Smile Politely

Ideology and science

Science can be a trouble-maker.  Occasionally it will spit out some new, revolutionary theory that questions everything we think we know.  

I suppose that’s why so many historical conservatives have been wary of science. Over the centuries, they’ve had to adjust to the idea that the earth is round and revolves around the sun, that the universe is expanding rather than static, and that evolution governs biology.  It’s not that liberals have any stake in these things being true, it’s just that conservatives sometimes confuse their worldview with God’s truth, and thus have a much harder time re-adjusting.

On the other hand, scientific advances in areas such as market research and weaponry tend to favor conservatives, so it’s not all bad news. For as smart as we liberals think we are and as much as we honor scientific truth, we sure have trouble making a buck off it. Also, we are too timid to separate conservatives from their guns.

But revolutionary scientific theories are not very common.  For every study that reveals space and time to be in a single continuum, there are piles of studies that reveal grass to be green, vegetables to be good for you, and drugs to be bad for your grades. Important, maybe, but not very sexy.

So, what are we to make of last year’s The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives, by Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter?  This study makes the not-so-revolutionary claim that liberals and conservatives are different from each other. 

Namely, liberals tend to be more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives tend to be more conscientious, orderly, conventional, and better organized.  This seems to be more on the “grass is green” side of things.

Nonetheless, buried in the study was an interesting use of “unobtrusive measures.” An unobtrusive measure indirectly studies something without intruding on the person or thing being studied. For instance, instead of asking people in a museum what most interested them, or using cameras to count people, an unobtrusive measure would look at traffic patterns in carpet. The areas that are most worn would indicate which displays are the most popular. It’s a very clever way to study something, and reduces the odds of bias by both the researcher and the researchee.

The political ideology/personality study looked at the rooms and offices of liberals and conservatives, as an unobtrusive data point. What people leave out for others to see may tell us something about their personality, and may be correlated with a conservative/liberal ideology.

Below are the results, with conservatives items first and liberal items second:

Conservative, in decreasing order of likeliness:  +/- My Comments
Sports-related décor (posters, paintings, photos) .34 Not surprising that conservatives are more into sports, but as the first on the list?
Event calendar .31 Unlike liberals, conservatives know which nights their meetings are.
Postage stamps .30 Conservatives have more things to mail? Or are they just ready to mail?  If so, why don’t they support the postal service more?
Presence of string/thread .29  
Iron and/or ironing board .28  
Laundry basket .25  
Any type of flag (including USA flags) .23  Are there other types of flags?
Alcohol bottles/containers .23  Jack Daniels?
Flag of USA .21  Seems like this should have been higher.
Well-lit (vs. dark) .20  
Fresh (vs. stale) .17  
Neat (vs. messy) .16  
Clean (vs. dirty) .15  
Modern (vs. old-fashioned) .15  Would not have guessed this one. Well-done, conservatives.
Colorful (vs. gloomy) .12  
Stylish (vs. unstylish) .06  
 Liberal, in increasing order of likeliness    
Comfortable (vs. uncomfortable) -.01  
Organized (vs. disorganized) CDs -.10  We love sorting our music.
Cluttered (vs. uncluttered) -.11  
Distinctive (vs. ordinary) -.11  
Full (vs. empty) -.15  
Varied (vs. homogeneous) CDs -.19  Maybe this is why we have to sort our music.
Books about travel -.21  
Classic rock CDs -.22  
Modern rock CDs -.22  
Reggae music CDs -.22  Ya mon.
Collections (e.g., stamps, action figurines, etc.) -.22  Especially Star Wars action figures.
Cultural memorabilia (e.g., trinkets brought back from vacation) -.22  Assuming we can find them.
Tickets for/from travel -.22  
Many (vs. few) CDs -.23  
Books about ethnic topics -.24  Define “ethnic” please.
Folk music CDs -.24  No surprise here.
Tape dispenser -.24  The opposite of postage stamps?  However, it doesn’t say whether there is actual tape in the dispenser.
Movie tickets -.25  We love us our commie, Hollywood movies.
Books about feminist topics -.25  
Books about music -.25  What good is music if you can’t also read about it?
Oldies music CDs -.25  
International maps (maps of countries other than the USA) -.25  So we can point out the countries with reasonable health care systems.
Many (vs. few) books -.25  We love us our books.


Some items seem to confirm stereotypes (conservatives display flags, liberals own folk music), others seem random (conservatives keep stamps, liberals keep tape), and others seem to go against type (Classic Rock for liberals?)

Given that liberals are cluttered, bookish and very into their music, I guess we can confirm the stereotype that we are really just disheveled hippies.  But conservatives as fresh, neat, and clean?  With ironing boards and laundry baskets? The surprising result seems to be that conservatives are metrosexuals.

In the end, I guess this study confirms that you really can tell whether someone is conservative or liberal just by looking at them. Or at least by looking at their rooms.  

If you don’t want to tip your hand to the next person you bring home, my suggestion would be to go crazy and put out the tape dispenser next to the stamps.  Display a Peter’s Equal Area World Map between an American flag and a Brian Urlacher poster.  Iron your Bob Marley CD.   You’ll be a scientific enigma.

So, while the study is interesting, it is not very revolutionary.  It would have been more interesting if it revealed that political ideologies are the result of brain waves sent by reptilian zombies from the galaxy Zorcon, or determined by secret messages embedded in our souls from weeping angels in paradise. 

Then again, we’ve been arguing for centuries about evolution. Imagine how long it would take to work through who is getting messages from reptilian zombies and who is getting them from angels in paradise.

On the other hand, that argument isn’t too far off from the ones we usually have. Instead of arguing, maybe I’ll go listen to a folk music CD and read a book, since I know right where they are.


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