Posted on Wednesday, September 19, 2007
So here’s the latest bulletin from the Psych Department: According to a journal called Nature Neuroscience, liberals are smarter and more adaptable than conservatives. It’s a scientific fact, or what passes for one in the world of lab rats and mazes. Needless to say, this discovery was greeted with a yawn on the rustic campus of Unsolicited Opinions Inc., the one-man, five-dog think tank where this column originates. Yo, professor, tell us something we don’t know. Actually, several professors at New York University and the University of California-Los Angeles concocted this foolishness.
First, the experimenters asked student subjects to self-identify as liberals or conservatives. Then they sat them at computer monitors. Half were asked to push a button every time the letter “M” appeared on the screen, but to ignore “W.” The others were asked to respond to “W,” but ignore “M” —to rule out unreasoning contempt for the letter “W,” I suppose. Anyway, the liberals made fact-based responses far more often than conservatives, who tended to react every time they saw any letter, like a chimpanzee trying to tune in the Rush Limbaugh program on a car radio.
“Stronger liberalism,” the experimenters wrote, “was correlated with greater
accuracy.” They concluded that “[l] iberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty,” while “a more conservative orientation is related to greater persistence in a habitual response pattern, despite signals that this response pattern should change.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Professor David Amodio of NYU “explained
the difference in terms of a commuter who drives the same way home from work
every day. If he’s a liberal, he is more likely to be alert to a detour. If he’s a conservative, he’s more likely to, well, stay the course.”
Now as political commentary this strikes me as plausible. Last time I checked, the Bush administration had floated eight or nine contradictory rationales for invading and occupying Iraq, starting with make-believe nuclear weapons, bestowing the gift of democracy on our grateful Middle Eastern brethren, standing up until they sit down (or whatever it was), all trending toward the inevitable destination of “exterminate all the brutes.” Few loyalists appear to have noticed.
But presented as science in a periodical otherwise devoted to articles titled “Activation of EGFR and ERK by rhomboid signaling regulates the consolidation and maintenance of sleep in Drosophila”? (Fruit flies sleep? Who knew?) Give me a break. To begin with, “liberal” and “conservative” are subjective terms with no fixed meaning. Asking NYU and UCLA students to self-identify, then assigning specious objectivity to those declarations, resembles the learned “projectors” in the third voyage of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” gravely distilling sunbeams out of cucumbers.
In politics, context is all. In, say, 1970, the same study would have had very different results. At this moment in history, Bushism has knocked the liberal vs. conservative debate totally out of whack. On overwhelmingly liberal campuses like NYU and UCLA, persons calling themselves conservatives are more likely Bush dead-enders. That is, they’re quite like the sheep in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” chanting, “Four legs good, two legs bad !” to drown out criticism of Comrade Napoleon, the head pig.
Conservatism as a political philosophy has nothing to do with the presidency
of George W. Bush. Don’t take my word for it. Read conservative pundits such
as George Will or Patrick Buchanan on the futility of the Iraq war. Former Nixon White House official John Dean has made a veritable career out of warning against the decay of Republican principles into an authoritarian cult of personality.
“For more than 40 years,” Dean writes, “I have considered myself a ‘Goldwater conservative,’ and am thoroughly familiar with the movement’s canon. But I can find nothing conservative about the Bush/Cheney White House, which has created a Nixon ‘imperial presidency’ on steroids, while acting as if being tutored by the best and brightest of the Cosa Nostra.”
Dean’s book, “Conservatives Without Conscience,” summarizes the psychological evidence, arguing that the predominant wings of today’s GOP—Bible-beating fundamentalists and neo-conservative empirebuilders—exhibit similar personality types. Followers think tribally, submitting to political or religious authority mostly from fear: “[T]hey become very aggressive in pushing that world view of that authority.... It helps them remove the ambiguities of life. And if they’re frightened by events, then this gives them a sense of security.” Authoritarian leaders, Dean contends, “are typically men whose desire in life is to dominate others and to be in charge.... They are highly manipulative. They are also people who have absolutely no appreciation of equality of others. They see themselves as superior, and they are amoral in their thinking.” Sound like anybody we know? Like Orwell’s sheep, cultists can’t change their minds no matter how badly their theories fare in the visible world. To alter course is to show weakness. So, yeah, the Nature Neuroscience team measured something real. It just wasn’t conservatism.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.