The Frontal Cortex

The Political Brain

Just a quick note on the liberal/conservative psychological study that everyone is talking about. (Dave Munger has a thorough write-up here.) Color me dubious. My own bias is to distrust any experiment that tries to collapse extremely complex cognitive categories – such as political belief – into a simple and quantifiable experimental paradigm. The research is certainly interesting, but I’d find it more trustworthy (and more interesting) if it got a result that contradicted the conventional wisdom.

And then there’s the fact that it contradicts some of the work of Philip Tetlock, who found that political experts on both sides of the political spectrum tended to suck at prediction. For those who aren’t familiar with the work of Tetlock, he’s a Princeton psychologist who picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends” – they were professional pundits – and began asking them to make predictions about future events. He had a long list of pertinent questions. Would George Bush be re-elected? Would there be a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Quebec secede from Canada? By the end of the study, Tetlock had quantified 82,361 different predictions.

So what did he find? After Tetlock tallied up the data, the predictive failures of most experts became painfully obvious. When asked to forecast the probability of a specific event happening, pundits tended to perform worse than random chance. A dart throwing chimp would have beaten the majority of well-informed experts.

According to Tetlock, it’s less important what people think than how they think. He found plenty of liberals who were stubborn hedgehogs, and plenty of conservatives who were nimble, empirical foxes. In general, political ideologies were relatively useless at predicting styles of thought or predictive success.

But Tetlock did find one mild correlation when he analyzed all the data. He found that foxes – his nickname for the cognitive style that was most open-minded and receptive to new facts – were more likely to be political centrists. Moderation is good for thought.

Of course, it’s not always best to be a fox. Western Civilization is very lucky that Winston Churchill was an impregnable hedgehog.

Update: Some of the brain imaging work of Drew Westen and colleagues also demonstrates that both Democrats and Republicans reliably suppress their cognitive dissonance and disagreements. He found that such shoddy thinking was a side-effect of partisanship on both sides of the political aisle.

Comments

  1. #1 Winawer
    September 12, 2007

    The research is certainly interesting, but I’d find it more trustworthy (and more interesting) if it got a result that contradicted the conventional wisdom.

    What an appalling statement! You’d only accept the results of a piece of scientific research if it fit in with your world view (which is “[contrary to] the conventional wisdom”)? If you don’t accept the results of an argument, you must prove that the form of the argument was invalid, or that the assumptions / premises are invalid or do not apply. Simply rejecting a piece of research because you don’t like it is bordering on zealotry, and doesn’t bode well for someone who writes on science.

    [It's your use of the word "trustworthy" which offends here. Being uninterested in the research because it doesn't fit your worldview, while narrow-minded, is fine. But saying that the results are untrustworthy (hence, false) because they don't fit your ideology puts you on the same plane as, for example, a Creationist.]

    In more general terms, how can you defend the idea that research which finds the “conventional wisdom” to be true is bad or should be viewed with suspicion whereas research which does not is somehow better?

  2. #2 Jonah
    September 12, 2007

    You’re right – my statement was carelessly put. When I used the word “trustworthy” i wasn’t trying to impugn the reliability of the data. I was simply questioning the applicability of the experimental conclusions. Hell, we’re still not even sure what the acc does. (Some people with damaged acc’s can still process cognitive conflict just fine.)

    Furthermore, I was simply trying to point out that it tends to be easier to confirm a hypothesis – “liberals are better at dealing with contradiction” – than it is to disprove it. That’s just the nature of science. I tend to be most impressed by research that begins with a certain presumption and then, through the miracle of the scientific process, finds something entirely different. But that’s just me. As I clearly said in the post, that’s my own bias. I’m a contrarian.

  3. #3 travc
    September 14, 2007

    I would love to see some better formed studies done along these lines, but using Bob Altemeyer’s authoritarian scales instead of (perhaps in addition to) self-identification. Of course, the other half of the test is the really tricky part… and probably the most interesting question is “on what, if any, axes do political/authoritarian score correlate with cognitive ability measures”. Unfortunately, since this sort of stuff is way out of my field, I have no clue what decent/standard cognitive ability measures are available. Maybe all the recent press on this topic will get some more reliable/robust/competent work started.

  4. #4 David Dufty
    September 14, 2007

    These aren’t exactly results that inspire confidence. Let’s see a replication in a larger sample, with non-college students. The sample is too small, the findings too convenient.
    Also it looks like a stealth method of “proving” that people who disagree with you are stupid. The whole experiment resembles some kind of undergraduate prank.

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