5 Ways to Turn a Liberal Into a Conservative (At Least Until the Hangover Sets In)

By Guest Blogger | April 20, 2012 8:24 am

By Chris Mooney, a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the just-released The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality and the New York Times-bestselling The Republican War on Science. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund, and is a host of the Point of Inquiry podcast.

Voting image via Shutterstock

One of the first questions that usually comes up when people ask me about my book The Republican Brain is: “How do you explain my Uncle Elmer, who grew up a hard core Democrat and was very active in the union, but now has a bumper sticker that reads ‘Don’t Tread on Me’?”

Okay: I’m making this question up, but it’s pretty close to reality. People constantly want to know how to explain political conversions—cases in which individuals have changed political outlooks, sometimes very dramatically, from left to right or right to left.
When I get the standard political conversion question, the one I ask in return may come as a surprise: “Are you talking about permanent political conversions, or temporary ones?”

You see, Uncle Elmer is less interesting to me—and in some ways, less interesting to the emerging science of political ideology—than the committed Democrat who became strongly supportive of George W. Bush right after 9/11, but switched back to hating him a few months later. What caused that to happen? Because it certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with thinking carefully about the issues.

Indeed, the growing science of politics has uncovered a variety of interventions that can shift liberal people temporarily to the political right. And notably, none of them seem to have anything substantive to do with policy, or with the widely understood political differences between Democrats and Republicans.

Here is a list of five things that can make a liberal change his or her stripes:

Distraction. Several studies have shown that “cognitive load”—in other words, requiring people to do something that consumes most or all of their attention, like listening to a piece of music and noting how many tones come before each change in pitch—produces a conservative political shift.

In one study, for instance, liberal and conservative subjects were asked whether government health care should be extended to a hypothetical group of AIDS victims who were responsible for their own fates (they’d contracted the disease while knowing the risks, and having unprotected sex anyway). Liberals who were not under load—not distracted—wanted to help such people, despite the fact that they were personally responsible for their plight. But liberals under load were much more like conservatives, appearing to reason that this group of AIDS victims had gotten what they deserved. (Cognitive load did not appear to change the view of conservatives in the study.)

Drunkenness. Alcohol intoxication is not unlike cognitive load, in that it cuts down the capacity for in-depth, nuanced thinking, and privileges economical, quick responses. Sure enough, in a recent study of 85 bar patrons, blood alcohol content was related to increased political conservatism for liberals and conservatives alike.

The drinkers still knew whether they were liberal or conservative, of course. But when asked how much they agreed with a variety of statements of political principles—like, “Production and trade should be free of government interference”—higher blood alcohol content was associated with giving more conservative answers.

Time Pressure. In another study reported in the same paper, participants were asked how much they endorsed a variety of politically tinged words, like “authority” and “civil rights.” In one study condition, they had to see the term and respond to it in about 1.5 seconds; in the other condition, they had 4 seconds to do so. This made a political difference: Subjects under time pressure were more likely to endorse conservative terms.

Cleanliness/Purity. In another fascinating study, subjects who were asked political questions near a hand sanitizer, or asked to use a hand wipe before responding, also showed a rightward shift. In this case, political conservatism was being tied not to distraction, but rather, to disgust sensitivity—an emotional response to preserve bodily purity.

Fear. After 9/11, public support for President George W. Bush also immediately swelled. In fact, a study showed that Bush’s approval ratings increased whenever terror alert levels were issued by the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of “liberal hawks” who wanted to attack Iraq was much remarked upon. Why is that?

The answer seems to involve the amygdala, a region of the emotional brain that conditions our life-preserving responses to danger. Its activity seems to have political implications: When we’re deeply afraid, tough and decisive leaders are more appealing to us. So are militaristic and absolute responses, like going to war and the death penalty; things like civil liberties, meanwhile, matter less to us.

It is unlikely that all of the phenomena discussed above involve the same cognitive mechanism. For instance, disgust sensitivity is probably operating through a different part of the brain than fear sensitivity. Still, priming people to feel either fear or disgust (or the need for cleanliness) seems to favor political conservatism, and politically conservative candidates.


What all of this suggests is a pretty stunning conclusion: Maybe we’ve been thinking about political ideology in very much the wrong way. It seems to be at least partly rooted in things deeper and more primal than the policy issues of the day, and how we individually reason that we ought to handle them.

Moreover, it is striking that the research literature does not, at least at present, contain such a plethora of ways to bring about a temporary liberal shift—to make conservatives move left. Instead, what these cases seem to reveal are some inherent conservative political advantages, especially at times of deep fear, uncertainty, and stress. (And we’ve seen some of those recently.)

Aristotle famously wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.” Perhaps it’s about time that we pay more attention to what the word “nature” here really means.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • JMW

    I still think that much of your research ignores the effect of age on an individual’s political outlook.

    Or as one person once remarked, if a man is not a socialist when he’s twenty, he has no heart; if he is still a socialist when he is forty, he has no brain.

    (That’s not an exact quote; and apparently women’s political outlooks were of no interest to this person. I’ve seen in attributed to Winston Churchill and also former French Prime Minister Aristide Briande.)

    The reason I think this is important is that, demographically, USA and Canada (I’m Canadian) are aging. The baby boomers as a cohort are now in their 50s, 60s and 70s – and I think that the collective aging of our populations is producing a rightward shift in our politics that is as temporary in nature as the leftward shift of the 60s and 70s, when these people first became old enough to vote.

    The pendulum will start to swing back as this population dies out, and the echo of the baby boom (the boomers’ children, born in the 80s and 90s) become the largest cohort in the voting population.

  • Schitzengigles

    I like it… To create a conservative from a liberal you must first addle the brain!

  • AG

    “The Republican War on Science. ”

    “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality ”

    http://akarlin.com/2012/04/13/race-denial-vs-racism-a-false-dichotomy/

    Above link provide additional evidence of conservatives denial of reality. But liberals can do the same.

  • AG

    Also conservative reaction is more related to our instinct since all those 5 ways seems reducing frontal cortex thinking and promote `gut’ like reaction. Liberal thinks need to go beyound the selfish instinct.

  • badnicolez

    As a former liberal (more than twenty years ago when I was young and naive and didn’t know anything about anything, but thought I knew everything), having completed my political transformation from liberalism to conservatism to libertarianism now that I have become informed about how the real world (not the fantasyland facism of bleeding heart liberalism) works, I think this article is the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever read and really hope that none of my tax dollars were wasted on any of these ridiculous “studies” masquerading as science. Discover has officially reached a new low.

  • M. A. Fink

    I’ve quipped for years that Conservatism is based on fear while Liberalism is based on guilt.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    We generally consign comments like @badnicolez to the eternal damnation that is our comment-trash bin, but I’m letting this through as an opportunity to warn people not to do what she did on this thread. We’re fine with disagreement, but you need to put in some more thought, explanation, and/or proof than this comment.

    @badnicolez, you’re welcome to come back and explain yourself with reason instead of vitriol; the evidence that Chris cites is far more convincing than the mindless flame you left.

  • Cbill

    So Amos, you put this last comment in to say “we usually only allow comments that have data and facts to support ones view but we put this in to show how not to write a comment and hey everyone look at that hateful conservative!” (which I am sure is redundant to you and your ilk.) The title of the article and comments 2, 3, and 4 especially 2 are hateful and unsupportable and almost silly comments. Where are your snide comments about them. Hypocritical much?

  • JDoors

    I’d like to see a study of why liberals are so incredibly blind to liberal bias. I’m not even going to address the obvious bias of the article as, apparently, liberals can’t see it anyway. However:

    One comment to this post says, “To create a conservative from a liberal you must first addle the brain!” No Editor comment, no warning, no suggestion to “… put in some more thought, explanation and/or proof …” No calling it vitriole, no comparing the published article’s content to “… the mindless flame you left.”

    Even that clear and obviously biased response to one but not the other comment won’t, can’t, I guess, be seen as bias. One was a short, sharp, mean attack on the intelligence of conservatives, the other a longer, cliche-ridden, dismissal of liberalism as “ridiculous.”

    Somebody should study the heck out of that disparity.

    AZ: OK, fair enough. No more brain-addling jokes, either. Let’s keep the discussion to the science of liberal and conservative thinking, not the political worthiness of either side.

  • GS

    “…subjects who were asked political questions near a hand sanitizer, or asked to use a hand wipe before responding, also showed a rightward shift.” – I have a different theory for this one. Many hand sanitizers contain some very toxic chemicals that can, in fact, affect the brain, at least temporarily. More sensitive people can experience effects such as short term memory loss, confusion, and mood changes from relatively minor toxic exposures. It would be interesting to repeat this part of the study and measure for some of these other possible effects as well to determine whether or not the chemical itself might be the cause of the tempoary shift in ideology. Hmm, could there be a connection between our increasingly polluted environment and more toxic consumer products (anti-bacterial, stain-resistant, UV-protected, …you name it) and an increasingly conservative (and irrational) political climate? Food for thought, and further research.

  • AnneV

    Contrary to what JMW is postulating, my mother and I are at opposite ends of the baby-boomer generation and we are both skewing more liberal over time, not less. Most of our friends seem to be doing the same, responding to threats to defund PP, education, and food stamps, among other concerns.

  • BP

    I have to say, that makes a lot of sense to me. It seems to me that a lot of the problem is the mixing up of different issues all bundles up under “conservatism”. For instance, a lot of people who are deeply religious will be lumped into the conservative camp, but so will those that are hyper-capatilists. Conversely, those that are Liberal have the primary goal of allowing people to choose their own path, while protecting everyone else’s right to do so. (in canada we have left, centre and right which would equate to conservative, liberal, socialist) and we ten to lean more to the social side of things (present government excepted).

    @JMW – I don’t think he neglected any data on purpose because I don’t think he was trying to be thorough. he did draw conclusions on incomplete data, however, based on the data provided, he dew a reasonable conclusion.

    @badnicolez – I get what your saying, I’ve considered libertarianism as an alternative myself, but once I really got into the thought experiment and did a *lot* of reading, I realized that libertarianism is the system that seems to be a good one, but like communism, breaks down when human nature is applied; particularly when you consider the population densities that currently reside on the earth.
    As for “ridiculous “studies” masquerading as science”, well that is testable. however you don’t seem to have done any checking into their methodology so I can’t take what your saying at face value.

  • Matt

    So are there circumstances that cause conservatives to make liberal statements?

  • RM

    But what about Uncle Elmer? Why bring up long-term changes and then change the subject. Long-term ideological changes surely have more of an impact than short term ones. Why, then, are they less interesting?

  • floodmouse

    It would be interesting to measure the impact of these 5 techniques on religious views, as well as politics. Does the type of pressure involved in these experiments (distraction, drunkenness, time pressure, cleanliness/purity, fear) also cause people to have a knee-jerk positive reaction to religious sentiments and/or religious fundamentalism? Someone once said, “there are no atheists in a foxhole.” (Translation: If bullets are whizzing past your head, you’re likely to find yourself praying whether you’ve ever set foot in a church voluntarily.)

  • http://gschneyer.wordpress.com/ G. Schneyer

    Interesting, another “if you’re a Conservative you must be stupid but if you’re Liberal you’re very, very smart” article. During my 20′s I was a Democrat, only because I was ignorant of what the parties stood for. I didn’t pay attention to politics in general, yet still voted down the D column because I was told that was what a good Democrat did. When I started to pay attention, and thus became educated on what was happening, I could not logically hold together the beliefs that those on the Left kept maintaining. They were contradictory, illogical, inflammatory, accusatory, and generally off-ball nuts. I knew I could not be part of that “enlightened” bunch. I started looking at ALL the arguments, from both sides, and found that those that were giving cogent, reasoned, factual-based opinions were on the Right. So no I do not consider those on the Left as “enlightened, reasonable, erudite, cultured, or interesting”. I see them as frat boys that throw a flaming bag of dog doo on the porch and congratulating themselves on how clever they are at thinking up something new and executing it flawlessly. Liberalism is the philosophy the child, based exclusively on emotion with logic used to justify it, “I want therefore I get it”. Conservativism is the philosophy of the adult, based on logic and reason to guide the emotion, “No you can’t have dessert until you eat your broccoli”. So thank you for once again showing your “intelligence”.

  • austinkenner

    Maybe, just maybe we are supposed to be selfish by nature. Badnicolezs’ statement is somewhat vitroilic, however I somewhat agree with him/her. By nature we are supposed to take care of ourselves and our family first. It seems that the right-leaning responses arise from our instinctual tendencies to be selfish. Our instincts define who we are and ultimately how we think, so it would appear that everyone, at their core, is a conservative. The left media simply overloads the public with “facts” and “news” that fits their narrative. I personally cannot speak for the entire republican party but can i can speak for some of its principles; not the social nonsensical principles but rather the ideologies that actually matter like government and the economy. I read into Chris Mooney’s book “The Republican Brain: Blah Blah Blah”, and it from what I saw, this book seems to hinge on a single case against a conservative website. Again I cannot speak for the entire republican party as there are a fair amount of nutcases that support republican philosophy just as there are on the left. I guess my main point is to not disregard anything that disagrees with your own beliefs and to have a more open, objective outlook on politics, look into people like Bill Whittle or my favorite objectivist, Ayn Rand (especially “The Virtue of Selfishness”); people who back their beliefs with hard evidence and facts.

  • Kevin

    Actually, @badnicolez’s comment provides further evidence for a main claim of the article: that a lack of thinking leads to conservative viewpoints.

  • stargene

    When people, liberal and conservative, feel time pressure, high stakes pressure,
    or the pressure of understanding very complex (or seemingly complex) issues
    that will apparently affect them, there is a significant increase in short-cut style
    thinking. Ie: when people feel like cornered, like their backs are against the wall,
    responses tend to be coarser and stupider.

    The well known Shock Agenda strategy comes to mind… if you can keep most people
    frightened and shocky in such a manner as to decrease their normal trust in normal
    channels of discourse, analysis and decision-making, you can get them to sign off on
    and accept much more brazenly antisocial, industrial and political programs, including
    military agendas, than you could at time when people have the time and peace of mind
    and necessary independence of thought to wisely judge issues. The Shock Agenda is
    the exact antithesis of those conditions which sustain and feed the Wisdom of Crowds
    phenomena studied by James Surowiecki… a significantly more democratic, scientific
    and egalitarian mode of processing and evaluating issues.

    His stated conditions are…

    Diversity of opinion — Each person should have private information even if it’s just
    an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
    Independence — People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those
    around them.
    Decentralization – People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
    Aggregation — Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a
    collective decision.

    Absence of any of these is tantamount to guaranteeing a poor decision, whether
    liberal, conservative, libertarian or any other persuasion.

  • Mike

    I can see where badnicolez is coming from, but agree that it wasn’t a reasoned response. Let’s start out with the obvious bias of the writer/”scientist”: He has written books against Republicans, so has a vested interest in finding scientific evidence for his claims. Because of this, his opinion and evidence should be heavily scrutinized. While this blog article would be fitting on a political website (an obviously left-leaning one), this has no place on a scientific site. There are far too many subjective items and terms involved here.

    Believe it or not, many people actually think about and debate their political beliefs, and hold these beliefs whether drunk, dirty, scared or under pressure. This article gives the impression that conservatives would be liberal if they weren’t so primitive-thinking.

    (Note: I am conservative/libertarian, but wish the Republicans would get with the times in regards to social issues like gay rights and abortion, and especially separating church from the state. The real travesty in today’s politics is that real debate doesn’t even occur. We’re stuck arguing about identity politics in popularity contests. i.e. liberals raise taxes, conservatives lower them; but why do we not debate what the optimum rates should be?)

  • kyle j

    Re @Amos Zeeberg. I find it disturbing that Discover edits their web commentary on articles for one. Second its very easy to cite things and support whatever point you want to make. Haven’t you ever taken a statistics course? How about an English course? That’s kind of how you become a writer isn’t it? Have you ever noticed the crazy things on History Channel or what have you claiming doomsdays and alien visitations all backed with citations! This is a comment section on what is clearly a pointed opinion piece. Do you only encourage liberals to read and comment on your articles? Or do you only care to read the opinions of liberals? Frankly I’m very disappointed in Discover for this article and for your comment: as an independant avid reader of Discover

  • scribbler

    I’m sorry, but I seriously and without the first thought of insult thought this piece was a spoof/tongue in cheek farce. So, and again, I’m not kidding, you are presenting this as legitimate science? The conclusion is: “Addle the brain/reduce the ability to reason and you get a conservative.” is it not???

  • Davd

    Great article; makes me want to go out and buy Chris Mooney’s books. If nothing else, I think the studies show that we need to keep ourselves as educated and informed as possible throughout our lives, as well as training ourselves to not getting distracted. They also point to something else we’ve known for quite a while, the sometimes detrimental effects of alcohol.

    As far as badnicolez comment: I’ve heard her argument, that “her” tax dollars shouldn’t be wasted on certain studies/projects, way too many times; and > 90% of those times it’s from conservatives. It would be nice if we could all specify what our tax dollars should/should not go to; I certainly have a list of things for which my taxes should or shouldn’t go towards. Unfortunately that’s not the way our tax system works.

  • Aidan

    scribbler: I’m gonna go on a limb and assume you’re conservative. I don’t think it’s saying that stupidity is associated with conservatism, merely that conservatism is based more in faith and emotional responses than science. Why do you think so many conservatives are religious?

  • Frank Dziedziak

    This article for me, rang so very true, especially the point made about liberals becoming ‘hawkish’ when threatened . I remember my liberal friends at a bar after 9-11, they wanted to kick butt and didn’t care about the loss of personal freedoms ‘homeland security brought and the weapons of mass destruction.. farce.I find it hard to understand how the religious or tea party right can have so much faith in unproven ideals yet live happily in a relatively safe country with products and medicines provided by proven scientific research..

  • Todd

    I don’t have a problem with gay marriage, legalized drugs and prostitution, and some sort of social safety net, but my positions on anthropogenic global warming, limited government intervention in the free market, and the importance of sound fiscal policy automatically lump me in with every red state creationist according to many.

    When I point out that many government programs haven’t met stated goals since their inception, and ask why we should keep shoveling money into them, I’m told my thinking isn’t nuanced enough, and I need to shut up and listen to “the experts”, who are the very officials kept fed and clothed by continued funding.

    When I question how making healthcare a commodity will lower overall costs (as advertised), I’m told to shut up and listen to the experts (again, the very people who will be enriched by government healthcare). When I point out that healthcare is one of the leading costs in the U.S. military, because it is “free” and commoditized, I’m again told what a simple thinker I am.

    When I question how we can justify paying teachers higher pay when we have no mechanism to grade teacher performance and rid ourselves of non performers, I’m told I’m cruel and heartless. Never mind the fact that I believe higher teacher pay is necessary and right. I simply recognize that paying teachers more without competition will not produce better teacher performance, unless poor performers are pushed out to make room for others.

    Now I find an article on a website I THOUGHT was dedicated to science. Yet no portion of the article was set aside to summarize how the data was gathered, or examine weaknesses in the argument the researchers made. Nor have any of the posters inquired about the testing methodology. But I have a feeling it will be determined that I’m the simple minded one for not simply accepting the information presented without question.

  • scribbler

    Aidan: Wrong. Now what?

  • scribbler

    To expound, I consider myself a student of the scientific process. I examine the facts and come to reasoned conclusions. I have found over the years that humans tend toward arrogance and ignorant prejudice. Being a “scientist” doesn’t convey immunity…

  • scribbler

    Frank, your assertion is predicated upon the premise that one cannot simultaneously hold in ones mind nonsensical trash and keen insight as truth. Experience teaches otherwise…

  • Gary B

    The real issue with this article and Mr. Mooney’s books is confirmation bias. I suggest this article by an academic who realized he had made such a mistake and was willing to admit it: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/12/i-was-wrong-and-so-are-you/8713/. Refreshing, isn’t it?

  • ThePowerOfNow

    The Center for American Progress is a Progressive, Liberal “Thinktank”. The author works for Science Progress which is part of The Center for American Progress. The Author is PAID to promote Progressive agendas. There is a sinister motive here.

    There is a tendancy for some people to want to label others with negative traits. It’s the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality. Some separate people by race, or religion, or ideology. Progressives see Conservatives as the enemy. He claims Conservatives deny Science and Reality. When you deny reality, you are out of touch with reality. There is a medical term for people who deny reality. It’s called psychosis. Ultimately, He is attempting to convince others that Conservatism is a Mental Illness, or at the least a disability. Eventually, “They can’t help it.” is what he’ll say. “They’re sick, disabled. We need to help them. To correct thier thinking.” In many revolutions the “enemy” is said to have something wrong with them. During slavery it was said that Blacks cannot take care of themselves. There not intelligent enough.” It was total rubbish. It was said during WWII in Germany that the Jewish people were mentally deficient. More rubbish. Conservatives have difficulty with Science. It’s too ‘Intellectual’. They’re ‘stupid’. People are actually debating the content of his ‘experiments’. The content is total crap. If you believe his ‘experiments’ and results are valid, your ultimate conclusion would be that Conservatives are mentally inferior. He is no different than those ‘scientists’ who ‘proved’ blacks and the Jewish people were inferior. Many ‘scientists’ knew homosexuality was a mental illness. They knew very little. Being a scientist does not give you an advantage in finding the truth. It just helps you get published.

    That is his agenda.

  • Bill

    I am surprised and disappointed to see Discover publishing political propaganda like this, even if it does attempt to be humorous. It really detracts,,,significantly… from what normally is a good objective source of information.

  • al

    Is this a joke? So what you are saying is that conservatives are unable to think logically, are irrational, and hold their beliefs based on external influences…wow.

  • mike

    Being a 69 year old male and having grown up in conservative west Texas bible belt, then lived in Liberal Austin, Texas, my view is that people lean what ever way protects their turf the best. Most liberals in my area are government workers, and therefore democrats. One acquaintenence I know grew up on a ranch, but spent his career working for the federal government. He admitted to being a democrat because he thought Republican administrations were less likely to give him a raise. People in business for themselves tend to be Republicans and anti-liberal, because they believe they ship too much money to the government. Workers in the private sector have been beat out their retirements in many situations, and they think Government workers now are the only ones with decent benefits. We protect our turf. Mike

  • dtl

    It is interesting what kind of discussion has sprouted out of this article. It’s like football team fans having a heated exchange over a beer. Surely this is an interesting idea (I have no political leaning whatsoever, in fact don’t live in USA), worth a thought. Your own thought. Why the defensiveness?

    Life is far more complicated than to fit one political system to us. That is where the intelligence should focus, not on what it’s called. And as long as there are intelligent people in any government (or used to be) it should work because they will be willing to step outside their doctrine now and then.

  • http://Discover JW

    Wow, reading through some of the comments was an eye opening activity. Not much fact or substance but lots of opinion and frankly, vitriol. These comments again remind of Michael Schurmer’s “The Believing Brain” and are full of anecdotal evidence demonstrating not exactly proof of his assertions but very close… People, you are not as objective and clear thinking as you believe…

  • MLG

    I think everyone got too wrapped up in the politics. My guess is you’re all under a severe “cognitive load” due to the current economy. I find myself becoming intolerant of intolerance. The right and the left both need a “time out”. When it’s over maybe we can all talk to each other like human beings again.

  • ThePowerOfNow

    Replace the word ‘Conservative’ in this article with the word ‘Black’ or the word ‘Jew’. Now try and defend this article. It is bigoted, hateful, and offensive. I expect an apology from Discover. I am deeply OFFENDED.

  • Professor Barry

    Outrageous article slamming a valid, rational political philosophy. Never thought I would see this in Discover . As a conservative college professor (I know – hard to believe I was even hired) I saw closed-minded liberalism ruin the campus ideal of free inquiry and the pursuit of truth. The studies quoted here have numerous failings and are, at best, simplly anecdotes aimed at pushing an agenda. When 90% of college faculty are liberal, it should be expected that such “research” would be extremely biased.

  • ThePowerOfNow

    I saved this article. I am posting the link on many conservative websites. Discover magazine will be hearing more about this.

  • Kathy Wendorff

    Propaganda? Dissing conservatives? To me, this article doesn’t actually say anything about the relative strength/correctness/worth of liberal vs. conservative views. The author says upfront that “none of (these changes) seem to have anything substantive to do with policy, or with the widely understood political differences between Democrats and Republicans.”

    It does present a variety of evidence that when people are under various kinds of pressure, they tend to respond more conservatively and self-protectively. And that when those pressures ease, liberals go back to their liberal positions. And that there don’t seem to be a similar set of pressures or stimuli which shift conservatives in the opposite direction & back. (If there are, somebody post links!) None of this says anything about which world view is better. You could say people are more liberal when they have time to think. Or you could say when the chips are down, people realize that the conservative position is right.

    At a time when we’re having a terrible time getting along with people who disagree with us, when we can’t even agree on basic facts, don’t you think it’s interesting and important to figure out factors which affect the way we process arguments and the way we hear each other?

  • John

    http://www.MoralFoundations.org is a great site that doesn’t try to state who is right or wrong politically, but tries to explain how liberals and conservatives think. I believe that it has more validity than the above article although this article touches on a few interesting facts.

  • Monswine

    I really did not expect to see such an outcry against this article. The whole range of different arguments against it: confirmation bias, slippery slope arguments, accusations of sinister motives, general anger… There are plenty of studies that suggest the brain struggles with simple things when it is distracted, like remembering numbers. And there are other studies that suggest when the brain is distracted it tends to churn out gut reactions rather than more thought-out reactions. At no point did I see claims that one ideology was better than the other. And the cases cited tendencies not 100% shifts. I thought the most interesting thing about this article (because I’ve heard about these studies before) is the question of “What kinds of things would make people tend towards liberalism?”

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    I’m really glad to see these past few comments from people who are actually reading the post and responding to what it says rather than to what they’re imagining it says. Chris is discussing the brain and how it relates to political leanings, not the actual merits of those leanings.

    So instead of just slamming Discover and saying you hate the piece, why don’t you instead show why the evidence and/or reasoning is wrong, rather than just what you perceive to be the implications?

  • Patrick Shea

    The sort of studies (I resisted the urge to use scare quotes) cited here are plagued with problems, the first being adequate definitions of liberal and conservative, two particularly slippery words deeply dependent on context. I doubt researchers often knowingly indulge biases in their surveys, but if you look over the types of questions used, any conclusions drawn from them must quickly tend toward triviality or question-begging. Take, for example, the HIV scenario the author discusses: are there clear-cut “conservative” and “liberal” answers to that sort of policy question abstracted from a real political environment? After all, George W. Bush was a far more profoundly committed warrior against HIV than either Clinton or Obama. Moreover, this sort of highly artificial ranking of sentiments usually neglects any analysis of the reasoning (or lack thereof) that leads to the sentiments. At best they are guesswork based on the researcher’s intuitions (or some other researcher’s hunches, as the common dodge to this problem is to use an allegedly objective distinction between political values developed by a third party). I would go so far as to suggest that these sorts of studies are merely a pseudo-scientific veneer spread atop a rather poor quality of amateur philosophy, pop psychology and political posturing. Sadly, that describes much of the work currently being done in the field of cognitive science.

    P.S. Mr. Zeeberg: The author’s post drips with condescension and is lacking even a skeptical nod to the many scholarly objections to studies of this type and their conclusions. It’s just a blog post, and I have a hard time believing anyone is surprised or all that worked up about it — but to pretend this was some sort of balanced, above the fray discussion of brain science is a bit much.

  • Professor Barry

    Careful Zeeberg, your bias is showing. The statement: “Still, priming people to feel either fear or disgust (or the need for cleanliness) seems to favor political conservatism, and politically conservative candidates.” certainly implies that all rational thought has gone out the window and thus, conservatism is not rational. But let us back up here. In an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the validity of published psychological studies was questioned. (See: http://chronicle.com/blogs/percolator/is-psychology-about-to-come-undone/29045). Often, the studies are never replicated. Yet, they are published and writers, like Mooney, take them as gospel. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology agreed to publish a study by Daryl J. Bem that asserted that people can sense future events. The study could not be replicated, as shown by a University of Edinburgh grad student. Yet he could not get his study published. Blogger’s like Mooney jump on supposed “research” without checking for corroboration. I expect that is the case here.

  • Clarence

    I’m almost 80 years old. It seams to me that its a matter of chance or the flip of a coin as to whether you are a Democrat or a Republican.
    Its not a matter of logic . There are a few “the crossover vote” who may be logical about their vote.
    The main undeniable facts I base this on is that about 50% of United States people are Republicans and 50% are Democrats.The toss of a coin is the same.
    This tells me evolution has not led to much logic in humans. Emotions are way more important to our survival.

  • Kim

    Concern for yourself is a primitive brain function, while concern for other people… the environment…and everything else is a higher brain function…

    Our bodies are programmed to respond to emergencies…reflexively…we protect bodies form harm and then look around to see if we can help others…

    We are all conservative first and then liberal in dealing with stress…the only people that are not… have under gone specialized training to by pass normal responses…some of these people include policemen, soldiers, pilots, FBI, CIA , firemen, and the list goes on and on….

  • Ed

    I’m not sure why people are criticizing Discover for this article; after all, it is in the blog section. However, did any of the negative commenters here actually click through to the links the author includes in the article – to the studies he is using as the basis for his arguments? He isn’t making things up here. To say he is just another conservative basher or put the article down as pure trash (as some of the conservative readers appear to have done) seems pig-headed and wrong. Yes, he has a liberal bias, but that is clearly stated up front.

    And @ ThePowerOfNow — REALLY? You’ve got to be kidding.. replace ‘conservative’, a political leaning, with a race or religion?And then to pseudo-threaten Discover as if hordes of conservative blog-responders will descend or maybe conservatives will cancel their subscription to the magazine (which would probably lower their readership by about .0001%)? Perhaps you were distracted while writing your response? Maybe one too many drinks? Hmmm.

  • Tommy

    What a bunch of nonsense. As my father a scientist(Microbologist) says “Crappy data in…crappy data out”. And as a scientist myself, an Ecologist; I can say this quoting of obviously “unscientific” study parameters is so broad as to have no merit whatsoever in the context of empirical data that could be deduced as facts! Really what it comes down to is that Chris Mooney is a Journalist first and formost and that alone; tells me that this put together writing is nothing but politcal spin fitting his political lean to push an politcal agenda that points to what politcal ideology is superior in rationality according to a preset of parameters designed to lean one way or the other given to what his spin is politcally!

  • Prentice

    While reading throught all the comments on this article it dawned on me that Discover may be publishing the results of studies that can”t be substantiated. This(in my opinion) is not good. As a publisher of a science based magazine the editors should be very careful and research these studies so as to be sure these articles are true and unbiased. Readers have strong feelings about their beliefs and they will generally let them be known. Articles like this one could cause Discover to lose quite a few subscriptions. Including my own.

  • Karin Cavanaugh

    I would still be a democrat if the party hadn’t begun embracing agendas that I as a Christian can no longer live with. Even though I still agree with many of their other issues, I cannot vote for a party that endorses abortion. I suspect this issue is at the heart of many conversions.

  • PowerOfNow

    I read part of the “study” this article refers too. It made this claim and stated it as a fact.

    “Conservatives blame poverty on self-indulgence and on a lack of moral standards….”

    Really??? Does this sound familiar? Those rich people with thier yachts. They don’t have to work for all that money (self indulgence). They are greedy and corrupt (lack of moral standards). These are generalizations of a liberal thinker. A premise just as incorrect as his.

    This kind of generalization is not science. It is very biased and hurtful.

  • olympus Mons

    Oddly enough not a single comment about Jonathan Haid’s work:

    a) Liberals use only two of the five moral pillars that humans seem to share all around the planet, therefore a conservative is just a more complex being then a liberal.
    b) Of all the 5 socio-politic groups (very liberal, liberal, moderates, conservative , very conservative) the only ones… the only ones… that cannot adequately represent the other groups point of view are the liberals and very liberals.
    c) Others have identify that liberals are dominated by a larger ACC (anterior cingulated cortex) and amongst other things ACC is responsible for “Effort discounting”. Meaning, “if its difficult then I don’t want to do it”.

    Just a couple of avenues that you could use to expand your research. Anyway, others already mentioned bias, didn´t they?

  • olympus Mons

    Now that we are at it…

    Being a liberal is a leftover of the Paleolithic, forager, societies and (in very liberal particularly) is the remaining of those Paleolithic tribes that were “Cad “societies (Cads vs Dads). Humans were stuck in the Paleolithic for 150,000 years so the brand of these “Cads” in our epigenetics is still very large. Cads, lived (event today like the yonomano) in groups and are called Cads because “it takes a village” to raise their children (very low parental effort, they like to do other stuff) instead of a family and actually leave of the work of others (mostly women which provide 85% of calorie intake) and in time of scarceness they just decide to “spread the wealth” naturally of the other tribes (they pillage)… You get the picture.

    Then it came the Neolithic (10,000 Ya), the farmers, and the “Dads” took over the planet. That’s when the “conservative” took over the planet. They knew that if they work hard (screw effort discounting!) they “stayed the course” most often than not they could harvest the result. So conservatives, sorry Neolithic farmers, knew that you “reap what you sow” and that it takes a “family to raise a child” (hence the Dad) not a village and so forth… you get the picture.

  • YeaRight

    Conservative and liberal “terms”? What?

    Of course I can already guess they called “civil rights” liberal and “authority” conservative. What about how conservatives completely disregard scientific “authority” on global warming and what about how pro-lifers think fetuses need “civil rights”?

  • Sam i am

    While the liberals and conservatives spit insults at each other Washington is raping us all. Its obvious their divide and conquer ploy is working beautifully.

    Divided we fall, and now we’ve all fallen so low we are all licking the boots of our new Orwellian overlords.

    • FullySecular

      Divided we fall indeed.

  • http://www.myspace.com/drlarrymitchell drlarrymitchell

    Yeah, but you sound stupid while doing it.

  • Jimmy Lin

    This article is either an attempt at a nuanced satire, or the ranting of a truly insane mind.

  • SynMonger

    I’m dumber for having read this. Thanks.

  • justthebest

    Did you even LOOK at the studies he cites, or just judging because you don’t like the conclusions?

  • justthebest

    Surely you are not implying that no one should mention a study until it has been replicated? Replication goes to the strength of the conclusions, but does not make the initial study irrelevant and unworthy of consideration.

  • justthebest

    “closed-minded liberalism?!” That is an oxymoron. And, a moronic statement.

  • justthebest

    That’s an interesting thought. I’ve always maintained that liberals care more about others than themselves and conservatives are unashamedly more interested in themselves.

  • justthebest

    uh-huh. You needed a study to realize that?

  • justthebest

    “Sinister?!” Paranoid, much? ; )

  • justthebest

    You are talking to the wrong people. When I see evidence that a program isn’t working, I say, “how do we fix it?” I do NOT say “throw it out” but I don’t close my eyes and pretend it’s working. I often think, though, that conservatives are looking for an excuse to keep “their” money, and will use any reason to end a government paid program.

  • justthebest

    Sounds like good science to me.

  • Michael Mason

    What about the science of racial differences? Is that a field liberals tend to be knowledgeable in? Look up Nobel Laureate molecular geneticist James Watson’s discussion of why Africa continues to be a failure.

    • CapsPsycho

      Thanks for being honest enough to share that very salty comment, Michael Mason – it really highlights a big difference between liberals and conservatives.

      Actually, much of the social sciences is the “science of racial differences” inasmuch as those differences are the political and economic results of power asymmetry. A lot of liberals are attracted to these fields of study because they see racial power asymmetry as a social problem, because that’s the cause of a lot of antisocial behavior.

      On the other hand, lots of conservatives are disinterested in those sorts of studies, preferring the kinds of biological racial studies that were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

      Objects of study tells you a lot about the perception of problems. Medical researchers focus on disease in order to overcome them. Economists study market failures to avoid them. Criminologists study crimes to prevent them. So why would white people want to study the behavior of black people in this way?

      When I’ve been with conservatives one-on-one (white-on-white), in situations where they were comfortable enough to really let their hair down, many of them have told me that, truly, they see the very existence of non-white races themselves as the social problem. They believe that the antisocial behaviors you see in ghettos are immutable racial characteristics. That doesn’t make for good science, because nobody wants to do it rigorously – you see the same depravity in black ghettos and white trailer parks, but fans of this “science” control for that by refusing to problematize white trailer parks.

      When conservatives itch for a hard biological science of race, what they are looking for aren’t objective phenotypic markers – they are testing racist hypotheses. And to what end?

      That’s the real question I’d pose to you – what if you’re right? What if all of your worst assumptions about black people are proven scientifically correct? What is the answer? What does that information let socieity do, going forward? Presumably, you want that information in order to solve a social problem, right? So what would the solutions be?

      • Michael Mason

        Racial differences certainly exist. I can’t tell from all your writing if you’ve quite accepted that fact yet or not.

        To believe that genetic traits such as intelligence are distributed equally among all human populations is a pipe-dream that negates the very basics of Darwinian evolution. Within humanity, races that evolved in colder, harsher, northern areas such as Europeans and Northeast Asians, developed higher cognitive and creative abilities than races that lived in warmer places closer to the equator. If a subspecies evolves in an area that is more difficult to survive, they become smarter. Subspecies that evolve in places that are easier to survive remain stagnant.

        Now, as for the modern day political situation in the Western World, you ask, if all my theories are correct, what is to be done? Well it’s no secret that our government is controlled by evil men who want to flood the country with ethnic groups from the third world. They want to turn America into a multicultural country, instead of the white European country that it used to be. This is slow genocide. They want to blot out our race by diversifying our society to the point were miscegenation happens on a large scale and the coming generations get more and more brown. The establishment also has effectively reduced the white birthrate to below the replacement level with the use of feminism and sexually pervasive influences like homosexuality and pornography.

        We have a situation in America that is effectively reverse-eugenics if you will. We have programs and an immigration policy that help the stupider, weaker segments of the population produce more babies (programs like child support and welfare), and ideas that encourage the smarter not to have babies.

        Our government wants to turn this country into a third world cesspool. Why? Because the government is indirectly controlled by a tribe of alien infiltrators who have long struggled with our people and have come to desire our total destruction.

        What is to be done? Revolution; an overthrow of the government. That’s sounds really extreme and quixotic you might say. Well it’s the only solution. The Republicans and Democrats alike are working for the enemies of our people. Our problems cannot be solved democratically. The constitution wasn’t even designed to function in a society were public opinion is so heavily controlled by Hollywood and the mass media.

        You may not take anything I say seriously, but in 2016 when the liberals get another traitor into the white house because they retain the minority voting bloc and conservatives fail miserably like I know they will… What will you think then?

        The only way to prevent the United States of America from turning into a third world country is for white people to violently overthrow the government.

        • CapsPsycho

          Have you been approached by any duly authorized representatives of “White People” asking for your advocacy?

          Until they do, you should stop assuming that you represent “our” interests. In case you haven’t figured this out, in general, “we” find your beliefs and attitudes despicable. They are the symbol of the pariah because they are widely held to be disgusting.

          Not only are the ideas themselves revolting, but in general, the kinds of people who seem to volunteer to represent “my race” generally have few other accomplishments to boast of, and that’s why they boast of the accidents of their birth.

          • Michael Mason

            You have no idea who I am, but right off the bat you start making assumptions about what type of a person I am. You have been conditioned by the establishment to assume that anyone with my opinions and ideas is a redneck who lives in a trailer park. That is what is really pathetic. That you think you can make assumptions on my personal character and scorn me simply because my beliefs fall beyond what you have been programmed to accept. You have been programmed to think that only weak minded people have feelings of racial affinity. My God, western society has fallen far.

            It’s depressing to see that you actually believe that race is irrelevant, and that a racially-mixed society can survive for very long. You’re in for a rude awakening.

            You don’t understand why I even profess the things I believe. I clearly recognize that most white people have been systematically deprived of their racial identity and love of history, kin, and culture. I am trying to re-awaken a healthy appreciation of western heritage, and the desire for racial solidarity in white people.

            I don’t base my actions off of what I believe to be socially acceptable like you do. I base them off what I believe is right.

  • Brian Bayley

    This is a science magazine? This article shows how “science” can be skewed to “prove” bias. The authors probably have also “proven” that global warming is caused by CO.

  • capthiltz

    Funny, 99% of the other studies and research I have seen suggest that conservatives react in a more primitive, act without thinking, non caring about anyone other than themselves behavior. One doesn’t even have to rely on studies. Just look at how Tea Party reps in Congress conduct themselves and how conservative owners of large businesses act. Heck, just observe the driving habits of those who have Confederate flags or bumper stickers of conservative talking points on their vehicles. They are usually the ones cutting off drivers, not letting others merge and otherwise doing a hole moves on the roadways.

    • BangZoom!

      Reading dailyKOS and HuffPo blogs is not “research” skippy. M’kay?

      • capthiltz

        A) My name isn’t skippy and B) I didn’t use the sources you listed as for my research. Just settle down.

  • BangZoom!

    and yet a recent study by a Yale law professor showed that the most conservative as represented by the Tea Party showed more highly developed scientific inquiry skills than all other identified political groups.

  • Mike McTighe

    Age: I find a lot of Liberals are younger, and many modern Conservatives probably once would’ve referred to themselves as Liberal. I think when people get older they tend to slow down, and get a better sense of preparation and planning for the future. So their personal decisions start to become more Conservative. Go out drinking tonight? Can’t. Have to pay my mortgage. Have to feed my animal. Have to take care of my family. As I get older the desire for a savoir diminishes, and the world isn’t really trying to promise me one anymore anyways. All the music and movies are geared towards the young now, and I’m old, probably going to die soon (jk).
    Also Liberals tend to be idealists. We all go through this period where we realize that reality doesn’t meet our expectations. Our first reaction is to challenge reality (being Liberal) and our second reaction is to change our expectations (Conservative). Liberals often claim to the youth notion that an evil deceiver is keeping us a few laws away from Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia. Then when they’re in charge they realize how much hard work it is just to keep the world in kind of crappy shape. And soon it’ll be their children stamping their feet, telling them “they didn’t build that” and telling them how stupid they are.

    • The Mouse

      I was one of those: a brain dead liberal in my 20s. Now into my 40s, I finally turned around. As someone who grew up in poverty, in the ghettos of the 80s South Bronx, and as a person of color, I grew up indoctrinated to believe that “Whitey” was out to oppress us (including poor Whites… go figure), that every White person was a racist (again, including poor Whites) and that we couldn’t escape poverty because again “Whitey” was keeping us down (even the poor Whites, because though they were poor and White, they still had “white privilege”).

      It wasn’t until I went to college, and became successful, stayed childless way into my 40s (still am) and responsibly saved money that I realized that if I could make it this far, and be surrounded by lots of White folks (who have all been kind to me; from teachers to employers), then I wasn’t oppressed after all!! If anything, I started making trips to my old neighborhood (I had since lived all over the country, from Seattle to rural Wisconsin) that I realized how irresponsible most of my old peers had been and how they lacked any sense of accountability and personal responsibility for how their lives turned out.

      Of course, I was the “race traitor” for moving out of the ghetto, for speaking “White” and for wanting a better life. But what I noticed consistently was their bashing of Whitey, their distrust of the police, of authority, that their poverty was cyclical because of government and racism. I then knew that this defeatist attitude is what the liberalism I grew up with taught us to believe; that we would never amount to anything because society owed us. They felt they were entitled to welfare and food stamps; even though they were the ones having multiple kids out of wedlock, they were the ones not wanting to aspire to college even though many opportunities existed for low-cost college catering to minorities (they saw it as “Being White” if they pursued education) and they were the ones making bad life choices.

      I then started reading books on conservatism; just so I could familiarize myself with the “enemy” and in doing so, I came to see a lot of great points of view about personal responsibility and hard work. I then realized that liberalism is about making excuses, blaming everyone else except oneself and hating on successful people; in an effort to take from those who WERE RESPONSIBLE to give to the IRRESPONSIBLE. That is not “Social Justice” but THEFT! That is how I became a Conservative.

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