Slugger’s US Panel: The difference between Liberals and Conservatives?

Last night’s #MainStreamMatters was just me and Mel Dubnick, with contributions from others throughout the session…

On the debate, we reckon Obama was playing to a slight strength, Romney to a slight weakness. Kellyanne Dignan wrote in:

Slight edge obama. He had the presidential moment he needed. Romney still in it though! No lethal mishaps. One fun rumor… Romney allegedly spent all his prep time on style over substance…

I think he was overcoached… Too many hand gestures from both candidates. As to the next debate well us elections rarely come down to a foreign policy debate but….

Then we pursued another line set by Kevin Anderson in the preview session from Thursday, that of the key differences in conservative cultural practices to that of liberals and not just in the US.

He picked on the capacity of the right to club, work up a head of steam on mass issues. He gave the difference in the audience figures for the like of the Guardian and Independent as opposed to the Sun, the Mail (or even the Telegraph).

Mostly owned and controlled by people who went the same elite universities as those on the left, yet the right has a capacity to reach out to ordinary people in the way the left struggles to.

In the US, where the two party system has only been a consistent reality since the Civil War, Mel argued right and left are a matter feel or pragmatic need to get X elected. American exceptionalism he called it.

Matt Bowler, another regular who couldn’t make last night, threw in a resource suggesting that people are conservative or liberal depending on a number of factors that affect the way their brain works.

I’ll pick out some of the more entertaining:

  • Conservatives spend more time looking at unpleasant images, and liberals spend more time looking at pleasant images.
  • Reliance on quick, efficient, and “low effort” thought processes yields conservative ideologies, while effortful and deliberate reasoning yields liberal ideologies.
  • Liberals have more tolerance to uncertainty (bigger anterior cingulate cortex), and conservatives have more sensitivity to fear (bigger right amygdala).
  • Republicans are more likely than Democrats to interpret faces as threatening and expressing dominant emotions, while Democrats show greater emotional distress and lower life satisfaction.
  • Compared to liberals, conservatives are less open to new experiences and learn better from negative stimuli than positive stimuli.
  • Liberals are more open-minded and creative whereas conservatives are more orderly and better organized.

Mel was sceptical, suggesting that such studies tend not to come from practitioners deep in neuroscience, but from those involved in political science (his own discipline) with a strong interest in ns. But he did dig out this interesting piece from the NYT:

…attack ads work, in large part, because we don’t understand them. Statements take advantage of a fact about human psychology called the “illusion of explanatory depth,” an idea developed by the Yale psychologist Frank Keil and his students.

We typically feel that we understand how complex systems work even when our true understanding is superficial. And it is not until we are asked to explain how such a system works — whether it’s what’s involved in a trade deal with China or how a toilet flushes — that we realize how little we actually know.

The US was already a complex country before the overlay of a vast array post industrial forms of communication that have helped mess the simple things that the ordinary citizen once thought they under right up.

But here’s the real take away from this research:

The real surprise is what happens after these same individuals are asked to explain how these policy ideas work: they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them.

In fact, not only do their attitudes change, but so does their behavior. In one of our experiments, for example, after attempting to explain how various policy ideas would actually work, people became less likely to donate to organizations that supported the positions they had initially favored.

Interestingly, asking people to justify their position — rather than asking them to explain the mechanisms by which a policy would work — doesn’t tend to soften their political views.

When we asked participants to state the reasons they were for or against a policy position, their initial attitudes held firm. (Other researchers have found much the same thing: merely discussing an issue often makes people more extreme, not less.)

I suspect this a key insight that any reformer in any country wishing to help democratic institutions explain just why their members have gone native inside the Beltway/the Westminster Village/the Belfast Bubble.

#MainStreamMatters is our US Google Plus programme. It goes out every Friday up to the election itself. We may, if we can find a greater purpose in doing it even convene a long and live hangout on the night of the election itself.

Put it in your diary for next week? 11pm BST, 6pm EST, and 3pm on the Pacific coast, and coast into the weekend with our ongoing guide the bewildering and decidedly un European world of US politics.

Like #DigitalLunch, you can always join us. The only restriction is you need to be registered with Google Plus (You can find me at Otherwise you can catch us live on YouTube.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty