The Way We Think (3): The Conservative Disadvantage

One of the most interesting insights from diving into Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) (1) was reading about the reactions of the research team while they were dealing with the results from their research and viewing these results in light of the mounds of research results from other studies.

The five academic people on the team were all politically liberal psychologists and social scientists, and yet they corporately discovered they all shared a similar concern about the way that their liberal academic field approached the study of political psychology.

It strongly appeared that the goal of so much previously published research was to explain what was wrong with conservatives! (2)

What apparently helped stir up their concerns was graphically summarizing their new results,

Figure 8.2, The Righteous Mind: Importance of each (original) MFT Foundation versus political philosophy

The conclusion was that conservatives possess Moral Matrices (Values) that display concerns more evenly balanced among the original five foundations studied (see note below), while liberals based their Moral Matrices (and thus their subsequent attitudes and behaviors) on just two, the Care and Fairness foundations.  Conservatives trigger and respond to the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory, including appeals to Loyalty (patriotism), Authority (respect for persons in positions of authority as well as traditions), and to the Sanctity foundation (holding some things sacred; primarily but not limited to religion).  The results do not significantly vary over time or in different cultures studied.

Interestingly, when the subjects in the research chose the labels “liberal” or “conservative” they were not just choosing to endorse different values on questionnaires.  Their reaction times were also studied, and within the first half-second after hearing a statement, their partisan brains were already reacting differently.  Their intuitive reactions caused them to lean one way or the other before they began to reason and to search for different (blog: i.e., confirming) kinds of evidence and reach different conclusions.  Their intuitions came first; their strategic reasoning came second. (3)

Further research was done into political and religious speeches (where one would expect to find verbal evidence of underlying MFT foundations) and the texts evaluated.  Liberal political speeches made almost exclusive use of Care and Fairness terminology while conservative speeches were more balanced across all five foundations.  In a 2008 speech, President Obama used only Care and Fairness terminology, and Fairness here most often meant equality of outcomes. (4)  On the religious side, Unitarian sermons made greater use of Care and Fairness terminology, while Southern Baptist sermons made greater use of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity terminology. (5)

Distressingly, when the study’s overall results were presented to numerous liberal political groups in an attempt to provide an understanding why liberals fail to connect with social conservatives and the religious right, the responses were wholly negative.  In fact, many liberals could not see any set of values not solely based on the Care and Fairness foundations as anything other than a “moral abomination,” and a society built on such values was something to be combatted, not respected. (6)

It is easy to see the roots of societal polarization here, but there is something else going on, something that has been going on for generations and of which the development of MFT has only recently provided a clearer picture.

First, let’s be clear, much of what liberal progressives wish to accomplish are reasonable ideas and attempts for solutions to very real issues and problems.  There is, as we’ve already seen above, real concern to provide care for individuals and prevent further harm, and to spread these solutions as broadly as possible (equality of outcomes).

One such program is No Child Left Behind (since replaced).  The program has not accomplished what it was theoretically conceived to do and its failures in various areas are blamed on President Bush since the program was enacted during his administration.  Few people, and nearly no liberals, know or are willing to admit that the program was a liberal idea conceived and developed by Senator Ted Kennedy, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, and enacted almost wholly intact based upon his proposals.

The subsequent problems that arise are most often not with the proposed solutions, but with incomplete implementation and follow up due to a myopic ‘let’s get it done now and move onto something else’ practice.  This is a ‘let’s concentrate on solving a problem with a ‘solution’ and not worry about if the solution is structurally sound enough to work and last’ mentality (discussion about legislative feedback to address this appears here, towards the end).

I remember participating in this mode of thinking, as I was very liberal when I was much younger.  It was very easy to identify a problem and demand it be solved as if this were as easy as sending a wrongly prepared dish back to the chef or replacing a board in a computer.  However, as with any problem solver, wisdom and broader understanding comes with age; with politicians, apparently not so much.

This mindset is one of a Visionary, a dreamer of better times, and is not wrong.  Organizations and societies need them.  But this is not the mindset of a Doer, one who focuses at least as much on getting the problem solved so that it lasts and doesn’t adversely affect the health of other vital parts of the organization, culture, or nation.  It has been said that “Dreamers need Doers, but Doers don’t need Dreamers.”  First part is right, the second isn’t.

One good example of this is Brexit (a vision), the disjointed attempt (full of unanticipated consequences) by Britain to leave the European Union (also a vision), which is viewed by Britain as being loaded with unanticipated and unintended consequences,

In the Brexit referendum, 17.4 million people, or fifty-two per cent of voters, chose to take the country out of the E.U., a vast supranational project that had become a metaphor for a remote and unfair system for organizing people’s lives. (7)

Since the referendum, the central task in British politics has been to try to square two conflicting demands: to respect the democratic impulse of Brexit while limiting the economic consequences.  It is a version of the challenge posed by populist anger everywhere.  How far should governments go in tearing up systems that people say they dislike—the alienating structures of global capitalism and multilateral government—when the alternatives risk making populations poorer, and therefore presumably more furious than before? (7)

Second, there is no issue about the Care and Fairness foundations not being important. They are; one just can’t build a healthy society on these two alone. (8)  It’s more about all the MFT foundations that are structurally important to a healthy society, and not just American society (see above).

All of this leads us to a Repugnant Conclusion**, one of the something else’s going on and one that most everyone would rather choose to pretend doesn’t exist,

Progressive liberals are not wrong; they are not incorrect; but

They are simply incomplete and don’t recognize it.

The same must be said for fringe conservatives. For both extremes, it’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood of Fundamental Principle 7c:

They don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know.  But think they do.

This becomes clearer when comparing the Moral Matrices for Liberals and Social Conservatives, as presented in The Righteous Mind (the comparison below now includes the subsequently identified sixth foundation, Liberty/Oppression),

(Also presented is a Moral Matrix for Libertarians, Figure 12.3, which is even more one-legged and foundationally challenged.)

It’s an uphill battle to overcome Gap Theory, search out and verify the usable Missing Information, and work towards a viable solution, all while politely acknowledging the rabid fringes’ right to be rabid.

The Conservative Disadvantage?  They have to juggle a bunch of Foundations all at the same time with a view to the best overall outcome.  This is like a doctor weighing the benefits and side effects of a new medication, taking into account possible contraindications with other existing medications.

It takes courage to cull the best from each side, to be a Conserviberal.  Or a Liberative.

*Note: the six ultimately identified foundations are: Care/Harm; Liberty/Oppression; Fairness/Cheating; Loyalty/Betrayal; Authority/subversion; and Sanctity/Degradation.  The Righteous Mind, p 357

**Note: The Repugnant Question is, “Have I done/not done something that’s contributed to the current situation?”
The Repugnant Conclusion is, “Yes, I have indeed done/not done something that’s contributed to the current situation!”

1The Righteous Mind, p 184-187
2The Righteous Mind, p 187
3The Righteous Mind, p 189
4The Righteous Mind, p 190
5The Righteous Mind, p 188
6The Righteous Mind, p 193
7Teresa May’s Impossible Choice, The New Yorker, (July 30, 2018)
8The Righteous Mind, p 193


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Gap Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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