Linking Psychology, Politics and Climate Scepticism

Published by timdean on

Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals are from Venus. So says Chris Mooney in his new book, The Republican Brain.

I tend to agree. I’ve written as much on this blog back in 2010, and on the ABC’s Drum website again in 2011.

The thesis is that liberals and conservatives tend towards very different psychological make-ups. Political psychology studies have shown that liberals and conservatives are measurably different along a number of different axes.

For example, liberals tend to have higher scores than conservatives in Openness in personality tests. This means liberals tend to be more curious, inquisitive and exploratory when it comes to information and opinions. Conversely, conservatives tend to be less experimental, more rigid in their thinking and more dogmatic.

Liberals also tend to exhibit greater integrative complexity – which is a metric that measures the tendency to incorporate many different pieces of information into forming an attitude or making a judgement. It’s kinda ‘shades of grey’ thinking. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend towards more black and white thinking.

None of these things are rock solid. There’s no determinism at the root of this. But there are clear leanings amongst those who self-identify or vote one way or the other.

Do these psychological differences contribute to the differences of opinion among liberals and conservatives? Could they help explain why a majority of conservatives reject anthropogenic climate change, for example?

Mooney thinks so. And so do I. I explain why in the Drum article.

But there’s a spanner in these works. US Republicans tend to deny climate change, but not all conservatives worldwide do. Kevin Drum makes this point in response to Mooney:

But the problem I have with Chris’s piece is this: temperament is universal, but Republicans are Americans. And it’s Republicans who deny global warming and evolution. European conservatives don’t. In fact, as near as I can tell, European conservatives don’t generally hold anti-science views any more strongly than European progressives.

Well, that’s not entirely true: many European conservatives are also on the sceptical side of the fence. But it does raise an old chestnut that needs to be cracked: nature/nurture.

Mooney already gives a giant nod to nurture from his earlier book, The Republican War On Science:

At least since the time of Ronald Reagan, but arcing back further, the modern American conservative movement has taken control of the Republican Party and aligned it with a key set of interest groups who have had bones to pick with various aspects of scientific reality—most notably, corporate anti-regulatory interests and religious conservatives. And so these interests fought back against the relevant facts—and Republican leaders, dependent on their votes, joined them, making science denial an increasingly important part of the conservative and Republican political identity….Meanwhile, party allegiances created a strange bedfellows effect. The enemy of one’s friend was also an enemy, so we saw conservative Christians denying climate science, and pharmaceutical companies donating heaps of money to a party whose Christian base regularly attacks biomedical research. Despite these contradictions, economic and social conservatives profited enough from their allegiance that it was in the interests of both to hold it together.

But, as usual, many people tend to think in terms of one or the other: either it’s psychology that makes conservatives climate sceptics, in which case we’d expect conservatives worldwide to be climate sceptics; or it’s external forces that shape conservative attitudes, and thus we’d expect parochial differences among conservative communities worldwide.

As usual, the correct explanation of the phenomenon will likely include a bit from column A and a bit from column B.

Here’s how:

Psychology does affect political attitudes. But it doesn’t do so unmediated. An individual’s psychological disposition doesn’t fix their political attitudes, just like one’s socio-economic background doesn’t fix their job description at 40 years old.

When it comes to linking psychology with politics, there’s a crucial middle step that mediates how the two interrelate. And that middle step is worldview.

It’s well known in political psychology that one’s worldview affects their political attitudes. For example, if you perceive the world as being a hostile place filled with untrustworthy people, then you’re more likely to adopt conservative attitudes, such as advocating greater punishment for criminals, more hawkish foreign policy and be less inclined towards rehabilitation.

Likewise, if you perceive the world as being intrinsically meritocratic – i.e. people who work hard are reliably rewarded for the effort they put in – then you’re more likely to lean conservative, and believe that taxes and welfare rob from the deserving to give to the undeserving.

But how to people acquire the worldview they do? Here is where psychology plays a role. Psychology – and things like personality and cognitive style –  modulate experience. They effectively act as a filter on how you experience the world.

Say, for example, you have a particularly sensitive fear response, and when it triggers, it does so in a particularly acute manner. You’re likely to experience the world in a very different way to someone who has a much milder fear response. You  might even come to see the world as a more dangerous place…

Likewise, if you are more inclined towards a Theory of Mind that attributes more agency to internal forces rather than external forces, then you’ll be more inclined to interpret others’ behaviour as being internally motivated rather than shaped by external forces. That might incline you to seeing the consequences of peoples’ behaviour as being more directly a result of their actions rather than being a product of their decisions as mediated by environmental factors. You might even be inclined to believe the world is a meritocracy…

But here’s the rub: no-one is born liberal or born conservative.

But people are born inclined to experience the world slightly more one way than the other. This makes them more receptive to certain ideas and ideologies. Someone who is already leaning towards the idea that the world is a dangerous place will be more receptive to conservative ideology that responds to the world as they suspect it might be.

However, then the ideology reinforces that worldview. The ideology itself feeds back into the worldview, reminding the individual that the world is a safe/dangerous place, or is/isn’t a meritocracy, and that drives the individual’s wordview to a greater extreme. Thus: polarisation.

The environment is crucial in this picture. While the psychology predisposes someone to being receptive of a certain political ideology, the ideologies on hand then serve to shape the worldview from there.

And the ideology also doesn’t come from no-where. The ideology is concocted as a response to the world as it’s perceived by those living in a certain environment and culture. And every culture is slightly different in its history and social challenges it faces.

This is why American conservatives might be more rabidly anti-climate change than, say, British conservatives. The culture, the proximate ideologies, the history are each important – because these things influence the ideology that is fed to the psychologically-predisposed people.

And, anecdotally at least, I do find that conservatives worldwide are at least more likely to be anti-climate change than liberals, even if the degree varies.

As usual, neither nature nor nurture provide the full story. Some complex interaction between the two will explain why people believe what they do. But you can’t tell the story with only one side working alone.


Nick · 4th April 2012 at 8:07 am

The stronger fear response in conservatives also correlates with larger volume of the amygdala in the right hemisphere of the brain (study here). The question is this: what is the direction of the causation? Does the larger amygdala make someone a conservative (loosely speaking)? Or does becoming partial to conservative values make ones amygdala larger? Both? Neither? I look forward to learning more!

chrismooney_ (@ChrisMooney_) · 4th April 2012 at 11:18 am

This is the best understanding of my argument that I’ve seen yet. Thank you! I think you will enjoy the book

Thomas Watts · 4th April 2012 at 12:23 pm

Environmentalists and their policy cronies appear to me to be largely fear-driven, or at least they loudly push fear on the public as a tool to gain acceptance of their policies.

People who accept “global warming” generally appear to me to buy into a whole basked of related things. I.E. if warming is real, they automatically think this means that a) warming would do more harm than good b) it is primarily human-caused c) that reducing anthropogenic CO2 would have a serious effect d) that massive wholesale robbery of the economy is necessary to reduce CO2 e) that severely dire consequences will happen if this is not done.
A veritable Drake’s equation of unquestioned weak hypotheses. Is this not a prime example of black-and-white thinking?

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