Liberals are WEIRDer than Conservatives
A few years ago, psychologists looked at all of the psychological studies of people in different cultures and concluded that Westerners are WEIRD. That’s an acronym, not an insult. People from Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic countries are consistent psychological outliers compared to the other 85% of the world’s population.
On psychological tests, Westerners tend to view scenes, explain behavior, and categorize objects analytically. But the vast majority of people around the world more often think intuitively—what psychologists call “holistic thought.”
Five years ago, I had just arrived at the University of Virginia, and I had a thought flash: Aren’t most of these WEIRD elements even more true of liberal culture within the United States? Liberalism thrives in universities (Education), cities (Industrialized), the wealthy East and West coasts (Rich), and ultra-pluralistic groups like Occupy Wall Street and Unitarian churches (Democratic). So if Westerners think WEIRDly, maybe liberals think even WEIRDer. I went to talk with my advisors, Shige Oishi and Jonathan Haidt, and they liked the idea and joined me on the project (along with Xuemin Zhang, Felicity Miao, and Shimin Chen)
Five years and thousands of participants later, we just published the findings in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. We found that American liberals think even WEIRDer, even more unlike the rest of the world, than the average American conservative.
We studied this using tests that cultural psychologist use to measure cognitive differences. In one test, participants have to choose two of three items to categorize together, such as scarf, mitten, and hand. Westerners tend to categorize scarf and mitten because they belong to the same abstract category. People in most other cultures tested such as China and the Middle East tend to pair mitten and hand because those two things have a relationship with each other. American liberals (on the left side of the graph below) choose those relational pairing much less frequently. American conservatives (on the right side) are more likely than liberals to do the relational pairing. It’s not a majority, but we can still see that the conservatives are less WEIRD in their judgments than are liberals.
Next we wondered if temporarily changing people’s thought style would change their political opinions, so we asked participants to think analytically—even if that was the opposite of their own style. Then participants read articles about social issues like welfare and drug sentencing. The temporary analytic shift made people more likely to support the liberal side, and a temporary intuitive shift made them more likely to support the conservative side.
This all leads me to think that it’s no accident that people call American politics a “culture war.” Liberals and conservatives do really see the world as if they were from different cultures, and it influences whether they see welfare recipients as moochers dragging down hard-working Americans or as people in need of a helping hand. It influences whether we see rehabilitation for drug offenders as rewarding bad behavior or as treating an illness. Social policies have facts and data, but how people see those policies depends a great deal on their cultural mindset.