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We Really Have no Idea Why Political Attitudes Change (or Not). A Guest Blog by Bernard Winograd

At the risk of oversimplification, consider a few key findings of researchers into human beliefs and their evolutionary foundations.

  • Human belief systems are rooted in biologically evolved senses of morality. While beliefs about many matters differ widely from culture to culture, there are certain underlying belief systems that are virtually universal in human culture, such as the social reinforcement of fairness and the punishment of free riders and incest taboos.
  • What is more, there are certain personality types that are inclined to react to social issues in predictable patterns.  Certain personalities are inclined to defer to hierarchy, to resist change and to be suspicious of innovation, particularly in deep-rooted social institutions. There are also personality types who are constantly interested in identifying what is wrong with society and how it can be improved. The specific issues on which these groups tend to adopt opposite positions vary widely over time and cultures, but the underlying pattern of personalities and their reaction to societal decisions is quite resilient. Each of the basic personality types has an evolutionary logic to it that makes it unlikely that it will fade from the population. There are debates about exactly how many human personality types there are, but a near-consensus has emerged around five or six.[i] Because of its genetic roots, the share of the population represented by various personalities cannot vary significantly in any time frame faster than a generation.
  • We use the rational part of our brains primarily to argue for the innate views that our personality predisposes us to have.[ii] We are not readily persuadable by inconvenient facts that challenge our worldview, which cause us to reconsider our views only reluctantly. Leftist apologists who were slow to repudiate Stalin or Mao and conservatives who deny global warming for fear of the policy implications are examples that illustrate the near-universality of these tendencies. This reluctance to shift views is  particularly strong when reinforced by group allegiances, such as membership in a church or political party, that we give up only at significant social and psychological costs.
  • In fact, it appears that the only time that people willingly consider changing a deeply held belief is when confronted by a bit of cognitive dissonance, where someone whose values and judgment they trust has a point of view that they find surprising. Even then, it is clear that changes in perspective come slowly and with difficulty, as illustrated recently by the painful spectacle of former Vice-President Cheney’s daughters reacting to each other’s obvious value differences over gay marriage.

All of these findings suggest that political alignments should be quite stable over long periods of time, at least for a generation. And we do see evidence — there are many polling results that persist over very long periods. Notably, there is a large gap between the location of the political center in the United States and the rest of the Western nations with which it shares a common cultural heritage. For example, only in the States do roughly a third of those polled always believe that taxes are too high, regardless of what the tax burden actually is at any moment in time. Nor is this difference in location of the political center by location a matter of geography. Despite a common North American heritage, Canadian public opinion is closer to European than American public opinion on many if not most such barometers of political thought.[iii]

On the other hand, we do have examples of relatively rapid change in cultural norms and political beliefs. Jon Haidt has pointed to the parallels between the speed of the change in social attitudes in the United States regarding gay marriage and the speed with which sushi eating became commonplace. The mainstream view shifted from disgust at the idea of raw fish and gay sex to a shrug of the shoulders in much less time than a generation.

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To reconcile the factors making for stability with the undeniable facts of change, we need to better understand the underlying mechanism of change in social and political attitudes over time.

  • If individuals cannot be appealed to change their minds by rational argument, what accounts for the fact that the consensus of mainstream opinion can and does shift?[iv]
  • If the mechanism is generational, how do we account for the examples where change happens much faster than generational differences can explain?
  • If it is not generational, what is the alternative explanation as to why broadly stable differences in public opinion among countries persist over time?
  • Are the personality mixes of populations different from one country to the next, or do history and culture play the key role in shaping how those personality mixes have settled their differences in each political construct?

Perhaps we need a theory analogous to punctuated equilibrium in biological evolution to explain the incongruous mix of stability and change in political thought that we see in the social record. But even if a kind of punctuated equilibrium is a good description of how change happens in public opinion, we would still benefit from a deeper insight into why it follows that pattern.

While it is a cliché to call for more research as the right next step in dealing with a problem not yet well understood, this conundrum certainly seems to warrant it.

  • At a minimum, it would be interesting to trace what we know about what has been stable in public opinion and what has changed, and to develop a measurement of how quickly shifts occur that could be used to analyze the data.
  • Comparative research among countries also seems likely to be a source of insights, given the obvious differences in public opinion by country that would seem likely to be uncorrelated with the mix of personalities in each case.
  • But it is also possible that the personality mix does vary significantly from country to country. If true, analyzing that phenomenon in itself would be a potentially fascinating source of insights into cultural evolution.

This kind of research falls at the boundary of multiple disciplines, including political science, psychology, biology, and arguably others. Hopefully, that will make it more likely to happen rather than less, since so many different fields would be informed by the results.


[i] See, for example, Daniel Nettle, Personality.

[ii] See, notably Jon Haidt, The Righteous Mind and Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences by Hibbing, Smith and Alford.

[iii]For an argument that these differences are rooted in the origins of populations, see the work of David Hackett Fischer, most explicitly in Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States.

[iv] Peter Richerson suggests in Not By Genes Alone that different rates of diffusion of new ideas can be linked to what it takes for the specific idea in question to spread, drawing out the differences between cultural practices that are taught and those that are spread by observation and imitation.

15 Comments

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15 Comments

  1. JayMan says:

    The four best sources to answer your questions:

    Rural White Liberals – a Key to Understanding the Political Divide | JayMan’s Blog

    An HBD Summary of the Foundations of Modern Civilization | JayMan’s Blog

    where do emmanuel todd’s family types come from? | hbd* chick

    How Inbred are Europeans? | JayMan’s Blog

    We do have a considerable amount of data that goes a long way towards solving these mysteries. Though of course there is still much more to learn.

  2. All very well said…it’s a real problem.
    Evidence now makes it pretty clear that personality differences and personality types are pretty much the same everywhere, but culture greatly shapes their expression. Japan has extraverts and introverts just like the US, but Japanese extraverts act much more introverted than American ones, and American introverts seem extraverted to Japanese. Similarly for other personality issues.
    The other big personality thing is the disproportionate effect of sociopaths and psychopaths, because they often want power and will stop at nothing; no rational or moral considerations affect them.
    Otherwise, though…The biggest change in politics, and everything else, in my lifetime has been the inexorable rise in the power and wealth of giant corporations, and the relative decline of everything else. Folk society has completely collapsed, intellectual life has gotten more and more distorted by mass-produced pop culture, and politics has now been almost completely corrupted in the US and most other countries. This is the real force that has changed politics.
    The other big thing I see is shifting group loyalty. People were much more loyal to “class” when I was a kid. Unions were powerful and the rich were all Republicans. By contrast, the vote in both the last presidential elections was about evenly split all across the class lines. But now racism and religious bigotry have enormously rebounded (partly because of a “black man” in the “White” House) and seem to me as bad as when I was young (before the Civil Rights movement)–though less legally enforceable.
    I think group loyalty and power rivalry–competition to see who forces whom to do what–are the drivers.
    best wishes–

  3. I don’t think we can take it for granted that personality variation is innate in the usual sense of being determined by DNA sequence differences. Michael Gurven and colleagues have recently reported that the Big Five personality system is a poor fit to variation in the Tsimane, one of the few populations of non-modern people to receive close examination. In addition to conventional genetic and cultural effects on personality, we now also have to consider epigenetic contributions to traits such as personality. Like culture, epigenetic inheritance confounds the nature-nurture dichotomy.

    As Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen argued some years ago, much of the variation in political opinion in the US is regional. Areas of the country with many Protestant Scots-Irish immigrants differ substantially from other regions. Lesley Newson and I argue that many changes in values over the last century and a half around the world are associated with urbanization and other aspects of modernization. Much contemporary variation in values is associated with how far along the ongoing trajectory of modernization a population is. Even in my “Left Coast” state of California, support for such liberal causes as gay marriage is concentrated in the major urban areas and the conservative opposition is disproportionately in rural and small town parts of the state, and so it is the rest of the country.

    Gurven, M., von Rueden, C., Massenkoff, M., Kaplan, H. & Lero Vie, M. (2013) How universal is the Big Five? Testing the five-factor model of personality variation among forager–farmers in the Bolivian Amazon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104(2): 354-370.

    Newson, L. & Richerson, P. J. (2009) Why do people become modern: A darwinian mechanism. Population and Development Review 35(1): 117-158.

    Nisbett, R. E. & Cohen, D. (1996) Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, Westview Press.

    Petronis, A. (2010) Epigenetics as a unifying principle in the aetiology of complex traits and diseases. Nature 465(7299): 721-727.

  4. wagnerel says:

    Really interesting piece. I noticed there was no mention of the gender gap in politics and or personality. While there is a huge range of attitudes across both genders, it’s definitely a thing in the US, with women on average being more liberal on both social and economic issues across different demographic and economic subgroups. I’m assuming some of it is because women as a group and as individuals are more negatively affected by the social and economic status quo than men are, but women are also more likely (for instance) to approve of laws allowing same-sex marriage, even if the issue does not affect them directly. I can think of a host of explanations for this, but I’m curious whether a similar gender gap exists in other cultures and whether this is possibly something that could provide additional information if it’s better understood.

  5. JayMan says:

    @Peter Richerson:

    I don’t think we can take it for granted that personality variation is innate in the usual sense of being determined by DNA sequence differences. Michael Gurven and colleagues have recently reported that the Big Five personality system is a poor fit to variation in the Tsimane, one of the few populations of non-modern people to receive close examination.

    Why does variation in the structure of personality traits across (genetically different) populations make genetic explanations difficult?

    And why would that somehow invoke Lamarckian epigenetics?

  6. Bernard Winograd says:

    Thanks for these comments, one and all. As Thanksgiving reminded many of us, it is possible for there to be wide variation in views among the closest of genetic relations, who usually also share common cultural histories. If what accounts for those differences is the genetic variation of individual personalities, we have part of the answer of how that happens. But we have then made it harder to explain how populations behave over time, which is the focus of my puzzlement.

  7. O.Voron says:

    What about age? Can it be that certain genes just switch off at certain age just like lactose tolerance genes do?:) So people have open minds until they are, let’s say, twenty years old and after that their worldview, political attitudes included, is set in stone for a lifetime?:)
    And only a minority, because of a relatively rare mutation, keep the ability to be “persuadable by inconvenient facts that challenge our worldview”?:) Just like a small proportion of people can keep drinking raw milk well after their childhood.
    Anyway, this kind of research is a slippery slope. I can see how it’s results can be easily abused.

    • Richard says:

      If I had to guess, it would be 30. That’s when humans’ brains fully mature. Before 30, a person’s judgement has hope for improvement. After 30, what you get is what you get.

      • Avi Tuschman says:

        Yes, there are definitely ages- and brain-related changes in personality that affect political orientation. There are two chapters about this phenomenon in Our Political Nature (Ch. 18, “Do Perceptions of Human Nature Change as We Age?” and also Ch. 21, “Altruism Across the Lifespan: The Neurological Development of Cynicism”). I’m planning to summarize these chapters in an article soon, since there is a lot of interest in this phenomenon, and also many people mistakenly belief that age-related changes in personality “prove” that personality is free from genetic influences.

        As Richard has pointed out, personalities do tend to stabilize by the age of 30. They can still change, but not as dramatically as they do at puberty and also up to the mid-twenties.

        • O.Voron says:

          Avi Tuschman, there is no argue that there are age-related changes in personality. After all, we know they are there from our life experience.
          It was my wild speculation that these changes might be gene-related along with many other reasons.
          Your book looks very interesting and I am going to check it out.

          • Avi Tuschman says:

            Hi O.Voron, yes, the personality changes that unfold between adolescence and early adulthood are moderately heritable themselves (in addition to personality traits). Thanks for checking out Our Political Nature. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts…

      • O.Voron says:

        Richard, you are absolutely right. It would rather be 30, not 20

  8. Avi Tuschman says:

    Please see the book Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us (www.OurPoliticalNature.com). It answers nearly all of these questions. The conclusion in particular explains why some aspects of public opinion change over time while others do not.

  9. Bruce Lepper says:

    Your first two suggestions for more research, viz:

    -At a minimum, it would be interesting to trace what we know about what has been stable in public opinion and what has changed, and to develop a measurement of how quickly shifts occur that could be used to analyze the data.
    -Comparative research among countries also seems likely to be a source of insights, given the obvious differences in public opinion by country that would seem likely to be uncorrelated with the mix of personalities in each case.

    can be approached through the collection and statistical analysis of historical evidence, at least in modern societies, where travelers have been describing the beliefs and behavior of their neighbors for a few centuries now. This is quite different from collecting ethnographic information on small societies (Human Relations Area Files) or self-reported data on values and beliefs (World Values Survey).

    Data-gathering of this kind was hard work just a decade ago (the historian Paul Langford’s book, Englishness Identified: Manners and Character, 1650-1850, is a rare example), and documents whose value in this sense was unrecognized were hidden on dusty shelves or, worse, disappearing. With the arrival of internet and the slow but steady digitalizing of libraries the job is becoming far easier and the data is being saved.

    Personality research has demonstrated that analysis of trait frequency is a viable and productive procedure, and there is no reason that it cannot be extended into historical documents. Do all French, German, American and Spanish travelers notice the same phenomena when they visit England at the same period? If the Germans don’t notice a behavior that all the others have seen, why not? And do the English see themselves as the others do?

    Data of this kind does not need to be “scientific” or “objective”, but it must be first-hand. It is the numerical analysis which can give it value, and capture change over time.

  10. Jonas says:

    Great question. I like the demographic factors, but I would add 2 more:

    1. A lot of opinion is socially determined, based on almost a market logic of what sells to friends/family/community/enemies. Everyone wants to look good socially, and if the opinion market has a new trend, people will jump on board. Why do market manias start? Why do bubbles end?

    2. Irrationality has a peculiar logic of its own. Game theory sheds some light on this, but I’ve only seen it in simplified 2-person game settings (like chicken). In n-person games, the proper use of irrationality for survival is even more important but very few people study this (n-person games are notoriously complicated and no one really understands them). Also, by disposition, scholars just don’t give irrationality/contradiction the respect it deserves.

    Just because people aren’t persuaded by reason, doesn’t mean they aren’t persuaded by unreason. Unreason spreads all the time, and quickly. Sometimes its socially caused (like 1 above), sometimes, it’s more similar to the logic of superstitution. Even some socially untrendy superstitutions never seem to die out.