Can Evolutionary Psychology Explain Your Political Beliefs?
By Arnold Kling
“Nobody says that they joined the Tea Party because they sweat when they see pictures of scary spiders. Instead, human beings provide reasons for their political preferences. Among those who are politically engaged, these reasons are expressed in terms of moral values and theories of how the world works.”
In Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us,1 author Avi Tuschman interprets political attitudes in terms of human evolutionary strategies. Conservatives have personalities that align with one set of strategies, and liberals have personalities that align with another. It is an intriguing analysis, but one to which I have a number of objections.
Human political orientation across space and time has an underlying logic defined by three clusters of measurable personality traits. These three clusters consist of varying attitudes toward tribalism, inequality, and different perceptions of human nature.
Tribalism breaks down into ethnocentrism… religiosity… and different levels of tolerance toward nonreproductive sexuality?
There are two opposing moral worldviews toward inequality; one is based on the principle of egalitarianism, and the other is based on hierarchy?
Some people see human nature as more cooperative, while others see it as more competitive.
Tuschman notes that liberals and conservatives differ in terms of the Big Five personality theory, which measures people on scales related to Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeability, Extroversion, and Neuroticism. Relative to conservatives, liberals score higher on Openness and lower on Conscientiousness.
Within the tribalism cluster, Tuschman says that conservatives tend to be more ethnocentric, more religious, and less tolerant of nonreproductive sexuality. He says that these attitudes serve to reinforce an endogamous reproductive strategy. Cultures in which close relatives marry tend to have more children but lower survival rates because of the narrower gene pool. Liberals tend to hold the opposite attitudes, which reinforce an exogamous reproductive strategy. Cultures that do not discourage marriage outside of the tribe tend to have fewer children but a more robust gene pool. In short, “conservatives insist on endogamy, liberals are comfortable with exogamy.”
Tuschman believes that religiosity can be interpreted in these evolutionary terms.
… the key issues at stake, where politics intersects with religion, revolve around the relatedness of “the tribe”—that is, how successfully an ethnic group is reproducing, how much it mixes with other groups, and which resources accrue to which gene pools.
In particular, he says that greater religiosity is associated with more tribalism.
The more conservative and religious a Christian becomes, however, the force of tribalism often grows as well, just as it would within any other human being.
Conservatives tend to be “hawks” in foreign policy. Tuschman writes,
If war did have deep evolutionary roots… four propositions would be true: War would be a universal phenomenon among human societies; war would certainly occur among human groups living in the most primitive economic environments; nonhuman animals would engage in warlike behavior; and war would alter the fitness of groups… the last point, if it turns out to be true, would link war to the biology of tribalism.
Thus, he links conservative hawkishness to tribalism.
The second cluster that Tuschman discusses concerns tolerance for inequality and support for hierarchy. Conservatives tend to support hierarchy and to tolerate inequality. Liberals tend to hold the opposite views.
Tuschman relates this to evolutionary dynamics within families. Fathers and first-borns have tended to be favored by hierarchy and inequality. Mothers and later-borns have had a greater interest in egalitarian allocation of resources. Tuschman points out that
Knowing someone’s birth order is even more useful than knowing their socio-economic status in predicting whether they believe in a just world.
People who believe that we live in a just world tend to take the conservative view that inequality is not a big problem. People who believe otherwise align with the liberal view that inequality is a major injustice.
The final cluster concerns whether one perceives human nature as basically competitive or basically altruistic. Tuschman says that conservatives take the competitive view, while liberals tend toward the altruistic view. In general, conservatives seem to be more anxious about threats. Tuschman notes a study that measured physiological responses to images of frightening subjects, such as large spiders.
The individuals who had a higher physiological response to the threatening images (i.e., the people who were more startled and therefore sweat more) were significantly more likely to have conservative attitudes… they tended to support capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.
One of the more interesting chapters in the book, but which stands somewhat apart from the rest of the analysis, concerns self-deception. Tuschman points out
According to Dr. [Randolph] Nesse, “People who can self-deceptively believe themselves to be altruistic while they are, in fact, pursuing selfish motives, will have higher Darwinian fitness, on average, than people who are consciously aware of their own motives.” Stated more elegantly, “People who incorrectly experience themselves as altruists will be better at exploiting others through deceptive means.”
Tuschman points out that
Political candidates have huge incentives to be seen as superhuman altruists; these incentives magnify the potential for self-deception.
He cites evidence from an experiment in which groups were assigned randomly to high-powered and low-powered roles.
The students who had played the prime ministers answered these questions with significantly more moral hypocrisy. In other words, the powerful players thought it was all right to dodge taxes themselves, while judging other tax evaders harshly. The civil servants did the exact opposite: their attitudes regarding tax dodges were much more lenient toward others than toward themselves.
He also notes that
The hierarchy of Communist regimes presents an especially glaring moral hypocrisy… left-wing dictators must continue towing a leftist ideology that exalts egalitarianism. Doing so successfully is easier with self-deception… Yet, as philosopher Peter Singer points out, “What egalitarian revolution has not been betrayed by its leaders? And why do we dream that the next revolution will be any different?” The “dreaming” that Singer refers to suggests that utopian leftist followers are also self-deceived.
The extreme left promises egalitarian camaraderie for all peoples… In practice, however, Communist governments have oppressed minority groups… most persecution of minority groups under leftist dictatorships is not consistent with being a mere tactic to break down ethnocentrism and assimilate out-groups; rather, the politically dominant ethnicity of the dictator inevitably fares better than the oppressed minority groups.
Libertarians attach great significance to this hypocrisy and self-deception. We cringe when the language of altruism is appropriated by politicians whose “altruism” consists of spending other people’s money. For Tuschman, hypocrisy and self-deception are a stain on the shirt of political morality. For libertarians, it’s the whole shirt.
Tuschman summarizes the connection between political attitudes and evolutionary psychology:
Tribalism involves conflict over which genetic, economic, and political resources are available to which populations. Egalitarian and hierarchical moralities justify the equal or the unequal distribution of resources, both within and between groups. And different forms of altruism describe people’s tendencies to share or to horde [sic] resources under various circumstances.
Tuschman offers a naturalistic justification for accepting different political attitudes.
But evolution obviously didn’t select for particular voting habits. We’re here with the political orientations we have because our ancestors’ personalities helped them survive and reproduce successfully over thousands of generations. Their political personalities were instrumental in the regulation of inbreeding and outbreeding. These dispositions helped them mediate biological conflicts between parents, offspring, and siblings. And their moral emotions also balanced various types of altruism against self-interest in countless social interactions. In some types of social or ecological environments, more extreme personality solutions proved fit. In most cases, moderate personality solutions proved fit. That’s one reason why there are so many moderates among us. Another reason for moderates and flexibility is that environments change, so it wouldn’t make sense for our genes to rigidly determine our personalities.
Tuschman understands that ideological tolerance may not be typical.
Conservatives want more conservatives in the world because greater numbers would boost their fitness: there would be more potential mates for themselves and their family members, more coreligionists to provide altruism, fewer immigrants of other ethnic groups to compete with for resources… Liberals would also benefit from more liberals in their population; greater secularism, sexual freedom, and more immigrants would break down reproductive barriers and expand mate choices for xenophiles. And more people would share an egalitarian approach to childrearing, have compatible views on gender equality between spouses, and practice a liberal code of altruism in society and between countries.
My main objections to Tuschman’s analysis are as follows:
1. The empirical connection between personality and political behavior is not terribly strong.
Tuschman says that the correlation with political attitudes is stronger for personality measures than for wealth measures, but that is a low bar. Political scientists have found much more explanatory power in ethnicity, location (the blue coastal cities vs. “flyover country”), and marital status.
Consider, for example, the fact that Jews and blacks vote predominantly for liberal Democrats. According to Tuschman’s model, this must mean that Jews and blacks are less ethnocentric than other voters (notwithstanding the apparent tribal solidarity of their voting behavior), as well as more Open and less Conscientious. That seems doubtful.
2. There is a pattern to the anecdotal illustrations that Tuschman uses. Somehow, conservatives always come across looking worse than liberals.
For example, he writes,
[researcher Paul] Sniderman asked his respondents whether they supported government guarantees of equal opportunity for blacks. 75 percent of college-educated liberals supported this legislation favoring African-Americans, compared with only 38 percent of college-educated conservatives.
To drive home the point, Tuschman adds,
With such a pronounced partisan contrast on race attitudes, it’s no wonder that the 113th US Congress (2013-2015) has forty black Democrats and only one black Republican.
With liberal opposition to Israel, on the other hand, Tuschman takes pains to point out that this reflects anti-ethnocentrism—liberals want Israel to be less oriented toward Jews. Similarly, when he encounters a German anti-immigrant politician on the left, Tuschman writes,
“[Thilo] Sarrazin did not come from the far right. Rather, he belongs to Germany’s Social Democratic Party (which is affiliated with the Socialist International)… Sarrazin’s attitude toward Turks and Arabs likely stems more from anti-ethnocentrism than from extreme ethnocentrism.”
Evaluating a poll taken concerning the surge strategy in Iraq, Tuschman writes,
Not all the voting human primates felt the same way about America’s lethal raiding of an enemy territory. Specifically, 77 percent of Republicans thought the Iraq surge was improving the situation, compared with only 28 percent of Democrats.
Note that the surge was a military operation that took place after the invasion of Iraq, and that its supporters argued that the surge would reduce factional violence among the Iraqis. Tuschman takes the view that Republicans saw the surge as a tribal “raid” of Iraq by America, and therefore for him it illustrates the ethnocentrism of conservatives. However, compare the surge in Iraq with the bombing mission undertaken under President Clinton during the war in Kosovo. Both missions were nominally undertaken to quell factional violence. I doubt that Tuschman would be as quick to leap to the conclusion that support for President Clinton’s policies reflected ethnocentrism.
Concerning President Obama, Tuschman writes,
When Barack Obama ran for president on the liberal, Democratic ticket, he pledged to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, which was associated with coercive techniques. Although Obama signed an order to close the prison on the second day of his presidency, more conservative elements of the legislature prevented the transfer or release of the jail’s inmates.
Thus the President was not responsible for keeping Guantanamo open. It was instead “more conservative elements” who forced him to retain the prison, notwithstanding his true beliefs.
Next, consider Tuschman’s narrative of Chile.
Regimes on the far left view economic inequalities as highly unmerited and exploitative. Therefore, socialist and Communist states often expropriate property of wealthy individuals and their private corporations… the socialist government of Bolivian president Evo Morales has nationalized foreign-owned oil, gas, and electric companies to redistribute the wealth that they generate to the country’s impoverished majority… Governments on the far right of the political spectrum, on the other hand, have had a much more positive attitude toward private property—along with the inequalities that it entails… During Allende’s far-left government, the country nationalized many industrial and agricultural properties in the name of equality. However, a coup removed Allende from power in 1973 and installed the far-right military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). One of Pinochet’s key economic policies was the privatization of numerous state-owned enterprises, many of which Allende’s government had previously nationalized. Economic inequality increased dramatically under Pinochet’s authoritarian regime (as did the torture and political disappearances of dissidents)… Whether these measures contributed to the long-term economic growth known as the “miracle of Chile” has, predictably, been a controversial topic subject to much debate.
In short, the expropriation of property by leftist regimes is just an accidental result of their pursuit of equality. On the other hand the better economic performance under private enterprise was (at best) an accidental result of the rightist regime’s pursuit of authoritarianism.
The leftist perspective described by Mao imputes an egalitarian ideal to the solidarity between siblings and others against a dominant father… The desire of the far left to equally redistribute private property to “the people” recalls the socialized nature of childhood property among siblings. Conversely, the political right’s strong support for private property evokes respect for father’s possessions, which remain “off limits” to children.
This paragraph humanizes Mao, one of the world’s great murderers, while dismissing anyone who defends property rights as a rigid patriarch.
On the topic of great murderers, I give Tuschman credit for making me aware of the work of Barbara Harff.
To properly categorize these phenomena, Harff had to coin the word “politicide.” Politicide refers to a mass murder where the perpetrators target their victims based on perceptions of their political orientation… the international community officially lacks the concept of politicide… between 1955 and 2001… Only 14 percent of the events were classified as pure genocides… fully 86 percent of the [mass killings] had a substantial ideological dimension beyond ethnic conflict.
However, Tuschman sees no reason to mention that politicide seems to be a particularly prevalent and virulent disease among leftist regimes.
Overall, the pattern is that for Tuschman, every evil of conservatives is essential, by which I mean that it follows directly from the conservative point of view. On the other hand, every evil of the left is accidental, meaning that it occurs in spite of what leftists believe.
And yet, Tuschman declares early on that he will not take an ideological position, but instead he will speak objectively. To me, this lowers his credibility. It would have been more persuasive had he simply said at the outset, “I think that conservatives are racist, authoritarian, and warmongering, and here is some psychological research that supports my point of view.”
Bryan Caplan has proposed an “ideological Turing test”2 in which someone with, say, a liberal ideology, has to espouse conservatism in a way that conservatives would find indistinguishable from the exposition of one of their own. Tuschman shows no evidence of being able to pass such a test. He writes,
The far left has decried self-interested capitalism as the root of all evil, and accused the right of celebrating self-interest by worshiping the god of free markets. The far right, on the other hand, has denounced socialist control of economies for impeding the pursuit of competition and sapping away motivation.
I have never once heard anyone on the right complain about “impeding the pursuit of competition.” We value competition for the way that it regulates behavior, not as an end to “pursue.”
3. Tuschman is engaged in a reductionist exercise. Political attitudes are to be explained by personality traits.
In my view, this project ought to include at least one more layer in between attitudes and traits. The intermediate layer would be belief systems or ideologies.
Nobody says that they joined the Tea Party because they sweat when they see pictures of scary spiders. Instead, human beings provide reasons for their political preferences. Among those who are politically engaged, these reasons are expressed in terms of moral values and theories of how the world works.
For reductionism to be valid, either these explanations must be entirely phony (perhaps they are rationalizations of positions that were arrived at viscerally) or they must always reflect personality traits. In the latter instance, one can predict the response of person A to a particular argument based on A’s personality.
My own book, The Three Languages of Politics,3 is about the differences among progressives, conservatives, and libertarians in the types of arguments to which they can relate: progressives appreciate arguments made in terms the conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed; conservatives appreciate arguments made in terms of the conflict between civilization and barbarism. Libertarians appreciate arguments made in terms of the conflict between freedom and coercion.
I did not explore the extent to which these differences might be correlated with personality traits. I find it plausible that conservatism is correlated with low Openness and high Concientiousness. I find it plausible that libertarianism is correlated with low Agreeableness. However, that does not reduce conservatism or libertarianism to nothing but the expression of such characteristics.
In his conclusion, Tuschman writes
No matter what your own political orientation happens to be, step back and contemplate the ultimate causes of the diversity of personalities we live among. Try to understand those across the aisle not as na?ve or stupid or ignorant or evil, but rather on their own moral terms and also on nature’s terms. Try to appreciate your own values in nature’s terms.
Although he seems to be advocating having an open mind, his own mind strikes me as quite closed. He combines a lack of knowledge of (or interest in) genuine conservative ideas with an eagerness to get on with the project of explaining the evolutionary basis for the survival of conservatism as a pathology.
For many progressives, ideology is a “boo-word.” Only those who disagree with progressives are ideologues. Progressivism is pragmatic and non-ideological in this narrative.
In contrast, libertarians are known for being systemetizers. That means that we care very much about the layer in between personality and political behavior that does not interest Tuschman, namely, the justifications for one’s political outlook.
4. Finally, even on his own terms, Tuschman’s discussion of the political implications of evolutionary psychology and group selection comes up short. Others who have looked at the topic are focused on the challenge of achieving cooperation among strangers.4 Tribal loyalty in these treatments is about more than endogamy. It is about mobilizing people to work toward a common goal.
I see tribalism as a key ingredient in human nature. Sports teams appeal to tribalism. Businesses (and units within businesses) motivate workers using tribal symbols and rituals. In fact, businesses attempt, in some cases successfully, to co-opt tribalism among consumers.
Jonathan Haidt says that we are “90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” Without tribalism, we might very well be 0 percent bee, with no ability whatsoever to work constructively in groups. Thus, I find it rather difficult to accept Tuschman’s account of tribalism as a trait of conservatives but not of liberals. To me, the very survival of progressivism stands as proof that progressives are at least as successful as conservatives in mobilizing tribal dynamics.
The way I see it, progressives are more than willing to divide the world between in-groups and out-groups. Progressives are more than willing to use appearance, behavior, or cultural practices to signify out-groupness. Although progressives will not use the same criteria that conservatives use to separate in-groups and out-groups, progressives are at least as willing to subject the out-group to shunning or, for that matter, to politicide. Anyone who believes that, on the contrary, progressives are above tribalism, should be referred to Tuschman’s chapter on self-deception.
Avi Tuschman, Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us. Prometheus Books (Amherst): 2013.
Arnold Kling, The Three Languages of Politics. Amazon Digital Services, 2013.
See, for example, Paul Seabright, The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life or Ara Norenzayan, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.