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Unexplained issues for Mooney’s “Republic Brain” thesis

with 3 comments

Journalist Chris Mooney recently came out with a new book called The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, which he was in this weekend’s Washington Post talking about in an article titled “Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote differently. They think differently”. (I also just got an invite to the book release party, but that’s neither here nor there…).

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.

I’m excited to read the book soon, but wanted to raise a few points I felt the Post article left unanswered.

His argument is fairly simple: genetically influenced psychological differences in how people process the world largely determines their eventual political ideology. Those on the left are characterized by a greater openness to the new, including, very significantly, new ideas. Conservatives, on the other hand, prioritize structure and order, and have a need for certainty and “cognitive closure”.

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.

Mooney’s hypothesis is intriguing – all the more so because of the taboo against linking ideology to any immutable psychological characteristics (especially anything resembling intelligence!). A taboo like that typically signals to me that there may be a hidden uncomfortable truth. However, while I recognize he might address these fully in his book, his column raised several unanswered questions that I’d be eager to see explored more fully, including on some of the central phenomena he says he is aiming to explain.


“… 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.”

Here Mooney is saying that America’s polarization is “unprecedented” and that the disagreement over what is true is also new. But the immutable psychological characteristics he says are so critical seem like the exact sort of thing that would fail to explain sudden shifts in political discourse. Evolution, after all, is a slow process. The task for Mooney seems to be explaining what new factors are interacting with unchanging psychology to produce our unprecedented level of polarization.

I would suspect the following two factors. The first I know Mooney has alluded to; I don’t know if he has addressed the second.

  1. Closed information ecosystems and information choice: It’s not just Fox. Mooney and others have talked about how Roger Ailes and others have embarked on a long campaign to discredit the very notion of “unbiased” news sources. Repeated attacks on an imagined “liberal media” have been a very conscious attempt to discredit centrist institutions and place all sources of information into an us/them (“fair and balanced” v. “liberal bias”) split.I would suggest technological change as at least an equal factor. No longer are people limited to reading their local daily paper supplemented by nightly news on one of three major networks. In their place is a wide variety of media that one can choose to access, either via cable or the internet. This certainly may interact with a desire for “cognitive closure” or a more basic desire for psychological comfort.No matter what one’s set of beliefs, one can find validation for it somewhere. In the case of Republicans, there is a set of news providers that at the very least resembles the “authoritative” institutions of the past, creating an entire information ecosystem, separate and almost wholly independent of other media. While some of this may reflect a concerted effort by right wing operatives or a conservative need for cognitive closure, I think much of polarization is due to the proliferation of niche media where one is unlikely to come across seriously challenging (not just contrarian Slate pieces) writing.
  2. Increased ideological homogenization of communities: Diana Mutz in her fantastic book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy argues among other things that those who have the most choice over what community they live in are least likely to be exposed to “cross-cutting” political discourse (This same phenomenon has been described as “the Big Sort”). In other words, they are unlikely to have their ideas challenged. Those with little geographic mobility, primarily the poor, nonwhite, and uneducated, are most likely to be “stuck” in communities where other, uncomfortable ideas are on full display.In addition to virtual communities online, Americans have shown quickly rising levels of geographic mobility and decreasing regional and community ties (although the aftermath of the financial crisis has put a reprieve on this trend). More choice over the community that one lives in has contributed to the Red State/Blue State divide and the further development of places like Portland, OR into liberal enclaves.Politicians have only increased this trend with gerrymandering districts into safely Republican or Democratic districts (homogenous political communities) with less chance of a political race prompting a true debate and competition of ideas.


If so much of ideology is due to innate traits, it’s curious that we would see such polarization. The majority of physical traits in humans, like height for instance, follow something like a bell curve, where most people’s traits lie in the center:

While it’s possible that cognitive tendencies don’t follow this pattern, but it seems like a challenge to using innate properties to explain polarization. Most physical characteristics tend toward the center.


I don’t see Mooney’s thesis as untenable. I’m just eager to see how he would address polarization (or how he does in his books – we’ll see soon!) these challenges to using innate psychology to explain the increasing divide in American politics. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts as well.

There are other unsatisfactory aspects to Mooney’s argument in the column that I wonder if his book will address. The left/right divide is rather facile and doesn’t seem to map to a reality where American parties are tenuously cobbled together coalitions rather than monolithic entities reflecting two fundamental sets of psychological tendencies. If we think about the Political Compass, including an authoritarian v. libertarian axis as well as a left-right axis, how would Mooney account for Authoritarian Leftists or Libertarian Rightist? They seem to shatter his binary left/right plotting of ideology.



Written by rethoughtblog

April 18, 2012 at 12:02 am

3 Responses

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  1. Kurt,

    I’m going to be following your blog. May I link to it sometime in the future?

    First question, pointing to the blog’s info flow organization. If I want your take on the “Republican Brain” book once It’s published, will your update/review include your first thought’s on an unread book? Or will the first thoughts be in an archive (that cumulate monthly) to which you will link the book review? May I suggest a unique marker (to your work) that tells the reader when a link is going to your stuff, and not to some other site. (eg. <>)
    TAG : format, linking tips, “Republican Brain”

    Second question, pointing to search-ability. Are all the posts going to be threaded by tags? I suggest that every post be tagged, and tagged with key terms of your focus topics, with the caveat that every post should have a few terms/tags that render the post unique and therefore findable. All at the end of the post, like abstracts in professional journals do. This will assist the power of apps like Evernote. It will also assist you in thinking about just what the piece is about, and what terms need highlighting, or what terms could be good synthetic-collectives of the topic presented even if not used in the piece.
    TAG : search-ability, terms/tags

    Third question, pointing to reader orientation to the subject. I am surprised that there are no dates ATTACHED to each post at the beginning of the piece (keep the program generated dates at the end). I suggest that every post have a date and a place locator (eg. 2012.April.26, Wash. DC) right at the start..with a by-line.The date gives the reader an orientation as to the timely-ness of the material, and the geo data provides some spacial feel for the writer and his material at the very start of the engagement of writer and reader. Also, date/place/by-line being a part of the piece, any copy made has that datum on it, for future use in organizing…
    TAG : date data, geo data, source, organizing

    Lastly, who is the writer? YES, A BY-LINE . I like articles that I read or copy to have the writers thumbnail info on the article, as is done in most hard-copy pieces. Or at least a full name at the start of the piece. It’s an old tradition : when you have something to say, stand up. And copy right is established if you include the datum l’ve suggested which “documents” what you’ve said.
    TAG : by-line, copyright


    Clay Moldenhauer
    Charlottesville, Va.

    clay moldenhauer

    April 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    • Hi Clay, all of those are good ideas. I figured I’d pick up some best practices along the way, so it certainly helps for you to lay some out. And you may definitely link to the blog as much as you’d like.


      April 26, 2012 at 11:40 pm

      • Kurt,
        My blog creation suggestions aside, I’ve thought more about the content of your post about Moony’s ideas. My daughter made a comment about the (circa 1820) birth of Unitarianism so I googled “1820 split between unitarians and calvinists”. There’s the implication of the google search results [ look for yourself ] that the american political psyche split may have started in this time frame along the fault line of the divinity of Jesus, yes or no, and the fault line of God, punisher or friend. I see the split as an amazingly left brain (linear, literal, and quid-pro-quo conservatism) — right brain (non-linear, metaphoric, negotiation liberalism) separation manifested on the collective level. Hence, left/right brain, Republican/Democratic, PC/Mac kinds of groupings all make “sense”. Elsewhere, I have speculated about mother nature’s gradual shift of “evolutionary chi” away from the left brain to the right to aid the human potential movement away from the excesses of left brain paternalism. This idea accounts for the increasingly divergent groupings of “ my country uber alles” folks and the rise of the Pandorian folks, of which I am one. Such ideas are usually presented as unpopular metaphysical guesses, or the “truth” if the writer claims to be channelling a news media from the angelic realms (joke). Yet, if there’s is any truth to the 25,000 year cycle of the earth’s wobble (precessionof the equinoxes), then there must be some bio-psychic consequences. What might they be? Circadian rhythms, for instance, are very real. Can there be planetary rhythms comparable to these? I must stop here, however. With such subjects like this, the deeper you go, the deeper it gets. However, there is something very simple and clear to me : in the age of Aquarius, the thinkers step back, the sensors, feelers, and intuitives step forward. Rationalism has proven that it is capable of cleverness, greed, and pride, but it has also proven that it is incapable of wholeness.

        Clay Moldenhauer
        Charlottesville, Va.

        clay moldenhauer

        April 27, 2012 at 9:54 am

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