The Psychology of Politics

Fascinating article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a renegade psychologist whose work illuminates the hidden mental, social, and moral motives behind our political values.  It’s all enlightening, but some of it goes against the grain.  He’s a self-described moderate, atheist, Obama supporter, but his findings suggest that it’s American liberals who have the most soul-searching…and brain-racking….to do.  Some quotes:

  • “Conservatives believe in equality before the law,” he tells the young activists, who are here in the “canyons of wealth” to talk people power over vegan stew. “They just don’t care about equality of outcome.”
  • A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”
  • “Liberals need to be shaken,” Haidt tells me. They “simply misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around.”
  • Researchers have found that conservatives tend to be more sensitive to threats and liberals more open to new experiences.
  • Another example Haidt uses to underscore the tribal psychology of political sacredness is the 1960s research of the liberal sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard professor and public-policy expert. In a famous report to President Johnson, Moynihan used the phrase “tangle of pathology” to describe the black family, arguing that some of its problems stemmed from high rates of out-of-wedlock birth, not just from racism. That made Moynihan a pariah; other Harvard professors wouldn’t let their kids play with his. As Haidt tells the story, Moynihan committed “the cardinal sin”: “blaming the victim, where the victim is one of your sacralized victim groups.” He points out that sociologists are now gingerly saying, “He was right.”
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