March 22, 2015

Are Right-Wingers Dumb?

Prabir Purkayastha

ARE right-wingers dumber than others? How else can we explain the tenacity with which a set of them hold on to beliefs in flying machines and genetics 7,000 years back; deny evolution; climate change? Why do the right, confronted with evidence contrary to their belief systems, prefer to invent their own facts? Why have a number of studies (Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice, Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, January 26, 2012) show a statistically significant correlation between lower intelligence and having racist, or other prejudiced beliefs?

Well it appears that there is an element of truth in conservatives being dumber. It is not that they are born less intelligent, but they “use” their brain in a different way. Studies in psychology show that certain kinds of people use that part of the brain – amygdala that processes fear more than that part that of the brain -- anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) that processes uncertainties and conflicts (Liberals Are From the ACC, Conservatives Are From the Amygdala? Intersection, Discover Magazine, June 13, 2011). There is a correlation with those who are prejudiced having a larger amygdala and those who are more open, have a larger ACC region. This is not a cause-effect issue, meaning that it is not because people have a more active amygdala that they are more conservative.  It is also possible that in those that are fearful of change, the amygdala gets enlarged; if people are willing to deal with uncertainties, their ACC could grow more. The brain does not develop only on its own, it is also a product of our thinking.

What is the consequence of not being able to handle uncertainties? It promotes what would be called low effort thought (Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism, Scott Eidelmanet al, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, May 11, 2012). The mode of thinking that is dominated by our fear of the unknown or venturing into uncertain territory, leads to staying imprisoned in our existing belief system. Venturing into conflicts and uncertainties mean a higher effort in thinking through contradictions. Being open requires greater mental or cognitive effort. Being closed requires much less.

Such low effort thinking happens not only to people who let their fears govern their responses.  It also operates under conditions when our ability to think reduces. In a study carried out on people with different levels of alcohol, it was found that people became more conservative in their responses as alcohol level in their blood increases. Similarly, if they were subjected simultaneously to other cognitive tasks, or asked to give answers with less time to respond, they again “became” more conservative. A lower effort in thinking is correlated with a more conservative response.

It is not only in political thinking in which we see this kind of phenomena. We see it also, for example, among vaccine deniers, a group in the US that cuts across the political spectrum. A study on vaccine deniers shows that irrespective of the way that vaccine deniers were approached, their desire to vaccinate their children did not increase. Even when they corrected their belief that vaccination does not cause the disease or autism - a belief prevalent among vaccine deniers -- they did not show any change in their opinion on the need to vaccinate their children. Some of the methods of communicating on the benefits of vaccination actually backfired: shown pictures of diseases that vaccination could prevent, the parents associated the vaccines with the disease. 




This is where the fear processing comes in. Before even the cognitive processes start, the fear centre starts processing the “new” data. If it comes up against an existing belief system, that sees such new data or facts as a danger to their belief system. For conservatives, the response is to change the facts (The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, Chris Mooney, Mother Jones, May/June 2011). The less the person is willing to think about uncertainties, the more likely he or she is to stick to her framework or belief system. This is why, be it climate change, evolution, or closer home, mythical achievements of ancient Indian science, the right wingers come out with their “alternate” set of facts or even an alternate universe!

The conservative or right wing mind thinks in terms of simple belief systems based on existing prejudices. If there is racism in society, they are more likely to mirror it. If there is hatred for other communities, they are more likely to reflect it as well. Change of thinking demands more effort. Repeating what the parents and authority figure tell you requires less effort. That is why authoritarian figures who lay down the “law” are so much a part of the right. 

The people who prefer to live under low effort thinking mode, also do not find it easy to mix with people outside their own group – be it race, religion, or language. Interacting with others who come from a different cultural background requires a higher level of effort, even to understand what others are saying. This is additional cognitive load, requiring additional effort. That is why right wingers tend not to mix with other groups and also show hostility. Being anti immigrant or believing that other communities are different, comes as a consequence of not mixing with them, reinforcing existing prejudices.

So there is not only empirical evidence that the right wingers tend to be dumber than the Left, there is also an explanation why it is so. Of course, such studies are based on a premise that intelligence is measurable in some way, itself a controversial issue. And these are based on averages, meaning that it does not tell us anything about a particular individual on the right or the Left. It tells us that if we test a large number of people, on the average, the less intelligent are also likely to have views that are more prejudiced.

All these studies also explain then why the right wing continuously does fear mongering. In India, why do the right spread the myth “the Muslims are growing faster than Hindus”, even when figures show that there is no difference between the growth rate of the two communities. In the US, it is the fear of the “blacks”, now also of Muslims as “terrorists”. That is why the prominence in the west of the war on “terror”, particularly among the Republican right. That is why a Netanyahu in Israel talked of a giant, Left-wing global conspiracy to defeat him in the elections.  The fear factor dominates their base. The more they can sell their stories of threat, the more the chances of fearful people changing sides. That is why communal riots that create fear among communities are fertile grounds for the right.

So how do the Left approach the people? George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics, has advanced the argument that the Left should not use the metaphors of the right (Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, University of Chicago Press, 2003).  In his view, people think in metaphors, and all abstractions such as “cuts”, “reliefs” relate to how they perceive the metaphor of “relief”. If the Left talks even critically of tax reliefs, they reinforce the belief that tax cuts are actually “reliefs”. Relief is a positive metaphor – relief from pain or other afflictions. The minute we use the word relief, the critical message is offset by the positive metaphor associated with relief.

Unfortunately, the issue is not so simple. The research on how we think shows that people do not just think in terms of positive or negative metaphors. They have a belief system, not just a set of metaphors.  Any argument or a factual contradiction of such a belief system leads to rejection of either the argument or the facts, and not a change of the belief system. We have to change the way people think rather than choose a different language of presenting facts. Just a change of language will not help. Sure, we can stop using certain phrases and words, as Professor Lakoff recommends, but that will not be enough. But it is the underlying belief system that is the crux of the issue and whether we can make them think deeper rather than superficially – that is the issue.




So how do we change our belief systems? First, pedagogically, it is active learning that produces systems of knowledge. Systemic understanding develops when we interact with the world. It is by doing science experiments that we learn about the natural world. Learning by rote – memorising “knowledge” -- or a passive mode of learning leads to inability to distinguish between “received” wisdom and scientific knowledge. An active mode of learning helps think through contradictions and develop a scientific viewpoint. A passive mode promotes conservative thinking.

An understanding of society is no different. Instead of class room experiments of science, we have movements in society that are our laboratories. This is how we learn about the social system of which we are a part. It is while trying to change society that we really understand it.

A number of authors have faulted the Left in not being more effective communicators and how we are losing the battle of communications. What they miss is that the way we communicate is only one part of the problem.

The right's increased power of communications is a consequence of the rise of neo-liberalism, its transformation of the media, the role that advertising and advertisers play, the new monopolies emerging with the rise of digital technologies. It is this media monopolies and their support for the right coupled with the weakening of the traditional movements of the Left – that is the real challenge.

The neo-liberal economic order has fragmented the workplace. It has led to the weakening of the unions and working class movement, not only in India but all over the world. How to organise working class movements under the structural changes taking place under neo-liberal capitalism is the challenge. It is by addressing this central problem that we will also address the Left's problem of communications.