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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Instinct rules

Several recent studies suggest that our political beliefs reflect much less free will than most of us had probably assumed.

A study by Cornell psychology professor David Pizarro cross referenced results from 181 adults on the Disgust Sensitivity Scale (which measures exactly what it says, our reactions to various visual scenarios) and a political ideology scale. It turns out that people who are more squeamish, i.e., who react with disgust to the sight of various insects or blood or entrails are more likely to be conservative. The difference was most pronounced when it came to attitudes towards gays and lesbians.

Another study, by a group of NYU psychologists, showed that conservatives tend to have more well organized offices, whereas liberals tend to have more colorful, comfortable offices.

All of which would seem to indicate that political beliefs are more a matter of instinct, temperament, emotion, and perhaps tribal loyalty, and less a matter of well reasoned thought.

The only purpose of our intellect seems to be to justify the conclusions we have been lead to by our instincts and emotions, which were pretty much preordained by our genes. We are far less rational than we think.

One good example might be our reaction to the NYU study on office decor. Liberals will think, see, we have more style, more imagination, and more sense when it comes to selecting comfortable furniture. Conservatives will react by thinking, aha, see, we're better organized, which is a reflection of our more ordered thought process, and we have less concern for making a flashy impression.

Both groups' thoughts will immediately move towards justification. Which is all it seems our brains are good for.

Is that how you reacted (whichever side you're on)?

I'm afraid it's how I reacted.


Anonymous said...

This idea could further be supported by the varying political beliefs of children of parents who have the same beliefs. For example, if two conservative parents have three children - and two of the children are conservative and one liberal. The children had the same upbringing, most likely the same schooling through grade school - so the external factors where the same. If this trait were reflected simply through a dominant / recessive gene, the result makes sense.

There are high IQ conservatives and liberals. Both camps can make reasoned arguments to support their beliefs and proposed courses of action.

From this conservative's point of view - conservatives tend to make reasoned arguments that include the harsh realities of human nature, while liberals tend to believe there is a greater altruism that will make their theories work.

On the political battlefield the detailed policy ideas of liberals and conservatives can be much less important than the images and spin generated to attack the opponent.

The left has come across one of the most powerful attacks I've seen in my lifetime. An example is Janeane Garofalo's attack on the Tea Party participants - "this is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up."

From one Tea Party web page: "...true grassroots protest of irresponsible fiscal policies and intrusive government".

I find it difficult to see the connection between Garofalo's accusation and the Tea Party ideals.

However - Gorofalo's attack is highly effective, and being used by lots of people. Many conservatives are flummoxed by this attack - they are shocked and insulted, but what do they say to this non-sequitur attack - I am not a racist? And once started down this path, the original argument is lost, and also never directly debated.

This attack is low and weak, but its working.


John Craig said...

Ed --
Thanks for the comment. The differences even within some families seems to be almost genetic: some kids inherit one disposition (emphasis on disposition, not intellect), other kids another one.

The Garofalo argument is transparently pathetic, but sadly, it does seem to be what passes for thought among a certain segment of the population. The worst part is the intimidating effect it has on others: it's similar in spirit to the old accusation that one had consorted with the Devil. People just don't know how to defend themselves against it.

Here's a suggestion: the next time someone bandies the word about, ask, "What do you mean by racism? Do you mean discriminating against an individual based on his race, as with affirmative action? Or do you mean committing the thought crime of having noticed racial disparities in the statistics regarding crime, IQ, and so forth?"