Economic Predispositions?

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences
John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford
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Classical economic theory has very precise predictions about what you will do with the money. In the dictator game you will not give the stranger anything. Why should you, since you will probably never see him or her again? The rational thing to do is to maximize your benefit and that means holding onto the fistful of dollar bills. You cannot be similarly Scrooge-like in the ultimatum game, though, because the stranger has a veto. Give the stranger nothing and you are likely to get nothing. The problem is how much to give. Economic theory predicts that you will give the least amount required to avoid a veto. If you are holding 20 one-dollar bills, that amounts to a measly dollar. Here’s the logic: Walking away with a dollar is better than walking away with nothing, so a dollar should be enough to prevent a rational stranger from exercising a veto.

These sorts of games have been repeated thousands of times in an amazing variety of contexts, and with an amazing variety of twists and minor modifications. The clear message from all this research— a message that is surprising only to economists— is that classical economic theory stinks at predicting how people will divide their 20 dollars. People are wildly more generous to strangers than they need to be. The average amount passed along in a dictator game is not zero but rather about $ 8 of the $ 20; in other words, pretty close to an even split and way more than rational maximizing behavior would suggest.

The results of ultimatum games are even more interesting. Remember, a rational person should accept any positive amount because one dollar is more than no dollars. In reality it is very common for small offers to be rejected. If you keep $ 19 and offer just $ 1, many strangers will exercise their veto and your 19 bucks will go poof. Splits of $ 18– $ 2, $ 17– $ 3, $ 16– $ 4 also are frequently turned down; even $ 15– $ 5 splits are occasionally nixed. What all this tells us is that people routinely deviate from rationality in order to be generous to a powerless stranger or to stick it to a greedy bastard. These findings probably are not big news to you but they create serious problems for the theory that humans are rational maximizing actors because, well, they don’t seem to act very rationally.

This basic message stays the same even when researchers tinker with the setting or format of the basic script. These games have been played in Siberia, in Western universities, and in hunter-gatherer societies. 3 The stakes of the games have been altered by taking them to regions of the world where $ 20 is the equivalent of several months’ wages. 4 The $ 20 has been described as a blind (an unseen resource) or a pot rather than as a fund belonging to the divider. 5 The physical attractiveness of the “stranger” has been altered. 6 And the “stranger” has been rendered less strange by altering the extent to which the players know each other. 7 These changes make a difference, driving non-maximizing behavior up or down, but none alters the basic conclusion that people are not the single-minded pursuers of profit that economic theory holds them out to be.

Just as Milgram’s results are presented as indicating that people are subservient to authority, the divide the dollar outcomes are presented as evidence that people are irrational; and just as the common interpretation of Milgram’s research is mistaken, so too is the common interpretation of the research on economic games. A closer look at the game results indicates tremendous individual variation in the decisions people make— even when the locale and experimental manipulations are the same . Some people are simply more generous than other people; some are more punitive; some are more strategic; some are more consistent; and some are more sensitive to the setting.

A significant minority of people— our best guess is around 20 percent— play economic games in a manner that is quite consistent with classic microeconomic theory in that they do not share unless they have to and they do not punish those who do not share with them . Others are relentlessly generous and the decisions of still others are variable and contingent upon context. The common conclusion growing out of the economic games research— that people are not rational maximizers— badly misses the point. Whether the topic is obeying authority figures or sharing resources with strangers, the real message of empirical research on human behavior is that people are fundamentally different. “People” are not lemmings in the face of authority— but some are. “People” are not rational maximizers —but some are.

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Milgram’s focus on the situation as the key explanation of behavior and his abject indifference to behavioral variation within the same situation is disconcertingly typical of social science research. As an illustration of the value that could be added if this research tendency were altered, consider a fascinating study conducted some time ago by economist Kevin McCabe and colleagues. They had participants play a variant of divide the dollar games called a “trust” game while their brains were being imaged. The twist in this case was that players sometimes interacted with another human being and sometimes with a computer that was programmed to follow a preset sequence. McCabe found that people’s brain activation patterns are quite different in these two situations.

Told they are playing a computer, little activity registered in the emotional (or limbic) areas of the brain or in the prefrontal cortex of participants. In this situation the brain appears to be on autopilot, doing nothing more than calculating the way to get the most money (in other words, to be rational). Against a human being, in contrast, limbic areas such as the amygdala are activated, as is the prefrontal cortex, which presumably must resolve the conflict created by the rational desire to acquire more money and the emotional feelings that might accompany an exchange situation. 9

If it ended there, this research would be another example of the kind of approach that we are cautioning against: general statements that “people” display different brain activation patterns depending on the situation. This particular study, however , has a feature that illustrates the value of looking at individual differences. When the five most uncooperative individuals , as determined by the decisions they made in earlier economic games, were observed in the scanner, their brain activation patterns, unlike other participants, tended to be no different when they were playing against another human being than when they were playing against a computer. Thus, at least some people appear to be surprisingly devoid of the emotional responses that typically accompany human interaction. 10

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Classical economic theory is in much the same boat. We have already noted this theory’s spectacularly inaccurate predictions with regard to various divide the dollar games. Classical microeconomic theory ends up in the same situational place as behaviorism and gets there much faster than evolutionary psychology. This is because it, too , is built on a worldview of presumed human universality, specifically humans as preference-maximizing machines. We might prefer beer and you might prefer wine, but the reasons we have different preferences is not of interest to most economists. They are more excited by the presumed universal process people employ to maximize those preferences in a given situation (rational utility maximization, as it’s called in the trade).

Classical economists rarely recognize the relevance of behavioral morphs. While psychologists study introverts and extroverts and political scientists study liberals and conservatives, economists have no parallel widely accepted terms that are indicative of fundamental economic types. 22 The situation determines what people need to do to maximize preferences so there is no need to worry about the fiddle-faddle of people having different preferences in the same situation. Preferences are taken as given (in other words, assumed away), and when deciding what to do, it is assumed that all humans crank through a universal cost-benefit calculation. The perceived pros and cons in that calculation are determined not by variation in personality, or neural architecture, or cognitive processing styles, but by the situation. As Dennis Mueller wisely notes, “homo economicus … bears a close resemblance to Skinner’s rat.” 23 The point is that broad swathes of the most prominent social science theories are based on the assumption that the human condition is monolithic and that any variations in human behavior are exclusively the product of the situation. The problem with this assertion is that it is simply not true.

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At least among males , the more buff you are, the more likely you are to push strongly for positions that further your own economic interest (socialistic redistribution if you are poor; laissez-faire capitalism if you are rich). 44

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We believe that traits such as orientation toward out-groups, openness to new experiences, and a heightened negativity bias fit more naturally with social than economic issues, and we tend to agree with Congressman Weaver that economic positions are typically secondary. He points out that “ethnocentrics do not give a fig for individual rights” and sees the connection between conservatism and free market principles as a relatively recent development. Similarly , he does not view Marxism as connecting to the deeper forces shaping empathics and believes that accounts that do make this connection “totally ignore our biological origins.” 55 The deep forces that shape political predispositions likely do not act directly on controversies over the role of government in society (after all, for how long in evolutionary time has the size of government been an issue?) or, relatedly, on controversies over the glories of the free market relative to the social welfare state. But if the issue becomes whether or not to open up a country’s social welfare system to recent or future out-group members (that is, immigrants ), deeper forces quickly come into play. Economic issues are certainly crucial in modern politics—sometimes the most crucial— but this does not mean fault lines on these issues are as biologically rooted as social issues.


Change and Acceptance: A Liberal-Minded View

I wish I could forget about politics and political divisions. But regularly interacting with my conservative parents constantly reminds me of how different my liberal-minded view can be. And this causes me to think about politics in very personal terms. 

I keep coming back to some basic truths about conservatives and liberals along with other related differences. I was at the moment focused on the issue of understanding that is informed by these respective ideological worldviews and how this makes communication challenging. Certainly, communication with my parents can be challenging at times.

I’d like to think that I’m slowly gaining in wisdom or something approximating wisdom. Over time, it has become clear to me how there are positives and negatives to all psychological traits, especially as they manifest in terms of ideological worldviews. This has caused me to become increasingly accepting and forgiving… or at least that is how I’d like to be. I’ve been trying to learn to just feel the frustration and let it ride.

Most importantly, I have no choice but to accept my own limitations in dealing with the limitations of others. No matter what I identify as, no matter how I may shift from time to time, I’ll most likely forever remain centered in liberal-mindedness. At this point, it just feels like who I am and I can’t easily imagine myself otherwise. It would be nearly impossible for me to shift into the full mode of the conservative mindset, although I do have enough experience with and tendencies toward conservatism to make it not an entirely alien reality.

Here  is my frustration. Even with some understanding, the bridge between the two predispositions can seem insurpassable. I sometimes think this bothers the liberal-minded more for we can tend to be over-sensitive bleeding hearts who just want everyone to get along. The conservative-minded seem more inclined to just assume that the liberal-minded are so clueless as to never understand their worldview, thus communication being impossible and cooperation undesirable. This can be hard for the liberal-minded to accept. Polarized partisanship may inspire the conservative-minded and mobilize the conservative movement, but it instead tends to depress the liberal-minded and immobilize the liberal movement.

I’ve noticed how the conservative-minded are more likely to see this difference as a moral difference, specifically those who are moral versus those who are immoral or amoral. It’s the typical dualistic thinking, this or that, right or wrong. This is not unusually portrayed as a battle with the moral imperative to fight and win. For many conservative activists, this is seen as a cosmic war of good versus evil where victory must be sought at any cost. For the fundamentalist, one’s mortal soul and all of humanity is at risk. The enemy, even if not entirely evil, isn’t seen as a worthy equal and so compromise is a moral danger not to be risked. Every step toward liberalism is one step closer to Godless Communism or some such thing.

The liberal-minded, on the other hand, tend to take a more emotionally detached approach, whether psychological or philosophical (more detached, anyway, from such emotions as fear and hatred). This emphasizes differences without judging them in as absolute of terms, seeing both sides as potentially having something positive to contribute. If there is a moral danger to be feared, it is the divisiveness that makes cooperation toward a shared vision beyond all hope.

One side is fighting a battle or else guarding their territory in preparation for war while the other side is simply confused about how to respond. The former mentality, specifically when in this reactionary stance, isn’t very open to sitting down and talking. It is only when the fear response is dampened that liberal-minded can satisfy their own approach because only then are the conservative-minded willing to accept terms of truce.

Fear is the determining factor, for both sides. When the social atmosphere is fear-ridden, two things happen. First, the conservative-minded can become even more conservative-minded which means not just resistant to change but reactionary. And, second, the liberal-minded can become more conservative-minded as well which means leftism as a movement falters and splinters while leftists either become radicalized to the point of being excluded from respectable company and/or become defensive  of that which the conservative-minded are reacting against.

Fear is only good for dealing with narrowly-defined threats such as immediate attacks by known enemies, problems that are short-term situations that require quick response, or situations that are localized so as to allow them to be easily defined and isolated. Fear is the most reactionary of emotions. It focuses the mind and prepares the body for action.

This is what conservative-mindedness is all about. Conservative-mindedness is defined by being low on the trait ‘openness’ and high on the trait ‘conscientiousness’. This adds up to a sense of focus and control. Research shows that conservative-minded traits are useful for clearly defined tasks and situations. The conservative-minded make good surgeons for they can focus intently while ignoring all distractions. They make good lawyers for they find it easy to deal with clearly worded laws and tangible precedents. They make good businessmen because success is so much more straightforward with either one making a profit or not, all other external factors being insignificant if they don’t add to or subtract from the bottom line. And they make good soldiers and generals in their ability to act quickly and decisively.

All of this relates to fear, whether fear of death or loss or failure or whatever. Problems arise for the conservative-minded when the situation is vague or complex, hence when fear and hyper-focus is an inadequate or unhelpful response.

Because of this, the conservative-minded will only feel comfortable and confident in certain situations and so they will constantly seek to create a society that conforms to their predispositions. This is why conservatives would love to create a society that is built around capitalism, the military, and/or fundamentalism. Capitalism is particularly clear in our society for conservatives perceive it in Social Darwinian terms where they seek to eliminate or weaken nearly all safety nets and so where one is driven to succeed out of fear of what would happen otherwise. Loss of status can be worse than death for the conservative-minded (and it is a good way to enforce social order in general). And so it is the fear of loss of status that makes life meaningful to them for that is their measure of morality and self-worth. Confrontation with fear strengthens the conservative mind or else just exaggerates it.

The strengths of the conservative-minded are clear. In those situations where they excel, they can utterly defeat the less aggressive and focused liberal-minded. And the conservative-minded are talented at creating the conditions for their success (also the conditions for the failure of their opponents). But their success doesn’t always translate into the success for the society they come to dominate (for this larger democratic society includes many potential ‘opponents’, including competion amongst the conservative-minded in their attempts to enforce their various and even contradictory preferred social orders).

The conservative-minded, however, don’t see it this way for their focused mindset only allows them to see what they choose to focus upon, all else being unnecessary or unworthy. The complex and diverse world of the liberal-minded simply doesn’t exist for them (heck, even the diversity among the conservative-minded isn’t ever fully acknowledged). They only see an issue or problem when it comes into their focus which means when it is no longer possible to ignore. Issues like global warming and economic inequality are vastly complex and so they seem unreal to them, mere abstract fantasies of the liberal elite.

This is a conundrum for the liberal-minded. Whether or not the conservative-minded see it, the problems of global warming and economic inequality remain as the reality we all face. Not even the most conservative-minded can ignore these problems forever. However, decades or even generations can go by before the point comes when the conservative-minded can no longer ignore them.

Here is the wisdom I’ve come to. All that the liberal-minded can do is repeat the truth and restate the obvious, over and over again, continuously and patiently. There is nothing else to be done. The liberal-minded has to accept that the conservative-minded will eventually come around, hopefully before it is too late. Either they come around or they don’t, but only reality itself can eventually force anyone to shift their focus. This is the Taoist approach to politics. Swimming against the tide is pointless and tiring. It is wiser to save one’s strength in order to use it when it can make the most difference. Timing is everything. If the conditions are not right, no amount of effort can make a difference.

This conflict of predispositions and worldviews isn’t essentially a moral issue, as the conservative-minded tend to think. Nor is it necessarily an issue of educating the public or reframing public debates, as the liberal-minded tend to think. It might involve all of those factors, but social change happens for reasons we don’t always understand.

This is where the understanding of a trait spectrum is helpful. It is best to remember that no one is entirely conservative-minded or entirely liberal-minded. The present responses we see from either end of the spectrum are situation-dependent. As the world changes, people shift, predispositions shift, ideologies shift, whole paradigms shift, etc. It doesn’t matter if the conservative-minded react against it or the liberal-minded try to force the issue. Reality always wins out in the end and one can only hope that one is on the side of reality.

Morality, Politics, and Psychology

Below is a comment I wrote to a blog post on the website of my local paper.  In it, I’m pointing out the problems of ideology that lacks a larger context of knowledge.  I do think that sometimes its necessary to declare a moral principle as valid even if it affronts the commonsense of the majority.  This is the ideal of natural law which makes sense to me personally.  Besides, its what our country is based on and heck it’s even what early Christianity incorporated from the Greeks.  Morality isn’t an issue of majority opinion.  There simply are certain inalienable rights that democracy stands or falls by. 

However, I don’t think it useful to invoke universal moral principles in order to dismiss intelligent discussion.  Standing by one’s principles is important, but so is basing one’s opinion on facts and logic.  If the data (objective and subjective, scientific and psychological) seem to undermine the practical usefulness of a principle, then that is very important info to consider.

Why are Condoms a Liberal Idea? , by IowaArtist

My response:

I’ve always thought it odd that people support abstinence only programs when they’ve been shown to increase the rate of pregnancies. I think there are two reasons.

1) The attitude is ideological. It’s a principle they believe in so strongly that it would go against their sense of morality even to consider the practical implications.

2) Also, the fact that teens still get pregnant just proves their belief that liberals have undermined our moral society. The teens getting pregnant is the direct fault of liberals and so giving into the liberal agenda would be even worse.

They don’t consider the possibility that teens would have sex whether or not liberals had political influence. What they seem to believe is that if they hold onto their principles long enough then maybe all of society (including teen sexuality) will change to fit their ideological vision of reality.

Another important factor is that, because of chemicals in our diet, girls mature at a younger age than they used to. Also, college has become a necessity for more people than in the past and so people now marry much later. Many kids start having sexual urges at 10 or so when they lack psychological maturity and they’re not likely to get married until their late 20s or early 30s.

Considering those facts, is it practical to promote abstinence? How likely is it for the average kid to remain abstinent for the next 2 decades of their life?

In hunter-gatherer cultures, people marry as soon as they sexually mature. This is unimaginable in our society. It works for them because kids sexually mature much later with a non-agrarian diet. The problem with modern society is that it creates an unnatural situation, and so our moral ideologies become out of step with our own biology.


There is another perspective to all of this.  Disagreements over such socio-political issues might not be all that directly related to either what is moral or practical.  Much research has been done on politics and personality.  The first two links are articles I just came across from The New York Times and the last link is to a post of from my Gaia blog in which I cover all of the research and theories.

Op-Ed Columnist: Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal, by Nicholas D. Kristof

Across the Great Divide: Investigating Links Between Personality and Politics, by Patricia Cohen

Politics, Personality, and Character by Me

It makes me wonder what actually motivates people.  Much of our psychological tendencies are based in genetics and some show as early as infancy (look at twins research for very clear evidence of genetic predispositions), but there are many other factors as well.  Here is one factor I mentioned in the comments in the above blog post:

An interesting complexity is the fact that personality correlates to party affiliation but not to party registration.  So, its possible that conformity to social standards of family and community may play a stronger role than does personality. 

How or rather where we’re raised is infinitely important.  My parents were raised in conservative communities and they grew up to be conservative.  However, they went through a slight liberal phase as young parents maybe because they moved to a more liberal community during a transitional period of their life.  This liberal community of my childhood had a strong influence on me and, along with my brothers, I became mostly liberal.  This shows that community may have more influence than family, and I believe I’ve seen research that shows peers are the most influential for kids (rather than what kids are taught and modelled by their parents). 

As examples, I’m a liberal child of conservative parents and  my dad is a conservative child of liberal parents, but my mom is a conservative child of conservative parents.  Personality might predict, though, to what extent one is influenced by other factors such as community and family.  My mom, according to MBTI, is and ISTJ which is one of the most conservative personality types and also the type that is most likely to follow authority (such as parents) without question or rebellion.  So, maybe it isn’t surprising that her views are more in line with her parents.  I’m an INFP which is a personality type that tends to have more of an independent streak than, for instance, an ISTJ.  But also INFPs tend to be more liberal. 

The question, then, is to consider why people end up with particular personality types.  Research has shown that certain traits are inheritable, but not all.  My parents are ISTJ and ENTJ, and so where did my INFP come from since the last two letters representing Introverted Feeling are completely opposite my parents’ shared Extraverted Thinking.  It still may be genetic as my grandmother (my father’s mother) seemed likely to have been an INFP.  On the other hand, one of my brothers has a personality almost exactly like my mom and yet the two are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  I assume that is where non-genetic influences come in. 

To get down to one specific aspect of personality, Thinking vs Feeling in MBTI is very central to political attitudes.  Thinking types (especially Extraverted Thinking) fit the typical attitude of conservatism in which a principle is held as true no matter what.  Feeling types (especially Introverted Feeling), instead, are more likely to consider the people involved to make a decision.  Basically, its a difference of whether someone believes that people should serve their moral values or else believes their moral values should serve people. 


This translates to the original example in that a conservative is less likely to change their attitude even when it seems counter to the evidence of how humans actually behave.  To the conservative, we should strive to live up to our ideals (even if it means failing) rather than to lower our ideals.  That is a worthy attitude in certain situations, but problematic in other situations.  An interesting additional definition of conservatism is a common belief that human individuals are limited in their ability to change and so in a sense conservatives are in certain ways more accepting (or rather more expecting) of people failing moral standards.  The fact that kids still have sex and get pregnant even when taught abstinence isn’t an argument against the socially conservative belief in abstinence.  For a conservative, that is besides the point or if anything proves their point.

The ironic thing to me is that teenagers don’t have sex because of moral failing but because biology drives them to do so.  It’s natural for animals to feel an instinct to procreate.  It’s how our species has survived this long and grown so large.  It’s a very effective instinct.  The ironic part of this is that the socially conservative attitude against pre-marital sex is also embedded in human biology.  Conservative beliefs, despite what some conservatives may think, didn’t fall from the lips of God.  Besides biology, there are also socio-cultural factors to no end.  For instance, Spiral Dynamics gives a detailed account of why certain values are held by societies during specific stages of development.  Or, as another example, the generational theory of Strauss and Howe seems to explain why certain values follow cyclical patterns of popularity.

I don’t mean to just pick on conservatives as we’re all equally influenced by factors we have little control over.  It’s the sad fate of being human that civilization evolves quickly and biology evolves slowly.  And it’s a major problem that modern civilization is so far out of sync with human nature… which applies to everyone whether conservative or liberal or whatever.  In this, the conservatives have intuited an element of our dire straights.  They are right in a sense that our human nature fails us in the situation of modernity, but it would be better to understand that it’s modernity rather than human nature that is the problem.  We have to either develop socially to a new stage more in balance with our own nature (and in balance with nature in general) or else eventually destroy ourselves. 

My criticism of conservatism is that their answer is unhelpful to say the least.  Social conservatism, as we know it now, is as mired in modernity as anything else… related to the idea that fundamentalism is a direct result of modernity meaning it isn’t actually a return to pre-modern values.  If looked at closely, the socially conservative ideals such as family values don’t fit the truly traditional values that we as humans held for thousands upon thousands of years prior to civilization (and actually they don’t even fit the traditional values of a few centuries ago).  If we’re going to attempt a revival of traditional values, then we should really take it seriously and revive hunter-gatherer lifestyle which is the only way to support values of the most traditional variety or at the very least return to an agrarian-based society of small villages and close-knit communities (from which America was first born).  The problem with Christianity is that its a religion that arose in an imperialistic society and in an urban setting.  It’s a religion very much of modern civilization.

I’m not dissing civilization, but humanity is now facing probably the largest obstacle it has ever faced.  We are in an unsustainable situation which is potentially an endgame scenario.  Derrick Jensen explains this all very well, but I hope that he is wrong that the only solution is for civilization to end.  Humans are innovative when the stakes are high.   I’m sure we humans will (eventually) give a noble effort in attempting to save ourselves from the predicament we created for ourselves… and we might even succeed to create some new form of society.  If future humans do succeed in not only surviving but thriving to boot, I suspect they’ll look back with bemusement at the idiocy of both liberals and conservatives.

Anyways, disagreements about the sexual proclivities of teenagers is the least of our problems.  I say let them enjoy their youth because they’ll grow up soon enough and realize the mess they’ve inherited.


In case anyone is further interested in this subject, here is a post I made in this blog a while back:

Political Party, Morality, Personality, Gender