The Psychological Differences Between Conservatives and Liberals

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Ben Cohen
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In a brilliant article in the Guardian, George Monbiot researches the psychological differences between the Left and Right and asserts that to have a successful progressive movement, the left must stop trying to appeal to self interest (a defining component of right wing ideology) and champion its own values of empathy, environment and social justice. He writes:

Our social identity is shaped by values that psychologists classify as extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement. People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame. Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance. Those who have a strong set of intrinsic values are not dependent on praise or rewards from other people. They have beliefs that transcend their self-interest.

Few people are all-extrinsic or all-intrinsic. Our social identity is formed by a mixture of values. But psychological tests in nearly 70 countries show that values cluster in remarkably consistent patterns. Those who strongly value financial success, for example, have less empathy, stronger manipulative tendencies, a stronger attraction to hierarchy and inequality, stronger prejudices towards strangers and less concern about human rights and the environment. Those with a strong sense of self-acceptance have more empathy and greater concern for human rights, social justice and the environment. These values suppress each other: the stronger someone's extrinsic aspirations, the weaker his or her intrinsic goals.

Monbiot believes that the 'selfish' values have consumed the progressive movement and threatened to destroy it:

Instead of confronting the shift in values, we have sought to adapt to it. Once progressive parties have tried to appease altered public attitudes: think of all those New Labour appeals to middle England, often just a code for self-interest. In doing so they endorse and legitimise extrinsic values. Many greens and social justice campaigners have also tried to reach people by appealing to self-interest: explaining how, for example, relieving poverty in the developing world will build a market for British products, or suggesting that, by buying a hybrid car, you can impress your friends and enhance your social status. This tactic also strengthens extrinsic values, making future campaigns even less likely to succeed. Green consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake.

The answer, he writes, is to stop apologising for progressive values and seek to confront the onsalught of advertising, consumerism and money obsession:

Progressive campaigners....should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces – particularly the advertising industry – that make us insecure and selfish.

While Monbiot is an idealist, there is ample evidence that serious progressive movements can make dents if it is organized and sticks to its principles. Just look at the massive change in Latin America - Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuala have all swung dramatically to the Left in recent years leading to a huge change in the plight of the poor and the overall pyschology of the country. And if it is possible in countries where most of the population live in poverty, it is possible anywhere.