Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Scandal of the Leftist Mind

As a close follow-on to our discussion of politically motivated social science as it pertains to gun control in "When Health Professionals Advise", I offer for your contemplation another object lesson why the social sciences are so polluted by ideology as to be worse than useless. In Psychology Today, Jay Dixit writes:

We think our political stance is the product of reason, but we're easily manipulated and surprisingly malleable. Our essential political self is more a stew of childhood temperament, education, and fear of death. Call it the 9/11 effect.

Cinnamon Stillwell never thought she'd be the founder of a political organization. She certainly never expected to start a group for conservatives, most of whom became conservatives on the same day—September 11, 2001. She organized the group, the 911 Neocons, as a haven for people like her—"former lefties" who did political 180s after 9/11.

Stillwell, now a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, had been a liberal her whole life, writing off all Republicans as "ignorant, intolerant yahoos." Yet on 9/11, everything changed for her, as it did for so many. In the days after the attacks, the world seemed "topsy-turvy." On the political left, she wrote, "There was little sympathy for the victims," and it seemed to her that progressives were "consumed with hatred for this country" and had "extended their misguided sympathies to tyrants and terrorists."

The article purports to explain how an event like 9/11can sway the political views of liberals by appealing to irrational factors like fear over rational, objective analysis. Here Dixit is equating the conservative position with ideology, whereas the liberal position is the non-ideological, rational position. Beside the outright hubris of such a position is the irony that the conversion of a liberal like Stillwell shows the exact opposite, that 9//11 acted as a shock to the system of many ideological liberals, making them less ideological and more open to the possibility that the opposing viewpoint had merit.

Dixit quoted from several studies of conservative psychology in the article, one of which was a paper by John T. Jost, who is an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University, titled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" (2003). Shawn Smith, a practicing psychologist in the Denver area and the proprietor of the Iron Shrink blog, dissects the shabby methodology of this study here. I won't reproduce it here, but Smith convincingly demonstrates how flawed and biased this study is. It's worth a read.

This kind of "research" is even more dangerous than the single issue oriented research that I discussed with regard to gun control because it seeks not to delegitimize just a single policy position but to label an entire political orientation as a mental disorder. But these studies seem to go unchallenged by anyone in the popular press, and act as fodder for leftists like Dixit, whose article is so breathtakingly and transparently biased as to almost be the work of a parodist. There is no need for any expertise in statistical analysis or research study design to pick apart Dixit's nonsense, run of the mill common sense will do. Here are some examples:
We tend to believe our political views have evolved by a process of rational thought, as we consider arguments, weigh evidence, and draw conclusions. But the truth is more complicated. Our political preferences are equally the result of factors we're not aware of—such as how educated we are, how scary the world seems at a given moment, and personality traits that are first apparent in early childhood. Among the most potent motivators, it turns out, is fear. How the United States should confront the threat of terrorism remains a subject of endless political debate. But Americans' response to threats of attack is now more clear-cut than ever. The fear of death alone is surprisingly effective in shaping our political decisions—more powerful, often, than thought itself.

This is the main theme that Dixit and the Left are using to deligitimize the conservative mindset, it's reliance on fear. But when did fear become a dysfunctional emotion? Of course we fear death! Everyone fears death, and pain, and want, and disorder and danger. Only a sheltered innocent could imagine that he takes no stock of fear when he formulates his worldview. Fear is our early warning system, it was developed through millenia of evolutionary trial and error to tell us how to stay alive. There is untold wisdom embodied in our fears. The idea that rational thought can only occur in an emotional vacuum is incredibly naiive.
In 1969, Berkeley professors Jack and Jeanne Block embarked on a study of childhood personality, asking nursery school teachers to rate children's temperaments. They weren't even thinking about political orientation.

Twenty years later, they decided to compare the subjects' childhood personalities with their political preferences as adults. They found arresting patterns. As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the Blocks hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics.

Sure, pick on the insecure kids! What this study ignores is that there is a ideological progression in most people's lives from youthful liberalism to mature moderation or conservatism. Dixit doesn't state it so obviously, but there is an implicit value judgment that feeling insecure is somehow dysfunctional or illegitimate. Yet there is no effort to determine if these young conservative's life experiences warrant their feelings of insecurity. Or maybe these young people are just more sensitive and perceptive than the others. As any adult past the age of 35 knows, youth is a time or startling ignorance and false confidence. It is amazing that as many people survive to adulthood that do.

We can't see the Left's most cherished value any more clearly than it is displayed here. The Left is the ideology of youthful optimism and innocence. It is the ideology of Peter Pan. The Left's prescription for mental health is to deny that anyone ever needs to grow out of this phase.

If we are so suggestible that thoughts of death make us uncomfortable defaming the American flag and cause us to sit farther away from foreigners, is there any way we can overcome our easily manipulated fears and become the informed and rational thinkers democracy demands?

To test this, Solomon and his colleagues prompted two groups to think about death and then give opinions about a pro-American author and an anti-American one. As expected, the group that thought about death was more pro-American than the other. But the second time, one group was asked to make gut-level decisions about the two authors, while the other group was asked to consider carefully and be as rational as possible. The results were astonishing. In the rational group, the effects of mortality salience were entirely eliminated. Asking people to be rational was enough to neutralize the effects of reminders of death. Preliminary research shows that reminding people that as human beings, the things we have in common eclipse our differences—what psychologists call a "common humanity prime"—has the same effect.

"People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."

The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.

This is really rich stuff. Yes, the huge dropoff in flag-burnings after 9/11 is definitely cause for concern. All healthy societies produce large numbers of people who loathe their own country. Afraid to sit next to foreigners? Where does he get this stuff?

So if we want working people to make rational political decisions, we should ask them not to think about losing their jobs or being without healthcare. Those Republican fearmongers are always filling people with the fear of poverty. Oh, wait! It's the Democrats who do that. The Left is motivated by just as much fear as the Right. They fear economic independence, they fear disparities in wealth, they fear social responsibility for sexual activity, they fear making tough foreign policy decisions, and they fear old age and death. Everyone fears death. To be more succinct, they fear the loss of innocence. They won't grow up.

Update 01/21/07: John Jay Ray at Dissecting Leftism concurs.

Update 01/22/07: Cinnamon Stilwell, who was interviewed for the article, has a roundup of internet reactions to it, including a mention of the Daily Duck.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I think you have explained why old leftists are ridiculous, while old rightists are merely obnoxious.

January 20, 2007 2:33 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I skimmed the whole article, and it was a depressing waste of time.

For a magazine purportedly dealing with "psychology", they sure have low standards. Jay Dixit, for instance, never even touches on the fact that much Leftist anger over Bush, and their desire for the U.S. to roll over and show her belly, is simply the well-known psychological defense mechanism of transference.

Such people are afraid that they might become victims of terrorists, and that we can't defeat our enemies or prevent them from attacking us, so in their terror they direct their anxiety towards a safe target, one who won't kill them for mouthing off, and they also favor pre-emptive capitulation, hoping thereby to curry favor with the big, bad, scary men.

(Which is another reason that they hate Bush so rabidly; he reminds them that such behavior has a name, "cowardice", and that people stand up to the BBSM on a daily basis, even poor disadvantaged people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush's attitude reminds them that there are peasants living in mud huts that are, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, "better men than they are").

Further unintended humor from the linked article:

"Without 9/11 we would have a different president," says [psychologist Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore].

Except that without 9/11, we wouldn't have re-invaded Iraq, and so the Democrat's main stick wouldn't have existed. Without any further analysis of politics, we know that incumbents generally win re-election, absent a big irritation like an unpopular war, a recent recession, or letting a bunch of thuggish religious nuts hold a hundred Americans hostage for over a year without doing anything effective about it.

Therefore we can conclude two things, with a high degree of confidence: Bush was very likely to be re-elected if 9/11 hadn't happened, and that Sheldon Solomon is far too ignorant of politics and world affairs to be credible.

Liberals [tend to favor] excitement-seeking, novelty, [and crave] stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

Who else likes bright colors, loud music, and seeks excitement and novelty? Oh, right, small children. Telly-tubbies, anyone?

As others have commented, Peter Pan-ism.

Multiple studies find that liberals are more optimistic.

Really ?

In both my on- and off-line interactions with those of a Liberal bent, I find exactly the OPPOSITE to be true - they're uniformly negative and scared of the future. They think that we're running out of oil, that we're killing Gaia with monsterous outputs of offal and pollution, and that global warming will doom us all.

None of those things are even remotely true, but not only do they hold those opinions despite doing NO RESEARCH WHATSOEVER into the validity of their conclusions, they won't even look at contradicting evidence painlessly served up for their easy & effortless perusal.
And for the most part, these are fairly intelligent, reasonably successful, otherwise knowledgeable people, not pot-smoking street vendors of handcrafts.

Of course, maybe I've just had the great foul fortune to know only members of a potentially small minority of bent Leftists, and really most of 'em are dispassionate and capable of reasoned thought. Ain't that what "the studies" say is true ?

January 20, 2007 4:32 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

I share your concerns about the Dixit article and Shawn Smith's criticisms of the Jost paper look pretty damning (but I haven't read the Jost paper).

I detect a certain irony here. One of your concerns about the Harvard Medical School paper was that medical statisticians were exceeding their area of competence and moving into the fields of criminology and social science. I said at the time that I trusted medical statisticians to handle the statistics better than social scientists, and I think these items rather prove my point.

Having said that, I am sure most people from across the political spectrum do not decide how to vote by calculating which party is most likely to deliver the results they want. It is usually much more subconscious, and frequently based on a sort of tribal loyalty. It doesn't need some psychological flimflammery to prove it; and it applies to left and right equally.

January 21, 2007 2:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me, the oddest claim arising from these "psychological" studies of conservatives and liberals is that liberals are more tolerant of ambiguity. I don't know how they divided liberal from conservative, but in comparing doctrinal conservatism v. doctrinal leftism, one of the defining differences is that conservatism accepts the existence of ambiguity while leftism ignores it.

(Hey, who turned on word verification.)

January 21, 2007 9:48 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I turned it on this morning after a spam-bot posted a message with links to porn sites. Enough is enough.

January 21, 2007 10:17 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yes, the whole ambiguity trope is another common theme. As you pointed out, they are blind to their own susceptibility on both these counts, fear and ambiguity. They certainly are no fans of ambiguity when it comes to the marketplace. Wages must be at fixed levels and must reflect social values such as equality of outcomes. Heaven forbid that we let the marketplace determine the best way to address environmental or energy issues.

January 21, 2007 10:22 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Which liberals are you thinking of when say they do not accept ambiguity? In the UK our left wing party is in power and many of its policies are more right wing than the opposition. In fact no one knows what they stand for very much.

I don't understand US politics so well, but Clinton appeared to be ultimate pragmatist, and Bush is famous for saying "you are either for us or against us".

Which liberals want fixed wages? That seems rather extreme.

January 21, 2007 12:51 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


I'm speaking generally about leftists and not about specific political figures. There have been several policy initiatives by leftists to legally regulate income disparities, such as the comparable worth initiative, or to limit CEO salaries. Of course there is the ever-present minimum wage law.

January 21, 2007 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

-- Which liberals want fixed wages --

Every one that's ever uttered the phrase "a fair wage" or "a living wage" or "income inequality" seriously. Is not on the central planks of the liberal program to compress the wage span as much as possible, through raising the minimum wage and increasing the progressivity of taxes? The end point of that is fixed wages.

P.S. No word verification at my place :-)

January 21, 2007 2:34 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Well, I'm all for fixing the low end of the wage scale. Minimum wage laws, up to a certain point, make sense to me.

January 21, 2007 3:27 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

As I wrote over at Great Guys Weblog:

If there were no factors to consider beyond whether or not there was a minimum wage, then I'd agree that there ought not be a minimum wage.

However, people without jobs, at least in the advanced nations, have many, many resources to fall back upon. So being jobless isn't automatically the worst thing that could happen to one. But, those programmes designed to help the jobless often have pretty low thresholds for cutting off aid, due to earned income. Therefore, if a person gets a job, an action which will cause them to lose most anti-poverty benefits, then the job needs to pay enough to make the loss of benefits worthwhile. The current Federal minimum wage doesn't meet that test, for most people.

So, taking into account ALL aspects of poverty, joblessness, and wages, it seems to me that raising the Federal minimum wage to $ 7.25, or even to $ 8.00, is a net good.

January 21, 2007 3:30 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'conservatism accepts the existence of ambiguity while leftism ignores it.'

Right, we see that all the time at, for example, the Discovery Institute or Liberty University.

One of the great insights into politics was Hofer's observation that politics is a circle, not a line, and that when you go far enough to the right/left, you meet your opponents from the left/right.

January 21, 2007 10:55 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

That's interesting. Liberals accept that you can curb CEO wages and set a minimum wage, while still having a market based economy with broad flexibility of incomes.

For some of you curbing CEO wages and having a minimum wage is tantamount to to fixed wages or will inevitably lead there if not checked.

Who is most comfortable with ambiguity?

January 21, 2007 11:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

-- curb CEO wages --

No one has mentioned that except you. Did you comment on the wrong post?

January 22, 2007 6:09 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

A couple of points:

1. If you control for wages at any point in the wage scale, it affects all outcomes. If you cap CEO pay then companies can't compete for the best talent, and they go overseas to work for companies that will pay then what they are worth. American companies suffer from poor leadership, profits decrease, wages are cut and workers laid off. You make the entire enterprise inflexible. This is the kind of ambiguity that leftists can't accept, the complex web of interrelated cause and effect that can't be forecasted or controlled by planners, no matter how intelligent they are.

2. You're missing my larger point. Saying that certain people are more comfortable with ambiguity is a meaningless generalization, because it doesn't specify the situations in which the ambiguity is either accepted or rejected. Context is all important. Some people are more comfortable with ambiguity with respect to cultural norms but less comfortable wiht respect to economic activity. You can't make a meaningful blanket statement about ambiguity in refe

The only reason I pointed out areas where liberals are uncomfortable with ambiguity is to demonstrate this point. I'm not saying that conservatives are more or less comfortable with ambiguity, and I think it is silly to claim comfortableness with ambiguity as a marker for emotional health or as a marker for a superior worldview. The same is true for the fear argument.

January 22, 2007 8:11 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Susan's husband

Is there some subtle difference between "curb" and "limit" in the USA? Duck mentioned how liberals want to limit CEO's salaries. I worded that as "curb CEO's wages". In the UK that is pretty much a synonym.

Duck - yes I missed your larger point - although I am not quite sure where you made that point. David wrote "one of the defining differences is that conservatism accepts the existence of ambiguity while leftism ignores it" and you appeared to accept it.

However, I think there is more to this. I write with the heavy proviso of not being a US citizen (and I guess this discussion is mainly about US politics). It seems to me that back in the 60s the left were the party of idealists and the right the party of pragmatists. Nowadays that seems to have switched. The modern left-winger - at least the type that votes Democrat or Labour - is really prepared to try things until they work out or do whatever gets the votes. While the modern right-winger believes passionately, for example, in low taxes, competition and small government.

January 22, 2007 10:37 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


The modern left-winger - at least the type that votes Democrat or Labour - is really prepared to try things until they work out or do whatever gets the votes. While the modern right-winger believes passionately, for example, in low taxes, competition and small government.

The Modern American Left is riven with factional interests, a seemingly incurable taste for throwing a big chunk of government at every perceived problem, an inclination towards penalizing virtue, and tax/spend proposals that would spend the entire income of the rich 17 times over.

They are never for competition, low taxes, and small government.

Which are the only things that seem to work.

January 24, 2007 1:44 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

They are never for competition, low taxes, and small government.

Which are the only things that seem to work.

I am sorry but that is just silly. During the Clinton era the US economy expanded by 50% in real terms. The unemployment rate dropped by half, to 4%, a 40-year-low. The stock market grew even faster - by more than three times.

Whatever he was doing it was compatible with economic success.

January 24, 2007 10:45 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Is there anywhere else on the planet that has a combination of lower taxes, smaller government and less bridled competition than the US?

Besides, Clinton had the fortune of presiding during the tech bubble, which skews any comparison that fails to take its effects into account.

(BTW, US unemployment is down into the high 4% region, the stock market has hit new highs, and the size of the US federal deficit is something other countries can only dream of. All after Bush lowered taxes.)

January 25, 2007 8:56 PM  

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