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The New Phrenology

How liberal psychopundits understand the conservative brain.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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We are entering the age of the psychopundit (we can thank the science writer Will Saletan for this excellent word). Thomas Edsall, for example, is a veteran political reporter widely admired by people who admire political reporters. He has become very excited by social science, as so many widely admired people have. Studies show—as a psychopundit would say—that Edsall is excited because social science has lately become a tool of Democrats who want to reassure themselves that Republicans are heartless and stupid. In embracing Science, the psychopundit believes he is moving from the spongy world of mere opinion to the firmer footing of fact. It is pleasing to him to discover that the two—his opinion and scientific fact—are identical. 

Image of a phrenologist's skull

Earlier generations of leftists knew the power of Science to discredit their political opponents. Most famously, in the years following World War II, Theodor Adorno and his fellow sociologists developed the F scale—“F” for fascism—to identify the “authoritarian personality” that so often gave rise to political and cultural conservatism. They discovered that conservatives suffered (unconsciously!) from “prefascist tendencies” like “intolerance of ambiguity” and “moral rigidity.” They acquired this scientific knowledge by reading questionnaires filled out by 180 respondents during the last year of World War II. Among the respondents were Rotarians, patients at mental hospitals, San Quentin inmates, students at the University of California, and members of the Lion’s Club.

You don’t hear much about Adorno anymore. As a political figure he was too extreme, and as a social scientist he was too transparently political, to remain in good repute with scientists who have persuaded themselves that they have no ideology. In time it became clear that in pretending to plumb the authoritarian personality, Adorno and his “investigators had arrived at their conclusions in advance” through a “set of self-validating procedures,” as the great sociologist Christopher Lasch put it. 

Our generation of Democrats, in and out of the press, have now rediscovered Adorno’s methods, and put them to the same purpose. Edsall himself has become a booster of a series of “studies” that together form, in his words, “an extensive academic critique of the right.” The studies are boring, which is why the few people who bother to look them up rarely get beyond the one-paragraph summary. But they’re worth studying for an insight into the way Adorno’s heirs, our own psychopundits, continue his work. 

The studies rely on the principle that has informed the social sciences for more than a generation: If a researcher with a Ph.D. can corral enough undergraduates into a campus classroom and, by giving them a little bit of money or a class credit, get them to do something—fill out a questionnaire, let’s say, or pretend they’re in a specific real-world situation that the researcher has thought up—the young scholars will (unconsciously!) yield general truths about the human animal; scientific truths. The scientific truths revealed in Edsall’s “academic critique of the right” demonstrate that “the rich and powerful” lack compassion, underestimate the suffering of others, have little sympathy for the disadvantaged, and are far more willing to act unethically than the less rich and not so powerful. 

How do we know this? A paper called “Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others” describes a study put together by a team of social psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, a few years ago. Graduate assistants managed to collect 118 undergraduates, most of them under the age of 21. The kids agreed to participate in the experiment because they were given $15 or class credit for a psychology requirement. A skeptic might point out that the sample of participants was thus skewed from the start, unnaturally weighted toward either kids who badly need $15 or psych majors. And all of them, by definition, were the kinds of kids who want to go to college at Berkeley. Almost half of the participants were Asian American; only 3.5 percent were African American. Caucasians made up less than 30 percent.

The group the researchers studied is not, in other words, a demographic cross section of humanity. It’s not a ride through Walt Disney’s “It’s a Small World.” It has no claim to the randomness that sampling requires. It is therefore an odd gang from which to extract truths about human behavior. Indeed, speaking as a former resident, I can attest that human behavior in Berkeley, California, is unlike human behavior anywhere else in the world. But the method by which these human truths were drawn was even less plausible. The setting the researchers constructed for their experiment was exquisite in its artificiality. To see how powerful people react in real life, the professors began by giving the kids a questionnaire asking them how powerful they felt. (“Agree or disagree: I think I have a great deal of power.”) The students were then divided into pairs and seated facing each other, two feet apart. Each student had a video camera trained on him and was wired to an electrocardiogram through receptors taped to his torso. 

Then the students told each other traumatic stories from their personal experience, lasting no more than five minutes. The stories were supposed to be upsetting, or “emotionally evocative.” 

After many regression analyses and much hierarchical linear modeling, the professors discovered that their conclusion matched their hypothesis: The “powerful” students—that is, the students who said on the questionnaire that they were feeling powerful that morning—showed less dramatic reactions to the stories than other students. Or, as the professors put it: “Our data suggest that social power attenuates emotional reactions to those who suffer.” 

I told you it was boring. It was also preposterous, at least as an experiment designed to test a hypothesis. The questionable assumptions fairly cry out from where they’re buried. Just for starters, can a questionnaire asking a college sophomore how powerful he feels tell us whether he’s powerful? Researchers never measured the elements that made an “emotionally evocative story”; the stories were rated by grad-student coders whose own feelings of powerfulness were unrecorded. And underlying the endeavor was the silliest buried assumption of them all, that the way a college kid reacts in a psych lab while he’s wired to a machine and jabbered at by a stranger has some—any—relation to how “rich and powerful” people (Edsall’s phrase) live their lives. 

If such a study claimed to prove a different conclusion, and presumed to tell us that rich and powerful people were more compassionate than those with less wealth and lower social standing, we could expect our psychopundits to approach it with more of the skepticism that journalists are so famous for. But skepticism would put a psychopundit out of a job, and so the violations of logic and common sense simply ramify. Among the studies that constitute the recent “academic critique of the right,” one used participants—more than 65 percent of them female—solicited over Craigslist; another recruited participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. Neither sample could possibly represent any group other than itself. 

The samples are even odder when you consider that Edsall and his fellow psychopundits construed these studies, which were about the rich and powerful, to show how conservatives and Republicans behave. In most of the studies, Asian Americans made up nearly 50 percent or more of the participants. But Asian Americans are the most liberal ethnic group in America—“the only group,” Gallup says, “that has a higher proportion of [self-identified] liberals than conservatives.” 

That the “rich and powerful” are identical to conservatives and Republicans—Edsall’s assumption—is a hoary idea dear to many Democrats and essential to their self-image as the opponents of privilege. It persists even though many of the plushest and most powerful institutions of American life are in the hands of liberal Democrats: public and private universities, government bureaucra-cies, nonprofit foundations, movie studios, television networks, museums, newspapers and magazines, Silicon Valley .  .  . Among the fabled “1 percent,” according to Gallup, the number of self-identified Republicans is only slightly greater than the number of Democrats. As Christopher Caldwell has pointed out in these pages, political donations from 19 of the 20 richest ZIP codes in the United States go overwhelmingly to Democrats, by a ratio of four to one or more. Democrats are the party of what Democrats used to call the superrich. Only Democrats seem not to realize this.

A lack of self-awareness isn’t peculiar to liberals or Democrats, of course, but to judge by the behavior of psychopundits, we can safely say that they are clueless not only about themselves but about their political opposites. A young psychopundit called Chris Mooney has just published a book entitled The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, which seeks to explain the Republican “assault on reality.” He is a very earnest fellow, and an ambitious one. He glances over an array of conservative political beliefs and sets himself a goal: “to understand how these false claims (and rationalizations) could exist and persist in human minds.” 

His list of false claims is instructive. Along with the usual hillbilly denials of evolution and global warming, they include these, to grab a quick sample: that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 will increase the deficit, cut Medicare benefits, and lead to the death panels that Sarah Palin hypothesized; that tax cuts increase revenue and that the president’s stimulus didn’t create jobs; that Congress banned incandescent light bulbs; and that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” 

The list of errors is instructive because they aren’t properly considered errors, though the misattribution is in keeping with the modern ideologue’s custom of pretending that differences of opinion or interpretation are contests between truth and falsehood. It’s perfectly reasonable for conservatives to assume that offering health insurance to 43 million people will cost a lot of money, and thereby increase the deficit; and it’s perfectly reasonable to distrust notoriously mistaken budget forecasters who say it won’t. The act redirects vast sums away from Medicare, which should require cuts in service. Palin’s “death panel” was a bumper-sticker summary of a rational expectation—that the act will transfer the unavoidable rationing of health care from insurance companies, where most of it rests now, to the government, which will be forced to bureaucratically reshuffle the vast sums spent on end-of-life care. Mooney is right that Congress did not ban the incandescent light bulbs that most of us are used to; but it did ban their manufacture—a distinction without a difference. As for the Christian nation: The country was founded by Christians who nevertheless resolutely declined to create a Christian government. Mooney’s conflation of the American government with the American nation is an error that conservatives are less likely to make. Studies show.

It is a principle of psychopunditry that the political differences between right and left—the differences, in Mooney’s scheme, between those who would fearfully deny reality and those who embrace it unafraid—originate in two personality types. As it happens, the liberal personality, as psychopunditry describes it, is a perfect representation of those traits that liberals say they most admire. Liberals are “more open, flexible, curious, nuanced.” Conservatives are “more closed, fixed, and certain in their views.” But don’t get the wrong idea: Mooney insists he is not saying “conservatives are somehow worse people than liberals.” That would be judgmental, and Science is clear: Liberals aren’t judgmental. “The groups are just different,” he goes on amiably. Indeed, he warns that the truths he reveals in his book “will discomfort both sides.” Fairness requires him to be evenhanded. On the one hand, conservatives won’t like the scientific fact that they tend to deny reality and treat their errors as dogma. On the other hand, liberals won’t like the scientific fact that all their well-meaning attempts to reason with conservatives are doomed. 

Mooney’s attachment to Science is touching in its insouciance. He relies on studies in social psychology that were spawned by a famous “meta-analysis” about the conservative personality published in 2003. The meta-analysis, which found that conservatives were morally rigid and inordinately afraid of threatening situations, was orchestrated by a left-wing sociologist called John Jost. Mooney consults the studies that Jost inspired among his ideologized acolytes, and swallows them whole. These include a paper teasingly titled “The Secret Lives of Conservatives and Liberals,” published in 2008. 

As Mooney tells us, Science crept into the private residences of conservatives and liberals and brought back solid results. Conservatives’ bedrooms are filled with “items you use to keep your life organized—calendars, stamps”; also, lots of cleaning supplies, proving that conservatives are “conscientious,” the scientific term for tight-assed. Liberal bedrooms are “messier .  .  . but also brimming with articles suggesting Openness to Experience.” Among these totems of Openness are books about travel and feminism and ethnic issues, and a “variety of music CDs,” including (duh) folk music.

That’s what Science tells Mooney, and Mooney tells his readers. What really happened was that sometime in the mid-2000s, 76 college students—Berkeley again—filled out a form placing their politics on a scale of one (liberal) to five (conservative). Again, the sampling was statistically worthless: More than two-fifths were Asian American, two-thirds were female. Like idiots, the kids then let psych majors swarm their bedrooms bearing clipboards and tally sheets: Wastebaskets and lamps, rumpled bedspreads and dirty underwear were duly noted and assigned code numbers. Crunch, crunch went the data. You will not be surprised that Science confirmed Jost’s original findings, which in turn echoed those of Adorno, who never thought to check the bedrooms. 

Suitably flattered, Mooney’s liberal readers won’t learn that Jost’s meta-analysis from 2003 was crippled from beginning to end with flaws that have been amply demonstrated by other psychologists. Mooney himself appears unfamiliar with the criticism. I don’t think he gets out much. (One accessible critique came from the libertarian psychologist Shawn Smith, whom I learned about from Jonah Goldberg’s dazzling new book, The Tyranny of Clichés.) 

A quick summary of Jost’s derelictions: His definition of conservatism—“resistance to change and opposition to equality,” with equality undefined—was so arbitrary and confused that he could identify both Stalin and Pinochet as men of the right. (Most American conservatives favor economic deregulation, want to abolish multiple federal agencies, and welcome the creative destruction of the free market, which is a dumb way to resist change.) Other categories and measurements that Jost used were drawn from Adorno’s crackpot methodology and ensured the circular reasoning that made his conclusions conform to the hypothesis. And there was the kid problem again: A large majority of the studies Jost cited relied exclusively on undergraduate participants, who are nearly useless as stand-ins for mature adults with fully developed political views and life experiences. And so on.

Mooney’s wide-eyed acceptance of this social science, no matter how sloppy or ideologically motivated, is the kind of mistake we’re all likely to make once in a while, though seldom with his particular self-confidence and élan. We all of us, on the right and left and in the middle, outsource our understanding of large swaths of the world to authorities we deem trustworthy, from oncologists to plumbers to priests. Mooney shuts off his skepticism when he is confronted with what other people tell him is Science. He thinks of his intellectual servility as an unshakable devotion to reason, which pleasingly places him at odds with his irrational political opposites. 

And according to Jonathan Haidt, perhaps the hottest name in psychopunditry this week, Mooney is right. Conservatives are irrational. But so are liberals. Even Chris Mooney!

Haidt is a professor at the University of Virginia and one of a handful of social scientists in America who don’t consider themselves men of the left. He is, instead, a squish—or a centrist, as he prefers; a lapsed liberal, in any case, who is now an advocate of the Higher Gergenism, a strong believer that our system requires a healthy give and take between conservatives and liberals as long as they don’t overdo it. In the academy these days, political centrism lies just at the furthest rightward boundary of acceptable opinion. Speaking last year to a conclave of 1,000 psychologists, Haidt informally polled the audience and discovered that 3 of them admitted being conservatives. According to an account by John Tierney in the New York Times, he proposed an affirmative action plan for the profession that might raise the quota of conservative social psychologists to 10 percent by 2020. (No word on how that’s working out for him.)

Along with many others, John Jost wasn’t happy with Haidt’s apostasy. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Haidt was offering aid and comfort to those “eager to dismiss our findings.”

Haidt started college as a philosophy student hoping to explore the meaning of life. He soon found that the academic philosophers had offloaded the meaning-of-life business to the soft sciences, so he became a social psychologist. He calls his specialty the “science of morality.” His major theme is that moral judgments, including political judgments, are intuitive or pre-rational, determined by a tangle of genetics, personal experience, evolutionary adaptations, and biological imperatives. We may think we arrive at our beliefs through reason aided by experience. In truth, our heads construct arguments for our views after our hearts have blurted them out.

Haidt came to his view the scientific way, through his own interactions with college kids in the UVA psych labs. He brought in 30 of them, one at a time, and instructed one of his psych students to tell them appalling stories: a brother and sister commit incest (“It’s their special secret”), Mom and Dad cook up the family dog for dinner, and so on. The 20-year-olds were suitably revolted, but none of them could explain why. “They seemed to be flailing around, throwing out reason after reason,” he recalls in his new book, The Righteous Mind, “and rarely changing their minds when Scott [his assistant] proved that their latest reason was not relevant.” They couldn’t offer good, relevant reasons for their revulsion because they didn’t have any. “Moral reasoning,” he concluded, “was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made.” And the same process—react first, rationalize later—works for all our thought processes.

There are lots of problems here, many of them having to do with the thoroughgoing artificiality of the experiments that Haidt used to yield the conclusions. Is it any surprise that 20-year-olds are not paragons of moral reasoning? Is forcing a kid to make a snap judgment about a fictional scenario in front of his college professor a fair simulation of the conditions under which people arrive at their moral views? People talk about right and wrong all the time, in many situations, arriving at one idea or revising another after consulting friends and family and sometimes ceding, Mooney-like, their own intellectual authority to traditions, customs, or personages they trust. One thing a psych experiment can’t replicate is life as it’s really lived. 

Haidt’s view is in line with that of the philosopher and entomologist Edward O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, who predicted 30 years ago that Science would come to see morality as essentially a function of biology rather than reason. As an explanation for why we do what we do, reason is out of favor with Science these days. Haidt’s view is increasingly popular among many mainstream sociologists and throughout the soft sciences. It helps explain why liberals like Mooney are so insistent that their opinions aren’t really opinions but facts, that they inhabit the “reality-based community” and constitute the party of Science: If all opinions are essentially pre-rational and determined, then objectively no opinion is truer than another, so what’s the use of having them? Opinions are what conservatives have; liberals are just-the-facts-ma’am people. 

Where Haidt flirts with heresy is in his contention that conservatives are not stupid—or rather, no stupider than liberals, and even, in some respects, less stupid. Both are social creatures bound to a community created as an evolutionary adaptation. Chris Mooney himself acknowledges that Science assigns a few admirable traits to conservatives, like loyalty and persistence. Haidt goes further: “Conservatives,” he told the Chronicle, “have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.” They are less sentimental, less inclined toward wishful thinking. Conservatives also have a more accurate view of their political opposites than liberals do. Seriously—studies show it, Haidt says. Asked to answer a questionnaire as they think a typical liberal would, conservatives are correct far more often than liberals who are asked to fill it out as a typical conservative. Liberals, for example, assume that conservatives would disagree with the statement: “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal.” In the reality-based community, Michael Vick has to be a Republican.

Conservatives have found Haidt’s conclusions congenial, free of the condescension and tendentious research that characterize so much of this Science. It’s disappointing to learn that many of his findings are drawn from a highly self-selected sample of participants. Haidt hosts a website called YourMorals.org, where 250,000 web surfers have come to fill out questionnaires about their personal views and habits. A collection of a quarter of a million people is a sample so large that it’s not properly a sample. And the self-selection problem is unavoidable. For one thing, respondents are restricted to people who have a computer and are willing to surf the Internet until they stumble across Haidt’s website. Studies show that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like to fill in Internet questionnaires for an hour or more, and those who don’t. The second kind of people—eminently rational, typically busy, possessing a life—will be left out. 

The real problem with Haidt’s psychopunditry is that it shares with other kinds of determinism a depressing moral impoverishment. Haidt’s own centrism is an artifact of his Science. If the appeal of one idea versus another is explained by a man’s biology (interacting with a few environmental factors) rather than its content, there’s really not much to argue about. Politics is drained of the meaning that human beings have always sought from it. Haidt criticizes his peers for using psychology to “explain away” conservatism, and good for him. Unfortunately, he wants to explain away liberalism too, so that our politics is no longer understood as a clash of interests and well-developed ideas but an altercation between two psychological and evolutionary types. 

This may be one benefit to this new era we’re entering: The latest, most cutting-edge punditry may do away with punditry altogether.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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