The Political Psychology of a Government Shutdown

By Chris Mooney | April 7, 2011 11:40 am

Some while back, Jonathan Chait had a thought provoking, if brief blog post at The New Republic entitled “Why Liberals Like Compromise and Conservatives Hate It.” The piece was about the possibility (then more distant) of a government shutdown, and reasoned that one was likely in part because conservatives and liberals differ in style and outlook:

Even aside from the underlying desire by the GOP for large spending cuts, Republican voters are less attracted to compromise as a matter of general principle….Liberalism is an ideology that values considering every question through the side of the other fellow and not just through your own perspective…The stereotype of liberalism, which is sometimes true, often runs toward bending over so far backward that you can’t make obvious moral judgments: Who are we to judge this or that dictator? Criminals are just the result of bad environment. In any case, the joke about liberals — a liberal is somebody who won’t even take his own side in an argument — is not a joke you’d hear about conservatives. Now, I think the qualities of confident assertion of principle and willingness to bend both have their place. One of my meta-beliefs about, well, everything is that one needs to be able to understand both black-and-white situations and shades-of-gray situations. In any case, I think conservatives tend to err toward the black-and-white worldview, and liberals toward the shades-of-gray worldview.

Chait may be on to something, more than he even (apparently) knows. After all, his basic schematic for the differences between liberals and conservatives does not merely spring from his own opinion or intuition—it reflects a literature in psychology. For instance, consider research by John Jost of New York University and his colleagues, as helpfully summarized by Psychology Today:

The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers—John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley—found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

The study’s authors also concluded that conservatives have less tolerance for ambiguity, a trait they say is exemplified when George Bush says things like, “Look, my job isn’t to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think,” and “I’m the decider.” Those who think the world is highly dangerous and those with the greatest fear of death are the most likely to be conservative.

Liberals, on the other hand, are “more likely to see gray areas and reconcile seemingly conflicting information,” says Jost. As a result, liberals like John Kerry, who see many sides to every issue, are portrayed as flip-floppers. “Whatever the cause, Bush and Kerry exemplify the cognitive styles we see in the research,” says Jack Glaser, one of the study’s authors, “Bush in appearing more rigid in his thinking and intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity, and Kerry in appearing more open to ambiguity and to considering alternative positions.”

As Chait hints, there are times for black and white, and times for shades of gray. If conservatives do tend to prefer the former and liberals the latter, this is no moral judgement of either of them. Rather, it’s an observation about styles and tendencies–both of which have benefits, both of which can lead us astray.

However, it is also the case that unresolvable conflict between the two styles and mindsets–which often occurs–can lead to results that benefit nobody (except, in the case of a shutdown, perhaps President Obama’s reelection chances). So I wish both sides were thinking along these lines in their final negotiations.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Psychology of Ideology

Comments (15)

  1. Bobito

    Not sure if the Black / White / Grey analogy works the way you are proposing it. The ability to see grey isn’t a liberal trait, it’s a centrist trait. I’d say that the far left and far right are both very much Black/White.

    The ability to compromise would only appear to be a more lefty trait due to the politics of the USA, which is center-right. A lefty must always go right to get any national legislation passed, and a far left stance is political doom (see last election).

    But if you look at legislation in places like California it is much more left, because the population of California is also more left. Which side do you think is doing more compromising in California?

  2. Michael Tobis

    I agree with Bobito.

    I also think it is important to be careful with this philosophical / psychological connection, which may be somewhat parochial. I mean, what applies in America may not apply elsewhere in other ways.

    American conservatism is a very different beast than conservatism elsewhere. Conservatism traditionally has been about respect for authority, reason and tradition. The American right wing is largely populist, laissez faire, anti-intellectual, and anti-authoritarian; some of it is also isolationist. There is little of the Tory left in them. Tory-like republicanism influences did run through the old wealthy families of the east coast, but nowadays any affinity between the wealthy and the right wing is mostly a matter of cynical self-interest, not of any philosophical attachment to tradition and limited change.

    Laissez-faire liberalism and monarchist conservatism are both pragmatic world views. The American right wing, by contrast, is purist and ideological. This supports what you said but limits it to America.

  3. Chris Mooney

    Folks, we’d have to bring the experts in, but I believe they have attempted to control for variation across countries in the left and the right.

  4. Bobito

    @3 – Democrat/Republican polls are not a great example of conservative/liberal opinion. Southern Democrats are as conservative as northern Republicans. My parents are both registered democrats and are further right than me in many cases, and I am a registered Republican.

    I’m sure a large portion of the Democrats who think that Democrats should compromise are
    Southern Democrats. Traditional Southern Democrats are largely Tea Party people these days…

  5. Here’s a relevant new finding:

    The gist of it is this: a new study claims to find features of brain anatomy that differ between people who identify themselves as politically conservative or politically liberal.

  6. The concept, while likely valid, presumes intellectual honesty. When an entire party intentionally discounts the entire state of the science in favor of an ideologically circumscribed and incredibly cowardly abdication of policy-making responsibilities, you no longer can argue for intellectual honesty.

    Honest debates debate honestly.

  7. Everett Young

    @1, 5. I think that’s a very good point you make in #5. On #1, regarding the “centrists see gray, liberals and conservatives both see black and white,” the data don’t back you up as far as I know. Measured just about any way you can think of it, liberals have a cognitive style that sees more gray than conservatives, and centrists are in the middle.

    There are tiny hints I’ve seen of a little bit of a shift back toward cognitive rigidity among very radical left-wing extremists, but in my experience you have to work your data really hard to find that kind of thing. The rigidity-on-the-right hypothesis is supported by a pretty tall mountain of evidence.

    Now, I think it can be said that any serious activist, whether liberal or conservative, can be rather rigid in defending his or her particular cause. That is, members of NOW aren’t flexible on the issue of abortion. Actual activist leaders of Amnesty International aren’t flexible on military tribunals for Gitmo detainees. But in their overall outlook on life, these kinds of people are likely to score higher on average on tests of cognitive flexibility than conservatives are, measured, as I say, in more ways than I can count.

    @2 and 4: you’d be surprised how little data there is addressing this cross-national and cross-cultural argument, the idea that conservatism might be linked with traits such as assertiveness, decisiveness, or cognitive inflexibility, but only in America and only for the last couple of decades, with all bets being off elsewhere. There’s definitely not enough evidence to close the case, so debate can rage on. Jost’s folks would say the political-psychological connections are pretty universal, but they’d get some resistance from other researchers. Here’s my reading of the evidence: in all modern democracies where study has been done, the psychological differences between right and left look pretty similar. There are minor differences here and there, but you simply never see right-wingers scoring higher on measures of flexibility/openness/tolerance of ambiguity, etc.

    The tougher question is in communist societies, or recently communist societies. Are the open-minded, who we expect to embrace change, actually substantively conservative? And are the closed-minded, who are uncomfortable moving away from state-run economies, substantively liberal? I won’t try to settle the question, but I’ll say this: I’ve seen 3 studies, and the contour of the findings is: people who appear more psychologically rigid or closed do label themselves as more left-wing than the more open. BUT–and this is a big one–they seem more hierarchy-endorsing than the more open. So it’s up to you how you define conservatism. Is it by self-identification, or is it, as Jost would have it, by hierarchy-endorsement? (At least that’s half of Jost’s definition.) If it’s the latter, then the rigidity-conservatism link appears to survive even the crossing of the communist divide.

    BTW, for those who are wondering where I’m getting all this, or wonder where I get off acting like an expert and stuff, I’m not what you’d call a leading researcher in this field, but I did study it, I do conduct research on ideology, and I teach a college course in it.

  8. Bobito

    @8 – Agreed to an extent, I was more going for the fanaticals/activists with that post. If there were a graph displaying ones ability to compromise, it would be at the bottom on the far left and far right, and peak left of center.

    There are certainly many factors involved, but the obvious one is that liberals are more interested in change, while conservatives need to be convinced that things will be better before changing (kinda the definition of conservative). So a liberal will be more willing to compromise just to get some level change, while a conservative will stand pat until convinced an alternate course is an improvement.

  9. Even aside from the underlying desire by the GOP for large spending cuts…

    I would have thought the Reagan and Bush years had disproven that bit of conventional wisdom. Not to mention the Republican demand that 88% of the budget be protected from any cuts at all.

    The GOP only has an underlying desire to cut spending on programs that they don’t like. Like climate research or Planned Parenthood or public education. Give them a bomber or a war and they’ll spend like gangbusters.

  10. Kevin S.

    “But if you look at legislation in places like California it is much more left, because the population of California is also more left. Which side do you think is doing more compromising in California?”

    So please tell us. Last I heard, California Republicans were using the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget to stonewall all fiscal measures, acting just like their colleagues in Washington’s new 60-vote Senate. But I don’t live in California, so please enlighten me about all these occasions when California conservatives have compromised.

  11. William Furr

    Is it possible to be both liberal and conservative at the same time, rather than a moderate? Those traits you mention all apply to me in largely equal measure. Which attitudes I exhibit are highly dependent on context and my state of mind. I judge quickly, yet remain open to new evidence. I seek novelty, but also value orderliness and rule-following.

    It puts me in a weird place with many of my friends. To my conservative friends, I’m a radical socialist. To my liberal friends, I’m a rule-following square. Meanwhile, the whole time I just think I’m being reasonable.

  12. Chris Mooney

    This is fascinating to discuss, so thanks to everyone–especially Everett who has helped me understand this stuff. Last I checked this morning, the cognitive rigidity continues…and I might be missing at least one NSF science communication training because of the shutdown. We’ll see.

  13. Dunc

    The ability to see grey isn’t a liberal trait, it’s a centrist trait. I’d say that the far left and far right are both very much Black/White.

    “Liberal” != “far left”, despite what many in the US media would have you believe. Believe me, I’ve been on the real far left (i.e. revolutionary Marxist-Leninist – it’s OK, I got better). Liberalism (in the authentic sense) is centrist – it only looks left-wing in the US because you don’t actually have a left wing.

  14. Jon

    The brains of the movement can’t always control its enraged base:


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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