Liberals and Conservatives Think Differently – Here are the Details

“Follow the money.” As a young journalist on the political left, I often heeded this well-worn advice. If conservatives were denying the science of global warming, I figured, big fossil-fuel companies must be behind it. After all, that was the story with the tobacco industry and the dangers of smoking. Why not here?

And so I covered the attacks on the established scientific knowledge on climate change, evolution and many more issues as a kind of search for the wealthy bad guys behind the curtain. Like many in Washington, I tended to assume that political differences are either about contrasting philosophies or, more cynically, about money and special interests.

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There’s just one problem: Mounting scientific evidence suggests that this is a pretty limited way of understanding what divides us. And at a time of unprecedented polarization in America, we need a more convincing explanation for the staggering irrationality of our politics. Especially since we’re now split not just over what we ought to do politically but also over what we consider to be true.

Liberals and conservatives have access to the same information, yet they hold wildly incompatible views on issues ranging from global warming to whether the president was born in the United States to whether his stimulus package created any jobs. But it’s not just that: Partisanship creates stunning intellectual contortions and inconsistencies. Republicans today can denounce a health-care reform plan that’s pretty similar to one passed in Massachusetts by a Republican — and the only apparent reason is that this one came from a Democrat.

None of these things make sense — unless you view them through the lens of political psychology. There’s now a large body of evidence showing that those who opt for the political left and those who opt for the political right tend to process information in divergent ways and to differ on any number of psychological traits.

Perhaps most important, liberals consistently score higher on a personality measure called “openness to experience,” one of the “Big Five” personality traits, which are easily assessed through standard questionnaires. That means liberals tend to be the kind of people who want to try new things, including new music, books, restaurants and vacation spots — and new ideas.

“Open people everywhere tend to have more liberal values,” said psychologist Robert McCrae, who conducted voluminous studies on personality while at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Conservatives, in contrast, tend to be less open — less exploratory, less in need of change — and more “conscientious,” a trait that indicates they appreciate order and structure in their lives. This gels nicely with the standard definition of conservatism as resistance to change — in the famous words of William F. Buckley Jr., a desire to stand “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’ ”

I call myself a liberal, so this description of openness resonates with me. But I think it’s vital for everyone to understand, and it needn’t be seen as threatening or a put-down; it seems to be part of the nature of politics.

We see the consequences of liberal openness and conservative conscientiousness everywhere — and especially in the political battle over facts. Liberal irrationalities tend toward the sudden, new and trendy, such as, say, subscribing to the now largely discredited idea that childhood vaccines cause autism. This assertion was tailor-made for plucking liberal heartstrings, activating a deeply felt need to protect children from harm, especially harm allegedly caused by big, rich drug companies.

But the claims about vaccine risks happened to be factually wrong. And how do we know? Scientists — who themselves lean liberal — debunked them. Over time, so did many other liberals. And in significant measure, it worked: There are still many people who cling to this inaccurate belief, but it is much, much harder these days to defend it, especially in the news media.

Compare this with a different irrationality: refusing to admit that humans are a product of evolution, a chief point of denial for the religious right. In a recent poll, just 43 percent of tea party adherents accepted the established science here. Yet unlike the vaccine issue, this denial is anything but new and trendy; it is well over 100 years old. The state of Tennessee is even hearkening back to the days of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, more than 85 years ago. It just passed a bill that will weaken the teaching of evolution.

Such are some of the probable consequences of openness, or the lack thereof.

Now consider another related trait implicated in our divide over reality: the “need for cognitive closure.” This describes discomfort with uncertainty and a desire to resolve it into a firm belief. Someone with a high need for closure tends to seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information. Those who have this trait can also be expected to spend less time processing information than those who are driven by different motivations, such as achieving accuracy.

A number of studies show that conservatives tend to have a greater need for closure than do liberals, which is precisely what you would expect in light of the strong relationship between liberalism and openness. “The finding is very robust,” explained Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychologist who has pioneered research in this area and worked to develop a scale for measuring the need for closure.

The trait is assessed based on responses to survey statements such as “I dislike questions which could be answered in many different ways” and “In most social conflicts, I can easily see which side is right and which is wrong.”

Anti-evolutionists have been found to score higher on the need for closure. And in the global-warming debate, tea party followers not only strongly deny the science but also tend to say that they “do not need any more information” about the issue.

I’m not saying that liberals have a monopoly on truth. Of course not. They aren’t always right; but when they’re wrong, they are wrong differently.

When you combine key psychological traits with divergent streams of information from the left and the right, you get a world where there is no truth that we all agree upon. We wield different facts, and hold them close, because we truly experience things differently.

The political psychological divide goes beyond science. Factual disputes over many issues feature the same dynamics: Does the health-care reform law contain “death panels”? Did the stimulus package create any jobs? Even American history is up for debate: Did the founders intend this to be a Christian nation?

However, there only is one reality — and we don’t get to discount it forever. And liberal-conservative differences are part of reality, too; inescapable, and increasingly difficult to deny.

35 thoughts on “Liberals and Conservatives Think Differently – Here are the Details

  1. Who made a liberal journalist an expert on evolution and global warming (that ithey are established facts). Both theories are widely debated by scientists and other more educated experts on both sides of the aisle.

  2. Liberalism is a mental defect where their delusion grants them your tax dollars to waste on other delusional peoples perceived delusions of entitlement.

    1. So, I suppose you object to social security, medicare, public schools, national parks, environmental regulation, safety standards for food and drink, and so on? ,

  3. You may be correct in your analysis that liberals want to try new things and conservatives choose to stay with what has been tried and true. The problem I see with this analysis is when liberals try something new, no matter how weird it may be, if it doesn’t pan out, instead of reigning the idea in, they just choose to get even more weird. This result is why people no longer know what sex they are, adults choose to identify as a child, people need safe spaces because they are unable to handle reality, criminals are treated as saints, the safety of our country is in jeopardy, everyone deserves a trophy for not accomplishing anything, etc.

    1. I totally agree 100%!! Plus, if you disagree with their assessment of the world, they call you nasty names and make you the band of life!

    2. You are so right. I’ve found that most liberals refuse to listen to opposing views and stick to their beliefs no matter how insane they are. I am glad that I am a conservative who listens to both sides of an argument and fall back on my strong Christian beliefs when I see how dangerous most liberal views are for our country and the futures of my grandchildren.

    3. You are so right, Lorraine. I have found that most liberals efuse to listen to opposing views and tick to their beliefs no matter how bad they are and how dangerous thy are for the future of our country.

  4. A LOT of TALK about NOTHING! I take issue with his conviction that Conservatives are not open minded. We are open to change, when it is for the better and not just change for “Changes Stake.” We are also NOY OPEN to changes that have proven to be big failures in the past, a thought that liberals can’t seem to grasp. The “Left” also seems to only look at one issue in a much bigger problem and don’t consider the effects their programs have in other areas. For example, with the COVIS epidemic they want to shut down everything without regard to the side effects which can be even more destructive. In the Global Warming (Excuse me, I forgot it is now “Climate Change) issue, if the USA did all they are demanding in their “Green New Deal,” while the rest of the world (Which are the major offenders) does almost nothin, we would not change anything except destroy our economy. THIS is a scientific FACT!

    We are VERY open to “FREE SPEACH!” How else can one know other points of view to make an informed decision on anything? But, it is NOT Conservatives that are blocking and deleting opposing views. It is the “LEFT!”

  5. This article was so inaccurate it had to be written by a closed minded person that makes suppositions but ignores facts. For example, all liberals I have had contact with are the most closed minded people I know. Try giving them facts and they just deny they are true no matter the qualifications of the reference

  6. The problem with this overly simplistic and naive summary of liberal vs. conservatives in today’s environment is that many so called liberals are not liberals at all in the classic sense and have become ostensibly authoritarian jerks. A trait once often vindictively ascribed to conservatives.

    Constitutional Conservatives, who revere the Constitution and the rule of law in general are routinely demonized as was tacitly done here. We’ve long understood the propensity of left wing whackos to lean in favor of utopian fantasies but we now have seen how willing they are to abandon all their traditional principles to seize power and enforce their wacky ideas and reinforce their abysmal failures that could be characterized as crimes against humanity. They simply lack a basis in reality for the most part and that disconnect was proven throughout the Trump presidency. The analysis goes far deeper than that, however I have neither the time nor the inclination to offer much more attention to the sort of claptrap offered in the article.

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  7. These answers prove to me people do not want unification and n this country. They only want to continue to hold their point of view as the only ONE! Sad!

    1. Marsha, unification at this point in our history means a path down a road that is not where this country ought to be going. Sorry to deflate your optimistic bubble. Trying to unify liberals with conservatives would mean that we would have to agree that sexual promiscuity is acceptable, that socialism is a good thing, etc etc. Thay have proven throughout history over and over again to be totally wrong and very dangerous to a stable economy and strong government.

  8. Seemingly there is little difference. Both groups believe they are correct and the other group is worse than wrong. And both groups take each difference as an attack on their ego rather than an opportunity to understand how an “intelligent” (credit to both sides)
    person could think so differently.
    Beliefs are subjective and inculcated by micro cultures and everybody has them. Without an agreed upon means of method of what these differences are based on and where they lead, as well as how they can be resolved i’m afraid we all elevate our opinions, beliefs, values into enough swirling information and like an alchemist they all come out as indisputable facts. We all have much to learn from each other, but “knowing” that you are right and someone else is wrong blocks that process and makes “being right” the one value both groups erroneously share. When we can admit that our views are subjective opinions based on disparate beliefs, even “facts” thought to be true by both groups, then we can remove our egos and perhaps have a respectful discussion. Who ever said that agreement on an issue or the need to be right because you believe you are should end discussion. In my opinion there is always more to learn and it is easier to do this in discussion with those who do not agree with your point of view. I am also of the belief that there are many points of view to any issue— the use of terms liberal and conservative is a false dichotomy/ black and white and invites divisiveness, name-calling and wrongful or incomplete assumptions. And i for one no longer can understand anyone’s opinion other than i agree or i don’t without a much deeper discussion. i prefer to understand others rther than convert them to my subjective beliefs and opinions. thank you

    1. Steve, I believe you have done an excellent job and if we would follow your ideas and allow those with differing views to speak while we try to understand the points they are trying to make, the world would be such a better place. Thank you so very much for your inspiring perspective

  9. To the writer of of the report you say you are a liberal and liberals was against vaccine yo protect the children . Then explain this to me how does defunded the police opening our borders releasing career criminals all Democratic and liberal ideas protect our children and grandchildren . I was in WTC both times one of smaller buildings lucky me . Open borders great idea to protect too much hypocrisy in liberals and democratic views . But that’s just my point of view haven’t heard many liberals or democrats condemn our so called peaceful protest with cop cars burning buildings burning ,stores being looted , people of all walks of life being harass by Antifa n BLM and our democratic politicians saying get up in their face . A child killed in a car cause her father went down the wrong street right into a BLM protest in NYC and car got shot up killing a young I believe a black girl . Wow outrage for George Floyd a career criminal and drug he is a hero not much about this young taken hypocrisy it’s amazing how liberals and Democrats don’t see that

  10. As a scientist and a conservative, I had to rein in emotion as I read this article. First, for all the effort by the author, which I acknowledge, it reads like an opinion piece. Second, while Psychology is a very soft science, the personality traits ring true. The traits are both positive. The question is how they are applied. I did object to the assertion that evolution is proven science. It is still considered a theory by those who understand theory. There is evidence that evolution occurs. But there is no way to prove that this process is how mankind came in to being. Both theories should be taught in public classrooms. The real question is why it should be such a hot button issue.
    Next, the conservative view is not that the founding fathers intended this to be a Christian nation. Rather it is that the nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values. This may seem subtle. However it is a vital difference as the founders of our nation also intended there to be a clear freedom to worship as individuals saw fit. Nowhere in the constitution is there written a “separation“ of church and state. There is the intention that the government not favor or impose one religion over another. What is driving our people apart is the inability to discuss ideas rationally. To truly debate the merits of a point of view or an economic theory or the extremely complex issues that affect nearly every person in the US; such as whether to participate in the Paris climate accord. That group is wildly slanted against the US in spite of the demonstrated fact that the US contributes much less to the problem than other nations who have lower standards to meet. I don’t believe that most people can honestly debate whether or not climate change exists. The idea in question is whether man is causing it. In light of the fact that cycles of climate change have occurred over eons, the real question becomes whether changing our actions will change the problem. No one can know at this point. It is good to treat the earth with the respect it is due and to steward our resources appropriately. But destroying the lives of many in the US while China continues to spew pollution and “greenhouse gases” does not make our participation in this accord easy to sell to the people. What all sides need to remember, but rarely do, is that the government serves the people of the US. It is not intended to control them or to take care of them or to limit their freedoms. The government must answer to the people, not the other way around. Our nation is polarized now in ways that had been addressed in the past. This trend started under Obama when he chose to involve himself in the racism issues before the facts of a police shooting in Ferguson were determined. And he did not correct himself when the facts were determined. This issue has snowballed to divide an entire nation. An entire generation of law enforcement officers, the vast majority of whom are ethical and moral and heroic, have been disenfranchised and a single group has now been set up as favored over all others. In this issue, until the people learn not to follow the bad examples of our governmental leaders, we will be more sharply divided than ever. Of course black lives matter. The very idea that they might not is absurd. But so do Latino lives and Caucasian lives and Asian lives and Native American lives and police lives and the lives of all first responders. When the people of this nation can see the machinations of political groups for what they are and take away their power to divide us, then we can live peacefully and move forward in building and protecting our world. Change is a necessity. But a rational approach to change should guide us. And the government should never be permitted to decide what changes are due. Nor should it be permitted to rule the people it serves. The last several decades have been an embarrassment to the US. It is time to put away petty issues and to respect the nation established by our forefathers as the greatest nation on earth. We have stood the test of time, and retained the best of each generation as we grew and changed. To move forward we must respect each other and not allow ourselves to be divided. Hate should not have a place in our nation. On either side.

    1. Dorothy an excellent reply. As a Christian and conservative I agree wholly. I always refer to Ecclesiastes 10: 2-3. God is never wrong.

    2. Steve’s comment given above has the same tone as yours and both of you have done a marvelous job. Your ending says it all. Hate gets us no where. Only trying to understand each other’s views can allow us to get to the point where we can work together to move this great country forward. Thank you so very much for your well thought through analysis. I’m a civil engineer, so I well appreciate scientists.

  11. Most of this is merely an excuse for partisanship. Many of us agree with evolution’s general principles but note that “global warming”-which has now become the PC term “climate change”-is generally based on political motivations. Climate change has been going on for 4.3 billion years (yes, part of the evolutionary picture); man’s contribution is minor and generally insignificant. The answer is to be an “open libertarian”. Be open to examine ideas and accept them based on the motivations behind them-or reject them if it increases governmental involvement (e.g. Paris Climate Accords BS).

  12. I had a problem with Romney’s healthcare plan, for the same reasons I opposed Obamacare: They are both an unconstitutional overreach by government; they would (and did) bloat the cost of healthcare as well as reduce coverage, this reducing the number of people that can afford coverage.

    I opposed Obama’s qualifications as president, not because of where he was born, but the fact that his father was not a citizen, in violation of the natural-born citizen clause, which was defined by Minor v Happersett, where the President must have 2 citizen parents. There have been no more recent cases superceding this.

  13. This gentleman has no idea of which he speaks. This was an opinion based article. No real research noted.

  14. I was born August 16th, 1937 in South Jackson, Mississippi to Parent’s Maggie and Glommer Frazier. During that period of time most folks in the south were proud to be Democrats but in todays world they never accept being a socialist. In fact, it makes me madder than h**l that they even use the word Democrat. I’ve experienced many exciting things and met several special people over my lifetime. For example here’s one LOOK HIM UP on the net. Clifford E. Charlesworth He coached me in little league baseball and several years latter was chief flight director for Applolo 11 flight to the moon. Surprise.Surprise,Surprise.

  15. Quote: ” Liberal irrationalities tend toward the sudden, new and trendy, such as, say, subscribing to the now largely discredited idea that childhood vaccines cause autism. This assertion was tailor-made for plucking liberal heartstrings, activating a deeply felt need to protect children from harm, especially harm allegedly caused by big, rich drug companies.

    But the claims about vaccine risks happened to be factually wrong. And how do we know? Scientists — who themselves lean liberal — debunked them. ” But now Google “what is the cause of autism” because surely if scientists can say with certainty what doesn’t cause it they must know what does. Instead what you find is this: “Still, there is no way to prevent a child from having autism, in large part because experts don’t actually know what causes it in most people.” So vaccinations + fluoridated water + tens of thousands of different chemicals that we are surrounded with in our homes, offices, cars could very well cause autism. Side note: if Liberals wanted to protect children they would not demand the “right” to murder them at taxpayers’ expense up to and past the moment of birth.

  16. This article is far too simplistic. One can be conservative on economic issues, self-defense issues, and national defense issues, but support equal rights, gay right, and the like. Conservatism is not just about religion and global warming. Which, by the way, remains a theory that has not been proven. How many times over the years have we been told “the end is nigh”?

  17. The writer does not understand humanity at all. He looks at a group and labels them open or closed. But, he has no concept that people are fluid, meaning I started in the middle, came to Christ, then my whole mindset changed, I went from believing in evolution to not, believing in abortion as being good to being bad… why? My eyes were open, pure and simple. He is a blind man trying to describe an elephant to other blind men… it’s a snake, no a wall, no huge stumps for feet, no big floppy ears… those who are liberal will never see what we see until they have their eyes opened!

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