I am tired of research papers that attempt to show that, variously, Liberals are more, pick one, Intelligent, Empathetic, Collaborative, Social, etc. or that Conservatives are more, Intelligent, Competitive, Dutiful, Goal Oriented, etc. A) The studies usually betray a deep streak of motivation, B) Are virtually always shoddily constructed, and C) Have effect sizes on the order of magnitude of a mite. In addition, since the field of sociology is so overwhelmingly skewed Liberal, the results almost always betray deep ignorance of anyone to the right of Extreme Left and usually are structured to make conservatives appear less than human.
But there are plenty such studies to choose from and you never know when one might actually be real, so I usually check. I popped open the link to Liberals Think More Analytically (More “WEIRD”) Than Conservatives by Thomas Talhelm, et al just to see. Here is the abstract.
Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan summarized cultural differences in psychology and argued that people from one particular culture are outliers: people from societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD). This study shows that liberals think WEIRDer than conservatives. In five studies with more than 5,000 participants, we found that liberals think more analytically (an element of WEIRD thought) than moderates and conservatives. Study 3 replicates this finding in the very different political culture of China, although it held only for people in more modernized urban centers. These results suggest that liberals and conservatives in the same country think as if they were from different cultures. Studies 4 to 5 show that briefly training people to think analytically causes them to form more liberal opinions, whereas training them to think holistically causes shifts to more conservative opinions.There are so many red flags (cross-cultural comparisons, definitional issues, sample sizes, etc.) that I immediately closed it.
As soon as the screen was vanishing from sight, though, there was a nagging sense of something. I reopened. All the criticisms remain valid but that last line is interesting: "briefly training people to think analytically causes them to form more liberal opinions, whereas training them to think holistically causes shifts to more conservative opinions."
That actually, and obliquely, is consonant with findings by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind. His working hypothesis is known as Moral Foundations Theory and posits that there are six foundations of moral reasoning: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. More pertinently here, Haidt argues that progressives/liberals emphasize only two of these foundations, Care and Fairness whereas Conservatives focus on all six foundations. In addition, Haidt observes that progressives tend to define fairness as "equal outcomes" whereas conservatives tend to define fairness as equal treatment or equal application of the rules.
In the progressive dualistic construct, moral decisions appear easier as you are only dealing with two trade-offs, that between caring and fairness. For conservatives, any decision is much more difficult as there are tradeoffs between six equally valid goals. This dualistic simplicity is likely one of the root causes of the frequent failure and ever more frequent unintended consequences of progressive policies. Something that passes muster on the grounds of Caring and Fairness, is inadequately vetted without taking into account the larger range of issues of Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. Dualism is too reductive.
This is part, I think, of the critique of John Ralston Saul in Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. Saul's argument is that governments in the West have exhibited a detrimental over-reliance on pure reason in arriving at policies. Saul is an opaque writer given to assertion where explication is needed but when I read the book, my conclusion was that his real criticism was not against reason per se but simplistic reason married to absolutism. In other words, governments tend to apply reason too narrowly and then use the coercive power of the state to implement ill-founded policies.
That resonates with Haidt and now Talhelm. If progressives are concerned only with Caring and Fairness, it is far easier to apply the tools of reason to an equation and come up with an over-simplified answer that is actually wrong and fails in reality. The tools of reason need to be applied to the whole spectrum of moral decision-making, including Liberty, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity.
That would seem to support the closing sentence of Talhelm et al. Teaching people to think more analytically (rationally) does tend to force an individual towards dualism - making trade-offs between two equally valid goals. Why? Because the more goals there are and the more complex the trade-offs between and among the goals, the less easy it is to apply rationalism. It becomes just too complicated. Consequently, the use of reason precludes complex decision-making and biases individuals towards simplistic outcomes which also skew towards what are stereotypically characterized as liberal positions.
On the other hand, "training them to think holistically causes shifts to more conservative opinions." It would if thinking more holistically means taking into account more variables in greater complexity. By dealing with more variables, particularly with more moral positions, simple dualistic rationalism is inadequate. You have to take a more holistic approach and are more likely to end up with outcomes that are more stereotypically "conservative."
As an example, consider some of the many progressive failed public policies such as busing, affirmative action and racial hiring quotas. In each case, there is a good, rational case to be made for the policy based on Caring and Fairness. Absolutely. But these policies, requiring coercive implementation against the will of the people, ignore the equally important values of Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. If you have to take into account the other four values, these policies no longer make sense. They can only make sense in a decision-making environment dominated by naive rationalism applied to simplistic dualism. Thus is failure born.
I still think that Talhelm's work is suspect but it is interesting to see it as being consistent, almost against its will, with the work of Haidt and Saul. The work of Saul and Haidt make the context of decision-making far more complex and therefore less conducive to the naive rationalism applied to simplistic dualism of progressives. However, it might lead us towards better outcomes in the longer term.