Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Scientific Proof That the Conversation Matters

Maybe people are (at least partly) biologically predisposed to think the way we do along the conservative <-> liberal spectrum.

I read this column yesterday by one of my favorites, Mary Sanchez, that posed the question. And here's a column on Slate.com by William Saletan that makes a very different case. Both focus on a recent study by Nature Neuroscience.

Back to the whole nature/nurture discussion, huh?

Basically, this experiment asked people to self-identify their political leanings, then flashed a series of "M"s and "W"s on a screen at them. They were supposed to click the "M"s and not click the "W"s. It seems that the "liberals" were better at this little game than the "conservatives" were, with more "conservatives" errantly clicking the "W"s than "liberals." And so what does that prove?


Conservatives, the study observed, tend to be “more structured and persistent in their judgments and approaches to decision-making,” and liberals tend to show a “higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity, and greater openness to new experiences.”

Saletan has a different take. Whereas Sanchez wonders about difference without making a value judgement, Saletan thinks the study unfairly paints conservatives as dumber than liberals.
Habitual way of thinking. Informational complexity. Need to change. Those are sweeping terms. They imply that conservatives, on average, are adaptively weaker at thinking, not just button-pushing.

It has been said, "If you throw a brick in a room full of dogs, the one who yelps is the one who got hit." Tee hee. Methinks the columnist doth protest too much.

Whatever, I don't think this study actually slams conservatives, but I don't understand how this experiment led the scientists to these conclusions, myself. It seems a bit much to reach such broad results from a few minutes at a couple of computer terminals looking at a couple of letters flash across the screen. Nonetheless it is fun to think about the why and how of what we think and believe. Is it nature, a biological predisposition? Or is it nurture, learned through teaching and example? A bit of both?

It is so tricky to have an honest, respectful dialogue on the theological, social, and political "hot button" issues. Sometimes we say that we are metaphorically "speaking different languages" - but maybe we are literally using terms and phrases that cannot be understood? I don't mean the words themselves, but maybe the concepts and ideas behind them?

Sanchez asks the question this way:
It could be that no one is listening to viewpoints other than those they already agree with wholeheartedly, not because they are obstinate or simply dumb, but because they are leaning too heavily on their innate brain circuitry.

And far from indicating a hopeless situation in which we all just continue to talk past each other with the same relentless, stale rhetoric, thinking along these lines means that, in order to more effectively communicate, we don't necessarily need to change what we say, but rather how we say it. In short, the conversation matters. The way we talk to each other matters, especially in the church.

I've always said (and it is in the header above) that if in the attempt to realize the reign of God on earth, we cannot engage one another in respectful and grace-filled dialogue, we might as well not even try, and now there's scientific proof to back me up!

Cross posted here.


john meunier said...

Yes, yes, you are correct.

But I still like the idea of throwing bricks at them. Lord help me.

Art said...

I am appalled that John Meunier would like to throw bricks at dogs. I would rather throw them at conservatives...

Anonymous said...


I wish that I had the flare of your brother to rant! Your post resonated with me this afternoon, especially after visiting L&H.

I would hesitate to hang your proverbial hat on "scientific proof" with the above referenced study. This study appears flawed for a myriad of reasons. Suffice it to say that, that not everything in life comes in a nice, neat labelled package.
With respect to the topic of respectful and grace filled dialogue, color me a pessimist based upon my experiences here and at other outposts in the Methoblogosphere. In the past, I mentioned the fact of one being able to disagree without being disagreeable. Such sentiment was condescendedly dismissed as "sounding nice". Darned if you do, who cares if you don't!
I recently had an encounter with Art Ruch over at Locust and Honey that highlights your point. Not suprising,in his offering above, propagating his ideological bent is far more important than the conversation itself.
In closing, I offer one of my favorite quotes from General Colin Powell: "Don't let your ego get too close to your position, so that if your position gets shot down, your ego doesn't go with it."

Thnaks for the bandwidth.


Anonymous said...



I have no desire to pollute your blog with "stuff" from other outposts. If an apology is in order: Mea Culpa!


Allan R. Bevere said...


Quite an interesting post, but I agree with you that we need to be be careful about drawing "scientific" conclusions from the study. I know it is unscientific" but I also know plenty of smart and open-minded conservatives as well as stupid, closed-minded liberals, and vice-versa.

I am interested to know the ideological "bent" of those who did the study.

Art, no offense intended, but I am sure I lean more conservative than you on many issues. So do you want to throw bricks at me, and do you think I am less intelligent?

By the way, I was a pitcher in high school. If you throw bricks at me, I think I could return the favor, although, you are a pretty nice guy. I would probably miss on purpose.