Psychology and Ideology: Politics and Neurodiversity

After the jump in this post, you will find the video of a conversation about psychology and political ideology that happened today on my favorite TV show, Up With Chris Hayes.  Hayes is looking at this issue from the perspective of someone who wants to change the opinions of people on the other side of the political aisle: he's a liberal who is particularly frustrated as what he views as conservative intransigence on the topic of climate change.

I want to share this with you because it is a way for me to introduce certain ideas about the way that we think and talk about autism that are very complex, and I think need to be grounded in something else for me to make them understandable. 

Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain, and Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind, have both come to the conclusion that all people tend to look at evidence and draw conclusions that support values they already have.  This conversation comes at the issue of denying science from the political left, partly because on the issues where science is most likely to be discussed in the United States, like climate change and evolution, people on the right are more likely to adopt beliefs that contradict science.  But Haidt makes the point that in Europe and Japan, where issues like nuclear power and genetically modified food are more controversial, denial of science tends to come more from the left. 

The issue of autism itself is one where outright denial of science in the form of rejecting vaccines has tended to come more from the left than the right. 

As the host explains, we don't reason in the way that we to tend to believe that we do.  We arrive at conclusions through values and intuition, then use reason to construct a rationale.  Stephen Colbert is right-- we use our guts, not our heads to make important decisions.  Hayes says that this seems to make the entire Enlightenment suspect-- we all do this, even those of us who genuinely value science and rationality.

But I agree with Haidt that understanding that we are all crippled by confirmation bias is ultimately the only protection against our tendency to interpret new information in ways that support conclusions we have already drawn, usually through an irrational process.  We all need to make an intellectual habit of humility.

And we need to move toward an atmosphere where we are able to challenge each other without turning each other into enemies.  And do this while maintaining reasonable boundaries. 

But Hayes is right to challenge Haidt when he claims that, by moving away form the partisan left, he has gained a greater ability to look at things rationally.  Centrism, and contrarianism, are habits of mind, too, indicators of a specific neurology.

Mooney suggests that conservatives tend to be better at certain sorts of thinking and liberals tend to be better at others-- in other words, political ideology is about neurodiversity.  We are drawn to certain types of political opinions because we have certain types of brains.

One of the reasons autism is threatening is that our society is built around the concept of people having brains that function in essentially the same way.  If we allow for the reality that some people really can do things that other people cannot, our thinking about what it means to be human has to change a little. 

Click here to watch.

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