The Cognitive Theory of Politics

Illustrations by Johnny Selma, New York Times, Why Won’t They Listen?
‘The Righteous Mind,’ by Jonathan Haidt

If it is true that the mind is like a small rider on the back of a huge elephant – where the elephant represents instinct and intuition which motivates ninety-nine percent of human thought and action and the rider represents conscious reasoning which evolved to help us win arguments by acting as a press secretary on behalf of those gut feelings – then it makes little sense to define liberalism and conservatism in terms of what they say – i.e., the beliefs, principles, tenets, etc., they espouse via their reasoning – and it makes a lot of sense to define them in terms of how their intuitive minds process information to arrive at those beliefs.

This is, in essence, is The Cognitive Theory of Politics, which I propose in this essay.

Liberalism and conservatism are best defined and understood as psychological profiles; cognitive processes; operating systems, if you will, like Windows and iOS, from which the outcomes of beliefs, ideologies, values, principles, ideas, tenets, policies follow.

Psychological profiles process the information they receive from the environments in which they are immersed, where the environment consists of the history, traditions, institutions, customs, habits, beliefs, values, culture, etc. of local time and place. If we could drop a fresh new conservative brain into the cultural environment of Britain then the outcome would be a British conservative. But if we were to drop that exact same brain into American culture we’d get an American conservative. In both cases it’s the same set of psychological evolutionary adaptations – the same cognitive DNA – operating in different environments, processing the information it receives from that environment.

The same is true of the liberal profile.

Defining liberalism and conservatism in terms of what they think in different times and places can be confusing and misleading. They can value different things, which can make them appear to he inconsistent, even hypocritical, and therefore difficult to understand. We can draw incorrect conclusions about their nature, priorities, beliefs, etc. But if we endeavor to understand them in terms of the psychological profile – the elephant; how they think – then they become much easier to understand, and their internal consistencies across the centuries become much easier to see, as well as do their actions today.

The Cognitive Theory of Politics does exactly that. It provides us with a brand new lens through which we can better understand ourselves, each other, where we came from, and where we may be going. Human nature hasn’t really changed, only tactics. Just as there are different physical body types like ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph, so too, I propose, are there different cognitive processing types – operating systems, as it were, like Mac and PC, or brain types – that operate on essentially the same inputs only to produce starkly different outputs. It is counter intuitive, amid all of the variation we see among humans, to assume that we’re all born with identical wiring schemes.

The true cause of the political divide, rightly understood, is the clash between brain types, or cognitive styles.   

Of which, I propose, there are two main types. 

In the parable of the blind men and the elephant each of several blind men encounters a different part of an elephant; a leg, the trunk, the side, a tusk.  Each man describes a distinctly different object: a tree, a snake, a wall, a spear.  But in fact they’re all describing different parts of the same creature.

This, I propose, is the case with books like the following. Each author is describing different aspects of the same twoelephants, or brain types.

In Herman’s book Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors for the two brain types. He traces them through 2500 years of human history. Sowell, Oakeshott, and Levin offer detailed examples of the outputs that logically follow from the brain types. Haidt offers a partial explanation of the psychology behind them.  In other words, Herman, Sowell, Oakeshott, and Levin describethe “what.”  Haidt beginsto explainthe “why.”

That these two patterns of thought have repeated so many times in so many different eras, situations, and locations, is strong evidence that they are “organized ahead of experience“:  

The worst idea in all of psychology is the idea that the mind is a blank slate at birth. Developmental psychology has shown that kids come into the world already knowing so much about the physical and social worlds, and programmed to make it really easy for them to learn certain things and hard to learn others. The best definition of innateness I’ve ever seen — this just clarifies so many things for me — is from the brain scientist Gary Marcus. He says, “The initial organization of the brain does not depend that much on experience. Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises. Built-in doesn’t mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience. – Jonathan Haidt, The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives

Hibbing, Smith, and Alford undertake to understand the psychological nature of the two organization schemes:

The central thesis of this book is that many people have broad predispositions relevant to their behaviors and inclinations in the realm of politics. These predispositions can be measured with psychologically oriented survey items, with cognitive tests that do not rely on self-reports, with brain imaging, or with traditional physiological and endocrinological indicators. Due to perceptual, psychological, processing, and physiological differences, liberals and conservatives, for all intents and purposes, perceive and thus experience different worlds. Given this, it is not surprising to find they approach politics as though they were somewhat distinct species. – Hibbing, Smith, and Alford,Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences

In short, it is NOT TRUE, I suggest, that Plato and Aristotle inventedtwo ways of seeing the world.  Rather, I propose it IS TRUE, that they merely articulatedthe cognitive styles with which they were born. The same is true of Rousseau and Burke, Keynes and Hayek, Krugman and Sowell, E. J. Dionne and George Will.   

William James believed as I do.  He called the two main cognitive styles personality types.  His personality types precede Sowell’s “visions” by eighty years but have many parallels. I disagree with some of James’ characterizations, below, but that’s quibbling.  The main point remains.  The political divide is between brain types.  From page 528 of The Cave and the Light:

[James’] gift for putting abstruse problems in ordinary language also allowed him to redefine the old battle between rationalism and empiricism— or ideas versus facts— as essentially a clash between two types of human personality, the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded.”

“Empiricist,” he wrote in 1907, “means your lover of facts in all their crude variety, rationalist means your devotee to abstract and eternal principles.… The individual rationalist is what is called a man of feeling, [while] the individual empiricist prides himself on being hardheaded.” He drew up their character in two contrasting columns:

Rationalistic (going by principles)  – Empiricist (going by facts)
Intellectualistic –  Sensationalistic
Idealistic – Materialistic
Optimistic – Pessimistic
Religious – Irreligious
Freewillist – Fatalistic
Monistic – Pluralistic
Dogmatical – Skeptical

The two philosophers James saw as epitomizing the tender-minded versus tough-minded split were probably Hegel and John Stuart Mill. 28 Still, with the exception of optimism and pessimism (and here James was thinking of the optimism of Hegelians and Marxists in believing history has a final purpose), it’s clear he was really talking about the perennial split between Platonists and Aristotelians in a distinctly American guise.

Indeed, he might have been standing in front of Raphael’s School of Athens when he wrote that the clash between the tough- and tender-minded “has formed in all ages a part of the philosophical atmosphere.” Each has a low opinion of the other. “The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and soft-heads”— in other words, as a collection of weak-willed Percy Shelleys or Walt Whitmans. “The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal”— a nation of John Waynes. 

I further suggest that there’s an evolutionary explanation for the brain types. Humans are subjected to different adaptive pressures as the societies in which they live grow and mature. Quoting at length from Herman, Chapter 21, but even so telling the story in only broad strokes:

The result was the first full-blown theory of human progress. It divided human history into four distinct stages of growth, based on how human beings make their living (what later Marx would call “the means of production”). “Hunting and fishing,” Lord Kames wrote, “were the original occupations of man,” when the notion of human society hardly existed. The second stage of human evolution came when humans learned to follow animal herds and later domesticate them. 

This pastoral nomadic stage was the world of Scottish Highlanders as well as the Laplanders of northern Europe and historically the Germanic tribes who had invaded the Roman Empire. The pastoral nomadic society is built around the extended family ties of tribe and clan. “If that may be called a society,” Kames added, perhaps with a uneasy glance toward the Highlands outside his window, “which hath scarce any other than a local connection” and lacks any awareness of a larger world outside itself. 32

Instead, for Kames “the true spirit of society” was one that Aristotle would recognize. It “consists of mutual benefits and making the industry of individuals profitable to themselves as well as others.” This must wait until the third stage, the agrarian stage, when the need to bring in an annual harvest “connects individuals in an intimate society of support.” The community ceases to be mobile and becomes fixed in the village, farm, and field. New crafts arise—plowman, blacksmith, carpenter—and new relationships: lord and tenant, master and slave.

This was the medieval Europe of the Domesday Book and the Crusades—but also the Magna Carta. Civil society in its agrarian stage supplies new forms of cooperation, but also new conflicts. With it comes the first sense of natural right as well, Aquinas’s and Locke’s individual claims and obligations, which in Lord Kames’s words, “earlier custom cannot control.” Resolving them requires for the first time written law and permanent government. The law code, the circuit judge, and the royal palace gradually replace the patriarch of the clan or elders of the tribe. For those who depend on their authority, this is a marked advance. However, they owe this advance not to the benevolent character of their rulers or divine sanction, as rulers themselves try to pretend, but to the changing nature of society itself. “In every society,” Kames concluded, “the advances of government toward perfection are strictly proportioned to the advance of society” toward mutual cooperation and improvement. The better we all get along, in other words, the more benign our rulers can afford to be.

However, the progress of civil society is still not done. There is a fourth, commercial stage to come: the world of the businessman and tradesman. The scene of the action shifts from the village to the town and seaport, from farming and cultivating the land to trade and cultivating the exchange of goods and services. A new kind of community springs up, the polished urban world Voltaire and Shaftesbury praised. It is a community with a new complexity, but also with a new unprecedented dynamism.

Commercial society, wrote Kames’s friend William Robertson, is “a society of human beings bound together by one of the strongest of all ties, the desire of supplying their mutual wants.” Cleric as well as historian, and famed provost of the University of Edinburgh, Robertson is not as well known a name as Adam Smith or even David Hume.

Yet Robertson’s crucial contribution was overlaying Kames’s dynamic four-stage theory onto the history of Europe. The result was something of a surprise, especially to those writers like Voltaire used to celebrating the Renaissance as the “rebirth of letters” and the start of the modern spirit. What Robertson discovered was that the crucial start of Europe’s commercial stage came in the Middle Ages, that despised epoch that Voltaire, Shaftesbury, and many others dismissed as an age of Gothic barbarism. (That term, “Gothic,” would stick for describing its architecture.) The reason was the Middle Ages had also witnessed a brisk revival of trade, especially after the Crusades, which brought a spirit of freedom and independence to its cities that gradually spread across western Europe. “A great body of the people were released from servitude,” Robertson wrote. “Towns became so many little republics, governed by known and equal laws, and liberty was deemed such an essential and characteristic part in the constitution” that any escaped slave living there a year and a day was instantly declared free. 33 In short, what had made the Florence of 1402 free wasn’t Divine Providence or even its laws, but how it made its money through trade and industry—which in turn made men change the laws to accommodate their new sense of freedom.

It was a pathbreaking way of seeing man’s freedom, not as a divine gift but as a product of society itself. Not only did commerce and liberty go together, but they gave history an entirely new, hopeful direction. For Polybius, Saint Augustine, and the other heirs of Plato, human history had been an inevitable downward slide. Now thanks to Kames and Robertson, it turned into a steady upward climb. Robertson conceded some places in Europe had felt the progress of change more quickly than others, as in the Italy of Leonardo and Michelangelo and the Low Countries of Erasmus. Others never did, like the mountainous Balkan regions and the Highlands of Scotland. (p. 376-378)

Haidt describes something similar in this lecture, in which he discusses how values change within societies as they mature, and uses the following graphic to illustrate the process:

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvE-sBugnmU


Haidt’s book  is divided into three sections. Each section describes one of his three principles of moral psychology: 

1) Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second 
2) There’s more to morality than care and fairness 
3) Morality binds and blinds 

Those three principles do not explain everything that happens in the social world. I suggest that at least one additional principle is necessary: 

Missing Principle of Moral Psychology:

Brain Type, or Cognitive Style, Comes First. Moral Intuitions, or Moral Matrices, follow. 

I suggest that brain type precedes, and possibly even determines, Haidt’s moral matrices.  

I suggest that a reason the missing principle has not yet been identified is because academic social science is currently mired in a process and approach that narrows, rather than widens, its thinking.  Here’s a quote from a prominent academic social scientist:

My field is not very scholarly. We are focused on experiments and methods. We are not even scholarly about the experiments and methods used 30 years ago; we are too caught up in the present

This is what I came to see when I did a post doc at Chicago, in cultural psych; the anthropologists lived in a world of books and ideas.  The psychologists lived in relatively recent journal articles.

The good news is there are signs a new trend might be emerging in academic social science which, if it continues, I predict, will prove The Cognitive Theory to be true.    

More and more social scientists are realizing, as Rebecca Sear observed in her plenary at #HBES2017, that Interdisciplinary research is the future of social science.  In order to truly understand the workings of the human mind at the individual and group level, it is necessary to collect evidence from multiple disciplines like evolutionary behavioral sciences, genetics, evolutionary biology, epidemiology, anthropology, history, sociology, economics, and demographics, to name a few. 

Gad Saad,describes the process of interdisciplinary social science research as a “Nomological Network of Cumulative Evidence” summarized in the following figure from this video (further below),

The Nomological Network of Cumulative Evidence


The paper Evaluating Evidence of Psychological Adaptation by David P. Schmitt and June J. Pilcher describes in detail the process depicted in this graphic, also from the paper: 

The mistake most modern thinkers make, Herman and Sowell included, is that they perceive and describe the two brain types in terms of the people who first articulated them (Herman), or in terms of the interpretations that follow from them (Sowell).  Neither of those thinkers in their analyses took the next logical step backward to root causes. Both seem content to describe the WHAT, but neither seems curious to ask WHY.  I’m taking that step. I’m asking why. I’m asserting that that the answer is two distinctly different processing algorithms, operating systems, brain types, cognitive styles.

Through interdisciplinary research a new picture begins to emerge. 

It’s long been a belief of many that there’s no single definition of liberalism or conservatism, and so in order to understand each we need to look at the tenets, principles, arguments, and actions espoused by each side’s most eloquent spokesmen and try to tease out from those things the fundamental differences between the two world views.

Not any more.

Social science research now allows us to crisply define left and right in terms of the psychological profile of cognitive processes – the “evolved psychological mechanisms”  –  that drive the thinking of each side.

It turns out that many, MANY aspects of human nature are common to liberals and conservatives alike; things like the rider and the elephant, motivated reasoning, tribalism, throwing truth, logic, and evidence under the bus in defense of tribes or sacred values, flip flopping, hypocrisy, and on and on and on.  You get the picture. These are not liberal things or conservative things, they’re human things.  We evolved to form into groups of like-minded people which then compete with other groups for scarce resources and political power; where “like minded” means that the members of the group share a set of values about what the world is, can be, and should be.

The number of things truly unique to, or uniquely characteristic of, each side is very small, but have deeply profound effects.

Those things are 1) moral matrix, and 2) cognitive style.  I contend that the latter of these precedes, and even determines the former.

Moral matrices are described in The Righteous Mind.  The psychological profiles of left and right differ in the degree to which they employ six evolved cognitive processing modules of social perception, subconscious intuitions, and conscious reasoning.  These “moral foundations” are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.  The first three are known as the “individualizing” foundations because they are focused on the autonomy and well being  of the individual.  The second three are known as “binding” foundations (although I suggesting “cohering” is more accurate) and are focused on helping individuals form into cooperate groups for the mutual benefit of each member. The liberal psychological profile employs mostly the individualizing foundations, and of those mostly just care.  The conservative profile employs all of them in roughly equal balance. Here’s data from Haidt’s studies in America, and on every continent:


Cognitive styles are introduced in The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman, in which Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors for the two main cognitive processing types that appear consistently throughout human history.

Platonic idealism is the belief that everything that exists in the real world is but a shadow of its ideal self, and it is the responsibility of the enlightened among us to help us see the potential ideal and work toward it.  This is reflected in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” RFK’s “I dream things that never were and ask why not,” and Obama’s (and liberalism’s) stated desire to “fundamentally transform” America. It is seen in the writings of thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Marquis de Condorcet.  

Aristotelian empiricism agrees that we should always strive to improve ourselves and our societies, but that human nature is flawed, human clay is limited in the forms it can take, and that those flaws and limits place real world practical constraints on what’s possible, and that we ignore those constraints at our peril. This is reflected in the works of thinkers like Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Sowell.

The more one explores The Cognitive Theory the clearer it becomes that liberalism and conservatism are nothing more than the logical culmination of the two brain types processing the information they receive from the senses within the context of current social mores.  

Here are proposed, science-based, working definitions of conservatism and liberalism, subject to update and improvement as The Cognitive Theory continues to develop:

Conservatism is the psychological profile of the all-foundation moral matrix in combination with the cognitive style of holistic intuitionistAristotelian empiricism. It is the predisposition (ala Hibbing (2)) toward the set of moral intuitions for which the object of care is the family unit – social capital –  and which favor process-based negative conceptions of liberty, equality, justice, and fairness. Its goal is “to create a healthy, happy society” that does the most possible good for the most possible people.  It accepts human nature as immutable, and sees the enemy of liberty as consolidated, concentrated, political power.  It therefore sees government as a necessary evil, the purpose of which is to protect rights, and for which power must be restricted lest tyranny and oppression rule.

Liberalism is the psychological profile of the three-foundation moral matrix, with extra emphasis on care, in combination with the cognitive style of WEIRD rationalistPlatonic idealism.  It is the predisposition (ala Hibbing) toward the set of moral intuitions for which the object of care is the individual and his/her feelings, and which favor outcome-based positive conceptions of liberty, equality, justice, and fairness. Its goal is “to create a healthy, happy society” that does the most possible good for the most possible people. It sees human nature as having unlimited potential, and sees political power as a source of good.  It therefore sees government as the ultimate tool for achieving good, for which power must be consolidated and concentrated in order to prevent the rich and greedy from abusing and oppressing the less fortunate

Rousseau was, in his time, merely the most prominent of a long line of Platonists stretching back through time.  Then came Marx. In the U.S., it was progressivism, the most recent manifestions of which include Obama’s “Hope” and today’s Social Justice Warriors and antifa movement.  These are, simply, modern manifestations of the Platonic brain type, previous versions of which are clearly seen in the Cult Of Reason of the French Revolution (see this lecture, in particular starting at 1:03:40).  Human moral thinking has not changed. Only the tactics it uses.

Sowell’s The Quest for Cosmic Justice and The Vision of the Anointed: Platonic brain type.

Oakeshott’s Rationalists, and Haidt’s WEIRD thinkers: Platonic brain type.

The counterpoint to all of these: Edmund Burke, Sowell’s “constrained” vision,” Oakeshott’s “practical” thinkers, Haidt’s holistic thinkers: the Aristotelian brain type. 

The true ideological spectrum is defined by the Platonic and Aristotelian brain types, for which left and right, or liberalism and conservatism, are merely proxies, and misleading ones at that.

Here’s Herman:

Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things.  They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world.  Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter.  The difference was that Plato’s forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealiziable without out it. (p. 61)

The twentieth century’s greatest ideological conflicts do mark the violent unfolding of a Platonist versus Aristotelian view of what it means to be free and how reason and knowledge ultimately fit into our lives (p.539-540)  

It is NOT TRUE that the spectrum is defined by “progress” vs stability, or reason vs faith.  Everyone, equally, regardless of ideology, wants change and progress.  It IS TRUE that the spectrum is defined by brain type, from which follow beliefs about the source and nature of knowledge, and  HOW BEST TO ACHIEVE progress.

Just as The Argumentative Theory solved the puzzle of the “flaws” of human reason that had perplexed social scientists for centuries, so too, I suggest, will The Cognitive Theory solve the puzzle of the partisan divide.


(1)  The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman. (p. 61).

(2) Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, bu Hibbing, Smith, and Alford

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