Reflective Equilibrium and Political Ideology

Published by timdean on

Here’s a thought in the which-comes-first-political-ideology-or-political-psychology? department. The answer to which could well be: both. If so, then perhaps some bastardisation of the process of reflective equilibrium could benefit our understanding of political ideology as well as the way in which people are actually motivated to behave politically.

See, for decades it’s been the remit of political scientists to explore the nature of political ideology, to construct definitions and to investigate the way people behave in a political context. Yet political science operates in a highly rarefied environment. It looks at ideology in theoretical terms, almost as if the various ideologies exist in the world to be discovered as various objective ways of being or of running society.

It also often abstracts the messy complexities of human behaviour down to the clean quantifiable lines of rational choice theory. It’s a very top-down approach, starting with theories of political organisation and then noting how these completed, coherent ideologies are disseminated down to the people.

But this approach has its shortcomings, particularly in explaining how and why individuals adopt a particular political ideology, and how that ideology motivates their behaviour. Because people aren’t rational agents and ideologies aren’t clear cut things that people adopt holus-bolus.

Top-down political science even had an ‘end of idology’ crisis through the late 20th century, where ideology was nearly abandoned as a concept because it was conceived as too far beyond the ken of the average schmo to comprehend the complexities of an entire political ideology (Jost, 2006). As such, it was thought most people’s attributions and identifications with one ideology or another were incomplete, misguided or disingenuous. Ideology was on shaky ground.

Yet political ideologies are important. They do influence beliefs. And they do motivate behaviour. But not in the abstract way outlined by many political scientists in the 20th century.

There’s a burgeoning empirical literature looking at political ideology and psychology, such as on personality types, cognitive styles and other psychological predispositions and how they relate to particular political attitudes.

For example, individuals who score highly on the Openness scale of the Big Five personality traits tend towards liberal attitudes and voting habits, while those who score highly on Conscientiousness tend towards conservative attitudes (Mendak, 2010).

Or people with high integrative complexity (i.e. people who weave multiple pieces of information together to make a decision, or who see the world in shades of grey) tend towards liberalism, while low IC people (i.e. black and white thinkers) tend towards conservatism (Tetlock, 1983).

These bottom-up approaches are showing that psychology is central to understanding how and why individuals adopt the moral and political attitudes they do. Far from being blank slates who dispassionately ruminate on the various political ideologies on offer, then adopting one based on rational deliberation and/or on which will most advance their interests given their station in society, the bottom-up approach shows that we’re predisposed towards certain attitudes, and over time we find ourselves attracted to individual positions offered by certain political ideologies.

These positions tend to cluster around certain ideological positions, such as liberalism or conservatism, but they’re by no means coherent and consistent. But the ideological constructs are still important, and the fact that attitudes tend to cluster in predictable ways does suggest there’s something to be gained from understanding the common underlying tenets that draw various attitudes together.

Both the top-down and bottom-up approaches have their merits, but both have their limitations. So, like many things, a synthesis of the two might lead to a more fruitful understanding of political ideology and political motivation. But how to weave the two together?

This is where I think the concept of reflective equilibrium could be happily employed to great effect.

Reflective equilibrium is a useful device for understanding how we can effectively reconcile our theories in a particular sphere with our individual experiences or intuitions. Rawls famously employed it in the moral-political realm to explain how we should seek to reconcile our abstract moral principles with our strongly-held intuitions about particular cases.

If the theory admits a case that our intuition utterly rejects, the principle should be considered for revision. But not to the point where it becomes completely incoherent. Eventually we arrive at an ‘equilibrium’ where there’s an optimal balance between theory and practice, with minimal compromise on each side and maximum agreement concerning the overall theory.

A similar approach can be taken with political ideology.

The abstract and rational choice approach of political science can be used to explore the problems of social coordination and governance. Even if it doesn’t accurately represent the way people actually think, it can still model the environment in which they do their thinking, and the problems that their less-than-rational minds have to deal with.

Then psychology can explore the messy proximate mechanisms that actually do the heavy lifting in these environments and look at how people actually arrive at political attitudes and behaviour, and how they come to identify with one particular political ideology or another, and even how their attitudes and political identification changes over time.

So the political science can propose an abstract idealised solution to the problems of society – say a traditional liberalism or a conservative ideology – and then look at what kinds of individual beliefs and behaviours might advance that particular solution.

Then it’s up to the psychological side to see whether such beliefs and behaviours can realistically be employed by real people, and if so, by what means they arrive at those positions. If it turns out that a particular ideology admits of some belief or behaviour that our psychology utterly rejects, then it can be revised.

Likewise, there might be some predispositions or psychological tendencies that get in the way of advancing a particular solution, and we might seek to temper these aspects of our psychology in order to promote that particular ideology.

For example, say low integrative complexity leads to overall poorer decision making in the modern world – perhaps it might have had its advantages in the hunter-gatherer environment where some decisions needed to be made with less time and less information on hand, but today’s more complex environment and with more powerful information gathering and processing tools on hand, high IC thinking might be preferable. In this case we can actively work to raise the effective IC of people, or work to have them acknowledge their predisposition to low IC thinking and encourage them to be aware of the problems it can cause.

This could also force a rethink of some aspects of political ideology, such as acknowledging that some people do have low IC, thus tempering the liberal expectation that people will behave rationally and will take the time to reflect and deliberate on certain arguments. It might simply be unrealistic to expect a certain proportion of the population to fundamentally change their cognitive style, so the ideology will need to accommodate that fact.

The end result could be a new reflective equilibrium, where abstract political ideology is tested against our psychological capacities and predispositions, and be revised where the ideology proves incompatible with our psychology, and in reverse, there might be times where we acknowledge it’s worth giving up or tempering some of our psychological proclivities if they get in the way of advancing a genuinely better solution to the social problems we face.

It’s a synthesis of the top-down and bottom-up approaches, if you will, much like Rawls’ reflective equilibrium is a synthesis of abstract moral theory and more rude intuitionist approaches. And given politics is really a study of human behaviour writ large, perhaps an integration of abstract theory and behavioural science might start to give us a more complete picture of this strange and complex phenomenon of politics.


James Gray · 27th December 2010 at 8:27 pm

What are some areas that ideology and psychology were found to be incompatible?

Tim Dean · 28th December 2010 at 12:10 pm

(What you’re saying is I don’t give enough examples in my posts – I’m wary of them getting even longer, but maybe I’ll include a few more in future!)

One quick example springs to mind. In the top-down approach, a core value of conservatism is often stated as ‘resistance to change’, and is justified in terms of the risks inherent in frivolous change and the virtues of tried and tested institutions.

However, the psychological attraction to the ‘resistance to change’ of conservatism is more fuelled by psychological factors such as management of uncertainty, attempts to reduce perceived threat in the world and low levels of Openness in the Big Five.

To suggest that people tilt towards conservatism because they hold beliefs about the dangers of frivolous change, or they explicitly believe in tried and trusted institutions isn’t accurate.

The top-down approach is informative when it comes to understanding the challenges faced by society. (It might even help explain the origins of the psychological tendencies that favour particular ideologies by looking at the challenges we faced in our evolutionary past, and seeing how our psychology has adapted to them.)

But the bottom-up approach will help explain the actual motivations for particular political action. Combining the two in this case can reveal something deeper about resistance to change. And if it’s found, for example, that resistance to change represents a better solution to the problems of society, we can use our knowledge of psychology to encourage more people to accept the idea.

James Gray · 28th December 2010 at 5:10 pm

Here is the passage I was referring to:

it’s up to the psychological side to see whether such beliefs and behaviours can realistically be employed by real people, and if so, by what means they arrive at those positions. If it turns out that a particular ideology admits of some belief or behaviour that our psychology utterly rejects, then it can be revised.

Are you thinking of something like a utilitarian that claims utilitarian to demand that we sacrifice human rights for the greater good?

Tim Dean · 28th December 2010 at 5:30 pm

On a moral level, utilitarianism is a good example of what I’m talking about in that passage. We don’t appear to be terribly good consequentialist thinkers, at least when it comes to making judgements on the fly. That might mean utilitarianism is good for figuring out whether some action is justified after the fact, but it needs to be translated into something compatible with our psychology that will encourage us to make the best decisions on the spot.

A more political example might be the Marxist notion that once our base material needs are catered for then we’ll stop pursuing more material goods or ‘Earthly’ pleasures. Or that once everyone has their needs catered for, people will be content to work collectively and cooperatively rather than continue to be competitive and status-seeking. These assumptions about our psychology are erroneous, and as such they place Marxism on shaky footing.

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