outlook eased off. Variation in approach to social life increased and, to engage in understatement, became a point of contention. Today, neither a preference for the tried and true nor an eagerness to try something novel is significantly more or less adaptive in a survive and reproduce sense, and if a trait is not strongly adaptive, there is likely to be a good deal of variation in it.

* ethnocentrics do not give a fig for individual rights. The connection between conservatism and free market principles is a relatively recent and far from universal development. Today, many right of center parties in Europe and especially Scandinavia happily accept a vibrant social safety net — they just don’t want it extended to protect recent and prospective immigrants. Likewise, Weaver does not view Marxism as connecting to the deeper forces shaping empathics…

* Trump detesters need to accept that Trump venerators oppose immigration, support the death penalty, oppose trans rights, and support open carry laws not because of negative experiences with immigrants or lawbreakers or members of the LGBTQ+ community, not because they fear those individuals, and not because an objective consideration of the facts suggested that those policies are best. Instead, they simply are built to prefer a society in which insiders are secure, vigilant, and not threatened by outsiders even if the threat is constituted by nothing more than the diminution in unity that the presence of outsiders brings. Deluging Trump venerators with facts about the number of deaths due to gun accidents or the need for immigrant labor to bolster the workforce of a rapidly aging population will do nothing to change their minds. Predispositions run deeper than that.
Reversing directions, Trump venerators need to accept that Trump detesters support immigration, oppose the death penalty, support trans rights, and oppose open carry laws not because they are ridiculously naïve about the dangers posed to the longstanding essence of the United States. They simply are not built to care as much as Trump venerators about the traditional insider core or their country — that is, to care about white, male, Christian, straight, conservative America. In fact, Trump detesters are more than a little bit skeptical of the value of that insider core, given that it does not seem to welcome outsiders or show much concern for the downtrodden. Providing facts about the vulnerability of traditional societal insiders as a result of population demographics and societal changes will do nothing to change their minds.

* We happily accept that the influence of genetics on political orientations is much less than it is for traits such as eye color, height, and obesity.

* right – leaning intellectuals Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (a Harvard psychologist and a think – tank political scientist, respectively) caused a huge stink by claiming that intelligence was genetically influenced and that high – IQ types were becoming a distinct social group that they referred to as the cognitive elite. 12 What really got Herrnstein and Murray in hot water (after all, as can be seen in Table 9.1 , evidence consistently demonstrates the relevance of genetics to intelligence) was their argument that those not in the cognitive elite tended to fall into certain sociodemographic groups — for example, they were more likely to be criminals and quite a bit less likely to be well – off or white.

* The fabled shift to the political right with age is largely just that: a fable. 18 Students with predispositions don’t change and those without predispositions don’t have much from which to change. The right’s fears of grooming of either a sexual or political nature are vastly overblown. A library book portraying a gay individual in a sympathetic light is highly unlikely to turn a straight child gay.

* Though those on the political left may claim that the notion you can choose your sexual orientation is bull, many of them remain deeply concerned that a connection of genes and predispositions to concepts such as intelligence and criminal behavior could make people less tolerant.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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