Why Liberals and Conservatives Think Differently, From Someone Who’s Been Both

Whether we believe the foundations of morality come from a deity or from the natural processes of evolution, surely liberals and conservatives, religious persons and atheists, can agree that, given the broad array of religious, political, and ethical beliefs across time and cultures, human values are changeable and varied, constructed by those who came before you and largely determined by the home and society into which you were born.

Your society, and your place in it, will decide how you think and feel about everything. Morality is affected by many factors: geography, resources and wealth, political systems, class structure, religion, education and literacy, scientific progress, individual observation and experience, economics, and so on, all unique in a complex society. No one denies someone born in a Muslim home (or nation) is likely to be Muslim, one born in a liberal home (or nation) likely to be liberal, one born in a polygamist home (or nation) likely to have different thoughts on polygamy than someone without that experience, and so on. As uncomfortable as this may be, particularly to deeply religious people like Christians, we are largely products of our environment.

But these factors can change, and so can moral values. As a former religious conservative and current liberal atheist, I understand how new ideas can over time drastically alter your way of thinking. Two intriguing questions are: Can thought processes or brain structure beyond your control contribute to your political beliefs? and How does political thinking change?


What We Think: Different Moral Foundations

First, we should look at the areas of morality conservatives and liberals say they care about. Jonathon Haidt and Craig Joseph, building off prior research, propose five foundations of morality, explored in Haidt’s popular TED Talk:

  • Harm/care: As Haidt says, “We’re all mammals here, we all have a lot of neural and hormonal programming that makes us really bond with others, care for others, feel compassion for others, especially the weak and vulnerable. It gives us very strong feelings about those who cause harm.”
  • Fairness/reciprocity: A willingness to exchange things for mutual benefit, whether something physical like a trade in goods or something nonphysical like kindness — expecting the same in return. This is the “foundation of so many religions.”
  • In-group mentality/loyalty: The drive to join together into groups and remain loyal to your group, such as your nation, state, city, or sports team.
  • Authority/respect: Awarding reverence, sometimes due to love, to others and being willing to follow their directives.
  • Purity/sanctity: The desire to achieve virtue by being selective of what you put into or do with your body.

Looking at responses from 23,000 Americans to questions related to these five foundations, Haidt and his colleagues discovered that liberals based their morality directly on harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. They cared about these foundations slightly more than conservatives, and cared far less for in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, or purity/sanctity. Conservatives, comparatively, put a great emphasis on these final three foundations, but still had harm/care and fairness/reciprocity toward the top of their concerns:


via Patheos

I imagine such a result makes those on the Right and Left equally proud. Conservatives may think themselves more loyal to their country, trust in government authority when the State insists war or mass surveillance are needed to keep us safe, or tend to think that homosexuality or sex outside marriage is wrong. Liberals might say human beings are far more important than artificial manmade creations like countries, may question State warnings of imminent danger given a history of government dishonesty, or see no “impurity” in something as biologically natural as sex or indeed homosexuality.

Considering the standard definitions of “liberal” and “conservative,” Haidt’s results make sense. The definition of a liberal is someone who is more open to new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, and willing to forsake tradition. The definition of a conservative is someone who prefers to preserve tradition and traditional values, someone more closed to or cautious of change. (There are of course broader definitions; for example, one might include the conservative emphasis on personal responsibility or small government [that is, when it comes to taxes or economic regulations, not issues like abortion, drug, or marriage rights]. Yet those things are not exclusive to conservatism. Anarchism, for example, is a radical leftist ideology that calls for no State at all.)

Looking at Haidt’s results, an ideology that aims to preserve traditional values would in theory need, for example, deep loyalty and respect for the State or the Church or parents and their ways of doing things. Haidt says, “Conservatives…speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at some cost to those at the bottom. The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve. It’s really precious, and it’s really easy to lose.”

Likewise, an ideology that is open to new ideas and radical change would need to dismiss authority and focus on bold new ways to improve the human condition. “Liberals reject three of these foundations. They say ‘No, let’s celebrate diversity, not common in-group membership.’ They say, ‘Let’s question authority.’ And they say, ‘Keep your laws off my body.’ Liberals have very noble motives for doing this. Traditional authority, traditional morality can be quite repressive, and restrictive to those at the bottom, to women, to people that don’t fit in. So liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.”

Haidt concludes, “Liberals and conservatives both have something to contribute, [as] they form a balance on change versus stability.”

Fair enough, liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values. But can we go deeper? Are there differences in cognitive styles or physiology that might explain why?


Why We Think How We Do: Different Cognitive Processes

Our cognitive processes determine who we are. As neuroscientist Sam Harris writes, political conservatism is

correlated with dogmatism, inflexibility, death anxiety, need for closure, and anticorrelated with openness to experience, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and social stability. Even the manipulation of a single of these variables can affect political opinions and behavior. For instance, merely reminding people of the fact of death increases their inclination to punish transgressors and to reward those who uphold cultural norms. One experiment showed that judges could be led to impose especially harsh penalties on prostitutes if they were simply prompted to think about death prior to their deliberations.

“Cognitive complexity” deserves attention. One important difference between liberals and conservatives may be abstract reasoning abilities. As defined by Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, abstract thinking is

the final, most complex stage in the development of cognitive thinking, in which thought is characterized by adaptability, flexibility, and the use of concepts and generalizations. Problem solving is accomplished by drawing logical conclusions from a set of observations, for example, making hypotheses and testing them. This type of thinking is developed by 12 to 15 years of age, usually after some degree of education.

Abstract reasoning comes in handy when one needs to

understand subjects on a complex level through analysis and evaluation and the ability to apply knowledge in problem-solving by using theory, metaphor or complex analogy.

Abstract thinkers are better at transferring knowledge learned from one context to another, better at seeing relationships or understanding analogies between very different things.

Less complex stages of thought like syncretic (2-7 years old) and concrete reasoning (7-11 years old) are characterized by basing thought on personal experiences and perceiving the world without bothering to generalize and categorize (a child sees a bike and a car as both useful, understanding their functionality, but may not think about transportation itself, a more abstract idea, one that is not representative of a physical object). There is less transferring of knowledge to new contexts, less recognition of relationships, less flexibility, less adaptability.

Fortunately, abstraction is a

relative concept, related to the age of the child. For a two year old, “the day after tomorrow” is a highly abstract concept. For a college student, the day after tomorrow is relatively concrete, as opposed to highly abstract ideas like Heisenberg’s Indeterminancy Principle. And of course there are many degrees of abstraction between these two extremes. A major component of intellectual development is this process of gradually moving from extremely concrete thinking to increasingly abstract thinking in an ever increasing array of content areas.

In a 2015 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, liberals and conservatives were given a triad test. Participants were asked to look at three items and decide which two were more closely related; for example, a panda, a monkey, and a banana.

Liberals tended to group objects by their abstract category, putting the panda and the monkey together, as they are both animals. “Animals” is not one physical (concrete) thing, it is a non-physical idea or generalization. Conservatives tended to group together items by their use, their “functional relation,” for example putting the monkey and the banana together. Conservatives employed a method of thinking that focused on concrete objects and their functionality. Do not think this somehow means conservatives simply think like children or have failed to advanced past an adolescent way of thinking; sheer nonsense — conservatives understand perfectly what concepts like animals or transportation mean. What this indicates is there may be something about being liberal that makes one more easily or automatically engage in abstract thinking — or that engaging in abstract thinking may tend to lead to liberalism.

To see which might be the case, the researchers then tried a different experiment. They told one group of random participants to organize the triad by concept, the other group to organize by relationship — that is, use in the real world. The researchers then gave both groups an article that compared

two contrasting welfare programs — a generous, liberal one and a stricter, conservative one — and “vote” for a plan. Those in the categorical group chose the liberal plan significantly more often than those in the relational group, suggesting that changing thought style can alter political views.

Remember, these were not two groups where one was intentionally liberal, the other conservative; they were randomized. So this bears repeating: changing thought styles may alter political views. Asking people to think in more complex ways, a more abstract way, primed them to liberalism.

Other studies also indicate a relationship between conservatism and lower abstract reasoning, showing how the latter correlates with conservative ideas such as disgust toward homosexuality.

A 2010 study found that participants with the lowest abstract reasoning skills tended to hold the most anti-gay prejudice. Rightwing authoritarianism and limited contact with gay people were the two best correlates with anti-gay prejudice, followed by lower abstract thinking skills and then sex of the respondent (men tend to be more homophobic than women). While low abstract reasoning was not the strongest predictor of anti-gay thought, it was found that this factor had a negative correlation with rightwing authoritarianism — that is, the most conservative participants tended to have the lowest abstract reasoning skills.

A 2012 study published in Psychological Science had similar findings:

[An] analysis of a U.S. data set confirmed a predictive effect of poor abstract-reasoning skills on antihomosexual prejudice, a relation partially mediated [brought about] by both authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact… Our results suggest that cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit underappreciated, role in prejudice.

They also found lower I.Q. in childhood correlated with greater racism in adulthood, “largely mediated by conservative ideology,” as “all analyses controlled for education and socioeconomic status.” (Note that I.Q. is not an accurate or holistic measure of intelligence — like most tests, poor children tend to do worse than wealthy kids, due to environment — but it is a measure of progress in reasoning and problem-solving skills, suggesting that if these things were poorly developed in childhood and during one’s education it could contribute to racial prejudice and political conservatism.) Other studies have found the reverse — that higher I.Q. scores in childhood are associated with antiracism and social liberalism in adulthood. Recent research showed self-described liberals scored on average 6 to 11 percentage points higher on I.Q. tests than self-described conservatives.

Studies into the topic do not end there. One study showed Republican voters were more likely to describe nonsensical axioms (what the researchers dubbed “bullshit”) as profound. So statements such as “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty” or “Consciousness is the growth of coherence, and of us” were considered profound more often by conservatives than liberals. Scientific American wrote:

After Cruz supporters, Rubio enthusiasts were found most likely to draw inspiration from prosaic dung piles, followed by Trump acolytes. To test whether or not Republicans’ supporters were also more easily inspired by non-BS than Democrats’ supporters, the scientists looked at the subjects’ reactions to true but mundane statements. They found Clinton and O’Malley supporters were most likely to find meaning in the mundane. In other words, conservatives were not more easily inspired than liberals by statements in general—just by what the researchers deemed pseudo-profound BS.

A Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study from 2011 called “Low-effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism” tested whether time constraints, mental overload, and even alcohol consumption affected political thought, finding that each tends to make participants move to the Right:

In Study 1, alcohol intoxication was measured among bar patrons; as blood alcohol level increased, so did political conservatism (controlling for sex, education, and political identification). In Study 2, participants under cognitive load reported more conservative attitudes than their no-load counterparts. In Study 3, time pressure increased participants’ endorsement of conservative terms. In Study 4, participants considering political terms in a cursory manner endorsed conservative terms more than those asked to cogitate; an indicator of effortful thought (recognition memory) partially mediated the relationship between processing effort and conservatism. Together these data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.

In other words, in the same way people can be primed to liberalism by tasks requiring more advanced cognitive processes, people can be primed to conservatism by requiring, through constraints, less advanced cognitive processes.

Conservative political ideology in Western democracies may be identified by several components, including an emphasis on personal responsibility, acceptance of hierarchy, and a preference for the status quo… Attitudes and behaviors consistent with these components increase as a consequence of thinking that requires little time, effort, or awareness. From this starting point, we develop the argument that political conservatism is promoted when people rely on low-effort thinking. When effortful, deliberate responding is disrupted or disengaged, thought processes become quick and efficient; these conditions promote conservative ideology.

It may be that conservatism, then, was an evolutionary necessity (xenophobia may have been as well). Relying on your own merits, accepting hierarchy and orders without question, and resisting change may have helped survival (already hinted at in Haidt’s five foundations above). As a friend put it, conservatives want “clear-cut values. Everything is black-and-white… This approach is not without its benefits. It’s easier to arrive at ethical/moral conclusions, to act quickly in a moment of crisis, and to remain steadfast in a stance, for better or worse.”

There may even be something physiological about the difference between liberals and conservatives. Self-described liberals were found in one study to have more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that has influence over error detection, decision-making, emotion control, and handling uncertainty, plus some autonomic functions. Self-described conservatives had a larger right amygdala, which has influence over fear and anxiety. (Another study found “greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern” — being more open to change.)

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 12.00.11 PM

via Cell

The researchers were careful to note that these differences likely do not tell the whole story of why one is conservative or liberal — these regions themselves are not likely the sole cause of political beliefs — but their findings do “converge with previous work to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes.” Specifically:

Although these results suggest a link between political attitudes and brain structure, it is important to note that the neural processes implicated are likely to reflect complex processes of the formation of political attitudes rather than a direct representation of political opinions per se. The conceptualizing and reasoning associated with the expression of political opinions is not necessarily limited to structures or functions of the regions we identified but will require the involvement of more widespread brain regions implicated in abstract thoughts and reasoning.

We speculate that the association of gray matter volume of the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex with political attitudes that we observed may reflect emotional and cognitive traits of individuals that influence their inclination to certain political orientations. For example, our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty. The amygdala has many functions, including fear processing. Individuals with a large amygdala are more sensitive to fear, which, taken together with our findings, might suggest the testable hypothesis that individuals with larger amygdala are more inclined to integrate conservative views into their belief system.

Similarly, it is striking that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust, and the insula is involved in the feeling of disgust. On the other hand, our finding of an association between anterior cingulate cortex volume and political attitudes may be linked with tolerance to uncertainty. One of the functions of the anterior cingulate cortex is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views. Such speculations provide a basis for theorizing about the psychological constructs (and their neural substrates) underlying political attitudes. However, it should be noted that every brain region, including those identified here, invariably participates in multiple psychological processes. It is therefore not possible to unambiguously infer from involvement of a particular brain area that a particular psychological process must be involved.

Indeed, it cannot at all be concluded that people are born liberal or conservative; environment can change brain structure during childhood development. For example, a 2015 study showed that parts of the brain tied to academic performance are 8-10% smaller in children from very poor households, likely linked to a miserable environment. The researchers looking at political affiliation and brain structure write that “a longitudinal study [is needed] to determine whether the changes in brain structure that we observed lead to changes in political behavior or whether political attitudes and behavior instead result in changes of brain structure.”

That question has yet to be answered.


How We Change: A Personal Story and Analysis

So, can thought processes or brain structure beyond your control contribute to your political beliefs?

While we should always bear in mind correlation is not the same as causation, and acknowledge that untangling possible causal factors is not easy (i.e., religious fundamentalism and conservatism are so intertwined it may be difficult to determine which contributes more to anti-Muslim sentiment), the evidence suggests the answer is likely yes.

As hard as it may be to hear, conservative thought may be based on more simplistic modes of thinking (or, conversely, conservative thought may lead to more simplistic modes of thinking). An emphasis on in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity could stem from “low-effort” or “less abstract” or “fear-based” thought, which could create an ideology resistant to social changes like racial integration, access to contraceptives, the sexual revolution, immigration, gay marriage, and so on, and fear of losing the rights they value and believe moral, hence the aversion to gun control, government regulation of business, restrictions on religious rights, and so on.

While fear of losing certain rights is not a bad thing (especially things like the right to privacy, freedom to protest, freedom of speech and religion, etc.), resistance to changing traditional ethics and societal rules that are “restrictive” and “oppressive,” as Haidt put them, can be extremely harmful to those who don’t “fit in,” be they Muslims, blacks, gays and lesbians, trans people, Hispanic immigrants, and so forth. In this way, the same cognitive processes that inspire fear of losing important rights may also make conservatives resistant to extending those same rights to others (hence, the sensible desire for Christians to be able to worship free of State control exists alongside mass support for monitoring mosques and banning Muslim immigration, the hypocrisy barely noticed).

This is not to say that all conservatives always struggle with more complex, abstract thinking or always experience fear-based motivations that lead to the mistreatment of certain groups. Nor is it to say that every liberal has a superior cognitive style in comparison to the average conservative, nor that liberals cannot be prejudiced or discriminate against the “Other.” Saying any of these things would simply be untrue. Rather, it is as one psychologist put it, “Reality is complicated and messy. Ideologies get rid of the messiness and impose a simpler solution. So, it may not be surprising that people with less cognitive capacity will be attracted to simplifying ideologies.” It is to say, those with less complex thought processes may create or gravitate toward less complex values and political ideas.

As my friend put it, conservatives tend to see things in black and white. While perhaps some on the Right would criticize this, I’ve heard it upheld as a point of pride (and in my conservative days, I did the same). The Right dislikes moral relativism and grey areas. What’s right is right. What’s wrong is wrong. So for example, it is always wrong to burn the American flag, no matter your reasons for doing so — even if your government is killing countless civilians overseas. What is trounced upon in an act like flag burning? Loyalty to your nation, respect for the State and the troops, perhaps even your purity or the sanctity of the object? To best protect these things, an issue should be black and white. This is where Haidt’s findings come together with prior and later research. Less complex thought (more black and white, less abstract, lower effort, more fear-based) would quite predictably lead to a greater emphasis on the types of moral foundations Haidt shows conservatives care about.

But more complex and abstract thought opens the door to a very grey world indeed, a world requiring “adaptability” and “flexibility” to navigate, a world where loyalty, authority, and notions of sanctity deserve to be questioned, simply because there are so many different perspectives that exist (while respecting an authority may benefit you, it may get someone else killed).

None of this means, as some vitriolic liberal writers gleefully declare, that conservatives are less intelligent or stupid. Is the person who engages in less complex thought (and this would include some liberals, even if more common among conservatives) incapable of anything else? Recall that abstraction is a relative concept — what’s abstract can gradually become concrete (also, there is evidence that, due to factors like literacy and scientific knowledge, humanity’s abstract reasoning skills are improving…and perhaps humanity is thus growing more liberal). Further, remember that an I.Q. test supposedly measures intelligence, yet scores vary by socioeconomic status. Capability is being stunted. In the same way, I imagine these differences between liberals and conservatives have less to do with actual intelligence and more to do with factors that stunt capabilities.

For example, I used to be deeply conservative and am now quite liberal, but I don’t believe I somehow grew less stupid in a transition period of a couple years. I don’t think I’m more intelligent, but rather more knowledgeable. Exposure to new ideas, a growing collection of perspectives and facts — basically, education — perhaps broke the restraints on my capabilities, leading to more abstract thinking and more liberalism (this may help explain why people who earn the highest degrees are disproportionately liberal).

When I consider my own conversion from far Right to far Left, I can see myself beginning on the right side of the Haidt graphic above and moving left, experiencing the changes in the importance of the moral categories as I go, caring more for care/harm and fairness/reciprocity and less and less for the other three. I can look back and consider issues, how they relate to the foundations, and how they changed.

  • Harm/care: I used to rarely give a second thought to the foreign civilians who die in the fires of American bombs; today, I consider these people as worthy of life as any American. The U.S. might as well be dropping bombs in Wyoming.  
  • Fairness/reciprocity: I used to think that illegal immigrants deserved to be shipped back wherever they came from because they broke our laws; now I think of how I would want to be treated, had I escaped dire poverty or violence in Central or South America.
  • In-group/loyalty: I used to pledge my loyalty to the U.S. and the American people; now I pledge allegiance to the human race, remembering what Jack London said, that we should “care more for men and women and little children than for imaginary geographic lines.”
  • Authority/respect: I used to think the U.S. could do no wrong; now I gravitate toward what Malcolm X said, “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality” and what I.F. Stone said, “All governments lie.”
  • Purity/sanctity: I used to think drug use was a sin and a sign of social and moral decay, and therefore approved of drug bans, feeling drug users in prison got what they deserved; now I believe what’s morally wrong is only that which hurts others, and think people should have the freedom to choose for themselves what they do with their own bodies.

How did these changes come about? How does political thinking change? I can’t speak for others (nor for any who transitioned from liberal to conservative!) but my answer is more information. Exposure to new ideas. Opening a book written by a liberal or an atheist (religion perpetuates the ideas found in the five moral foundations, including an immense influence over the final three, thus tying in nicely with conservatism; one might wonder what conservatism would be like had religion never existed — perhaps not so much hysteria over sex and sexuality?).

To quote Helen Keller, “How did I become a socialist? By reading.” When I was a conservative, I somehow went about life arrogantly dismissing evolution without ever bothering to read a book, essay, or even a mere sentence by an evolutionary biologist with evidence to offer. The same can be said of global warming. I thought criminalizing abortion would end abortions, without every studying the time in U.S. history when abortion was illegal. And why would I not see the United States as the international good guy, a force of pure good, when I had never read an honest history of American foreign policy, one that hadn’t been sugarcoated?

I was the living embodiment of argumentum ad consequentiam: the belief that X is true or false depending on whether the outcome is desirable or undesirable. I was resistant to change, shied away from exposure to new ways of thinking. I thought in black and white terms, and did not spend much time reflecting on my beliefs, thinking critically, cross-examining them. But slowly, over a process that lasted years, new information and foreign ways of thinking changed my mind about many things (it is difficult to support the criminalization of abortion after you learn just how popular self-induced abortions were in the era of actual criminalization). I found liberal ideas and arguments thoroughly more convincing and best able to improve society for all people.

I don’t know for sure if my brain structure or abstract reasoning changed or improved. But I do know that, whether our cognitive processes and abilities develop our political beliefs or vice versa, nothing is written in stone. Anyone can change.