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Cognitive Style is the Main Psychological Difference Between Left and Right


Illustrations by Johnny Selma, New York Times, Why Won’t They Listen?
‘The Righteous Mind,’ by Jonathan Haidt
By WILLIAM SALETAN, MARCH 23, 2012

In Gender Differences, Silicon Valley and That Controversial Google Memo sociologist specializing in social psychology and cognition Musa al-Gharbi describes what some critics of Damore get wrong.

Science proves that men and women do in fact think differently.

I contend that the same is true of liberals and conservatives.  I contend that liberalism and conservatism are, first and foremost, two distinctly different types of cognitive wiring, or algorithms, or operating systems, if you will, from which the ideologies that we ALSO call liberalism and conservatism follow

In the following passage from al-Gharbi’s essay I’ve changed “men” and “women” to “conservative” and “liberal” and I’ve made a couple other relatively minor edits.  All of my edits are in bold red or blue font.   Al-Gharbi’s original unaltered text is at the end of this blog post.  

I contend that my edited passage is as scientifically correct in this form as it was in its original form. 

DIFFERENCES IN COGNITIVE STYLES

Google’s diversity efforts implicitly concede that there tend to be important cognitive differences between conservatives and liberals. If liberals didn’t generally solve problems, execute tasks or manage organizations any differently from conservatives, there wouldn’t be much benefit to diversifying: it is primarily cognitive and ideological diversity which render other forms of diversity valuable to a company like Google.

Perhaps the most authoritative and accessible survey exploring how cognition tends to vary between conservatives and liberals is from Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. This work, and most other research in the field, suggests that, conservatives and liberals on average seem to have different cognitive styles. These cognitive styles are the product of a rich interplay between one’s inherent capabilities and dispositions, one’s particular life experiences, and how particular capabilities are valued and utilized in a given social context—all of which influence if and how particular capacities are developed.

One cognitive style is not intrinsically “better” or “worse” than others in any blanket sense. However, it may be the case that in any particular environment, or for some particular task, one cognitive style may on average outperform another. 

Beginning on page 112 of The Righteous Mind, Haidt discusses cognitive style.  My Cognitive Theory of Politics uses this general concept as a starting point and explores it more fully.  But roughly speaking, liberals, on average, have a greater tendency toward WEIRD (an acronym, not a pejorative) style of thought whereas the conservative cognitive style leans more toward holistic thought.  

In 2010, the cultural psychologists Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan published a profoundly important article titled “The Weirdest People in the World?”‘ The authors pointed out that nearly all research in psychology is conducted on a very small subset of the human population: people from cultures that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (forming the acronym WEIRD). They then reviewed dozens of studies showing that WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature. Even within the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class (like my Penn sample) is the most unusual of all.

Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. It has long been reported that Westerners have a more independent and autonomous concept of the self than do East Asians} For example, when asked to write twenty statements beginning with the words “I am … ,” Americans are likely to list their own internal psychological characteristics (happy, outgoing, interested in jazz), whereas East Asians are more likely to list their roles and relationships (a son, a husband, an employee of Fujitsu).

The differences run deep; even visual perception is affected. In what’s known as the framed-line task, you are shown a square with a line drawn inside it. You then tum the page and see an empty square that is larger or smaller than the original square. Your task is to draw a line that is the same as the line you saw on the previous page, either in absolute terms (same number of centimeters; ignore the new frame) or in relative terms (same proportion relative to the frame). Westerners, and particularly Americans, excel at the absolute task, because they saw the line as an independent object in the first place and stored it separately in memory. East Asians, in contrast, outperform Americans at the relative task, because they automatically perceived and remembered the relationship among the parts.4

Related to this difference in perception is a difference in thinking style. Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts), but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object).5 Putting this all together, it makes sense that WEIRD philosophers since Kant and Mill have mostly generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. That’s the morality you need to govern a society of autonomous individuals.

But when holistic thinkers in a non-WEIRD culture write about morality, we get something more like the Analects of Confucius, a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes that can’t be reduced to a single rule.6 Confucius talks about a variety of relationship-specific duties and virtues (such as filial piety and the proper treatment of one’s subordinates).

If WEIRD and non-WEIRD people think differently and see the world differently, then it stands to reason that they’d have different moral concerns. If you see a world full of individuals, then you’ll want the morality of Kohlberg and Turiel-a morality that protects those individuals and their individual rights. You’ll emphasize concerns about harm and fairness.

But if you live in a non-WEIRD society in which people are more likely to see relationships, contexts, groups, and institutions, then you won’t be so focused on protecting individuals. You’ll have a more sociocentric morality, which means (as Shweder described it back in chapter 1) that you place the needs of groups and institutions first, often ahead of the needs of individuals. If you do that, then a morality based on concerns about harm and fairness won’t be sufficient. You’ll have additional concerns, and you’ll need additional virtues to bind people together.

Part II of this book is about those additional concerns and virtues. It’s about the second principle of moral psychology: There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. I’m going to try to convince you that this principle is true descriptively that is, as a portrait of the moralities we see when we look around the world. I’ll set aside the question of whether any of these alternative moralities are really good, true, or justifiable. As an intuitionist, I believe it is a mistake to even raise that emotionally powerful question until we’ve calmed our elephants and cultivated some understanding of what such moralities are trying to accomplish. It’s just too easy for our riders to build a case against every morality, political party, and religion that we don’t like} So let’s try to understand moral diversity first, before we judge other moralities.

Musa al-Gharbi’s original, unaltered, text.

DIFFERENCES IN COGNITIVE STYLES

Google’s diversity efforts implicitly concede that there tend to be important cognitive differences between conservatives and women. If women didn’t generally solve problems, execute tasks or manage organizations any differently from men, there wouldn’t be much benefit to diversifying: it is primarily cognitive and ideological diversity which render other forms of diversity valuable to a company like Google.

Perhaps the most authoritative and accessible survey exploring how cognition tends to vary between men and women is from Diane Halpern, the former president of the American Psychological Association, entitled Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities—now in its 4th edition. This work, and most other research in the field, suggests that, men and women on average seem to have different cognitive styles. These cognitive styles are the product of a rich interplay between one’s inherent capabilities and dispositions, one’s particular life experiences, and how particular capabilities are valued and utilized in a given social context—all of which influence if and how particular capacities are developed.

One cognitive style is not intrinsically “better” or “worse” than others in any blanket sense. However, it may be the case that in any particular environment, or for some particular task, one cognitive style may on average outperform another. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion

One thought on “Cognitive Style is the Main Psychological Difference Between Left and Right

  1. D. Halpern theory is not incorrect, I relate. On the other hand, ones social standing can seperate one from the herd when it comes to career choice and exposure to say, the criminal element in society. Or say exposure to corruption interlaced in society, the ‘do gooders’ (the soul suckers) claiming to be our moral leaders. My conclusion: ones ability to delude ones self and others makes ‘cross section survey’s’ unreliable because they only measure the herd that contributes to such ‘research’. There are those of us who find comfort only in self observation. We trust our own observations; if we understand our own agenda, and mistrust research being led to pre-set conclusions. I am fluid in my cognitive style, therefor teachable. However my personality will determine how I think, and or feel about incoming data. I am fortunate to be somewhere in the middle of thinking or feeling experiences nearly equally. In my case, this has developed from experience and exposure which affects us all, but will be a more difficult lesson for the herd personality to develop insight and intuition that allows us to not only think for ourselves, but to develop the ability to foresee outcomes of action in advance of the action. Although I think this ability is partially hormone driven it is my observation insight is driven by ones own evolution as well.
    I think the female feminist is a prime example of society affecting and developing a herd of people incapable of overcoming their feelings and loosing their individual ability to think about obvious outcomes to their actions. And then affecting the opposite gender, who is also traveling the often hysterical, feeling driven ‘easier’ road. Without the thought process, they fail, like groups before them, to recognize the social engineering behind them.
    So yes, ones cognative ability is part of the story. We need to teach perception by observation, particularly based on historical outcomes, and the danger of ignoring diversity of thought.

    Like

    Posted by Elizabeth Lynn Wilhelm | September 2, 2017, 2:42 pm

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