Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Left and the Right In Thinking, Personality, and Politics

by G. William Domhoff

The aim of this essay is provide a big-picture canvas of the wider meanings of the Left-Right dimension in human thinking, a dimension that precedes and transcends mere politics, but may well explain some of the puzzles about the political Left and Right. I begin by discussing general findings on the cross-cultural differences in the thinking and attitudes of Leftists and Rightists on many different aspects of life. Then I describe how this dimension has manifested itself in language, and how it became part of politics during the French Revolution. Then I show how the left-right dimension manifests itself in personality, and that political preferences do relate to this dimension.

After showing the considerable difference between the political Left and Right in personality and social attitudes, I suggest that they nonetheless share certain essential similarities that are relatively rare in the general population, especially a high degree of moral fervor and moral anger, even while they differ completely on what they are fervent and angry about. My next step is to suggest that this shared moral fervor leads political Leftists and Rightists to have similar condescending attitudes towards their more moderate left-oriented or right-oriented compatriots, those who are merely "liberal" or only moderately "conservative."

The left-right dimension in general thinking

In the 1960s, a psychologist interested in philosophy and ideology, Silvan Tomkins, wrote an essay in which he argued there is a Left-Right dimension in every area of waking thought, from beliefs about mathematics to beliefs about child-rearing practices. Based on his research, Tomkins (1964) concluded that those on the Right end of this continuum first and foremost tended to be rule-oriented. They see rules as external to themselves, and even to people in general. Rules are part of the universe, or ordained by God. In addition, Rightists are often uncomfortable about emotions and tend to deny their feelings. They therefore want emotions under control. They also favor hierarchy, at least in part because they want to keep impulses under control through rules. The best people, those who follow rules and control emotions, should be in charge. Rightists become angry with rule breaking, not with oppressive authority.

Rightists tend to be very individually oriented. They tend not to see groups and social classes. They think that success is a matter of individual effort, overlooking the social support that they and everyone else has had in order to advance in life. This individualistic orientation, along with their respect for hierarchy, makes them into natural supporters of the current power structure, whatever their socioeconomic standing.

On the other hand, according to Tomkins, Leftists are oriented toward human needs and pleasures, not rules, and think that rules are created by people. They are attracted to new experiences and positive feelings. They are for equality and do not like hierarchy; they are egalitarians who are willing to change the rules if they think that is necessary. In addition, they tend to focus on groups and social networks. This group-oriented stance, along with their emphasis on equality, makes them natural allies of the underdogs, whether this means low-income people or people excluded from the dominant society on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious preference.

It is this underlying dimension of human thinking and experience that has been rediscovered by cognitive linguist George Lakoff (1996) in his work on "moral politics," in which he comes to similar conclusions about Right and Left thinking based on a metaphoric analysis of what Leftists and Rightists say and write.

Tomkins developed a questionnaire to test his ideas on American participants, mostly college students. The questionnaire asked people to endorse one or both of a series of paired statements, such as "Numbers were invented" or "Numbers were discovered." As Tomkins expected, he found that people differed in consistent ways on which statements they endorsed, supporting his hypothesis that there were Right and Left ways of looking at the world over and beyond how people felt about any specific issue. For example, when confronting the statements about numbers being either invented or discovered, Left-oriented thinkers (and keep in mind that we are not yet talking about politics, but a general way of thinking) replied that they were invented by we humans, whereas Right-oriented thinkers tended to say they were discovered, i.e., that they exist external to people. (The issue here is not which is "really" the correct answer, if there is one, but simply what people say off the top of their heads.)

Similarly, Right-oriented thinkers were for strict child rearing in order to tame the unruly emotions in children ("spare the rod and spoil the child"), while Leftist-oriented thinkers saw children as little flowers to be nurtured and supported, that is, allowed to grow more or less "naturally." More generally, when asked whether people are basically "evil" or "good" in terms of human nature, Right-oriented thinkers tended to say "evil" and Left-oriented thinkers tended to say "good." In fact, people's preference on this question about basic human nature best predicts how they will answer many other questions in a "Right" or a "Left" way. So we can say that beliefs about human nature are an anchor point of the general Left-Right dimension.

To show that there is a Left and Right to every question and even every academic discipline, Tomkins noted in his essay that the field of psychology is on the Left side, with engineering and the natural sciences on the Right, and the humanities to the Left of psychology. However, even within a field like psychology, there are Right and Left sides to every issue, with the "hard-nosed" experimentalists and "quantifiers," who study specific narrow psychological processes, on the Right, and the more field-oriented and clinical researchers, who use "qualitative" methods, on the Left.

In closing this section, let me stress that we are talking here about pure types at the ends of a continuum. Everyone believes in controlling impulses at one time or another, not just Right-oriented thinkers, and just about everyone likes to explore and take risks in some situations, not just Left-oriented thinkers. Thus, most people are somewhere in the middle in their overall thinking, and they are sometimes complex blends of the two orientations.

Moreover, Tomkins claims that some of the most famous and creative people in Western history, such as the philosopher Kant and the composer Beethoven, are those who are able to synthesize aspects of the Left and Right, thereby appealing to both sides of the continuum. The point for now, though, is that there is a general Left-Right dimension that transcends any particular issue.

Read the rest of this article at Who Rules America



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