September 15, 2011

#ChrisMooney and the axes of motivated reasoning

Having blogged yesterday about how I believe Chris Mooney misread Brendan Nyhan into the relative ease, or difficulty, of "converting" climate change denialists, I went to bed last night thinking something like this:

Chris has written before about the psychological differences between conservatives and liberals, including the commonly accepted one that conservatives prefer the tried and true, while liberals are more open to novelty and new experiences. Does he not realize this might mean they have different styles of motivated reasoning, and will "need" different "conversion tactics" than liberals engaged in motivated reasoning might need?

Lo, and behold, in his first post for ScienceProgress, he writes on something tangential to that, but ... doesn't extend his thinking far enough. He blogs about a survey, based on Meyers-Briggs types (while noting caveats about the MBTI which I agree with) between ... not conservatives and liberals, but scientists and the general public.

The title was promising: "Could Personality Differences Help Explain the Reality Gap on Climate Change?" Unfortunately, while he draws some right ideas, he's looking at only one set of research, and that on scientists vs. general public, not liberals vs. conservatives. 

He says:
My bottom line is that it is promising. I’m sure there are significant personality gaps between the average scientist and the average American (it would be shocking if there were not), and that these do indeed impair communication. So this study was long overdue.
Replace "scientist" and "general public" with "liberal" and "conservative" and, Chris either has the blog post he should have written, or has his assignment for his next one. After all, the research is out there. And, the logical leap is simple.

My take is that liberals and conservatives do engage in different types of motivated reasoning, and respond favorably, or unfavorably, to different avenues of persuasion. To the degree liberals are more open to new experience, their motivated reasoning is likely to be more open to external persuasion, whereas conservatives will have to internalize ideas much more. That means their persuasion period will take longer and be more dependent on "tribal" changes around them being more incorporated into their worldview.

Now, Chris, let's see you write about that.

Update: Well, now he's getting closer. He has another post at ScienceProgress noting a new survey which says better political knowledge among people disposed toward authoritarian thinking is more likely translated into political conservativism.

In other words, the relationship between political conservatism and authoritarianism should be stronger among those who develop political sophistication—e.g., by consuming a lot of political news (in this case, perhaps from Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh, etc).

This is likely to have big implications for those of us who care about ensuring scientific accuracy on issues like climate change and evolution.

Authoritarians, as explained in this book, tend to be “less likely to change their way of thinking when new information might challenge their deeply held beliefs.” So if engaging in politics and learning more about it activates their ideological tendencies, then we can expect these authoritarian sophisticates (no oxymoron!) to be among the hardest people around to convince of anything, regardless of the facts of the matter. (Because, again, being more sophisticated often makes you even more biased in favor of your preexisting views.)
So, in light of the last sentence of that pull quote, Chris, will you rethink your interpretation of Brendan Nyhan, including what seems to be your pre-existing views on how easy it is to convince denialists, even with "pretty pictures"?

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