You know it’s an election year when psychologists try to explain why people vote as they do. Most of the time, it’s harmless, but recently, a new, nastier tone can be detected. It’s something to keep an eye on because, as commentator David Brooks explains, it involves a key change in how human decision-making is understood:
“The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q.”
The term “hardwired” is a frequent shorthand for this new approach. For example, commenting on negative political advertising, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked that “there appears to be something hard-wired into humans that gives special attention to negative information… I think it’s evolutionary biology.”*
When emotion is considered to be “hardwired” to prevail over reason and experience, it is no surprise if some researchers demonize or marginalize voters with opposing views and call it “science.”
Most social science researchers who currently engage in this tactic are progressives. Self-confessed liberal psychologist Nathan Heflick puts it like this, “psychology would be foolish to not at least acknowledge that a field dominated by liberals, that has organizations taking liberal moral positions, does not suffer scientifically.” Foolish indeed, when we consider the evidence.
Heflick worries that research that challenges dominant political positions in the field will not get published, or even submitted. True, and there is a commensurate problem with what does get published. Much research into voter opinion seems structured to explain why progressives are better and smarter than conservatives. In “Born This Way: The new weird science of hardwired political identity” (2012), Sasha Issenberg advises us that conservatives are turned on by “their own disgust” and liberals just like being turned on, period. And that University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Jack Block:
“compared personality attributes of nursery school children with their political orientation 20 years later, and found kids considered ‘self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating’ grew up to be liberals, while those described as ‘easily victimized, easily offended, rigid’ grew up to be conservatives.”
A survey article informs us that:
“Most of the research literature … suggests that conservatives are more easily threatened, more likely to perceive the world as dangerous, and less trusting in comparison with liberals.”
Similarly, it was announced in 2010, “Scientists Find ‘Liberal Gene,’”supposedly DRD4 but that “subjects were only more likely to have leanings to the left if they were also socially active during adolescence.” The gene has not been heard from again.
We are also told that “People who consider themselves liberals or atheists tend to have higher IQs than those who are more religious or conservative.” Other experts questioned these findings because of the a study author’s “idiosyncratic” definition of liberals as “caring about people who are not genetically related to them.” And it is perhaps relevant that the researcher, Satoshi Kanazawa, has come under fire for claiming that science also shows that black women are less attractive. That was a bridge too far for Psychology Today, which removed his article from their site as a result. But most such studies are disseminated in popular media far more often than they are questioned, and from a political perspective that is what really matters.
Sometimes, the underlying agenda sounds far from liberal. What about cheek swabs to determine politics? From science writer Issenberg: One editor of an anthology of evolutionary politics, Man Is by Nature a Political Animal, “predicts that within ten years saliva swabs will identify a genetic link explaining why some individuals welcome immigration while others respond violently to it,” due to an evolved fear of pathogens.
As Tom Jacobs slyly puts it, “The implication — presumably unintentional, but still stinging to some — is that conservatives are somehow emotionally impaired, and vaguely inferior to the more open-minded people on the left.” The self-congratulatory reek is all the more offensive because psychology journals have come under serious fire recently for non-reproducible findings. In Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett reports,
“A group of researchers have already begun what they’ve dubbed the Reproducibility Project, which aims to replicate every study from those three journals for that one year. The project is part of Open Science Framework, a group interested in scientific values, and its stated mission is to ‘estimate the reproducibility of a sample of studies from the scientific literature.’ This is a more polite way of saying ‘We want to see how much of what gets published turns out to be bunk.’”
Whether reproducible—on its own terms—or not, what makes this stuff bunk is: Voters’ reasonable interpretation of their own experience is dismissed as irrelevant.
For example, voters may reasonably fear that immigration, particularly illegal immigration, could cost them their jobs (or raise their taxes). Researchers who strongly favor immigration themselves respond by ruling reason off the table and locating typically conservative voter opposition in evolution, neurons, or genes. The Association for Psychological Science’s 2012 conference in Chicago headlined two papers that take neuron or gene approaches to political positions.
Does it matter? The main problem isn’t that this partisan nonsense is hurtful to conservatives, but that its emphasis on supposed hard wiring and emotion over context and reason is unlikely to be compatible in the long run with representative government.
* quoted in David Berlinski “On the Origins of the Mind”, in Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski, The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2011), p. 713–14.
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.