Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences

On Oct. 23, 2013, Dennis Prager said to his guest, John Alford, associate professor of political science at Rice University, is one of three authors of this new book, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences: “Isn’t that a risky thing that you undertook to argue that there biological bases for political positions?”

John says: “One of the nicest examples of the physiological finding is dealing with perception of threat. Conservatives physiologically respond much more quickly and much more dramatically to threat, even if the threat is as abstract as a burst of white noise, a startle. The startle response of conservatives is much stronger. Conservatives are much more responsive to and attentive to threatening pictures. Liberals don’t physiologically respond much more to a picture of a snake than a picture of a rabbit while conservatives attend much more quickly to the picture of the snake and respond to it.”

“It fits with a stereotype that conservatives have of liberals, that they just don’t get it. It’s like Obama saying we’re going to Cuba because we don’t know that Castro is an enemy.”

Here are some excerpts from this book:

* In this book we aim to explain why people experience and interpret the political world so very differently. We want to provide liberals with a better appreciation for the conservative mindset;conservatives with a better appreciation for the liberal mindset; and moderates with a better appreciation for why those closer to the extremes make such a big fuss.

* A few years ago, we published a study showing that liberals and conservatives experience the world differently and suggested that it might be unproductive and slightly inaccurate to view either side as irredeemably malevolent—or unremittingly beneficent. Media coverage of this study led to us to receive numerous emails. Some of these were decidedly caustic, but the most memorable was more plaintive than judgmental. Its key linewas “don’t do this to me: I NEED to hate conservatives.” Clearly, for some it is deeply rewarding to denounce political adversaries, preferably at high volume.

* “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” goes the old saying. We disagree. Outrage does not solve challenging issues of governance and it is possible for people to pay close attention to politics without losing emotional control. A more productive, if less viscerally satisfying, response to political difference is to try to understand the source of the views of those who disagree with us so fundamentally.

* To illustrate the value of entering the mindset of the other side, consider the following. One of our children was given to horrible nightmares. He would cry and shout as monsters circled in his sleep. Words from the awake world (“there is no monster under your bed”) could not disabuse him of the fears that were so real to him. Weeks into this unpleasant pattern, due more to desperation than inspiration, his parents’ strategy changed. Instead of telling him how silly and outrageous he was being, they entered his dream world. “Yes, there is a monster. Oh, he’s an ugly one—mean, too—and he’s coming this way. But wait, he just spotted some monster friends of his and he’s moving off in another direction— way off.” By imagining the world he was in and by letting him know that others understood the nature of that world, it became possible to work through the attending issues. Blissful sleep—for parents and child alike—soon descended where monsters had lurked only moments before.

* In this book we make the case that political variations are part of an incredible range of differences in the way people respond to the world. Just to give you a brief teaser, it turns out that liberals and conservatives 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 differ in what their autonomic nervous systems are attuned to; they are aroused by and pay attention to different stimuli; and they might even be different genetically. At least at the far ends of the ideological spectrum, liberals and conservatives are emotionally, preferentially, psychologically, and biologically distinct. This account is not just based on casual observation or armchair analysis. Science—both social and biological—is our co-pilot.

Liberals and conservatives often are reluctant to accept that their differences are rooted in psychology, let alone biology. Their own political beliefs seem so sensible, rational, and correct that they have difficulty believing that other people, if given full information and protected from nefarious and artificial influences, would arrive at different beliefs. Liberals are convinced the existence of conservatives can be written off to Karl Rove’s treachery, the Koch brothers’ fortune, the bromides of Fox News, and a puzzling proclivity to think simplistically. Conservatives are equally convinced the existence of liberals is attributable to the “lamestream” media, indoctrination by socialist university professors, the sway of Hollywood, and a maddening tendency to disengage from the real world. Yet political differences are grounded not in a duplicitous conspiracy or an irrational disregard of logic and truth but rather in variations in our core beings. Conservatives are not duped liberals and liberals are not lazily uninformed conservatives.

* Compared to people (not just judges) with full stomachs, those who have not eaten for several hours are more sympathetic to the plight of welfare recipients. Americans whose polling place happens to be a church are more likely to vote for right-of-center candidates and ideas than those whose polling place is a public school. People are more likely to accept the realities of global warming if their air conditioning is broken. Italians insisting they were neutral in the lead-up to a referendum on expanding a U.S. military base, but who implicitly associated pictures of the base with negative terms, were more likely to vote against the referendum; in other words, people who genuinely believed themselves to be undecided were not. People shown a cartoon happy face for just a few milliseconds (too quick to register consciously) list fewer arguments against immigration than those individuals who were shown a frowning cartoon face. Political views are influenced not only by forces believed to be irrelevant but by forces that have not entered into conscious awareness.

* The fact that extraneous forces that may not have crossed the threshold of awareness (sometimes called sub-threshold) shape political orientations and actions makes it possible for individual variation in nonpolitical variables to affect politics. If hotter ambient temperatures in a room increase acceptance of global warming, maybe people whose internal thermostats incline them to feeling hot are also more likely to be accepting of global warming. Likewise, sensitivity to clutter and disorder, to smell, to disgust, and to threats becomes potentially relevant to political views. Since elements of these sensitivities often are outside of conscious awareness, it becomes possible that political views are shaped by psychological and physiological patterns.

It is important to recognize that predispositions are not fixed at birth. We cannot emphasize enough that we are not making a nature versus nurture argument. Innate forces combine with early development and later powerful environmental events to create attitudinal and behavioral tendencies. These predispositions are physically grounded in the circuitry of the nervous system, so once instantiated they can be very difficult, but far from impossible, to change. Altering a predisposition is like turning a supertanker; it usually takes concerted force for an extended period of time, but it can be done. Just like those heavy clipboards, a variety of predispositions nudge us in one direction or another, often without our knowledge, increasing the odds that we will behave in a certain way but leaving plenty of room for predispositions to be contravened and also for the predispositions themselves to be modified.

* Psychologists frequently refer to a “happiness set point.” Events throughout a lifetime make people happier or sadder for a time but most individuals are generally oriented toward being upbeat or not and the effects of various events typically lead to modest and temporary deviations from the set point. Several months after experiencing even major life events such as an amputation or winning the lottery it appears that most people have returned to a degree of happiness with their lives surprisingly similar to that present before the major event.

Politically relevant predispositions are similar: malleable but also resistant to change. This conclusion squares with a growing body of evidence documenting the long-term stability of people’s political orientations. Most people know someone who has done a political 180-degree turn, but these individuals stand out because they are relatively rare and do not pose a challenge to the core idea of predispositions as physically instantiated inclinations (remember, think probabilistically). We believe the reason for this relative stability is the existence of an ingrained emotional and therefore physiological response to stimuli that ends up being relevant to politics. It takes quite a bit for such habituated emotional responses to be eliminated, let alone reversed. Once they are there, they tend to be there for the long haul. As one study concludes, “[W]hen it comes to politics you’ve either got it or you don’t.”

Predispositions, then, can be thought of as biologically and psychologically instantiated defaults that, absent new information or conscious overriding, govern response to given stimuli.

* Just as the content of the predisposition varies from person to person, so too does the degree to which a predisposition is present at all. Being politically predisposed is not a requirement for membership in the human race. Like most everything else, the presence of predispositions should be thought of as operating along a continuum. Certain people are in possession of powerful political predispositions and politically relevant stimuli set off easily measurable psychological, cognitive, and physiological responses. Perhaps the nature of the political predisposition points in a liberal direction, perhaps in a conservative direction, or perhaps in different directions depending upon the particular issue. Other people have much weaker political predispositions. For them, politics is mostly irrelevant and they do not have much in the way of a preexisting, physiocognitive basis for their political behavior and attitudes. These individuals are often puzzled by all the fuss about politics.

* The central thesis of this book is that many people have broad predispositions relevant to their behaviors and inclinations in the realm of politics. These predispositions can be measured with psychologically oriented survey items, with cognitive tests that do not rely on self-reports, with brain imaging, or with traditional physiological and endocrinological indicators. Due to perceptual, psychological, processing, and physiological differences, liberals and conservatives, for all intents and purposes, perceive and thus experience different worlds. Given this, it is not surprising to find they approach politics as though they were somewhat distinct species.

* Social scientists of various stripes have spent a good deal of time examining who tends to form mate pairs with whom in order to obey a biological imperative to have kids, get a mortgage, and buy a minivan. What is crystal clear from this research is that people do not generally pair off with those who are similar to them in terms of personality traits—good news for us scholarly introverts. Some matching occurs on the basis of shared physical traits (height, weight, attractiveness) but even here the correlations are weak. If not personality and physicality, on what variables are mate pairs the most likely to be matches? Easy. The top three variables on the “what traits do mate pairs most match up on” list are drinking, religion, and … drum roll … politics. (Education level is fourth.)

* A comparison of the political similarity of couples married a short time and those married a long time indicates virtually no increased political similarity for longer marriages.

* While the deep and fundamental nature of politics brings us together, it also splits us apart. Political beliefs lead to astonishing acts of collective action for the sole purpose of punishing people with different political beliefs. It turns out that the primal urge driving William Buckley’s publicly announced desire to sock Gore Vidal in the kisser is illustrative of an extremely powerful motivator of human social behavior. In Aristotle’s day, for example, a polis would periodically band together with another polis or two to beat the bejeezus out of the next polis over. We humans are really big on trying to exterminate, or at least seriously annoy, another group because its members have different ideas about politics.

* Politics does not divide us only on the mass-scale, but also on a much more personal level. Politics and its running mate, religion, tend to get people worked up to about the same pitch—which, to say the least, is high. This is why politics and not the pros and cons of extroversion is a taboo subject at many social gatherings. We can get sideways with people we love over things that may not have any meaningful relevance to either of our lives. Uncle Crusty might not know any gay couples but that does not stop him from ruining Aunt Sally’s family reunion by denouncing them, veins bulging, at full volume.

Politics is deep and fundamental to humans; it defines us as a species and is likely, quite literally, in our DNA. Accepting that we are political animals, though, does not necessarily mean that politics is universal and stable across time and space. As Aristotle pointed out, a polis is not a natural form of social organization. It is a cultural construct, and while all polities are political, the particular issues and ideologies that animate alliances and divide families often seem to have little in common. The political beliefs that separated Athens from Sparta, Alcove No. 1 from Alcove No. 2, and Aunt Sally from Uncle Crusty are clearly very different. What could possibly connect these different political beliefs over the eons and around the globe?

* Job applicant resumes reviewed on heavy clipboards are judged more worthy than identical resumes on lighter clipboards; holding a warm or hot drink can influence whether opinions of other people are positive or negative; when people reach out to pick up an orange while smelling strawberries they unwittingly spread their fingers less widely—as if they were picking up a strawberry rather than an orange.17 People sitting in a messy, smelly room tend to make harsher moral judgments than those who are in a neutral room; disgusting ambient odors also increase expressed dislike of gay men.18 Judges’ sentencing practices are measurably more lenient when they are fresh and haven’t just dealt with a string of prior cases.19 Sitting on a hard, uncomfortable chair leads people to be less flexible in their stances than if they are seated on a soft, comfortable chair, and people reminded of physical cleansing, perhaps by being located near a hand sanitizer, are more likely to render stern judgments than those who were not given such a reminder.

* Across a range of topics, the mean responses of liberals consistently favored the new experience, the abstract and the nonconforming. Conservatives just as consistently favored traditional experiences that were closer to reality and predictable patterns. Conservatives, for example, preferred their poems to rhyme and fiction that ended with a clear resolution. Liberals were more likely to write fiction or attend a music concert. Experimental, arrhythmic verse, amorphous story lines, and ambiguous endings just do not trip the triggers of many conservatives and, perhaps relatedly, they are less likely to be performers…

People who score high on openness [liberals], 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…

A liberal likely sees a moral wrong when an individual is being, say, socially ostracized. A conservative is more likely to take into account communal considerations in formulating a moral judgment. Is that guy being ostracized because he is not one of us? Because he was disloyal? Because he broke the rules or thumbed his nose at the accepted way of doing things? If the answer to these sorts of questions is yes, maybe he had it coming.

Liberals wanted dogs that were gentle and related to their owners as equals. Conservatives wanted dogs that were loyal and obedient…

The left is characterized more by a desire for the new and novel, a commitment to individual expression, and a tolerance of difference; the right by a desire for order and security, a commitment to tradition and group loyalty.

* Labels and issues are just waves on the surface; they can be whipped up and blown every which way by the winds of history and culture. What they are all created from, though, is the same basic set of underlying currents. These dilemmas have been tacitly recognized as the basis of politics in mass scale societies for at least two thousand years. In Politics, Aristotle tackles a wide-ranging set of preferences for the structure and organization of the polity; he specifically undertakes an analysis not just of Athenian but of Spartan, Cretan, and Carthaginian approaches to running a polity and notes big differences in preferences for the structure and organization of mass-scale social life. Athens was run through a direct democracy where citizens, or at least well-off men, voted directly on issues. Sparta was more authoritarian, with hereditary monarchs and an elected-for-life council. Differences also appeared in resource distribution, social structure, and expected and enforced social behavior, as well as in differing sets of institutions. Viewed from the perspective of bedrock political dilemma, Sparta is to conservative as Athens is to liberal.

* If our argument for the universality of politics is correct, we should, at least in theory, be able to measure preferences on bedrock dilemmas and these preferences should line up with political attitudes and beliefs in any given historical or cultural context. Historically speaking, we can certainly dig up some anecdotal evidence to support our argument. Aristotle was kind enough to provide some of this sort of thing, pointing out that city states like Sparta and Athens differed crucially in their preferences for leadership styles and collective decision-making, resulting in differing institutions (a monarchy, the assembly), that in turn perpetuated advocacy for those preferences. Such differences did not just show up between ancient polities, but also within them. The late Roman Republic (circa the century before the birth of Christ) was marked by an ideological divide over bedrock dilemmas. The sides were not called conservatives or liberals, but optimates and populares. The optimates (“best men”) wanted to preserve the republic’s traditional values and way of doing things, which for practical purposes meant keeping power concentrated in the hands of a wealthy elite and avoiding rule by noisome Julius Caesar dictator types and, especially, rule by even more noisome commoners. The populares (“favoring the people”) came from the same aristocratic class as the optimates but were basically populists, supporting welfare programs (subsidized grain for the poor), limitations on slavery, and expanded citizenship rights.21 Sound familiar? Teddy Kennedy would have looked good in a populare toga. For all intents and purposes, we probably could call optimates conservatives and populares liberals.

Ultimately, what divides Athenian and Spartan, Imperialist and Republican, Roundhead and Cavalier, Federalist and anti-Federalist, monarchist and revolutionary, Bolshevik and Menshevik, partisan and Fascist, Alcove No. 1 and Alcove No. 2, Buckley and Vidal, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, Jean-Marie Le Pen and François Hollande, Western democrats and Islamists seeking a new Caliphate are different perspectives on the proper way to design, structure, and maintain society. The underlying tectonic plates may go by different names, but the fault lines between them are uncannily similar.

* Even without a tumor pressing on their orbitfrontal 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…

The only way for society to function may be with a legal system that, except in the most egregious of cases, denies it is biologically more challenging for some people “to do good” and that asserts that all nonclinical people are the same in terms of their ability to know right from wrong.

* Even the spatial metaphor—left and right—runs deeper than typical accounts aver. Most humans are right handed and lefties were viewed with suspicion for a very long time. As a result, the left-right opposites metaphor was readily available as an organizing device for social relations. For millennia and in most cultures, the right has been associated with religious and social orthodoxy, the just, and the good, while the left has been associated with the opposite. There is a reason we seek to be righteous and not lefteous. The seating arrangements at the Estates-General were not arbitrary after all, and it is no big mystery why the upper crust was on the king’s right.

* Humans have always brought order to their world by thinking in terms of opposites—light and dark, hot and cold, good and bad, tall and short. All known human societies have used these sorts of classifications and even the most primitive cultures have structured their social relations by thinking in terms of opposites.29 Sometimes this duality is contrived, but in the case of politics it is not. The division is real and it is unavoidable, and it centers on distinct orientations to mass-scale social life that are typically called ideologies. Ideology is not, as the “end of ideology” school asserted, a concept that just popped out fresh and new from Renaissance thought, only to fade from sight with the end of the Cold War.30 Ideology is not, as Converse and his many followers claimed, merely the ability to describe currently popular labels or to endorse clusters of positions that meet with the approval of political scientists. Ideology is us. It could no more “end” than could personality. It could no more be restricted to societal elites than could interpersonal communication. Context-specific issues and labels often consume attention and energies to the point that we are blinded to the underlying bedrock principles involved. Debates about capital punishment are context specific; debates about the appropriate treatment of in-group members who have violated social norms are as enduring as bedrock.

* The tradition of dismissing meaningful individual-level human variation is not restricted to philosophers, Communists, and devotees of the noble savage concept. It can also be found on modern best-seller lists. Take, for instance, the work of Malcolm Gladwell.28 In one book, Gladwell says he wants to go “beyond the individual” in explaining why some people are successful and some are not. He writes of “hidden advantages,” “extraordinary opportunities,” “cultural legacies,” and “hard work,” and says the keys to success are luck and diligence. Want to be the next dominant hockey player on the planet? Then your best strategy is to have a birthday just after the age cutoff used to classify youth teams. That way you are more likely to be the oldest and most physically mature specimen on the squad, thus increasing your chances of developing confidence, being selected for the traveling squad, getting to refine your skills even more, and going on to be the next Wayne Gretzky. Hockey not your thing? Never fear, the basic principle applies to doing sums, playing soccer, and strumming a guitar.

Gladwell does offer hope for those whose birthdays do not fall at the right time of the year but it has little to do with natural aptitudes and core individual differences. If you want to succeed, all you need to do is practice. Not just practice a little but practice a lot—a minimum of 10,000 hours. TheBeatles, Gladwell claims, made it big not because of any particular musical talent but because when they were fledgling musicians they packed themselves off to perform in Hamburg dives where they refined their skills by playing extended shows in front of tough crowds night after night. But so did Tony Sheridan and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and not many people have heard of them, though they have probably heard of the Hurricanes’ drummer. His name is Ringo and the Beatles poached him after they gave Pete Best the boot. Perhaps Pete slacked off and only practiced 9,999 hours. Importantly, Gladwell treats the capacity to dedicate yourself to a punishing practice regimen as something that is purely a matter of individual will. The assumption seems to be that any one of us could be the next Paul, John, George, or Ringo because we all possess the willpower to put in 9 to 10 hours every single day for three years on our Stratocasters. That’s a pretty big assumption, since the required dedication to practicing a craft simply is not something everyone has. People who do not put in 10,000 hours mastering a single skill, we want to emphasize, are not slackers. Spending all that time in the gym, at the library, or practicing chord progressions to a Merseyside beat means you have to sacrifice a lot. Not everyone has an inner drive so strong they are willing to live potentially unbalanced lives to nurture it. Gladwell’s message seems to be, “You too can be great if you just work at it.” Our message is that most people are not predisposed to work at it to the degree required to become great. They are not necessarily lazy but physiologically, cognitively, psychologically, and perhaps genetically different from those who are willing to dedicate themselves in this fashion.

* 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. Still, the courts do not recognize such variations. Just as laziness must be the cause of not working hard, a criminal lack of discipline must be the reason someone who is mentally capable of discerning right from wrong would not do right. Such thinking ignores the growing neurological evidence that some people, for reasons not fully under their control, have to struggle very hard to do what is right or what is sensible even though they do not qualify for the label “intellectually disabled.”

* The only way for society to function may be with a legal system that, except in the most egregious cases, denies it is biologically more challenging for some people “to do good” and that asserts that all nonclinical people are the same in terms of their ability to know right from wrong. This, however, does not mean we need to convince ourselves that they actually are. Pretending that all people have identical behaviorally relevant biological dispositions is intellectually dishonest and contradicts much empirical evidence.

* Is sexual orientation a biological predisposition or is it just a choice that is made, rather like choosing which car to buy? People have predispositions in all areas of life, from personality to occupation and from politics to leisure pursuits. Given this, it should not be surprising to find predispositions regarding sexual partners. Such predispositions make it difficult to casually trade one sexual orientation for another. As with all the other areas we have been discussing, however, one of the major barriers to rational thought is the desire to dichotomize. The truth is not everyone is either gay or straight. Some only lean gay; some only lean straight; some are bisexual; some are asexual; and some have preferences that cannot be described in a PG-13 popular science book. People not as deeply predisposed in one sexual direction or the other probably could be influenced by their environment, but just because some people’s orientations are plastic does not mean everyone’s are. Efforts at conversion via boot camp have resulted in formerly gay people operating as heterosexuals, but these occasional “conversions” should not be taken as evidence that everyone is equally convertible. For many, no amount of environmental manipulation is going to change their sexual orientation.

* Accepting such dispositional differences calls into question the assumption that down deep people are really all the same, except for those who suffered some trauma or malady that has left them abnormal, disordered, or unable to tell right from wrong. Dispositional differences suggest that the standard academic practice of exposing two groups of randomly assigned people to different stimuli, computing the average difference in behavior between the groups, and then declaring that the situation causes people to be generous or subservient to authority figures misses a critically important part of the story: the remarkable variation that exists around those averages. Dispositional differences suggest that behaviorists, evolutionary psychologists, classical microeconomists, experimental social psychologists, political theorists, Communists, social engineers, popular commentators, standard social scientists, legal authorities, diagnosticians, and fans of the noble savage theory all miss the same important part of the story.

* When it comes to food, liberals are more likely to seek out the new, the novel, and the exotic while conservatives are more likely to stick with the tried and true.

* Across a range of topics, the mean responses of liberals consistently favored the new experience, the abstract, and the nonconforming. Conservatives just as consistently favored traditional experiences that were closer to reality and predictable patterns. Conservatives, for example, preferred their poems to rhyme and fiction that ended with a clear resolution. Liberals were more likely to write fiction and paint, or attend a music concert. Experimental, arrhythmic verse, amorphous story lines, and ambiguous endings just do not trip the triggers of many conservatives and, perhaps relatedly, they are less likely to be performers, a fact that is all too apparent from the announced political affiliations of comedians, rock stars, and Hollywood actors. Differences in art preference also are clear, with conservatives more likely than liberals to avert their eyes from colorful, abstract work in order to look at realistic landscapes.

* They found that tastes and preferences not only correlated with political orientation, but were manifested in people’s personal living spaces. For example, conservatives were more likely to have items associated with organization and neatness, such as laundry baskets, postage stamps, and event calendars, while liberals were more likely to have art supplies, stationary, 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.”9 Other studies show that particular leisure pursuits (soccer vs. NASCAR) and career paths are more attractive to liberals than conservatives and vice versa. Academics, for example, are well known to be a left-leaning lot.

* A partisan divide is clearly evident in car ownership.11 At the high end, 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.

* The traits correlating with political attitudes tend to be those that involve attraction to the new, the novel, and the abstract or those involving a sense of duty, order, and loyalty.

* two of the Big Five dimensions consistently correlate with political orientations: openness and conscientiousness. Openness means openness to experience and information and refers to people who are curious, creative, and arty, those who enjoy and seek out novel experiences and are more likely to adopt unconventional beliefs. Conscientiousness means a tendency to be dependable, dutiful, and self-disciplined. On standard Big Five personality tests, openness is assessed by asking people to rate themselves on things like their interest in abstract ideas and whether they have vivid imaginations. Conscientiousness is assessed with ratings on things like paying attention to details and getting chores done.

* The connection between conservatism and conscientiousness is consistent with a substantial body of research indicating that people with a great desire for what is known as “cognitive closure” are more likely to be politically conservative. For two decades, scholars have employed a collection of survey items such as “I think that having clear rules and order at work is essential to success,” “I do not like situations that are uncertain,” “I like to have friends who are unpredictable,” and “Even after I’ve made up my mind about something, I am always eager to consider a different opinion.”27 Higher values indicate a stronger preference for closure (a dislike of uncertain situations and less interest in entertaining alternative viewpoints, for example). Comparing political orientation to scores on these items reveals that in a variety of countries, individuals who are fond of closure also tend to self-identify as conservative, vote for traditional parties, and favor conservative positions on both social and economic issues.28 Perhaps not surprisingly, a fondness for closure also correlates with religious fundamentalism.

* Moral foundations theory, developed primarily by psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, argues that moral universals are rooted in “intuitive ethics.” This is the notion that all humans come equipped with a set of innate psychological mechanisms that automatically trigger emotionally based moral responses to the situations we encounter in our physical, psychological, and social environments.

* liberals tend to place their emphasis on the foundations relating to the unjust treatment of individuals (harm and fairness) while conservatives are likely to rely more heavily than liberals on concerns for loyalty, authority, and purity. In other words, when it comes to deciding what is the morally correct course of action, liberals are particularly sensitive to the way in which an individual is being treated, while conservatives are more likely to factor in group considerations.

* Liberals wanted dogs that were gentle and related to their owners as equals. Conservatives wanted dogs that were loyal and obedient.

* conservatives are more likely than liberals 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 liberals and conservatives prefer different policies; they see different policies currently in place. Liberals 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.

* Faces are the visual Twitter accounts of our nervous systems, able to distribute information about psychological states quickly and succinctly, and to many people at the same time.

* Perhaps people are able to discern personality traits and therefore political orientations from images (most of the studies use pictures of males) because stoic, less expressive faces (think Clint Eastwood) signal traits associated with conservatism and sensitive, more expressive faces (think Alan Alda) signal traits associated with liberalism.

* People who support greater military spending, harsher punishment for criminals, and restrictive immigration are not doing so just to infuriate liberals but because they are more physiologically and psychologically attuned to negative eventualities.

* [Jim] Weaver sees these underlying differences in political temperament as products of “different sets of emotion” that are visible throughout human history and fiction and that are readily apparent to any “political novitiate.”9 As a politician Weaver felt so “knocked around” by these “antagonistic creatures” that he became “bound and determined to find out who they were and how they came to be.” Weaver theorizes that the core distinction between ethnocentric hawks (conservatives) and empathic doves (liberals) is attitudes toward out-groups.

* Conservatives, argues [George] Lakoff, frame their arguments in the language of the “strict father,” a metaphor for their preferred relationship between government and the governed. Liberals, on the other hand, use the language of the “nurturing parent.” Lakoff contends that their different languages make it difficult for conservatives and liberals to comprehend each other. He also argues that the conservative strict father approach resonates more with the broad electorate, which is why conservatives (at the time he was writing) were doing a better job capturing the support of middle-of-the-road voters.

* Given the recentness of mass-scale society, the core traits would have to apply to small-group,
hunter-gatherer life because people have not been able to meaningfully express their political views
for very long. Since the establishment of mass scale polities maybe 10,000–15,000 years ago, democracies have been rare and recent. The brief fling in Athens was an aberration, and as late as 1945 only 20 democracies existed; many of the largest countries from a population point of view (e.g., China) were not democratic then or now. In the history of the world, only a fairly small number of people have ever lived within a mass-scale democracy, so we as a species simply have not had much practice living in this sort of social environment. Even if Cochran and Harpending are correct, and they are, that natural selection can occur much more rapidly than previously thought, selection pressures for a mix of liberals and conservatives in mass polities simply have not had enough time to work.54 The pressures we describe must have been for diverse social predispositions in small-scale bands, predispositions that later manifested themselves as liberals and conservatives or progressives
and traditionalists when mass-scale democracies came on the scene.

We believe that traits such as orientation toward out-groups, openness to new experiences, and a heightened negativity bias fit more naturally with social than economic issues, and we tend to agree with Congressman Weaver that economic positions are typically secondary. He points out that “ethnocentrics do not give a fig for individual rights” and sees the connection between conservatism and free market principles as a relatively recent development. Similarly, he does not view Marxism as connecting to the deeper forces shaping empathics and believes that accounts that do make this connection “totally ignore our biological origins.”55 The deep forces that shape political predispositions likely do not act directly on controversies over the role of government in society (after all, for how long in evolutionary time has the size of government been an issue?) or, relatedly,
on controversies over the glories of the free market relative to the social welfare state. But if the issue
becomes whether or not to open up a country’s social welfare system to recent or future out-group members (that is, immigrants), deeper forces quickly come into play. Economic issues are certainly crucial in modern politics—sometimes the most crucial—but this does not mean fault lines on these issues are as biologically rooted as social issues.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see 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 (
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