Two Idiocies and a Maybe
Or the Political Limits of “Social Psychology”
We live in the academic Age of Science. I write “academic” quite deliberately. In the broader world, we live in an age of fakery, idiocy, and a hatred of all forms of science and scientific reasoning. The Age of Trump.
But in the academy, Science reigns supreme. Big Data. Laboratory experiments. Genomics and Sociobiology. Even Digital Humanities has tasted of the Tree of Scientific Knowledge. Now, don’t get me wrong. Much real knowledge is generated by these things. And regardless, they are now a part of our intellectual landscape. They represent “Progress.” And progress is, well, Progressive. You can’t turn it back. It has arrived.
But if science is the application of methods of critical inquiry, including the generation and evaluation of hypotheses about how and why things are as they are, then it is important to be very clear about the things that are being studied scientifically, and about whether the methods of studying those things have traction for understanding other things that might seem like the things that are being studied, but are really not.
I’ve been moved to this thought by a piece just published in the Washington Post, bearing the headline “At Yale, we conducted an experiment to turn conservatives into liberals. The results say a lot about our political divisions.” The piece, as you might imagine, reports the results of a social psychological experiment conducted at Yale via an online survey of 300 U.S. residents.
There is a view that has become rather prevalent among some social scientists enamored of sociobiology: that we humans a hard-wired to be conservative or liberal. Many prominent writers have developed this perspective. The basic idea is simple: some of us are born to fear change and otherness, and others of us are born to be comfortable with and even embrace these things. Some have a strong “negativity bias” and others not. And this is deeply ingrained, at the level of individual psychology and even neurobiology.
Now, it surely is true that each human individual is born with dispositions that are biologically grounded, and also that from the moment each individual has left the womb and is being nursed, nourished, and parented in some way, the biological dispositions become overlaid with psychological ones. By the time we reach adulthood, we have become distinct individuals with distinct psychologies. And these psychologies run very deep. The new sociobiology helps us to understand how deep they run. And this is good.
I nonetheless submit that when advanced as a political explanation, this sociobiology is a form of idiocy. Let us call it Idiocy Number One.
And there are two obvious reasons why it is idiotic. One is because it cannot explain political change at all (i.e., why does a “conservative” person embrace capitalism in the U.S., but embrace Communism under a Communist regime? And how is it possible for a regime to be transformed if the basic dispositions of its citizens are fixed? And isn’t it really very neat that the distinction between “liberals” and “conservatives” as understood by Americans at present in fact represents universal psychological dispositions?). The second is because it cannot explain individual change at all. And we all know that some individuals change. They learn. They have new experiences. They have some therapy. And while they once were afraid of change, they now learn to embrace it. Or vice-versa. Once a free spirit, they experience trauma, and become deeply frightened by the world. The notion of psychological hard-wiring misses all of this.
Enter the current piece about the Yale study, which I will call Idiocy Number Two.
The architects of this study are smart, and they understand the limits of Idiocy Number One. They thus crafted a very clever survey experiment designed to simulate conditions that would allay the fear of previously-identified “conservatives.” And they discovered, low and behold, that this had effects: “But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents. And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats. Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.”
The upshot: political dispositions are not really “hard-wired,” and changing circumstances can have an impact on dispositions and attitudes.
This seems right. And it seems to represent a welcome corrective to the view that political dispositions are hard-wired.
Why, then, do I refer to the authors’ report of this study as a form of idiocy?
Read carefully the authors’ conclusion: “All of us believe that our social and political attitudes are based on good reasons and reflect our important values. But we also need to recognize how much they can be influenced subconsciously by our most basic, powerful motivations for safety and survival. Politicians on both sides of the aisle know this already and attempt to manipulate our votes and party allegiances by appealing to these potent feelings of fear and of safety. Instead of allowing our strings to be pulled so easily by others, we can become more conscious of what drives us and work harder to base our opinions on factual knowledge about the issues, including information from outside our media echo chambers. Yes, our views can harden given the right environment, but our work shows that they are actually easier to change than we might think.”
Now, that political attitudes might be “actually easier to change than we might think” might be true if the “we” in question are neuroscientists or experimental psychologists in lab coats who know nothing about sociology or politics. But it will take but a moment’s reflection to realize that anyone who knows anything about politics or who has ever been active in politics will know that views can and do change, but that this change typically involves really hard work and a great deal of good fortune. This might be easier than sociobiologists imagine. For political beliefs and attitudes are not hard-wired by our brains or our nervous systems. But it is nonetheless very hard. And this is because our beliefs and attitudes are profoundly shaped by social and political institutions, and practices of child-raising and “socialization,” and media — in other words, by everything that social scientists study, and that a real social psychology that took the social seriously would care about.
Perhaps the Yale study’s respondents registered belief changes under the artificial conditions of the study (how long did these changes actually persist once the study was over?). Perhaps if the respondents were somehow kept in a permanent Nirvana-like state, in which all fear and insecurity was erased, then they would think and act like good liberals. Perhaps if the entire society were so rendered, all insecurity and fear would be allayed.
To simply say this is to register how idiotic it is outside of some dystopian science fiction universe.
Manipulative political elites and media “echo chambers” and the manufacturing of consent and partisan conflicts and real socio-economic and political sources of insecurity and fear and interest are the defining features of our social world. Publishing the results of a Yale study in the Washington Post is not going to generate widespread understanding that these things are social rather than psychological. More important, noting that they are social rather than hard-wired does nothing to either understand or to change them. That requires hard work, on ourselves, and on our social and political world. It requires the theoretical work of real social and political inquiry. And it requires political organizing, and political sacrifices, and new and unanticipated forms of conflict and learning. The only way to change the minds of some conservatives is through politics, through the dissemination of better understandings that allay existential fear or redirect it in new ways (like environmental catastrophe). Further, the only way to advance liberal values is to understand that some conservatives will remain conservatives, for a whole range of reasons, and some liberals will become conservatives (think “neoconservatives”), and it is through an arduous collective effort that involves institutional change and political contestation that liberal values and dispositions might be made more politically powerful.
It is idiocy to seek the explanation for politics in psychology, and it is idiocy to believe that registering the mutability of beliefs does anything at all to generate or even to inform political change.
Can liberalism be successfully furthered in the Age of Trump? Maybe.
But that’s an open political question. And the current political situation gives us little cause for optimism.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of many books and articles, and the editor of the 2012 Yale University Press edition of The Communist Manifesto.