What sort of person could support the GOP? Science says people with poorly functioning brains.

JaclynGlenn / YouTube IDIOTIC DONALD TRUMP SUPPORTERS 1538914861.jpg...
JaclynGlenn / YouTube

To align with the GOP is not simply a display of absolute depravity, revealing the utter absence of a moral conscience (although it certainly reflects those things).

To align with the GOP tells us some things about a person’s cognitive functioning, none of them good.

Tom Jacobs, writing for Pacific Standard, highlights recent research that adds to voluminous previous studies all converging on something that every progressive knows intuitively, any time a conservative opens their mouth:


New research reports Trump voters were more likely to perform poorly on a test of intellectual ability.
“Intellectual factors played an important role in the 2016 election,” writes a research team led by Yoav Ganzach of Tel Aviv University. “These results suggest that the 2016 U.S. presidential election had less to do with party affiliation, income, or education, and more to do with basic cognitive ability.”
For those still inclined to trot out the ‘economic hardship/economic anxiety’ mythology of why people pulled the lever for Trump, the facts on the ground show once again why this zombie fictional narrative needs to buried once and for all:
“Support for Trump was better predicted by lower verbal ability than education or income,” the researchers add. “Our analyses indicate that support for Trump was less about socioeconomic standing, and more about intellect.”

Poor cognitive functioning is manifested in a number of ways in the choices and ‘reasoning’ of rank and file GOP voters, who reliably support the most grotesque individuals, and horrific policies, the nation has ever produced. Among the psychological characteristics that consistently distinguish conservatives from progressives are the capacity to think critically, and flexibly, and the ability to consider a range of information and views, as I have noted in prior diaries:

Persuading conservatives with facts and logic: Good luck with that. (Dec. 1, 2016)

Let’s be clear— it’s the GOP as a whole, and anybody who identifies themselves as conservative, who’ve dispensed with empirical reality and logic, long before Trump. In fact, it’s this shrugging off of any burdensome trifle like data or critical thinking that created the conditions for Trump, and for the sixty million people who voted for him. Trump is not sui generis. They built this monstrosity, one absurdly false statement at a time.

Here’s an article in the open-access journal, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, that addresses ‘climate change skepticism’, and related issues of ‘my superstitious, ideologically driven ignorance is as valid as your evidence based scientific conclusions’:

Public debate and skepticism are essential to a functioning democracy. Indeed, skepticism has been shown to enable people to differentiate more accurately between truth and falsehood (e.g.,Lewandowsky, Stritzke, Oberauer, & Morales, 2005, 2009). However, when medical researchers who investigate the adverse health effects of tobacco are accused of being a “cartel” that “manufactures alleged evidence” (Abt, 1983, p. 127), or when climate change is labeled a “hoax” that is ostensibly perpetrated by corrupt scientists (Inhofe,2012),or when an American corporate front group likens climate scientists to the Unabomber (an American anarchist convicted of terrorism) in a billboard campaign (Zwick, 2012), then those statements are more indicative of the denial of scientific facts than expressions of skepticism (Diethelm & McKee, 2009; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Oberauer, 2013; Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, 2013; McKee & Diethelm, 2010). (pg. 559)

It’s not that we live in some new,  post-truth era, this is a hoary tradition— the antecedents for conservatism’s disregard of any factual information that they find irksome can be traced directly to the Catholic Church’s trial of Galileo— observations that refute dogma are suppressed or discredited. It is somewhat novel how modern conservatism has been able to contort the good-faith framework of scholars and researchers— reliance on criticism, counter-hypothesis, and reasoned debate to strengthen scientific claims, and discard faulty ones— to undermine faith in the scientific enterprise itself…


Persuading conservatives with appeals to facts and logic: Good luck with that- Part 2 (Jan. 13, 2017)

There are personality traits that have been studied by psychologists for several decades (called the ‘Big Five’), that have been shown to play a role in many observed behaviors, choices we make, and attitudes. One of them, Openness to Experience, largely overlaps with worldview:

Personality and Political Attitudes: Relationships across Issue Domains and Political Contexts, Gerber, A. et. al. (2010) American Political Science Review

Our findings regarding Openness also comport with prior research that finds an association between this trait and liberal attitudes. Again, as predicted, we show that this trait is associated with support for liberal economic and social policies. These associations are quite strong: a two SD increase in Openness is associated with a 0.66 unit change in ideological self-placement (0.56 SD), a 0.48 SD increase in economic liberalism, and a 0.53 SD increase in social liberalism. The magnitudes of these effects are larger than the effects of either income or education. (pg 121, emphasis added).

You are liberal, and pursued a career in science. Both of these show a curiosity about the world, and other people. That is Openness to Experience. This characteristic also makes you receptive to alternative points of view. Someone who is not open to experience, will not be receptive to hearing other views.

They are not closed off intellectually because they are conservative, they are conservative because they are closed off intellectually, closed off to information and experiences that challenge beliefs that support their views of themselves, their place in the world, their self-worth…

In short, conservatives tend to form judgments about others and the world out of the visceral reactions of fear and disgust. This is why conservative messages and policies are infused with the language of purity and contamination, threat, and self-defense. Inter-racial and gay marriages ‘contaminate’ and ‘threaten the existence’ of white heterosexual culture, and so people of color and LGBT individuals must be quarantined, or (in the case of hate crimes, eradicated).

We can ask why conservatives seem so comfortable with bigotry, and it’s because they feel they are protecting themselves from harm. In the extreme, this view leads one to view genocide as self-defense— it is an act akin to stopping a perceived plague.

These are not viewpoints susceptible to either empirical data or logical argumentation, they are in many ways reflexive responses.

If you ever have the feeling that listening to a GOP voter, or reptilian GOP Senator, that they reside in some alternate reality (a reality composed of ‘alternative facts’), well, you’re right:

Reality Matters. But not to everyone. (June 25, 2017)

How can we try to reach some sort of compromise, let alone a consensus, about how to fix a problem, when millions of people refuse to acknowledge the problem exists at all? An especially clear example of this problem is the refusal to accept the reality of climate change due to carbon combustion.

The increase in temperatures globally is producing measurable changes in the severity of weather events now, and these events will worsen in the future, so we need to take steps to mitigate these hazards, as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make clear in its report Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation:

Understanding the multi-faceted nature of both exposure and vulnerability is a prerequisite for determining how weather and climate events contribute to the occurrence of disasters, and for designing and implementing effective adaptation and disaster risk management strategies. [2.2, 2.6] Vulnerability reduction is a core common element of adaptation and disaster risk management. (pg. 8)

These efforts will be expensive, long-term, and will necessarily entail major changes in lifestyle, and displacement of whole communities. Accordingly, communities, and nations, must accept the situation, and agree to make the sacrifices required to reduce the adverse effects of climate change.

And the US is, far and away, the primary purveyor of climate change denial:

American climate change deniers have been remarkably successful in confusing public opinion and delaying decisive action. They receive considerable media attention and enjoy access to key Washington power brokers.

This is on full display not just in Beltway debates and demonstrations, but in local decision making:

On the Delaware Bay, N.J. town struggles against sea rise.

People who live in these communities don’t all agree with scientists who say they are on the front lines of climate change. Some insist it’s a temporary phenomenon that could be endured with enough effort and money.

Downe Mayor Robert Campbell discovered the township on a Sunday drive 35 years ago, fell in love with it, and stayed.

Now, Campbell, also a GOP candidate for state Assembly, is fighting to keep Downe’s six communities — which also include Fortescue, Dividing Creek, Newport, and Dyer’s Cove — viable. Scientists, he says, just don’t get it.

“There is no sea-level rise, and it’s a bunch of hogwash,” Campbell says.

This bayside community, whose homes are literally becoming submerged as sea-levels rise, elected as their leader— the person who will represent their interests with the state and federal governments— someone who believes climate change and sea-level rise is ‘hogwash’.

How can someone see ocean water submerging their homes around them, and say confidently ‘just ain’t happening’? This sort of person:

Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.

Jost, J. et. al. (2003) Psychological Bulletin 129 (3) 339—375

We propose that a motivated social—cognitive approach offers the greatest potential for unifying relatively diverse theories and findings related to the psychological basis of political conservatism—that is, theories and findings that link social and cognitive motives to the contents of specific political attitudes. Specifically,we distill key insights from theories of personality and individual differences, theories of epistemic and existential needs, and sociopolitical theories of ideology as individual and collective rationalizations. (pg. 340)

Past research and theory on conservatism in sociology, economics,and political science has often assumed that people adopt conservative ideologies out of self-interest (see Sears & Funk,1991). This account fits well with data indicating increased conservatism among upper-class elites (e.g., Centers, 1949; Sidanius& Ekehammar, 1979). Although we grant that self-interest is one among many motives that are capable of influencing political attitudes and behavior, our review requires a reexamination of this issue. Specifically, many of the theories we integrate suggest that motives to overcome fear, threat, and uncertainty may be associated with increased conservatism, and some of these motives should be more pronounced among members of disadvantaged and low-status groups. As a result, the disadvantaged might embrace right-wing ideologies under some circumstances to reduce fear,anxiety, dissonance, uncertainty, or instability (e.g., Jost, Pelham,Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003; Lane, 1962; Nias, 1973), whereas the advantaged might gravitate toward conservatism for reasons ofself-interest or social dominance (e.g., Centers, 1949; Sidanius &Ekehammar, 1979; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). (pp. 341-342)

Intolerance of ambiguity, by increasing cognitive and motivational tendencies to seek certainty, is hypothesized to lead peopl eto cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic clichés and stereotypes. In a review of research on ambiguity intolerance, Furnham and Ribchester (1995) providedthe following list of consequences of this tendency:

Resistance to reversal of apparent fluctuating stimuli, the early selection and maintenance of one solution in a perceptually ambiguous situation, inability to allow for the possibility of good and bad traits in the same person, acceptance of attitude statements representing a rigid, black-white view of life, seeking for certainty, a rigid dichotomirizing into fixed categories, premature closure, and remaining closed to familiar characteristics of stimuli. (p. 180)

Thus, theories of intolerance of ambiguity combine psychodynamic antecedents with a wide range of perceptual, cognitive,motivational, social, and political consequences. (pg. 346)

Rokeach’s theory, like some of its predecessors, combines elements of epistemic and existential motivation in seeking to explain social and political attitudes. In another passage, he argued further that, “if the closed or dogmatic mind is extremely resistant to change, it may be so not only because it allays anxiety but also because it satisfies the need to know” (Rokeach, 1960, p. 68). (pg. 346)

Conservatives reside within a social, cultural and psychological landscape constructed of over-lapping, self-reinforcing  delusions that they cannot allow others to disturb, because it is contiguous with their sense of self:

The Psychology of Trump Supporters Part 2: Pathologically Fantasy Prone People. (Sept. 29, 2016)

I think a great number of Trump supporters, especially those that given to conspiracy theories, and are dismissive of science, or documentation that contradicts their beliefs, do live in a different reality. That reality get’s reinforced by those they interact with, and where they get their news, but it is nevertheless a self-constructed world. In that world, they get to make the rules for what is real, what is not, what is evidence, etc:

Scientific theories, by definition, must be falsifiable. That is, they must make reliable predictions about the world; and if those predictions turn out to be incorrect, the theory can be declared false. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are tough to disprove. Their proponents can make the theories increasingly elaborate to accommodate new observations; and, ultimately, any information contradicting a conspiracy theory can be answered with, “Well sure, that’s what they want you to think.”

Despite their unfalsifiable nature, conspiracy theories attract significant followings. Not all theorists, it seems, hold their “truths” to the standards of conventional science….

While we all daydream and fantasize, if we’re reasonably psychologically healthy and cognitively intact, we are able to distinguish our fantasy life from reality. Not everyone is able to make this distinction consistently:

the totality of the research indicates that there is this broad clinical entity known as the fantasy-prone personality type, which is likely comprised of various psychological and neurological conditions that result in heightened fantasizing and/or an impaired ability to distinguish internal fantasy from external reality. Research indicates that this subset of humanity is disproportionately responsible for a large number of reported paranormal experiences, including ghosts, angels, aliens, abductions, out of body experiences, near death experiences, reincarnation, and others.

A more detailed description of the pathological fantasy prone personality is found here:

A fantasy prone person is reported to spend a large portion of their time fantasizing, have vividly intense fantasies, have paranormal experiences, and have intense religious experiences.[5] People with FPP are reported to spend over half of their time awake fantasizing or daydreaming and will often confuse or mix their fantasies with their real memories. They also report out-of-body experiences.[5]

A paracosm is an extremely detailed and structured fantasy world often created by extreme or compulsive fantasizers.[6]

Trump supporters are acting out in reality- but behind the anonymity of the crowd or the internet— their fantasies of righteous triumph over evil

What sort of person who can repeatedly witness crimes against humanity, for years, or perhaps decades, and not only tacitly endorse, but enthusiastically support these crimes and their perpetrators?

This sort of person:

Ideological Asymmetries and the Essence of Political Psychology

John T. Jost

Political Psychology, Vol. 38, No. 2, 2017

“Aggregating across 181 studies involving over 130,000 research participants from 14 different countries, we confirmed that political conservatism was positively associated with intolerance of ambiguity, need for cognitive closure, personal needs for order and structure, cognitive/perceptual rigidity, and dogmatism. In addition, liberalism was positively associated with integrative complexity, uncertainty tolerance, cognitive reflection, and need for cognition…” (pg. 179)

“Although the association between self-reported fear of death and conservatism was not reliable, we did observe significant effects of mortality salience, subjective perceptions of threat, and exposure to objectively threatening circumstances on conservatism. Furthermore,these effects did not seem to be restricted to social (or cultural) dimensions of ideology. When Sam Gosling, Jamie Pennebaker, and I administered questions about fear to a sample of approximately 1,000 undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, we observed that fear of terrorism was correlated with economic (r [1,019] 5 .33) as well as social (r [1,019] 5 .35) and general(r [1,023] 5 .38) conservatism (in all cases, p < .001)… Subjective perceptions of threat were associated not only with right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation but also with economic system justification and ideological self-placement in general.” (pg. 185)

(n.b., my favorite series of statements, ever, to be found in an article in a peer-reviewed journal, from the above-excerpted article):

 Those who identified themselves as conservative and expressed favorable evaluations of three leading Republican candidates for president (Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio) were more receptive to pseudo-profound bullshit than those who did not. There was no relationship between evaluations of Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley and bullshit receptivity. (pg. 178, emphasis added)

But feel free to tell us how if we just reached out, listened, try to understand these folks just a bit more, they’ll come around to a more reasonable way of thinking.

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2 Comments on "What sort of person could support the GOP? Science says people with poorly functioning brains."

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I think they meant “non-functioning” brain!

David Bishop
David Bishop

The religious.