Character  &  Context

After 50 years of explaining conservatism as flaw, new study suggests it's cultural

Image of person running in front of a city skyline

Social psychologists are overwhelmingly liberal. Most people would probably say that if 90% of a field are liberal, that would be pretty skewed, but a recent survey suggests the real number is 12 liberals to 1 conservative.

Given that backdrop, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the explanations social psychologists have come up with for liberal-conservative differences have framed conservatism as a cognitive flaw. According to psychology journals, conservatives are conservative because they’re “dogmatic,” “inflexible,” “low on integrative complexity,” or just plain stupid (low IQ).

But having lived in China, I saw things differently. Cultural psychologists tend to think thought style is grounded in our social style. In China, most people’s social world is full of tight, binding ties. In the US, social conservatism is more common in places with tight social ties, like strict churches, small towns, fraternities, and the military. If that’s the case, maybe conservatives think about the world a bit more like people in interdependent cultures like China.

In a recent study, I tested thousands of Americans’ cultural thought style and found that social conservatives tended to think more like people from China (PDF). In a second study, I found the same pattern on the other side of the world: social conservatives in Hong Kong think more like the traditional Chinese style than liberals (PDF). Or put another way, social liberals in Hong Kong think a bit more like the typical American.

One method cultural psychologists have used to measure cultural thought style is to show people three items and ask them to choose two to categorize together. People in China and India tend to choose items that share a functional relationship, like hand and mitten. Americans and Western Europeans are a bit more likely to choose items that belong to the same abstract category, like mitten and scarf.

Illustration of Triad Categorization Task

Yet America is not a single culture. Among a large sample of Americans, social conservatives chose more of these relational pairings. Liberals chose fewer relational pairings. The same pattern held among 438 college students in Hong Kong.

Graph of Social Politics and Thought Style

Are these just cultural markers, or do these thought styles really matter for people’s politics? In a follow-up study, participants were briefly trained to choose relational or abstract pairings. Then they read an article about a policy that would send low-level drug offenders to school rather than jail. This brief perspective change nudged people’s attitudes toward a liberal policy on drug offenders (but it did not change whether they identified as liberal or conservative). 

Graph of Support for Drug Offender College Program

To be sure, there are lots of reasons why people think or vote the way they do. For example, professor parents are more likely to give their children liberal attitudes and an abstract thought style. Yet this experiment suggests that nudging the way people process information can change the conclusion they come to.

Some psychologists have called the liberal style of thinking WEIRD. They call it WEIRD because most cultures that researchers have tested tend to score on the relational side of the spectrum.

% Relational Categorizations graph

So far, the data shows that analytic thought is mostly concentrated in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. So globally speaking, it’s not conservatives that need to be explained. It’s WEIRD liberals. Rather than looking out at conservatives, explaining their flaws, this research suggests at least some of the differences are cultural.

Thomas Talhelm is an Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He researches cross-cultural differences and north-south cultural differences in China. He has lived in China (both north and south) for four years doing research, as a Fulbright Scholar, Princeton in Asia fellow, and as a freelance journalist. While living in Beijing, he also founded Smart Air, a social enterprise that researches and ships low-cost DIY air filters to help people protect themselves against air pollution.

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