Another study claims to find psychological differences between conservatives and liberals:
In two experiments, we investigated the possibility that conservatives would be more strongly motivated to avoid dissonance-arousing tasks than liberals.
“Because we were interested in reactions to dissonance-arousing situations, all participants were asked to write counter-attitudinal essays. Thus, if a participant indicated in the initial survey that he or she preferred George W. Bush and Macs over Barack Obama and PCs, respectively, this participant would be instructed to write essays arguing that Obama is a better president than Bush and that PCs are better computers than Macs. Participants assigned to the high choice condition were able to respond “yes” or “no” to the request; if they responded “yes,” they were directed to the essay task, and if they responded “no,” they were instead taken to the next section of the experiment. Participants assigned to the low choice condition were simply directed to the essay-writing task.”
My title reveals my own dissonance with the authors. If there’s no right or wrong, if all views are of equal weight and validity, why argue – or do research – in the first place?
The authors begin with a weak premise: that subjects’ willingness to write a positive essay about a given politician (in this case Bush vs. Obama and Reagan vs. Clinton) reveals their comfort with “cognitive dissonance” (Miriam-Webster definition, here. “Simply Psychology” discussion, here), or the ability or willingness to hold two different beliefs at one time. The classic example is knowing that smoking is bad for you while continuing to smoke.
In fact, they found that while not one conservative was willing to voluntarily write an essay claiming that Obama is better than Bush, conservatives were more likely to follow explicit instructions when not given a choice. In addition, there was no real difference between conservative and liberal participants/ willingness to write “dissonance-arousing” essays about non-political issues like Macs vs PCs or tea vs. coffee.
The authors do not mention principles at all and only use the word, “values” in the discussion about statistics and in the following sentence,
“Subsequent research in psychology and neuroscience has corroborated the notion that, all other things being equal, adherence to conservative (vs. liberal) ideology is associated with certainty-oriented forms of epistemic motivation and behavior, including . . . a reluctance to acknowledge and engage in integrative policy trade-offs involving potentially conflicting values.“
I’m used to having conflicting views on certain topics. When confronted with the evidence in real life, I try to admit that the dichotomy exists and, for important issues, weigh the importance of one in favor of the other. That doesn’t mean that I’d easily lie or betray my values for the sake of “policy trade-offs,” much less in voluntary participation in an experiment. (I would have been one of the refusals in the “low choice” arm.)
As an example, I was once asked to write an opinion on a sexual abuse case, assuming that I’d be testifying on the side of the victim. When I learned that the attorney was working for the defendant, I could only continue after deciding that I had an obligation to keep my word, that my problem was my fault for not asking more questions, and that the facts of the case were such that I wouldn’t really be much help for the defense, anyway. I even explained the latter to the attorney before writing and billing for my opinion.
At least the authors do admit that “many people hold stronger attitudes about political than non-political matters.”