Is a Conservative or Liberal Born or Made?
Take a look at these two paintings:
Which do you prefer?
Is your office neat or messy? Would you choose a documentary or a sci-fi flick down at the cineplex, or opt for something in the action or horror genre?
And if you were picking out a pet dog, would you prefer a gentle breed with a mind of its own? Or would you want one that was loyal, obedient and easy to train?
Based on how you answer, social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt thinks he has a pretty good idea how you would vote. Conservatives normally choose the tidy office, the obedient pooch and an action movie where the hero is triumphant and evil is punished. And as for artwork? The more traditional the better.
"The big difference between liberals and conservatives is a trait called 'openness to experience,'" he explained while quizzing passers-by in Times Square. "Some people on the left tend to like variety, difference, something that's different. People on the right tend to like things that are more predictable and orderly, more conventional."
Tune into "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET to watch as "Nightline" anchor Bill Weir takes the test to the street.
Considering that most voters fall somewhere in the middle, this sort of stereotyping can be offensive at first blush. But Haidt uses these examples to illustrate where our political differences come from in the first place. He believes that when a baby is born, his tiny brain contains a few fundamental moral ingredients, including empathy, fairness, respect for authority and group loyalty. As a child grows, genetics and experience will make some of those moral ingredients more important than others.
"Your genes make your brain and your brain has a certain structure and that structure is going to really make some people drawn to novelty, new ideas, change, diversity," Haidt said. "Other people are going to prefer things that are sort of predictable, controllable, more safe. As these kids grow up, they are going to be exposed to all kinds of ideas and social groups. And maybe one group is more radical or obnoxious to authority and that seems really cool to the first kid but is sort of disturbing to the second kid. "
By the time people reach voting age, their "moral minds" are becoming more set. And while people tend to get more conservative as they get older, campaign events and presidential debates rarely have the power to override neurological wiring and years of personal experience.
"The nature of persuasion is that we don't persuade just by reason, we only change our mind when it feels right," Haidt said. "So if you don't trust the messenger or you have years of conditioning or part of your political identity, you're not going to be persuaded by a study showing that actually government will do a better job on this."
Haidt believes we live in the most politically polarized era of the last hundred years with a broken political system and massive fortunes being spent demonizing the other side. In times like these it is too easy to forget that a society needs both "sloppy artists" and "uptight soldiers" to survive.
"There used to be liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats; those are largely gone," Haidt said. "So now we're not like two sports teams competing, we are like something from 'Lord of the Rings.' 'We' are the perfectly good people and 'they' are the forces of darkness. And that's unfortunate, it's hard to have a democracy without compromise, and it's very hard to compromise when the people think the other side is evil."
"If one side controls everything, then the whole country's going to go to hell in very predictable ways," he continued. "We're all these moralistic creatures who are using our reasoning to support our side, and the other side is not evil, the other side does not hate America and want to destroy it. Both sides are perusing different morals, and we actually need elements of both in a society."