26 April, 2012
Mooney the spinner
Chris Mooney is a journalist who has popularized some hoary old Leftist theories about the psychology of politics. I was researching and writing about those theories when they were still "hot" so I know a bit about them. My most relevant academic journal articles on the subject are listed here. Needless to say, I found that the theories concerned did not stand up under rigorous testing.
Mooney's recent article "Liberals and conservatives don't just vote differently. They think differently" has attracted some attention so, although I have had a few laughs at Mooney's work before (See here and here), I thought I might add just a few more comments.
For a start, Mooney's work is actually more balanced than what Leftist psychologists themselves have usually said. Mooney can see that a trait ascribed to conservatives can be both a good and a bad thing, which many Leftist psychologists routinely ignored. So what Mooney does is to take a finding which could be read either way and "spin" it so that it makes Leftists look better than conservatives. So one of the things I do is to "unspin" such judgments.
But first a few excerpts from Mooney:There's now a large body of evidence showing that those who opt for the political left and those who opt for the political right tend to process information in divergent ways and to differ on any number of psychological traits.I can't help laughing at Mooney's acceptance of the absurd Kruglanski work. You can read my close look at it here. I think I show pretty clearly that the Kruglanski questionnaire measures infantilism rather than need for closure, with Leftists being the infantile ones. And in the same paper I refer to the work of Van Hiel, one of the believers in "Openness". Van Hiel actually put some hard work into testing the theory that Leftists are more open. Rather embarrassingly, his findings were mostly the opposite of what his theory said. So the claim that Leftists are more "open" rests on sand.
Perhaps most important, liberals consistently score higher on a personality measure called "openness to experience," one of the "Big Five" personality traits, which are easily assessed through standard questionnaires. That means liberals tend to be the kind of people who want to try new things, including new music, books, restaurants and vacation spots - and new ideas.
Conservatives, in contrast, tend to be less open - less exploratory, less in need of change - and more "conscientious," a trait that indicates they appreciate order and structure in their lives. This gels nicely with the standard definition of conservatism as resistance to change - in the famous words of William F. Buckley Jr., a desire to stand "athwart history, yelling `Stop!'?"
Now consider another related trait implicated in our divide over reality: the "need for cognitive closure." This describes discomfort with uncertainty and a desire to resolve it into a firm belief. Someone with a high need for closure tends to seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information. Those who have this trait can also be expected to spend less time processing information than those who are driven by different motivations, such as achieving accuracy.
A number of studies show that conservatives tend to have a greater need for closure than do liberals, which is precisely what you would expect in light of the strong relationship between liberalism and openness. "The finding is very robust," explained Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychologist who has pioneered research in this area and worked to develop a scale for measuring the need for closure.
And yet there may be something in it. I did some reseach using proper random sampling (a rarity among psychologists) that found Leftists to be "sensation seekers". That's not too different a concept from "openness" but just spins the opposite way. It makes Leftists look shallow rather than conservatives.
So the Mooney writings should not disturb conservatives in any way. The underlying facts are no discredit to conservatives at all.
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