A friend passed me this ScienceDaily press release, American liberals and conservatives think as if from different cultures. I suspected that Jon Haidt was on the paper, and I was right, Liberals Think More Analytically (More “WEIRD”) Than Conservatives. Reading the paper the major finding seems to be that Western social liberals, and especially libertarians, exhibit the tendencies which have been defined as “WEIRD”: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. In contrast, social conservatives in the West are less WEIRD, and tend to resemble non-Western cultures in cognitive style.
The way that this paper dichotomizes the classes is that the WEIRD tends to be more “analytic” and non-WEIRD more “holistic.” The terminology here is often freighted, and I’be cautious about overemphasizing that aspect. Rather, the key here is that in terms of traits you see a pattern where Western liberals are to a great extent the tail of a particular distribution of mental styles. To illustrate the analytic style of reasoning Joshua Greene, the author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, has argued that incest taboos are based on disgust and reflex, rather than reason (or, the reasons are rationalizations). And, that this is clearly from his perspective not a good thing. That is the classic WEIRD tendency; to decompose the broader issue into its parts, and reach logical conclusions, even if they seem absurd or repulsive, and embrace them. Brian Williams is also WEIRD. Very WEIRD.
In the above paper they use samples of college students at University of Virginia, those who participated in the moral foundations survey, and a few thousand Chinese students, to test their model. Though the correlations in most cases were modest (e.g., on the order of 0.2 to 0.4), it seems clear from their data that a left-right social orientation can map mapped onto differences in analytic vs. holistic thinking across cultures, and also reflect differences between cultures. Chinese college students raised in urban areas were more analytic if socially liberal. Western college students were more holistic if socially conservative.
I don’t think any of this is going to shock or surprise anyone. Rather, the interesting part to me is how easily it maps onto pattern discerned by the psychological Richard Nisbett, and reported in his book The Geographic of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. Nisbett reported a pattern which in today’s language would have a continuum of WEIRDness like so: Anglosphere & Norden > Continental Europe > rest of the world. These data in that framework suggests that even within the Anglosphere, which is dominated by WEIRD thought, there are a large reservoir of people who reject that paradigm in their daily life. In addition, the correlation with length of time post-industrial, as well as the fact that the tendencies toward WEIRDness are now cropping up in East Asia as well, suggest that in some ways a Whiggish model is broadly correct. Nisbett and Haidt’s group both report that it isn’t particularly difficult to prime individuals to switch from one mode of cognitive style to another.
Finally, many social liberals look at social conservatives as being backward, and in need of being “educated” and “ignorant.” There’s some descriptive truth in this, insofar as there’s a fair amount of evidence that social conservatism is negatively correlated with intelligence and education. But, one can also look at social conservatives as a different culture, as simply not WEIRD. This puts modern social liberals in somewhat of a bind if they are multicultural, because perhaps they are now enjoined to extend their tolerance of other cultures to social conservatives? OK, forget about that.