Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why No Republican Compromise: Not mentally capable?

A CNN story this morning caught my eye. Actually it was more than that; I was almost shocked by the implications.
Willing to
Stick to
These numbers alone are pretty scary. According to CNN, "Forty one percent of Republicans questioned in the survey say it is more important for lawmakers to stick to their beliefs even if little gets done." Imagine if the Democrats adopted that same rigid unwillingness to compromise. Our government would come to a standstill.

Coincidentally I read a fantastic article yesterday called Neuroscience and Fundamentalism by Kenneth M. Heilman and Russell S. Donda (sent to me by reader cipher – thanks!).

According to Heilman and Donda, there may be genetic reasons for why some people have more flexible beliefs than others:
How is it that one person can find it utterly intolerable to believe anything other than a given interpretation of religious doctrine, while another appears comfortable with adding his or her own meaning to the same literature? It is conceivable that the mystery underlying these distinct approaches arises from a not often considered, yet key difference in brain function.
In other words, some of us may be biologically programmed to be inflexible! I encourage you to read the whole fascinating article; I can't do it justice with a few quotes.

But there's more. Heilman and Donda go on to say that the tendency towards fundamentalist thinking can be amplified by a child's environment:
Children raised in environments which consistently reward convergent reasoning [fitting new facts into existing beliefs] and strict adherence but punish divergent reasoning [finding new solutions], could conceivably grow into adults who are prone to getting stuck in various beliefs or ideologies.
It's the old nature-versus-nurture question, except that according to Heilman and Donda, both can conspire to make a person unwilling or unable to compromise or adopt new beliefs.

The third piece of this puzzle was a blog that I wrote which inspired cipher to send me that link, Scientific Study: Misinformed People become MORE Certain When Presented With Facts. When I re-read my own blog, it all fit together.

I'd like to draw some sweeping conclusions about how Republican inflexibility and unwillingness to compromise is tied to all sorts of nature/nurture arguments, but life isn't that simple. There are plenty of thoughtful, deep-thinking Republicans and plenty of fundamentalist Democrats who can be just as infuriating in their dogma as their conservative counterparts. But as these studies show, Republicans are more inflexible than Democrats, and religious fundamentalists are more inflexible than their more liberal religious brethren and non-religious people.

I do think there's some sort of connection. For some reason, the right/left political divide has become almost synonymous with the religious divide in America, and I think that both neuroscience and behavioral science are giving us insight about why religion and politics go together.

As for me, I like folk singer Arlo Guthrie's philosophy:
I'd rather have friends who care than friends who agree with me.
And to that I would add: I'd rather have friends who think than friends who just have faith, whether it's political faith or religious faith.


  1. Yeah, I've seen this sort of result before. At one point, I came across a report of an experiment in which children were followed from kindergarten through adulthood. The differences in approach to life between those who grew up to be conservatives and those who became liberals were already in evidence in early childhood. If I can find it, I'll send it to you.

    This is the main reason I have little hope left for the future of humanity. If you factor in all of the hundreds of millions of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists worldwide (along with the handful of ultra-Orthdox Jews), the number must come to over a billion. That's one-sixth of the population perfectly comfortable with abandoning billions of their human siblings for all of eternity - and, as I say, although environmental factors can influence it, the basic tendency seems to be hard-wired.

    I simply see no way in which beings like these can solve their problems. The only hope I could see would be if we were to begin breeding this maladaptive trait out of the genome - and, of course, that ain't gonna happen.

  2. cipher - While American politics can be very frustrating, I don't share your pessimism. Take a look at this article:

    Why Germany Has It So Good -- and Why America Is Going Down the Drain

    The article is about socialism and the economy, but underlying that is a strong sense that religious fundamentalism and intolerance are much less pronounced in Germany than in America.

    I can't believe that there is a significant difference in the genetics of America versus Germany, which only leaves a child's education and social environment to explain the difference.

    So while the road ahead may be long, perhaps generations long, I think there is hope. But we have to keep doing what we're doing: Blogging, talking, educating, whatever each one of us is best at that enlightens our society and changes attitudes.

  3. Theocrazy here we come. -_-


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