Last week I posted why you can’t reason with Republicans. This has to do with the “smart idiot effect,” laid out in Chris Mooney’s illuminating book, “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.”
First you start with the proposition that the thinking part of the brain is designed to rationalize our emotions rather than override them. The emotional part of the brain was there first, and - like it or not - it still calls the shots. We have to work with what we’ve got. I’m sure if God decided to start over, He would be outfitting us with Vulcan brains. That’s more or less the evolutionary biology take on it. As to why God doesn’t start over - that’s a theological discussion.
If our brains were truly built for dispassionately sifting through information, making reasoned decisions, and adjusting beliefs in response to new facts, we wouldn’t be exposed to such spectacularly stupid dogma as man coexisting with dinosaurs and humans having nothing to do with global warming.
Amazingly, intelligent people actually support such rubbish, and this leads to the “smart idiot” effect, namely the more informed we are, the more elaborate our rationalizations. According to Mooney, Republicans are particularly adept at this. I can cite Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment as Exhibit A, but I’m not about to change any minds on this, which is exactly my point.
It’s only likely to get worse. One reason, Mooney explains, is that conservatives (read Republicans) rank low on “openness to experience” (part of standard personality tests). These are people uncomfortable with change and challenge. Liberals tend to be the opposite. Here, Mooney contrasted two default positions: Conservatives with global warming and liberals with nuclear power. According to research cited by Mooney, conservatives (particularly informed ones) failed to moderate their positions over time while the opposite happened with liberals.
So, liberals, rather than being smart idiots, tend to suffer a surfeit of open-mindedness, which can be a fatal affliction. Whereas conservatives are totally sure of themselves, irrespective of the facts, liberals can’t seem to make up their minds, can’t make decisions.
This is why thinking with our emotions can be good. I have written extensively on this, citing Jonah Lehrer’s eye-opening “How We Decide.” When our thinking and emotions align, the brain tends to make the right call. We need to pay attention to what is going on in the back end of the brain, but - likewise - we also need the wisdom to veto where our emotions want to take us.
It may feel good believing that half the citizens of the US are victims who don’t pay their taxes, but is this any way to run a country? Really, seriously.
But still, extreme liberals are as looney as extreme conservatives, right? Of course, but if we go with Mooney’s analysis there aren’t as many of them. Liberals - you will recall - are more likely to change or moderate their default positions on particular issues. The ones who don’t get relegated to the fringe. Mainstream liberals may wind up despising them as much as Rush Limbaugh, but for much more intelligent reasons. I ask you, who listens to Helen Caldicott these days?
This is not the case, says Mooney, with conservatives. Another personality trait is at play here - “conscientiousness,” which conservatives score high on. These are people who, among other things, exhibit fervent loyalty to their tribe, which can be a great character strength but also a sign of malignant xenophobia.
The eleventh commandment, said Ronald Reagan: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
Party first - pretty scary stuff, especially if the lunatics have taken over the asylum. This explains why you don’t hear principled conservatives or moderates speaking out against the extremists in their midst. It also explains why - with virtually no outcry from principled conservatives and moderates - the extremists have taken over. Try to imagine Eisenhower - or, for that matter, Reagan - finding a home in today’s Republican Party.
With liberals, it’s a whole different ball game. Says Mooney:
For these folks, it isn’t about obedience, or group solidarity, or sticking up for those on your side of the aisle - it’s about getting it right, dammit.
Getting it right, of course, is always a work in progress. Which is why we need everyone helping out. Principled conservatives and moderates have a lot to contribute. Too bad they have rolled over and are currently playing dead. Too bad they have dropped out of the conversation.