Bryan Caplan  

Heads, Hearts, Left, Right

The Big Tent of Happiness... A Deeply Misguided Sentence...

How often have you heard the old saying, "If you're not a liberal at 20, you have no heart; if you're still a liberal at 30, you have no brain"? Right or wrong, Drew Westen's The Political Brain gives me the feeling that this saying has never crossed his path:

Democrats, and particularly Democratic strategists, tend to be intellectual. They like to read and think. They thrive on policy debates, arguments, statistics, and getting the facts right.

All that is well and good, but it can be self-destructive politically when alloyed with a belief in the moral superiority of the cerebral at heart, because moral condescension registers with voters.

A few years ago I ran an exploratory study on personality type and party identification; later I came across a much better publicly available data set on this topic. In both cases, there was basically no partisan difference on the Myers-Briggs dimension of Thinking vs. Feeling. At least in modern America, it looks like the old saying and Westen are both wrong. Both parties contains roughly comparable ratios of Thinkers and Feelers.

Furthermore, though I'm not aware of any data specifically about the personality type of political strategists, standard occupational personality patterns suggest that strategists from both parties will be Thinking.

So why do both conservatives and liberals like to think of themselves as Thinking? Robin might say that "Thinking is high status," but is it? You might assume that high-IQ people would be Thinking, but it's hard to detect this pattern in the data.

Admittedly, if you're Thinking yourself, you probably think that Thinking people are better than Feeling people. But Feeling people presumably think (feel?) the opposite. So what gives?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (13 to date)
caveat bettor writes:

How about the old saying that "a conservative is just a liberal who got mugged"?

Societal problems will pain anyone with a conscience. Perhaps the naive starting point is believing that, since these problems are systemic, all private and/or anonymous solutions have failed. The public (therefore, identified) solution is the natural response, especially with politicians' promises.

On closer examination and/or victimization, one realizes that the public solution was not actually a solution, but several political intermediaries bettered themselves in the process. At this point, the preference for public solutions become constrained, and voila, a conservative is born.

It's because expressing ideology is about NOT thinking.

Strongly holding any ideology means letting somebody else do your thinking for you.

Peat Bakke writes:

I flipped through "The Political Mind" yesterday. My impression was that the book made a different distinction for the fundamental schism between conservative vs. liberal thought: that the former as rooted in authority, the later in empathy ... not thinking vs. feeling.

My general impression is that "thinking" and "feeling" are simply modes of expressing and consuming concepts, not tell tale indicators of political disposition. I guess we're on the same line of reasoning, there.

Perhaps the synthesis is that these are two separate axis, giving us four end points: Thinking Authoritarian, Feeling Authoritarian, Thinking Empathetic, Feeling Empathetic.

I'm guessing the sh*t really hits the fan when a Thinking X attempts to engage with a Feeling Y. Not only are their basal instincts and reactions in opposition, but their modes of communication are incompatible.

Interesting concepts to play with, so I guess I'd put myself solidly in the "thinking" camp, for whatever it's worth. ;-)

Dr. T writes:

The saying refers to liberals. Not all Democrats are liberals and not all Republicans are conservatives. The fact that there were no significant differences in the Myers-Briggs dimension of Thinking vs. Feeling between Democrats and Republicans does not mean that there is no difference between liberals and conservatives (or liberals and just-right-of-center Republicans).

I suspect that the more "feeling" religious right lowers the "thinking" score of the Republicans just as the more "feeling" liberals lower the "thinking" score of the just-left-of-center Democrats.

megapolisomancy writes:

I am more interested in *what* liberals read and think. If most of it is "social science", newspapers, and moralistic fiction, I take conservative "common sense" over intellectualism any day.

Liberals "thrive on policy debates, arguments, .....and getting the facts right."

This seems almost mutually exclusive to me.

Les writes:

I believe that Republicans think they think, and think they feel, and that many Republicans actually do think and do feel.

I believe that Democrats think they think, and think they feel, and that Democrats actually neither think nor feel, but like to enjoy an illusion of being compassionate (while actually spending other peoples' money but not their own).

Lord writes:

I would assume feeling is best for input and thinking best for output, so long as you communicate or echo the feelings that led to your thinking. Empathy and reason combined. On the other hand campaigning can be war and saying as little as possible to not alienate voters or provide fodder for your opponent works against this openness. One may have to take, or believe they have to take, stands that one doesn't personally believe in to win, but considers acceptable in order to accomplish what one does believe in. Nuance can be great but usually lost early in the campaign. Code to communicate to your supporters while leaving the rest ambiguous if not in the dark commonplace. Openness may be refreshing, but may not lead to success.

Larry writes:

The argument that both parties have equal amounts of thinkers and feelers does not dismiss that point that the young (politically) are feelers - or at least those who believe that intentions are the most important thing - while their elders are thinkers - or at that they care more about outcomes than intentions. Hypocrisy remains the greatest crime in the eyes of the young.

Robin Hanson writes:

Because we all know that on average people tend to feel too much and think too little about politics, in order to think that our political opinions are more accurate than average, we like to think that we tend to think more, relative to feeling, about politics. So even if thinking isn't higher status than feeling in general, it is higher status among political strategists.

mtra writes:

It's a rather stupid dichotomy. Nobody does politics without feeling, or thinking. These are not separable cognitive processes, at least in a context as slippery as politics.

The difference between liberals and conservatives is found in the nature of their feelings -- liberal feelings are largely based on empathy, conservative feelings on fear.

English Professor writes:

In a previous post about Westen's book, Brian stated (if I remember correctly) that Westen claimed that Democrats preferred ideas to slogans (or some such thing). The problem is, in politics, the two get confounded. And to be quite honest about it, ideas MUST be converted into slogans if they are to achieve mass approval. What amazes me, though, is that everything coming out of the Democratic party today consists of the exact same ideas that I held in 1970, when I was 20 and a good liberal. The total lack of change in liberal thinking suggests that not much real analytical thought is going on there. What Westen believes to be ideas is simply a series of feelings with policy language attached. That is, he feels the same things I did in 1970, but his sense of self-respect requires that he clain an intellectual basis for those feelings. For a while--from the mid-1970s through welfare reform in the 1990s--the Republicans had some ideas, but in the Bush years they have abandoned them. I guess school vouchers is still around, and that may qualify as a Republican idea, but even tax policy no longer seems to be thought through with the sort of rigor that it used to have.

Stephen Stanton writes:

Big government Democrats tend to fancy themselves technocrats. They think they know how to solve problems, and they must be given the authority to implement solutions.

They think they are smart.

Small government conservatives & libertarians believe that central planners are not smart enough to solve any problem. They think it's foolish to believe that bureaucrats will spend other people's money more effectively than those people would spend it themselves.

They think the Democrats are idiots.

On the feeling side, Democrats think their policies are the only obvious solutions to the problems of inequality, racism, violence, war...

They think the Republicans are heartless.

The small-government Republicans believe a little "tough love" is in order... Take the training wheels off the bike and expect some skinned knees, maybe a broken arm. Wounds will heal and problems will be solved through self reliance.

They think the Democrats are coddling the people that need some painful incentives imposed by the "real world".

So there you have it... Democrats fancy themselves smart AND feeling. Republicans concede that their hearts bleed less, and they don't expect their leaders to be all that smart.

Democrats get the "Feeling" label. Republicans are called "Thinkers" by default, since that is there comparative advantage (though perhaps not absolute advantage).

8 writes:

If young voters had the same political split as older voters, there would be no advantage to turning out young voters as a bloc. Yet Democratic efforts always always focus on turning out "young people" not "young Democrats".

At present, the difference may be a result of political bias in the educational system.
Young people are more liberal because are not taught the costs to the policies they support. As they get older, many decide the costs outweigh the benefits and they shift right.

This is just a subset of liberals though. Some remain ignorant, and some know the costs and accept them. On the other side, some conservatives are ignorant and some understand the costs. But generally speaking the popular culture and educational system, which is mostly what young people know, point out the flaws of conservatism more than liberalism, creating the eventual subset of conservatism— "mugged liberals".

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