Kansas Progress Institute

Ad Astra Per Aspera ~ To the Stars Through Difficulties

How Conservatives Think

Posted on December 29, 2015

By David Burress

By David Burress


All popular political discussions suffer from statistics abuse, but conservative arguments tend to be based on outright statistics denial. There are fundamental psychological reasons for that. Consider the original sin of statistical denial, which is anecdotalism. (Caveat: the following claims are significantly more true of religious conservatives than market libertarians.)

As soon as you propose a generality, someone will offer an anecdote. You can’t disprove a statistical statement with a sample of one, but never mind: they are always ready with several more cherry picked anecdotes. By now everyone has heard that “statistics” is not the plural of “anecdote,” but still the anecdotes keep coming.

And there are well-developed defenses for relying on anecdotes, such as:

∙ “anyone can lie with statistics”
∙ “seeing is believing”
∙ “I don’t believe your numbers” (although I do happen to believe a random unsourced anecdote that fits my prior ideologies)
∙ it feels as if it only one counterexample is needed to disprove a claim, because
– any generalization is seen as the same as absolute rule; and
– “correlation” is the same as “perfect correlation.”
∙ it also feels as if it only one example is needed to prove a claim, because
– belief in monocausality: a given type of thing can only have a single cause: and
– belief in essentialism: a given type of thing can only have a single nature.

For anecdotalists, the notion of sample selection bias or cherry picking is simply too complex to grasp.

Emerging research shows that conservatives disproportionately have self-limiting ways of thinking that encourage anecdotalism. These include some (overlapping) habits of mind such as:

∙ Oversimplification of complex relationships
∙ Black-and-white thinking: inability to handle complexity in the form of shades of grey
∙ Tribalism: you are either with us or against us
∙ Loyalism: if you do not accept our beliefs and practices then you are against us.
∙ Authoritarianism: there are authoritative persons or sources from whom you can obtain the simple unquestionable truth.
∙ Essentialism: words and concepts and human beings and institutions have an immutable nature that cannot change.
∙ Deontontological moralism: right and wrong is a matter of doing your clear duty as defined by authorities, not a matter of considering consequences.

The underlying psychological basis for these habits of mind consists in an orientation to risk avoidance and uncertainty aversion. Conservatives are people oriented to the detection of threats and then to the elimination of those threats. In contrast, liberals are oriented to hope and opportunity. Oddly enough, the peace of mind of conservatives is typically higher than that of progressives, because many conservatives seriously believe that threats CAN be perfectly eliminated, which leads them to adopt weakened standards of proof. Hence, anecdotalism.

Among all threats, lack of knowledge is the worst. You cannot defend yourself against a threat you do not understand. Therefore conservatives are strongly motivated to eliminate the sensation (not the fact) of uncertainty.

If you want to upset a typical conservative, tell him that a well-founded absolute certainty is never available to human beings. Then for each defense he offers for possessing absolute certainty, keep asking him why he believes in the assumptions it rests on. In the end he will invoke “faith,” which has a completely different meaning for conservatives than for liberals. The archetypal conservative notion of faith amounts to reversion to an infantile trust in an invisible parent figure. The archetypal liberal notion of faith amounts to trust for human action in the face of uncertainty, rooted in hope and courage.

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