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How personality and partisanship get in the way of science

In the current issue of Newsweek, senior editor Sharon Begley laments how the liberal-conservative partisan divide now includes “the accuracy of scientific findings” — a divide she also calls “a gold mine for research on how personality and other psychological factors influence political ideology.”

One example: the recent uproar over the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s new evidence-based guidelines regarding mammography screening. Says Begley:

The red-blue split on mammograms is particularly striking. In a recent poll, the Pew Research Center asked 1,002 American adults about [the task force’s] conclusion that most women can safely begin mammograms at age 50, not 40, and have one every two years, not annually. (Large studies have found that earlier mammograms save almost no lives; since the radiation can cause cancer, it therefore makes sense to minimize them.) Among Republicans, 15 percent agreed with that. Among Democrats? Twice as many.

Why this difference? Says Begley:

One reason, of course, is that the mammogram wars have become entangled in health-care reform, with accusations that the advice is part of a dastardly plot to ration care…. But something else is going on, something that speaks to how traits of personality affect political leanings. Since people do not pore over oncology studies and reach their own conclusion on the credibility of the science, they have to trust experts — or not. And thus the partisan divide: Republicans tend to distrust “elites,” especially now that the GOP is more Palin than George H.W. Bush or other scion of the white-shoe establishment. In the mammogram debate, that distrust encompasses pointy-headed scientists and makes those who disdain “the reality-based community,” as an aide to George W. Bush called scientists, go with the “common sense” view that mammograms save lives.

Begley summarizes recent research on the personality differences between liberals and conservatives: Liberals tend to be “more open to new experiences and ideas,” studies have found, while conservatives lean toward being “more conscientious, more energetic, and more emotionally stable.”

These differences in personality traits are significant for, as Begley notes, they “predict voting decisions more strongly than age or gender.”

Begley also discusses how the partisan personality divide affects beliefs about climate change.


Conservatives, part of whose ideology is to respect and protect the status quo, tend to engage in … “systems justification” more than liberals, tending to view corporations, markets, government, and other institutions as legitimate and benign. Acknowledging climate change means recognizing “shortcomings of the current system” and “admitting that the status quo must change.

We may want to “believe our views on political and empirical questions are the product of rational thought and analysis,” concludes Begley. “But belief doesn’t make it so.”

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