Liberals Can’t Understand the Other Guy’s Point of View

May 22, 2012

If you’re going to disagree with someone, I think it may be pretty important that you understand his point of view.  That doesn’t mean you have to agree with him, by any means—on the contrary, in a way, it’s only after you understand his position that you can truly disagree with it.

Via the Nullspace, self-described liberal Nicholas Kristof calls our attention to an interesting study:

Conservatives may not like liberals, but they seem to understand them. In contrast, many liberals find conservative voters not just wrong but also bewildering.

One academic study asked 2,000 Americans to fill out questionnaires about moral questions. In some cases, they were asked to fill them out as they thought a “typical liberal” or a “typical conservative” would respond.

Moderates and conservatives were adept at guessing how liberals would answer questions. Liberals, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal,” were least able to put themselves in the minds of their adversaries and guess how conservatives would answer.

I believe the questionnaire used was some form of this (linked here).  Note that for this study, “conservative”, “liberal”, etc. mean that the subject identified as such.

In this study, liberals both underestimated conservatives’ compassion and sense of fairness (more than moderates or conservatives did), and overestimated their own group’s (liberals’) compassion and sense of fairness.

The authors theorized beforehand about why liberals might be least accurate:

If liberals don’t intuitively feel what could be considered moral about [what conservatives care about], then they may be forced to conclude that conservatives simply don’t care about morality—specifically, that conservatives don’t care about Harm and Fairness, because they support policies that seem to hurt and cheat people for no morally good reason.

In their concluding section, they discuss further:

Examining co-perceptions of conflicting groups such as pro-life/pro-choice and hawks/doves, Chambers and Melnyk (2006) found that partisans saw their adversaries as motivated by an opposition to their own core values, rather than being motivated by promotion of the adversaries’ values. This is consistent with the moral stereotypes that liberals appear to have of conservatives: liberals see conservatives as being motivated by an opposition to liberals’ core values of compassion and fairness, as well as being motivated by their own (non-moral) values of ingroup loyalty, respect for authorities and traditions, and spiritual purity. This misperception is asymmetrical: conservatives did underestimate liberal moral concerns with the binding foundations, but they were no more likely to underestimate than liberals themselves.

In other words, liberals disproportionately assume bad motives of their opponents, which puts them more in a world of their own imagination and less in touch with reality.  So much the worse for all of us.

Note that it would be circular reasoning or “question begging” to say that this study proves that conservatives actually are less compassionate (average score from nationally representative data set: 3.105) or fairness-oriented (3.425) than liberals (3.5 and 3.76, respectively).  Sample question from the “Harm/care” category (“Please read the following sentences and indicate your agreement or disagreement”):

It can never be right to kill a human being.

Sample question from the “Fairness/reciprocity” category:

I think it’s morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing.

Off topic, but perhaps related to this past entry, Kristof also mentions this:

. . . Haidt cites research that a higher I.Q. doesn’t lead people to think through their moral positions in a more balanced, open way (although they are more eloquent in defending those positions).

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19 Responses to “Liberals Can’t Understand the Other Guy’s Point of View”

  1. Null Says:

    Thanks for the citation.

    From what I’ve read of Kristof, he’s a fairly reasonable guy (for a leftist). A couple of years ago he wrote a column about how Arthur Brooks (who wrote “Who Really Cares”) found that conservatives are more charitable than leftists, and challenged his leftist readers to give more to charity.


    • I agree, it’s definitely to his credit that he mentions studies like Brooks’s and this one. They are not flattering to liberals or liberalism.


    • Of course, Brooks also found empirically that forced-redistribution policies, what liberals want, are actually very bad for the recipients of such entitlements—they make them less charitable (as one might perhaps have expected of something that can plausibly be called “entitlements”). I’m not sure what it says about a liberal if he can contemplate and relate Brooks’s work but remain committed to liberalism.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        I find one of Brooks’s conclusions particularly interesting, that is that conservatives give more to charity despite making less money, on average, than liberals. Charity aside, though, why, if conservatives understand the economy better than liberals (as you have repeatedly claimed they do), do they make less money? It seems that although liberals are not as charitable, they are actually better at making money.

      • Null Says:

        I’m not familiar with that study. Do you have a link to it handy?

        I can understand a leftist remaining committed to leftism despite Brooks’ findings since statistics can be easily manipulated to reach fallacious conclusions, and there are leftist studies which claim to validate leftism empirically. It’s also difficult to change one’s entire worldview — whether leftist, conservative, etc. — and it would take more than just one or two studies to convince someone to change.

      • Null Says:

        Snoodickle, I don’t think income and understanding of the economy correlate. Otherwise, are you saying that white men understand the economy best since white men generally have the highest income?

      • Snoodickle Says:

        It’s from the same study that underlies “Who Really Cares.” That was one of his main points – that conservatives give more despite making less money.

        What I’m saying is that, all other things being equal, one would expect liberals and conservatives to make roughly the same average income. Or, if you believe people like Chillingworth, you would expect conservatives to make more money on average, given their keener understanding of the economy. If you want to argue that liberals on average are more educated, and that is the reason they make more money, go right ahead. But that’s an argument for liberalism, not against it.

        As to your point about race, which I’m not sure make sense, the system is stacked in favor of white men in the first place. If you don’t believe me take one look at the United States Senate, or at the history of who has been President in this country. That is the main reason why, on average, white men make more money than any other demographic group. Are you suggesting the system is similarly stacked in favor of liberals? If so, then that would be a reason to identify as a liberal in and of itself.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        P.S. Some funny revisions to the title of this post.

        “Liberals Can’t Understand the Other Guy’s Point of View, because he’s Poorer than Them”

        “Liberals Can’t Understand the Other Guy’s Point of View, because he’s Uneducated and Doesn’t Speak in Complete Sentences”

        Liberals Can’t Understand the Other Guy’s Point of View; Why Don’t you like Making Money Guy?”

      • Null Says:

        “It’s from the same study that underlies “Who Really Cares.” That was one of his main points – that conservatives give more despite making less money.”

        Sorry, I was asking Chillingworth about the forced-redistribution policies. I’m familiar with Brooks’ finding that conservatives generally give more money despite earning slightly less (though I haven’t read the entire book).

        “As to your point about race, which I’m not sure make sense, the system is stacked in favor of white men in the first place…That is the main reason why, on average, white men make more money than any other demographic group.”

        If the system is stacked in favor of white men then you cannot assume that income correlates with understanding of the economy, as you did earlier (liberals “are actually better at making money”). In such a system even a dumb white male can earn more money than a sophisticated minority female with an economics degree simply because the system is “stacked” in favor of the white male.

        Income depends on many more variables than an understanding of the economy. A system that favors a particular group — if such a system exists — decorrelates income from economic understanding. Other factors come into play as well (e.g. leftists tend to live in areas like CA and NY with higher costs of living, requiring higher income for the same quality of life).

        “Are you suggesting the system is similarly stacked in favor of liberals? If so, then that would be a reason to identify as a liberal in and of itself.”

        I disagree that the system is so stacked in the first place, whether for white men or leftists. Even if it was, simply identifying with an ideology (leftism, in this case) generally does not provide any boost in income (except maybe in leftist bastions like Hollywood, where leftists are known to discriminate against conservatives).

      • Snoodickle Says:

        You disagree that the system is stacked in favor of white men? C’mon now.


  2. (1) To Snoodickle:

    (a) Only because you hate it so much when you think others are doing it: Are you commenting on a book you haven’t read?

    (b) “Charity aside, though, why, if conservatives understand the economy better than liberals (as you have repeatedly claimed they do), do they make less money? It seems that although liberals are not as charitable, they are actually better at making money.”

    I don’t remember claiming that, but apparently it’s true:

    Zogby researcher Zeljka Buturovic and I considered the 4,835 respondents’ (all American adults) answers to eight survey questions about basic economics. . . .

    How did the six ideological groups do overall? Here they are, best to worst, with an average number of incorrect responses from 0 to 8: Very conservative, 1.30; Libertarian, 1.38; Conservative, 1.67; Moderate, 3.67; Liberal, 4.69; Progressive/very liberal, 5.26.
    . . .
    The survey also asked about party affiliation. Those responding Democratic averaged 4.59 incorrect answers. Republicans averaged 1.61 incorrect, and Libertarians 1.26 incorrect.

    If you were trying to prove that, on the contrary, liberals understand economics better, I suggest that you find better evidence than what you’re offering. Making more money could mean anything: Do conservatives have to earn more of their money; are liberals more likely to have inherited or to be trust-fund babies? Do they make more money because they are liberals, or are they liberal because they are wealthy and comfortable? (I’m told that Orwell remarked that pacifism “is only possible to people who have money and guns between themselves and reality.”) And so on.

    (c) “If you want to argue that liberals on average are more educated, and that is the reason they make more money, go right ahead. But that’s an argument for liberalism, not against it.”

    Or, if we already know that liberals are much more ignorant about economics (above) and current events, it’s an indictment of liberals or liberalism: They have every advantage (IQ and/or formal education), but it is wasted on them. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him apply himself.

    See also this blogger: both those with graduate degrees (who think they’re smart enough to run our lives for us?) and those who never even completed high school disproportionately vote Democrat.

    (d) “. . . the system is stacked in favor of white men in the first place. If you don’t believe me take one look at the United States Senate, or at the history of who has been President in this country. That is the main reason why, on average, white men make more money than any other demographic group.”

    This is a classic instance of making unsupported claims based on two variables, what Tevyeh always gets you for. If white men make more money than other groups, it must be due to discrimination or other systemic unfairness? You can’t think of any other variables that could interfere with your pristine two-variable experiment?

    Also, you realize that, just as Null intended, you’ve admitted your epistemological double standard? If liberals make more money than conservatives, it must mean liberals understand the economy better—no further analysis needed! If white men make more money than others, it must be because the system is stacked in their favor—it’s the only possible explanation! You tried to offer evidence that the system is stacked, but it doesn’t prove that, any more than your earlier statement about liberals proves that the system is stacked in their favor.

    (e) “You disagree that the system is stacked in favor of white men? C’mon now.”

    In other words, you talked as if you wanted to prove that proposition, but in fact you only assume it and cannot prove it. Oops.

    (2) To Null:

    (a) You asked about the evidence that welfare programs hurt the recipients and corrode their character.

    From Who Really Cares:

    The working poor family is more likely to give to every type of charity than the welfare family . . . .

    How much does welfare income depress giving? One study of American families in 1999 found that a dollar in welfare income erased an average of 57 cents from its private charitable giving. A 10 percent increase in its average welfare payment lowered its charitable giving by about 1.4 percent. Similarly, an investigation of families in 2001 revealed that families not on welfare were about three times more likely to give and volunteer than families receiving welfare. Holding constant differences in education, age, race, and religion, the study also found that, although an increase in earned income drove giving and volunteering up, an increase in welfare drove giving and volunteering down.

    (Page 83 of paperback. Endnotes 12 and 13 on page 220. I can’t seem to get either page in the Google Books preview, or I’d link to them. One study’s citation is Brooks, “Welfare Receipt and Private Charity”, Public Budgeting and Finance 22, no. 3, 2002.)

    On this question, I also recommend the rest of the chapter.

    (b) “I can understand a leftist remaining committed to leftism despite Brooks’ findings since statistics can be easily manipulated to reach fallacious conclusions, and there are leftist studies which claim to validate leftism empirically. It’s also difficult to change one’s entire worldview — whether leftist, conservative, etc. — and it would take more than just one or two studies to convince someone to change.”

    Sure, fair point (and I know Tevyeh would agree). But that’s part of why I love this book. To any liberal or other skeptic who is thinking about reading it, I say, Don’t judge it by its cover (with its arguably inflammatory title and subtitles, which I assume were chosen by the publisher, not the author). I say to them, Read the author’s introduction, and then decide whether to read the book.

    In the coming chapters, I will explain why people give and why people don’t. My explanationa are based entirely on data. They are the fruit of years of analysis on the best national and international datasets available on charity, lots of computational horsepower, and the past work of dozens of scholars who have looked at various bits and pieces of the giving puzzle. . . .

    These are not the sorts of conclusions I ever thought I would reach when I started looking at charitable giving in graduate school, ten years ago. I have to admit that I probably would have hated what I have to say in this book. . . .

    When I started doing research on charity, I expected to find that political liberals—who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did—would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.

    I confess the prejudices of my past here to emphasize that the findings in this book—many of which may appear conservative and support a religious, hardworking, family-oriented lifestyle—are faithful to the best available evidence, and contrary to my political and cultural roots. Indeed, the irresistible pull of empirical evidence in this book is what changed the way I see the world. . . .

    (Pages 10-13 of the paperback. Again, not available to me in Google Books.)


  3. […] Is it any surprise that, in this liberal sea in which we swim, liberals are so much worse than conservatives at understanding the other side’s point of view? […]


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