New Study: One Political Party Driven By Emotion, The Other Logic – Can You Guess Which Is Which?

Everything you think about why liberals and conservatives are so different is about to change. According to a new study featured in Scientific American, it’s not just you, “liberals are from Mars, and conservatives are from Venus.”

The study, a 2015 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, looked at the way that people think, and contrasted two styles, that of people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic cultures (“WEIRD,” for short) and those from other more “holistic” cultures – then they applied that to political leanings.

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According to Scientific American (emphasis mine):

Previous research has shown that people from cultures that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD,” in psychological parlance) tend to think analytically, using logical rules, whereas those that are non-WEIRD process information more intuitively. They even perform differently on problem-solving tasks: Americans, who are more analytical, remember individual components of a complex visual scene better than East Asians, who are more holistic. Only about 15 percent of the world’s population is from a WEIRD culture, yet most psychological studies use such participants.

Some researchers think culture actually shapes thought: cultures that emphasize individuality foster analytical thinking, whereas those that emphasize connectedness promote holistic thinking.

The experiment quantified 218 participants’ political identification on a seven-point scale, from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” and then had them perform what is known as a “triad task.”

The triad tasks consist of grouping items together, such as a panda, a banana, and a monkey, and it showed correlation to political affiliation.

Try it for yourself: Which two items go together?

Chances are that if you grouped the monkey with the panda, because they are both categorically animals, you are a liberal.

If you are a conservative, you probably put the monkey with the banana, because one is used by the other — that is, that they are functionally related.

This is because liberals tend to think of things in very logical, analytical ways, much more like classic Western thought. Conservatives tend to see the more holistic view, that is, less details, more big picture. The study also found that conservatives tend to be more “collectivistic.”


The finding that conservatives think more like those from collectivistic cultures might sound counterintuitive. Aren’t liberals, who favor safety-net programs for the needy, the collectivist ones? Thomas Talhelm, now a professor of behavior science at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study, explains that true collectivism ‘doesn’t mean general sharing with other people. It’s about social ties and responsibilities to those within your group.’ Antipoverty programs usually serve to help individuals get a leg up rather than strengthening groups—thus aligning with WEIRD cultures’ focus on individuality.

So, there you have it. When a liberal talks to a Republican, they have grounds to feel like they have a whole different way to seeing the world.

This study also showed that getting people to think in a more analytical way can also affect their decisions about policy, by performing the triad studies differently. They had some participants group items by “category” and the other group list by “relationship.” After performing this task in the “category” group, people tended to choose more liberal policies when given the choice.

This is obviously not the last word, more research is needed, but the cultural thought pattern studies that it is based on are pretty well accepted. That makes this study pretty interesting and has some pretty serious implications. Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the article is how to talk to liberals and conservatives about policy effectively.

Talhelm suggests a politician making a speech to promote a liberal policy might want to ‘slow down and get people in an analytical mind-set,’ limiting emotional appeals and sticking to the facts.

Which suggest also that, as we have seen anecdotally throughout Trump’s campaign, when trying to promote policy to Republicans, getting them angry, appealing to their feelings, and avoiding the details (facts, schmacts!) while appealing to their desire to avoid change and distrust of nonconformity would be very effective. Especially if you added something to it that made them feel like they weren’t just part of just any group, but the GREATEST GROUP. Building a big wall maybe…

How’s that for collectivism?

Featured image via screen capture

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