A Closer Look at The Republican Brain

April 15, 2012

The Republican Brain is a well-written and informative book. I learned a lot from it. It’s also an important book. It advances a thesis that, if true, has significant implications for psychology, politics, and public policy. The book marshals a wide array of research in support of its thesis, and this research is accurately and perceptively summarized. However, I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence to support the book’s central claims.

As with all of Chris Mooney’s books, The Republican Brain is clearly written and well-organized. This is very helpful to the reader because one can quickly pick up the key premises of Chris’s core arguments and survey the evidence he sets forth in support of these arguments. The clarity of his exposition also allows one to identify the flaws and gaps in his arguments. And there are some flaws and gaps.

Before proceeding further, let me make an apology to Chris. To the extent my prior review suggested he may not have considered some obvious objections to his thesis, it was misleading. As that review indicates, it was based solely on his interview on Point of Inquiry during which little attention was paid to counter-arguments. In chapters 5 and 12 of his book, Chris expressly addresses many of those concerns. Ultimately, I don’t find his response to all of these objections persuasive, but to his credit he does recognize them.

Now let’s get to the crux of the issue. Chris claims that there are groups that we can identify as “liberals” or “conservatives” and that these groups have different, contrasting psychologies that dramatically influence how they perceive the world. To quote Chris, liberals and conservatives “are different people.” (TRB, p. 62) As a result, although virtually everyone engages in motivated reasoning at one time or another, conservatives do this more often than liberals. (Motivated reasoning essentially means that your values, emotions, and commitments influence how you interpret facts and reason about those facts.) This psychological tendency of conservatives means they are more likely to reject science or well-established facts (e.g., that Obama is a US citizen). Hence the Republican Brain—a brain predisposed to believe more false things than a liberal brain.

The contrasting view, which I accept, and many psychologists accept (as Chris candidly points out in his book) is that motivated reasoning is symmetrical. In other words, it affects liberals and conservatives about the same. Further, or so I and some others would maintain, it’s not whether one is left-wing or right-wing that determines how biased one’s perspective is. Rather, it’s how deeply committed one is to one’s world view or ideology. Both the communist and the fascist are going to have more trouble processing information inconsistent with their ideologies than someone who leans liberal or conservative.

So what is the proof that bias is asymmetrical, as Chris maintains—that it affects conservatives more than liberals?

Here Chris has assembled an impressive body of scholarship, from well-respected psychologists, such as John Jost and Robert Altemeyer. As Chris points out, Jost’s groundbreaking 2003 meta-analysis of studies on conservatism and its psychological correlates (Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition) has been cited (usually approvingly) over 800 times.  Although controversial in political circles, it doesn’t seem to have inspired much dissent in psychological circles. Jost maintains, along with many other psychologists, that there are traits that tend to be associated with conservatives, such as closed-mindedness, intolerance of ambiguity or uncertainty, and dogmatism or authoritarianism. These tendencies make conservatives less open to new ideas and more disposed to reject facts that challenge their views.

So, case closed? Not quite.

Chris has accurately represented the studies on which he relies, but are the studies themselves sound science? Well, I have not had time to do anything resembling a thorough review of the studies, or even a representative sampling (there are hundreds of relevant studies), but I have looked at a few of them, and I find them flawed in certain critical respects.

Measuring “Conservatism”
First, bear in mind that the key Jost piece is a meta-study, that is a study of other studies which tried to determine if there was a correlation between “conservatism” and certain psychological traits. If the underlying studies were flawed, then the Jost meta-analysis will be flawed.

Obviously, if one is going to investigate links between conservatism and certain traits, one must first define conservatism. How does one do that? It turns out that the key paper on which many studies rely was one published in 1968 by Glenn Wilson and John Patterson in the British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, vol. 7, pp. 264-269, entitled A New Measure of Conservatism. (Sorry, it’s behind a paywall so I can’t link to it.) Significantly, in developing their scale for measuring conservatism, Wilson and Patterson began with a list of characteristics which they claim should be expected in the extreme conservative. These included “intolerance of minority groups,” “insistence on strict rules and punishments,” and “superstitious resistance to science.” Hmm, let me see. If a conservative by definition is someone who is intolerant, insistent on punishment, and resistant to science I wonder if conservatism will correlate with authoritarianism and resistance to science?

I don’t need to belabor this point. Defining one’s way to a conclusion is not sound science.

By the way, this doesn’t imply that all the studies reviewed by Jost used question-begging definitions of conservatism (again, I couldn’t possibly review all of them, unless someone wants to give CFI a hundred thousand dollar grant).  But it does suggest some of them may have, so the overall Jost meta-analysis must be regarded with some skepticism.

Left-Wing Authoritarianism
Let’s turn to the Jost study itself, specifically how it handles an issue I raised in my earlier post, that is, the issue of those on the extreme left, such as communists. Don’t they share some of the characteristics supposedly associated with conservatives, which is a predilection to reject uncomfortable facts and a willingness to embrace authoritarianism? Consider all the horrors perpetrated by communist regimes since 1917, as well as their unwillingness to tolerate dissent and their embrace of pseudoscience. They certainly can’t be described as “conservative” because they are dramatically egalitarian (at least in principle) and one of the alleged hallmarks of a conservative is acceptance of inequality. What’s Jost’s response?

Turns out his meta-analysis excluded communist countries because of lack of empirical data. OK, if you can’t get the data, you can’t get the data, but shouldn’t that be prominently mentioned as factor that might skew one’s analysis?

But grounds for skepticism increase when one reads further into the article. To try to explain away obvious problems such as Stalin or Castro, Jost and his co-authors say this: “It is reasonable to suggest that some of these historical figures may be considered politically conservative, at least in the context of the systems they defended.” (p. 343)

A great way to handle counter-examples: just redefine the problem away.

By the way, the thin justification for saying left-wing dictators are “conservatives” is that they oppose change once in power and conservatives, by definition, oppose change. The end result of this logic(?) is that one can only be an extreme left-winger when one is out of power—or perhaps be like Mao and have a cultural revolution every couple of decades so one’s attitude toward change can be said to be one of “Openness.”

In fairness, I should note that Jost’s study does concede that “it seems likely that many left-wingers in totalitarian communist regimes would exhibit mental rigidity and other psychological characteristics that are often thought to be associated with right-wingers in other contexts.” (p. 343) So some recognition is given to this problem—but not enough. Why not concede that it’s not being left- or right-wing that will predispose one to closed-mindedness and authoritarianism, but rather deep commitment to any dogma or ideology?

More could be said about Jost, but I’m near 1400 words already and I want to turn so some other points.

Measuring Liberal vs. Conservative Errors
Liberals also rejects science sometimes, as well as established facts. What’s the response to this objection to Chris’s thesis? Chris admits that this happens, but according to him, it happens less often.

How do we know? Can we know? This is a critical point, as Chris recognizes, because his theory would be wholly speculative absent evidence that conservatives get it wrong significantly more often. The problem is: “There is no precise way to quantify how wrong the right is today. There’s no standard measurement, no meter or angstrom or hectopascal for error or delusion.” (p. 172)

So Chris improvises a measuring stick. He relies heavily on two “fact-checking” services, Politifact and the Fact-Checker column in The Washington Post. Based on his review, Republican politicians were factually incorrect in their statements far more often than Democratic politicians.

One problem, as Chris acknowledges, is that statements by Republican politicians were examined more often than statements by Democratic politicians in both surveys. Still, Chris believes the gap between false statements by Republicans and Democrats was wide enough to be statistically significant.

But here is the key problem: these studies do not measure what Chris needs to measure. They do not measure the inaccuracy of what conservatives or liberals believe—rather they measure the inaccuracy of what Republican or Democratic politicians say.

Color me a cynic, but some times politicians don’t believe everything they say. They will spin, dissemble or equivocate to score some rhetorical point. I’m not suggesting all politicians lie all the time. Sarah Palin I think was mostly sincere—an idiot, but sincere. However, I don’t think for a moment that Mitt Romney is a creationist or that he believes Obama is a Muslim  or abortion causes breast cancer or any of the other delusions commonly associated with the Republican right.

In fact, here’s the irony: if politicians follow Chris’s advice, they will dissemble even more. Chris argues that facts don’t persuade, so why should politicians be factual any more than is necessary to maintain credibility? Rhetoric and spinning beat an unembellished recitation of facts every day.

To sum up, Chris hasn’t provided us a reliable way to measure how often conservatives are wrong compared with liberals. This is a critical gap in his argument, because without that, he lacks a key component of the evidence necessary to support his theory.

Exactly What Does Chris’s Theory Explain?
One mark of a sound scientific theory is that it explains phenomena better than rival theories. I’m not sure Chris’s theory does much work or helps us understand why people sometimes reject science or established facts, and why the denial of realty may happen so frequently among today’s Republicans.

First, I must mention that—again, to his credit— Chris recognizes that Republicans have not always been so anti-science. Indeed, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Eisenhower and other “moderate” Republicans of his time were very much pro-science.

I would add that it’s also not the case that in the 50’s and 60’s, Republicans were more militaristic and more willing to distort facts re our national defense than Democrats. During his 1958 senatorial campaign and his 1960 presidential campaign, John Kennedy, that liberal darling, hammered away at a supposed “missile gap” between the the US and the Soviet Union, and he accused the Republicans of negligence and endangering this country’s safety. Indeed, this may have provided him with the margin of victory in an extremely tight election. However, there was no missle gap, as Kennedy himself acknowledged once he was safely elected. 

And with respect to aversion to uncertainty and authoritarian dispositions—supposedly hallmarks of the conservative psychology—let’s not forget it was that other liberal darling, Robert Kennedy, who ordered the wiretapping of Martin Luther King.

The big change in the Republican Party came when it allied itself with the religious right—a marriage consummated by Reagan— in an effort to build a successful political coalition between fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. Suddenly, the party that had once been supportive of Planned Parenthood and had no particular grievance against evolution (William Jennings Bryant, one of the prosecutors in the Scopes case, was, of course, a prominent Democrat), embraced various myths dear to dogmatic religionists. Since then, I think it’s fair to say that more Republicans are anti-science than Democrats. (Admittedly, this is something of a hunch, as I don’t have the hard numbers to support this.) But we don’t need a psychological theory about personality types to explain this; we don’t need to claim liberals and conservatives “are different people.” We just need to understand politics. Henry IV, formerly a champion of the Protestant cause, famously remarked “Paris is worth a mass,” by way of explaining his conversion to Catholicism which allowed him to assume the French throne in 1593. Likewise, I think many Republican politicians think the White House is worth throwing a bone to the anti-evolution crowd and anti-choice crowd—it doesn’t make any personal difference to them.

Dogmatism blinds people to reality. Dogmatists will dismiss inconvenient facts that threaten their deeply-held beliefs. This is true for fascists and communists; it’s true for extreme liberals and extreme conservatives; and it is true for the devoutly religious—a group that unfortunately is currently holding the Republican Party in thrall. I don’t see why an additional explanation is necessary or how Chris’s theory, when it’s suitably qualified and conditioned, adds much to this analysis.

It’s the Dogmatic Brain we need to worry about, not the liberal, conservative, Democratic, or Republican Brain.

The Republican Brain is a meaty and rewarding book. There is much more to it than I can summarize even in this lengthy review.

And maybe Chris is right—in which case this book will become a classic. I’ve cast doubt on some of his key contentions, but that’s all I’ve done. Other researchers, who can invest the time to dig into the mountain of underlying studies, will have to do the follow-up. That said, I think the burden of proof is fairly borne by Chris, as he is advancing a novel, sweeping claim. The claim that conservatives and liberals are different people requires a strong justification. He’s supplied some evidence in this solidly researched book, but he has not met his burden of proof.