Friday, January 31, 2014

Politics and Psychology

Why do some people become liberals and others conservatives? It's one of those things that can't be explained by income level, region, family upbringing, etc., though many of those do have an impact. But an article a few months ago shed some light on this, I think, if only indirectly.

The Internet article had to do with gifted children and why they have a higher tendency to experience depression, or to be more specific, "existential" depression. Said gifted children, devoting more of their time to abstract thought rather than mundane matters, are considered more likely to be idealistic, perceiving the world as they think it ought to be. But since it is not how they think it ought to be, they frequently become frustrated with reality, withdraw into themselves, and become depressed and experience a deep feeling of meaninglessness that their dream world won't be realized.

Now, this article (here's the link) may not be worth much. It's one writer's musings, based in some scientific studies but not scientific itself, so take it with a grain of salt, of course. But from my own experience, I think there is some truth to it, so let's just say that his argument is broadly true. What application does this have for politics?

Well, for youngsters of such a mindset, it's not hard to see how they would be attracted to leftist ideologies. They see an imperfect world, they're more upset by this than others, they get more upset that these imperfections don't bother everyone, and they begin casting about for a solution, some philosophy or proposal that claims to solve everything. That's....pretty much textbook "ism" formation. Rousseau, Marx, Lenin, all those lovely people started out as frustrated young men searching for a way to make the world perfect, so it makes sense that other people of a similar temperament would be drawn to their collectivist solutions.

And as the article notes, the gifted have an especially weak connection to "irrational" justifications like tradition. Granted, the youth in general tend not to hold the status quo in such high regard as older generations, but this tends to be a bigger problem for the smarter kids, who put much greater stock in logic and consistency, and don't want to hear some policy or institution being defended because that's how it is, or changing it would be too disruptive. It doesn't make sense to them, therefore it is indefensible.

There's more that goes into it, of course. But this explanation seems to me to make a lot of sense. It also explains the common myth that liberals are smarter than conservatives--the Left tends to draw in smarter individuals, but for reasons only indirectly related to their intellect.

It's also worth noting that this process doesn't always play out. Take me, for instance--not to toot my own horn, but I was certainly closer to what you would call "gifted" than anyone else I knew growing up. Very smart, kind of a bookworm, introverted to the point of being socially awkward--you know the drill. However, I never had this existential crisis the writer describes. Why, I can't really say. But I think it's because I had a consistent outward tug--if not to get a wide net of friends, at least to associate with other people somewhat--that kept me from disappearing completely into my own little world. Also, I had (and still have) a great love for my little hometown, as poor and redneck as it may be, and I suppose that appreciation for my surroundings as they were kept me from buying into schemes for a perfect world and whatever. It's not that I didn't notice flaws, but I preferred the warts-and-all reality to any prospect of radical change.

I think that sentiment was a key to my evolution into an active conservative. So if you want to keep your kids from becoming liberals--well, I don't know, nothing's foolproof, but maybe find ways to get them to take joy in their current situation, rather than get mesmerized by some ideal. That might or might not be enough, but I think it would help.


On a different note, this will be my last weekly post for some time. Graduate school, never a cakewalk, is making some impossible demands on my time for the next few months, so I have to give that first priority. Hopefully I can come back and contribute some posts more regularly after that's done, but in any case, I'll still be around somewhat for the commenting. Until then, thanks for reading and commenting on my occasionally-useful articles. :-)


AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Thanks for the articles. Good luck in grad school and definitely come back when you can. :D

On the article, there is an underlying self-serving assumption in Sofo's theory that is entirely unwarranted: the theory assumes that idealism equates to liberalism, and then it argues that because smarter people are idealistic, they must be liberals. That's a tautology.

It also wrongly identifies idealism. In fact, based on the rhetoric of both left and right, I would say that true idealism is really rather conservative. Indeed, think about it. If you look at American rhetoric (left and right), then the idealism to which Americans aspire is about freedom -- freedom of speech, freedom to chase your dreams, freedom to live your life as you see fit, "justice" (i.e. a legal system that prevents the government from acting arbitrarily or with bias), etc. while maintaining a healthy, functioning society. Said differently, the ideal is a world in which everyone is free and no abuses that freedom.

That's not consistent with liberalism which seeks to dictate how people can live (thou shalt wear a helmet, thou shalt not drink booze), and excuses those who abuse society.

In effect, true conservatism is the American idealism -- freedom plus moral responsibility, whereas liberalism is a control fetish that hides behind rhetoric it doesn't actually mean and which hypocritically picks causes not based on true idealism but on whoever they feel sorry for in a given situation.

I also dispute that smart people are drawn to liberalism. I've seen no evidence to support that and a good deal to the contrary. Not to mention, the obvious internal contradictions within liberal thinking expose minds that are hardly fertile or capable. Smart people don't believe contradictory theories nor do they judge evidence based on who is telling it to them. Those people are called fools and morons... and that's liberals. Liberals just like to think they are smarter because they compare themselves to straw men conservatives and they excel at denying their own flaws.

Anthony said...


Smart, passionate young people often feel the need to change the world for the better. Whether or not that desire for change is deemed liberal or conservative depends on the issue. A person that wants to change marriage laws to allow for same sex marriages is liberal, a person that wants to change abortion laws to end or reduce the practice is conservative.

BevfromNYC said...

T-Rav - You can't leave! What about the kitties? Who will keep them focused when you are studying? We will miss you while you are away...

Oh, and this off topic, but this is really cool! And by "cool" I mean...well, you know -
Obama will be taking questions live today at 2pm ET time about his state of the union address. He can't be bothered to talk to the press and answer their questions, but he can take "questions" from anonymous people who most likely will be former/present campaign operatives...

A Virtual Road Trip with President Obama

T-Rav said...

Thanks, Andrew! I appreciate the chance to sound off here regularly. :-)

As far as the whole idealism thing goes, my response is twofold. One, I think a liberal would accuse you of engaging in semantics. It might be true that conservatives pursue an ideal of freedom for all, but of course the Left's response would be that that's no freedom at all because there's no one to take care of you. A poor understanding of freedom, of course; but many liberals have a lot of experience at making their ideas sound just as appealing as yours do.

Two, while it's true both sides have their ideals, what the author is talking about here is an abstract idealism, one that ignores actual conditions in favor of whole new systems of society and government, constructed out of thin air. Abstraction is something conservatives don't engage in much; even your formula, "freedom plus moral responsibility," acknowledges that freedom and liberty don't purely exist in a vacuum, but have certain conditions and applications.

Finally, while I can't give you any empirical proofs, I can only say that in my experience, most intelligent people do go through a period of liberalism, which some grow out of and some don't. And it's the people who are a bit more extroverted and have some appreciation for what they had growing up, who usually grow out of it.

tryanmax said...

I found the linked article very relatable and at the same time extremely irritating. I have no doubt that I should have been characterized as an introspective youth as well as an academically gifted one, but I'm not at all certain how one begins to correlate one with the other. I agree with Andrew that the author presents a tautology, but I would suggest the tautology is even deeper.

I think a lot can be gleaned from the author's use of the phrase "frightening freedom." Liberals--introspective, gifted, or none of the above--seem to have a fear of freedom in the sense of the unstructured world. They turn the concept away from the freedom to act toward the freedom from others' actions, which in reality is begging a freedom to bind others.

Hopefully that makes sense. I'm having trouble gathering my thoughts at the end of an odd week.

Koshcat said...

I think the writer of the linked article is full of crap. Depression has multiple different causes. A less than bright student could be depressed because he will discover that there is no way he will ever be an austronaut. I think all young people go through an idealism phase where you think your parents (and other elders) are idiots. It is later that you appreciate their experiences and realize that their lives are molded by them. They may be wrong but you better understand why. There was an article recently that showed that when tested conservatives and moderates tend to better predict how a person sees the world than a liberal one. The conservative can disagree with the liberal but understand that his underlying motivation may be to help others, etc. Whereas the liberal tends to believe that the conservative is a mouth breathing, cruel, trogladite. In my experience, I have often found that the far right and liberals both tend to be very concrete in their beliefs; that there isn't a possible other way of looking at things. Makes it hard to talk or negotiate with them.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, On the response, about the semantics, you are absolutely right that they would say that, but that would again just be liberals asserting a tautology -- "WE ARE THE IDEALISTS BECAUSE YOU CAN'T BE AN IDEALIST WITHOUT BELIEVING IN LIBERALISM!" That's just nonsense. Idealism does not require or imply belief in an all-caring government.

I mean, let's be frank for a moment. Hitler was an idealist. It's just that his idealism was sick. Marx was an idealist. Libertarians are idealists. Fundamentalists are idealists. Populists can be idealists. Etc. Idealism doesn't specify the exact content of your beliefs, it's just having a strong belief in wanting what you see to be the ideal world. And what your idealism is can be seen in the rhetoric that society pretty much agrees upon. In America, both left and right believe in individual freedom rhetorically. You don't hear Americans saying, "The land of the cared for," like you do in Europe.

In terms of abstraction, conservatives do it all the time. Religion is abstraction. Libertarianism is abstraction. Free market economics is abstraction because it's not intuitively obvious. If anyone lacks abstraction, it's liberals. They are point and click thinkers -- "I see a problem, have the government fix it somehow." That's not abstract thought, that's an emotional response at best.

I do agree that most intelligent people go through a liberal phase, but I would attribute that to smart people considering most possibilities. I think that liberals only think they are smarter because they are arrogant and because they tell each other that's true whether it's true or not. They also tell themselves they care more and that they're nicer. Conservatives tell themselves that they are more patriotic or more religious. What this tells us is that these are values that important to each group. It doesn't really tell us they actually have those values.

I stand by this: liberals are provably stupid.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Let me see if this helps. What I think you're sensing is that this guy has fundamentally bought into and is repackaging the stereotype that "jocks are loud, mean, stupid and conservative" whereas "quiet, nerdly, and sensitive kids are all idealistic geniuses... oh, and they're liberals." This is a multifaceted tautology:

1. Quiet kids must be smart because smart kids are quiet, whereas loud and obnoxious kids must be stupid because only stupid people are obnoxious. Double tautologies premised on false stereotypes gleaned from films. (In reality, most nerds are simply extreme introverts or people who lack socialization. And just as going blind does not give you super hearing, being an introverted nerd does not make you super intelligent... it just makes you awkward.)

2. Since quiet kids are smart, they must be idealistic. Total nonsequitor. Intelligence and idealism are not linked. Indeed, most idealists are quite stupid; hence, the inability to understand that not everyone thinks the same (lack of empathy) and to grasp cause and effect. And many smart people are deeply cynical.

3. Since liberals are idealists, they must be the smart quiet kids. And since liberals are the smart quiet types, they are idealists. Second tautology. This is also contradicted by liberal claims that they are more social, better at partying, and better at caring about people than those meanie, jock conservatives who beat their girlfriends.

Is that what you were thinking?

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I agree across the board. Let me also add that every study I've seen in the past few years except one has shown that conservatives are smarter than liberals. And the one the liberals relied on was flawed.

And that makes sense if you think about it. Liberals believe the facts they want and reject those that don't fit their prejudices. That start dooms them to being fools. Then they further make it worse by applying hypocritical logic and by refusing to resolve contradictions within their beliefs. All of that tells us that they are not thinking creatures, they are emoting creatures who feel their way through decisions. That makes them not smart.

Agreed on the ideologues too. They put belief above practice. Anyone who denies reality or excludes certain truths because they don't like them is not a smart person.

Koshcat said...

I think I was pretty smart and I wasn't quiet. Maybe a little introverted (I don't like big parties) but I've had my moments as well. I don't buy into the quiet kids are smart; the quiet kids are quiet.

I also don't think all liberals are stupid. Many are very bright but once they latch on to an idea, especially a liberally claimed one, they will not budge. I got into an argument with a woman about fracking. I realized that she was not going to change her mind (she actually believes the EPA is withholding data showing the dangers of fracking). I stopped arguing because it was fruitless. You cannot argue rationally with an irrational person.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I know a lot of people buy into the "quiet = smart" formula because that is how it's sold. Teachers and parents like quiet kids and talk them up. There is an assumption that quiet kids are studying and staying out of trouble. People often combine quiet with "would rather read a book than go party," as if the two are mutually exclusive. And films make the geeks out as geniuses.

But being able to compare and contrast Kirk and Picard is not intelligence, it's a hobby. And having spent some time at top schools, I was pretty shocked to find that the kids you get there tend to have been very popular and outgoing in high school, i.e. they weren't the geeks. They were typically very active socially and played some sport or took part in some major activities. Moreover, this discovery has continued throughout my life as I've met lawyers, doctors, scientists, etc. The smart people weren't generally the geeks, they were normal kids or popular kids.

The stereotypes just aren't true.

In terms of liberals being stupid, I don't think they are necessarily stupid people in all things. Some can be quite smart about a particular field or come across as well read and interesting. Spielberg, for example, is a hell of a filmmaker and knows more about film that any conservative. BUT liberals have shown to be short-term thinkers who are typically caught by surprise by obvious longer-term problems they couldn't foresee, even as conservatives were warning them. They are also very irrational on controversial issues. That makes them rather unreliable thinkers outside their field of competence.

And even in their field of competence, you get a guy like Krugman, who fundamentally lacks an understanding of human beings. So while his math looks great and he wins awards, everything he says is laughably wrong.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, yes, that explains the deeper tautology quite well. I take it my words on freedom, then, were clear enough?

Koshcat, your first comment reminds me of what came up the other day regarding Bill Gates' charity "crowding out" other solutions. Laughable if it weren't so sad. "How dare he find a solution! We haven't tried everything yet!" Can you imagine if these people were mechanics? "Well, we tried a few things and now the car's running perfect. Let's rip it apart one more time just to say we tried everything."

tryanmax said...

BTW, I'd still rather go out and get wasted, but staying in and reading a good book is about the best option I have these days. ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, let me add that there is a very good reason why liberals would think liberals are smarter. When they look at the world, they see this:

1. Most professors are liberals.
2. Most journalists are liberals.
3. Most authors are liberals.
4. Most actors are liberals, and they seem so smart on screen.
5. Half the political world are liberals, and many of the conservative heroes (like Palin) are morons.
6. The scientists you hear about are liberals.
7. Most tech companies are run by/were founded by liberals.
8. All the awards -- Nobel, Pulitzer, etc. go to liberals.
9. The best actors awards go to people who act in liberal films.
10. Liberals claim histories big names, e.g. Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Jefferson, Ghandi, and they shove the troglodytes on us (e.g. Hitler).
11. They claim Jesus was a liberal.
12. Most super rich people are liberals, and Americans equate wealth with ability.

Of course, most of that is BS. Things like the awards are given by liberals, so of course they pick their own. Their ability to disclaim their own failures is delusional but allowed them to keep from having to offset their failures. The idea that most of these people are liberals is false, but liberals are happy to talk about their liberalism and conservatives stupidly refuse to talk about theirs.

That's the real key. Too few conservatives are willing to speak their mind, so liberals see themselves as unchallenged in these fields.

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - I agree with your assessment - it is less about quiet thinkers v. populist socially active people and really more that liberals tend to be short-term thinkers and I will add that conservatives tend to be long-term thinkers. The reason is experience and age. Liberals tend to be young and Conservatives tend to be, shall we say, "experienced". The longer one is out in the world the more realistic one becomes. We generally go from idealistic about how the world SHOULD work to realistic about how the world ACTUALLY works.

What kid hasn't come up with the "new idea" that one can just give stuff to others and everyone will have stuff. There is no experience to understand that "the stuff" just doesn't appear in the store/shelf/refrigerator. And the reason that older Liberals still maintain their liberalness (like Obama) is that they have not really worked in the private sector where one lives or dies by the bottom line. They see the stuff in the refrigerator, but they have no idea how it gets there either. When one works in non-profits or government bureaucracies, traditional liberal areas, one is not dependent on the bottom line. So, they only worry about today because tomorrow will just be another day to worry about today.

"“If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain,"

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, A very good point.

As an aside, I was recently talking politics with a 10 year old. Said 10 year old told me that there should be one price for everything (like $1) and then everyone could afford what they wanted. What was interesting about that thought to me was that, to her, this idea made sense because she simply didn't have any of the knowledge that would blow huge holes in her theory.

That's exactly your point. As you experience the world, your knowledge grows and solutions like this start to be exposed as completely unworkable.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Yep. :)

Yeah, that Bill Gates things blows me away. What a shocking way to think.

Koshcat said...

The rich being "liberals" is an interesting issue. They may have socially liberal ideas but many of them are pretty shrewd businessmen. Take the Gate's initiative. Liberals are claiming it as theirs because he is helping the poor (and only intelligent, gentle liberals would ever help the poor) but his approach is long sighted. He is intimately involved with decisions. He wants to know where his money is going and if it is working. That seems pretty conservative to me verses the liberal idea of going to Africa and throw money out of the helicopter until they aren't poor anymore.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I think what you really have is a matter of cherry-picking examples.

Take lawyers. We know that lawyers are liberals because (1) the ABA is liberal, (2) all the lawyers you see on television are liberals, (3) the lawyers who get famous are liberals, and (4) conservatives hate lawyers.

Yeah, BUT, I've found that lawyers are 50-50, like so many other fields. What happens it that conservatives don't join the ABA, and they don't generally talk about their ideology. Most corporate lawyers are conservatives, but you NEVER hear from them because that field prizes discretion. When conservative lawyers go on television (like Megyn Kelly) they adopt other labels because conservatives hate lawyers.

Trial lawyers are more likely to be liberal, but not too disproportionately. The problem is that conservatives think that only liberals would represent criminals or "malingerers" as they view people who bring lawsuits. That's just not true. Moreover, there are people on each side in every lawsuit, the public tends to ignore the prosecutors and the defense attorneys, who are also lawyers.

I see the same thing with the rich. Liberal magazines do profiles on all the great rich liberals and all the causes they are involved in. IF they ever mention someone like the Koch brothers, it's just to demonize them. Then with someone like Gates, I would bet he's a neither liberal nor conservative based on his record, but if you want to assume that helping black people makes you liberal, then it's easy to claim him... even if that is a faulty assumption.

Liberals have a very strong network that makes sure that only liberals get good press. And conservatives don't seem interested in countering that.

T-Rav said...

Bev, was it everything you feared it might be? Assuming you watched, which, if you have good sense, you didn't. :-)

I promise, the kitties will be in good hands in my absence, if by "good" you mean "diabolical," and by "hands" you mean "prisons."

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - What is interesting to me is this kind of liberal, idealistic thinking - just give stuff to people in need - works in a community crisis. People need water, you give them water regardless of the bottom line. But there always has to be some conservative realist to make sure that there is enough water to go around to last through the crisis...

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, That's the short term, long term issue. Short term thinking can solve an immediate crisis (and is sometimes called upon for that reason). BUT short term thinking leads to long term problems as people change their behavior to reflect the idea that the short term solution will always be there.

Liberals don't get this second part.

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - And hardcore conservatives tend not to get the first part sometimes.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Sadly true.

BevfromNYC said...

T-Rav - What, do I look crazy to you?? Why would I want to listen to a bunch of hand-picked "questioners" who were probably email the questions they were supposed to ask query the great and wise Obama on...well, the well rehearsed answers to the emailed questions?

Oh, and please be kind to the kitties because one day they will be liberated and I would not like to be you then...

Random American said...

Dear Mr. President,

I am a lifelong Republican who loves you because the Republicans are evil and you are amazing. My question is this. When we are in the situation room in the White House, you say such amazing things and your hair smells like candy. Is it true that you're the first president who is a real genius?

Signed, NotJayCarney

Another Random American said...

Dear Mr. President:
This is a two part question and one comment:

1. Why are the Republicans such evil people who refuse to see how wonderful you are?
2. Why do we even NEED Congress when all you have to do is sign an Executive Order?

You are my hero...

Thank you,

Actual Random American said...

Dude, who you got in the Superbowl?

tryanmax said...

I think the 50/50 reality is probably true for most professions. For example, I work with a lot of scientists and scientifically trained people (tech writers, salesmen with science's an industry thing) and I would say the majority of those I encounter are conservative. I know that's not a representative sample, but neither are the scientists who make the news. Point is, if I only went by what I see on TV, I'd think all scientists are liberal; if I only went with who I know, I'd think they were all conservative.

On the other hand, as a graphic designer, I know I'm in the minority on political views. Still, I'd say the split is 1:2, not as lopsided as you'd think.

Post a Comment