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I was thinking yesterday, while driving to Chicago, about how people who class themselves in particular political groups tend have very similar traits in terms of how they think about things.

Now, before I go any further with this, I'll be the first to say that this type of analysis is exactly the thing that is highly prone to over-generalization and stereotyping and all that bad stuff. Also, no doubt my own assessment of it is warped by my perspective and someone coming from another perspective may have a completely different assessment of it. Also, no matter what I say on this, it's sure to offend *someone* so well... I apologize in advance but I'm gonna tell it like I see it.

Nevertheless, I find myself noticing the same patterns again and again, and some of these really stuck out to me as I was thinking about it yesterday. So I figure, why not try to flesh them out in a post and see if anyone else notices the same thing? Or if others have noticed very different things?

First, let me just list out the various groups I'm thinking of... even this is somewhat arbitrary, but most people I run across tend to fall into one of these 5 groups, or at least lean toward one of them more than the others. First, there are the Liberals. A stereotypical liberal would be an academic in the natural sciences: pro capitalism, but also in favor of a moderately large role for government in things like education, science, protecting the environment, protecting human rights, and providing a social safety net. Second, there are the (right-) Libertarians. A stereotypical Libertarian would be an internet startup founder. Rabidly pro capitalism, highly individualistic, in favor of minimalist government, isolationism, skeptical of government role in public education, science, the environment, and against a social safety net and progressive taxation. Third there are the Leftists. A stereotypical Leftist would be an academic in a literature or art department): anti capitalism, anti corporations, pro workers rights, radical feminism, strongly pro environmental protection, pro animal rights activism, against globalization, anti technology, and either in favor of very big (Marxist-Leninists) or very small (left-anarchists) government. Forth, there is the Religious Right. A stereotypical person from the Religious Right would be an evangelical Christian: strongly pro life on abortion, anti homosexual, anti evolution, pro prayer in school, anti pornography and foul language, anti separation of Church and State. And Fifth, there are the Neo-Conservatives. Stereotypical neo conservative would be a wealthy Jewish guy who grew up in an academic culture and decided most academics are full of shit later in life: pro capitalism and pro globalization, pro military intervention, anti affirmative action and multiculturalism, either weakly opposed to or weakly in favor of social safety nets, opposed to "positive" human rights, usually weakly in favor of religion as a "noble lie" to help guide the masses.

I know, there are a lot more than those 5 camps, even just in the US. For example, there are the paleo-conservatives (anti-immigration, anti globalization, pro protectionism, often racist...), but I haven't met enough of them or read enough of them to be at all familiar with how their brains work. Looking at political groups in other countries makes the whole thing even more complicated, so let's just stick with those 5.

Now let's break down the brain in terms of left brain and right brain, left brain doing symbol processing such as logic and mathematics and analytic thinking, right brain doing more holistic integration, processing emotions and empathy, spiritual or artistic thought, and visualization. (Even more of a simplification, perhaps.) It seems to me that those in the Libertarian camp usually tend to have strong left brain skills and weak right brain skills. Their logical brains tend to think in terms of economics and rational self interest, but have trouble dealing with things like empathy and social interdependence, emergent systemic societal problems such as inequality, environmental degradation, and class warfare. On the contrary, those in the Leftist camp tend to have strong right brain skills and weak left brain skills. Their heart is in the right place, and they perhaps have a deep understanding of human nature, but they tend to ignore or misunderstand economic and practical realities. I know I may be biased here, but my impression is that Liberals tend to have both strong left brain and strong right brain skills. (Although perhaps neither is quite as pronounced as it is in the two forementioned groups?) The Religious Right tends to be composed of people who have both weak leftbrained skills AND weak rightbrained skills. In other words, just generally dumb people. (Although that doesn't mean they don't have a good heart--many of them do--they just happen to be mentally retarded.) Interestingly, I do notice some similarities between the religious right and the far left, and I think the similarities may stem from them both being bad at math and logical thinking. Both, for instance, tend to be very skeptical of science and technology, and prone to superstition.

That covers the first 4 groups. What about the 5th group, Neo-Conservatives? Hmmm.... perhaps I don't know them well enough yet either to place them somewhere. I tend to think of them as prone to overconfidence, and prone to black and white thinking. Actually, the issue of seeing things in black-and-white versus grayish or more complex is another issue I wanted to bring up here that I did think about a lot yesterday too, although it's now getting late and I have to run an errand before bed rather than write that out. I do think that thinking in terms of black-and-white fits in here in some important way. Perhaps there are even two characteristics that lead to it... one is a tendency for precise thinking and the other is a tendency for overconfidence. I think the J/P divide matters here a lot. To be continued!

And yes, sorry if you fit into one of these camps where I stereotyped or offended you. Feel free to share your own impression of how these different groups think.

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( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
datavortex
May. 17th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
I feel like an important distinction here boils down to being comitted to ones' convictions out of ideology or pragmatism. I'll use my own camp as an example. Idealistic libertarians tend to be anarchists and reject the authority of government outright , as anarcho-capitalists. Pragmatic libertarians tend to be minarchists. I feel like this distinction between ideology-driven people and political pragmatists likely exists in each of the five groups you list above, and the distinction makes a radical difference in the "brain type".

Also, total nitpick: I would say libertarian and not Libertarian. These are discrete groups. You also sometimes capitalize liberal or conservative, and this confuses me. Not sure if these are distinct from their lowercase forms or not.
ankh_f_n_khonsu
May. 17th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
Agreed. Registers get confusing, but they can help differentiate between ideologies.
spoonless
May. 17th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)

I feel like an important distinction here boils down to being comitted to ones' convictions out of ideology or pragmatism.

agreed


Idealistic libertarians tend to be anarchists and reject the authority of government outright , as anarcho-capitalists. Pragmatic libertarians tend to be minarchists

I think patrissimo may be a counter-example to that. He's definitely more on the practical side than the idealistic side, although I think he leans more towards anarcho-capitalism than minarchism (not quite sure about that part). He often accuses the Libertarians of being naively idealistic for thinking that they will ever have an impact on the world by trying to change the system through voting. (His solution is to go off and start your own country in the sea.)

But yes, in general I think you're right.


I would say libertarian and not Libertarian. These are discrete groups. You also sometimes capitalize liberal or conservative, and this confuses me. Not sure if these are distinct from their lowercase forms or not.

I capitalized Libertarian in part because I feel like when it is capitalized it is more associated with rightwing libertarianism. There are also libertarian socialists, which would fall under my Leftists category, and for the purposes of this discussion I was not considering them. In the US, using the word libertarian often is synonymous with rightwing libertarianism. Of course, I realize that that is broader than just whatever the Libertarian party states is their agenda.

I capitalized all 5 categories also just to emphasize the 5 different groups and to define what I meant by each of those groups. I think if I used lowercase names for each of them, there would be a lot more overlap and confusion. So the way I thought about it was that I was sort of defining 5 archetypal points in "ideological space", and then the categories are in the neighborhood of those points.
nasu_dengaku
May. 17th, 2010 05:39 am (UTC)
This isn't quite the article I'm looking for, but here is one academic analysis of the different moral foundations of liberals and conservatives:

http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/index.php
easwaran
May. 17th, 2010 09:44 pm (UTC)
The Haidt stuff definitely strikes me as more likely to be pointing to something real than the pop-psychology "left brain/right brain" stuff.

Of course, all of this would probably be helped by a more sophisticated breakdown of different political views, since the political left/right breakdown is a bit more simplistic than would be most helpful (as mentioned in the five group analysis in the original post).
spoonless
May. 18th, 2010 12:49 am (UTC)
Perhaps I should have expanded more on what I had in mind by the designations "left brained" versus "right brained" if it just came across as "pop psychology stuff".

As I'm sure you're aware, there is plenty of evidence for brain lateralization. But of course it has been exaggerated and expanded upon into a cottage industry in pop culture.

At any rate, even if we set aside to what degree different tasks are localized in left or right hemispheres (I tend to think mine are strongly localized and that I have lots of issues trying to get things across the corpus collosum, but that's a whole different topic.) there's still an important difference in types of thinking that I'm trying to get at.

Perhaps the best way to get it across to you is to think about the following spectrum of writing style. First, consider how mathematicians write (deductive proofs). Then, consider how analytic philosphers write (strongly based on analysis and clear reasoning, still often with assumption followed by logical implications). Then consider how continental philosophers write, where the logical structure falls apart and in its place you have a bit more metaphor and poetry. Then consider how a literary professor would write, where it is entirely metaphors and symbols. Finally, consider how someone who studies or produces non-literary art "writes"... ie, no words at all, just all pictures and symbolism.

Its that spectrum I have in mind when I'm talking about "left brained" versus "right brained", regardless of where this functionality is localized, or if it is localized at all. Linear thinking involving grammar and assumption followed by implication presumably makes use of a chain of neurons in series with a small number of inputs feeding into each successive neuron. More metaphorical "holistic" thinking involves neurons with a much larger number of inputs feeding into each one, and a larger fan-out. It's association based rather than based on sequential relations.

Again, while pop culture may have read all sorts of other things into this that aren't there, I think there are some extremely important things to be learned from this difference.
spoonless
May. 18th, 2010 12:33 am (UTC)
I consider morality to be only a small part of politics, but it is an interesting part. Thanks for the link.

There's an evolutionary psychologist who recently published a paper entitled "Why Liberals and Atheists are More Intelligent" which sort of relates to this.

http://www.scientificblogging.com/news_articles/atheists_and_liberals_more_intelligent_says_atheist_liberal_psychologist

Some criticism of it here:
http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=1163

(The main thing that seems to make his study mostly meaningless is that the IQ difference measured is very slight, only about 10 points).

But perhaps more interesting (and controversial among people we know) probably, is his claims in the same paper that monogamy in men is correlated with higher intelligence. He arrives at that conclusion from exactly the same reasoning he uses to predict that atheists and liberals are more intelligent... namely, that through most of evolutionary history, men have slept with lots of women, so being monogamous is new and difficult (like atheism and liberalism).

(I can't help but wonder if he is saying this in part to legitimize Western customs over Muslim polygyny.)
nasu_dengaku
May. 18th, 2010 01:07 am (UTC)
Heh. So following the same train of logic, polyamorous people in a monogamous society would be even more intelligent because it requires going against prevailing social tradition *and* requires suppressing the need to sleep with random people (after all, polyamory requires plenty of restraint of sexual impulses as well)? :-)
spoonless
May. 18th, 2010 01:16 am (UTC)
Indeed! =)
paideia
May. 17th, 2010 05:49 am (UTC)
Virginia Postrel makes an interesting distinction between people who tend to prefer dynamic systems of all kinds and people who tend to prefer static systems, and I think this is a useful distinction as well. This may be what you're getting at when you talk about the J/P divide.

Dynamic vs static can be found all over the political map. For instance, I'd generally assume that libertarians and your stereotypical liberals above would probably fall into the "preferring dynamism" camp. Most conservatives, by their very desire to "conserve" the past, would be static systems people, as would anyone who believes in any fixed or fundamentalist system (religious right, Marxist/Leninists, people stuck in the 60's, teabaggers, etc.)

Some "neo-conservatives" may fall into the dynamic camp, depending on how much they lean toward, say, capitalism (which, depending on how you approach it, can be quite focused on dynamic systems and approaches) and away from social conservatism (which tends to assume a "one right way" to be.)

I don't think that dynamic vs static, in and of itself, tells you very much, but I think it's a valuable axis to consider political beliefs and policies. I also think that even if one values one more than the other, a lot of politics makes a lot more sense if you can see where a person places value on this axis, eg, I can understand where you're coming from better if I know that you see the world as static and I see the world as dynamic.

(I hope this makes sense... I'm really tired right now.)
spoonless
May. 18th, 2010 01:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that made sense. I agree that it's important, and that it does affect political beliefs, but I also agree that you can find people of different types all over the map for different reasons.

Some of it depends on where the current society is at, too. For example, during FDR's New Deal conservatives were definitely trying to "conserve" the old way of doing things and strongly in favor of not changing things. However, later in the Reagan era, most of the liberal institutions that had become put in place, such as welfare and social security, and become long trusted institutions and the goal of conservatives in that era was much more revolutionary... it's not that they were trying to conserve anything, they were trying to tear down the institutions that were already there, to get back to some kind of past that some of them may have remembered but most of them were not even around for.

During the Bush years, the goals also seemed pretty dynamic, although in the Obama years when health care reform became the main issue they were very much on the static side again.
pbrane
May. 17th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
I know I may be biased here, but my impression is that Liberals tend to have both strong left brain and strong right brain skills.
...
The Religious Right tends to be composed of ... just generally dumb people

You think your biases might be showing here a wee bit?




And where are the Moderates, of both Left and Right? And the Apathists, who don't give a shit, for the most part?
spoonless
May. 17th, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC)

You think your biases might be showing here a wee bit?

most definitely =) I guess my disclaimer was somewhat obvious, but mainly there just to make sure nobody thinks I'm claiming any sort of objectivity here.

The best imaginable result I could think of that might come out of this post would be for some kind of Ann Cultour / Jerry Fallwell type to come out of the woodwork and give me an explanation of how, from their perspective, it's actually the liberals who are most of the deck short of a full deck... and how it's really the religious right who has the deepest understanding of the world. What I wouldn't give to see that!

And where are the Moderates, of both Left and Right? And the Apathists, who don't give a shit, for the most part?

Apathists - If they haven't expressed much in the way of an opinion about politics then it just means I can't use this to assess anything about how they think.

"Moderate" depends on the context and is relative to whatever population sample you're looking at. On the global scale, I think moderate is roughly synonymous with what I'm calling liberal. If you're looking just at educated population, it would be a synthesis of 4 of my 5 categories leaving out the Religious Right. If the population is restricted to American citizens, then moderate means some synthesis of the 4 non-Leftist categories (the Leftist category being omitted altogether from mainstream political dialogue).

Personally, I tend to sympathize with elements of all 4 (aside from the RR), and depending on my mood can feel like I'm more aligned with one of the 4 than the others. But if I average it out it mostly averages out to liberal.
ankh_f_n_khonsu
May. 17th, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC)
Like you said, things get messy with generalizations...

For instance, the left/right brain dichotomy is far less pronounced than you have represented. When composing a piece of music many of those same centers of activity in the "left brain" react. Likewise, when working through a math problem the "right brain" is similarly active.

Unless I've misread, however, the crux of your argument seems to lie in logic vs. empathy, which you've ported onto the brain and matched with political orientation. And, with the emphasis on empathy, this draws in developmental psychology. The empathy response is high in children and then begins cratering by age 7. It's been positively linked with schooling. Some psychological assessments attempt to correlate low empathy with political affiliation, but it gets really messy and doesn't seem to lead anywhere constructive.
spoonless
May. 18th, 2010 01:12 am (UTC)

the left/right brain dichotomy is far less pronounced than you have represented.

I didn't intend to represent it as a dichotemy at all. See my comment to easwaran. I probably should have elaborated more on what I meant by "left brained" and "right brained".

When composing a piece of music many of those same centers of activity in the "left brain" react.

Right. Because music involves a sequence of notes which must be processed sequentially, just like verbal words such as speech or logic. All are traditionally associated with the left brain. Of course, there may be other aspects of music that also involve the right brain, such as the overall quality of the music as a whole. Painting a picture is a right brained activity while composing a sequence of notes is more of a left brained activity.

Arithmetic and lower-level mathematics are more strongly left brained, while higher mathematics involves a bit of both. Hence why engineers are more likely to be Libertarian than professional mathematicians are. You only need left brained skills to do engineering or accounting, while you need more of a mixture for advanced math. Engineering involves following a recipe step by step. Mathematics is about trying to take something that feels intuitively true and guess what the deductive steps are to get there... that requires a lot of creativity.

Unless I've misread, however, the crux of your argument seems to lie in logic vs. empathy,

Empathy was not supposed to be the main part of it. And in fact, looking back on what I wrote, that's the one thing that perhaps should not be in the list. Although I do feel like it is somewhat related to the rest.

The main thing is to what degree you think in terms of symbols and signs being connected in a sort of associative web, versus connected in sequence from one step to the next. Linear versus non-linear, or broad versus narrowly focused.
ankh_f_n_khonsu
May. 18th, 2010 01:30 am (UTC)
That doesn't correlate with my understanding of how creativity and production map with neural activity. Sir Ken Robinson, I suspect, might take strong contention with your representation.


Empathy was not supposed to be the main part of it. And in fact, looking back on what I wrote, that's the one thing that perhaps should not be in the list. Although I do feel like it is somewhat related to the rest.

The main thing is to what degree you think in terms of symbols and signs being connected in a sort of associative web, versus connected in sequence from one step to the next. Linear versus non-linear, or broad versus narrowly focused.

In that case, there have been plenty of sociological studies that indicated strong preferences for neophilia among liberals, etc. But I'm not sure if that maps onto your categories.

And, insofar as essential characteristics of how an individuals' political identities are constituted, I would argue empathy should be front and centre in your analysis. Society isn't driven by reason or logic, but empathy gets to the heart of the human experience - even in its absence.
spoonless
May. 18th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
I agree empathy is important, however it's not at the center of that particular distinction I was trying to make. It works fine to distinguish say, the Libertarian school from the Leftist school... but when trying to distinguish Leftists from the Religious Right you need something else.

As I understand them, fundamentalists don't lack empathy, they just apply it in a very narrow, misinformed way. For example, they might empathize strongly with an unborn fetus but only very weakly with a prisoner on death row. And strongly with their own friends and family, but only weakly with strangers.
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