Prabir Purkayastha | 9 APRIL, 2015
Are right-wingers dumber than others? How else can we explain the tenacity with which a set of them hold on to beliefs in flying machines and genetics 7,000 years back, or deny evolution or climate change? Why does the right, confronted with evidence contrary to its belief systems, prefer to invent its own facts? Why have a number of studies shown a statistically significant correlation between lower intelligence and holding racist beliefs or other prejudices
Well, it appears that there is an element of truth in conservatives being dumber. It is not that they are born less intelligent; but they “use” their brain in a different way. Studies in psychology show that certain kinds of people use the amygdala, that part of the brain that processes emotions including fear, more than the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the part of the brain that processes uncertainties and conflicts. There is a correlation here: those who are prejudiced have a larger amygdala, and those who are more open, a larger ACC region. This is not a cause-effect issue; it is not that people are more conservative because they have a more active amygdala. It is also possible that in those fearful of change, the amygdala gets enlarged; if people are willing to deal with uncertainties, their ACC could grow more. The brain does not develop only on its own; it is also a product of our thinking.
What is the consequence of being unable to handle uncertainties? It promotes what would be called low effort thought. The mode of thinking dominated by our fear of the unknown, or venturing into uncertain territory, leads to remaining imprisoned in our existing belief system. Venturing into conflicts and uncertainties call for greater efforts in thinking through contradictions. Being open requires more mental or cognitive effort. Being closed requires much less.
Such low effort thinking happens not only to people who let their fears govern their responses. It also operates under conditions when our ability to think reduces. In a study carried out on people with different levels of alcohol, it was found that people became more conservative in their responses as alcohol level in their blood increased. Similarly, if they were subjected simultaneously to other cognitive tasks, or asked to give answers with less time to respond, they again “became” more conservative. A lower effort in thinking is correlated with a more conservative response.
It is not only in political thinking that we see this kind of phenomena. We see it also, for example, among vaccine deniers, a group in the US that cuts across the political spectrum. A study on vaccine deniers shows that irrespective of the way vaccine deniers were approached, their desire to vaccinate their children did not increase. Even when they corrected their belief that vaccination does not cause the disease or autism - a belief prevalent among vaccine deniers – there was no change in their opinion on the need to vaccinate their children. Some of the methods of communicating the benefits of vaccination actually backfired: when shown pictures of diseases vaccination could prevent, the parents associated the vaccines with the disease.
This is where the fear processing comes in. Even before the cognitive process begins, the fear centre starts processing the “new” data. If it confronts an existing belief system that sees such new data or facts as a danger, the response, for conservatives, is to change the facts. The less the person is willing to think about uncertainties, the more likely he or she is to stick to her framework or belief system. This is why, be it climate change, evolution, or closer home, the mythical achievements of ancient Indian science, the right wingers come out with their “alternate” set of facts, or even an alternate universe!
The conservative or right wing mind thinks in terms of simple belief systems based on existing prejudices. If there is racism in society, they are more likely to mirror it. If there is hatred for other communities, they are more likely to reflect that as well. Change in thinking demands more effort. Repeating what parents and other authority figures tell you requires less effort. It’s not surprising then that authoritarian figures who lay down the “law” are so much a part of the right.
The people who prefer to live in low effort thinking mode do not find it easy to interact with people outside their own group – be it race, religion, or language. Encounters with those who come from a different cultural background requires a higher level of effort; this is true even to understand what others are saying. This is additional cognitive load, requiring additional effort. Right wingers tend to avoid interaction with other groups, and also exhibit hostility toward these groups. Being anti-immigrant, or believing that other communities are different, is a consequence of staying away from them, and so reinforcing existing prejudices.
Not only is there empirical evidence of right wingers tending to be dumber than the left, there is also an explanation of why it is so. Of course, such studies are based on the controversial premise that intelligence is measurable in some way. And these measures are based on averages; they do not tell us anything about a particular individual on the right or the left. But we do see that if we test a large number of people, on the average, the less intelligent are also likely to have views that are more prejudiced.
These studies also explain why the right wing is continuously engaged in fear-mongering. In India, for example,why does the right spread the myth that “the Muslims are growing faster than Hindus” even when figures show that corrected for economic status, there is no difference between the growth rate of the two communities? In the US, it has been the fear of the “blacks”, and now, also of Muslims, equated with “terrorists”. Hence the prominence of the war on “terror”in the west, particularly among the Republican right. Thus a Netanyahu in Israel could talk about a giant, left-wing global conspiracy to defeat him in the elections. The fear factor dominates the right-wing base. The more they can sell their stories of threat, the greater the chance of fearful people changing sides. It’s in this way that communal riots that create fear among communities becomes fertile ground for the right.
So how does the left approach the people? Do we approach the people with the same strategy as the right? Make them more scared about their future with the rise of the right? Talk about how our future is in danger with the current set of policies?
Can we also use fear as an instrument?
A similar approach by the left simply would not succeed. Increasing fear as a strategy -- even when there is a genuine threat to the people – will lead to more conservative responses and increase the chances of people moving further to the right. Fear promotes conservatism and not a radical response.
George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics, has advanced the argument that the left should not use the metaphors of the right. In his view, people think in metaphors, and all abstractions such as “tax cuts” and “reliefs” relate to how they perceive the metaphor of “relief”. If the left talks critically even of tax reliefs, they reinforce the belief that tax cuts are actually “reliefs”. Relief is a positive metaphor – relief from pain or other afflictions. The minute we use the word relief, the critical message is offset by the positive metaphor associated with relief.
Unfortunately, the issue is not so simple. The research on how we think shows that people do not think only in terms of positive or negative metaphors. They have a belief system, not just a set of metaphors. Any argument or factual contradiction of such a belief system leads to the rejection of either the argument or the facts, and not a change of the belief system. We have to change the way people think rather than choose a different language of presenting facts. We could, of course, stop using certain words and phrases as Professor Lakoff recommends; but that’s not enough. The crux of the issue is the underlying belief system, and so the question: can make them think deeper?
How, then, do we change belief systems? First, pedagogically speaking, it is active learning that produces systems of knowledge. Systemic understanding develops when we interact with the world. It is by doing science experiments that we learn about the natural world. Learning by rote – memorising “knowledge” -- or a passive mode of learning, leads to the inability to distinguish between “received” wisdom and scientific knowledge. An active mode of learning helps to think through contradictions, and so develop a scientific viewpoint. A passive mode promotes conservative thinking.
An understanding of society is no different. Instead of class room experiments of science, we have movements in society that are our laboratories. Here we learn about the social system of which we are a part. While trying to change society we really understand it.
A number of well meaning people fault the left for not being more effective communicators. What they miss is that communication is only one part of the problem.
The right's increased power of communications is a consequence of the rise of neoliberalism, its transformation of the media, the role that advertising and advertisers play, and the new monopolies emerging withe rise of digital technologies. These media monopolies and their support for the right, coupled with the weakening of the traditional movements of the left, constitute the real challenge.
The neoliberal economic order has fragmented the workplace. It has led to the weakening of unions and the working class movement, not only in India but all over the world. How do we organise working class movements under the structural changes that are taking place under neoliberal capitalism? Only by addressing this central problem can we also address the left's problem of communications.