I’ve been hesitating to write this column. But increasingly, everything I write and think about seems to come back to the same point: the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. That divide is tearing the world apart. And technology seems to be accelerating the forces causing the rift, rather than reversing them.
First, a warning: I am a liberal. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of my columns, but I did want to put it out there. And the reason I feel that warning is required is that with this column, I’m diving into the dangerous waters. I’m going to be talking about the differences between liberal and conservative brains, particularly those brains that are working in the media space.
Last week, I talked about the evolution of media bias through two -- and, what seems increasingly likely, three -- impeachment proceedings. Mainstream media has historically had a left bias. In a longitudinal study of journalism, two professors at Indiana University, Lars Willnat and David Weaver, found that in 2012, just 7% of American journalists identified themselves as Republican, while 28% said they were Democrats. Over 50% said they were Independent, but I suspect this is more a statement on the professed objectivity of journalists than their actual political leanings. I would be willing to bet that those independents sway left far more often than they sway right.
So, it’s entirely fair to say that mainstream media does have a liberal bias. The question is, why? Is it a premeditated conspiracy, or just a coincidental correlation?
I believe the bias is actually self-selected. Those who choose to go into journalism have brains that work in a particular way -- a way most often found in people who fall on the liberal end of the spectrum.
I first started putting this hypothesis together when I read the following passage in Robert Sapolsky’s book “Behave, The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.” Sapolsky was talking about a growing number of studies looking at the cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives: “This literature has two broad themes. One is that rightists are relatively uncomfortable intellectually with ambiguity…The other is that leftists, well, think harder, have a greater capacity for what the political scientist Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania calls ‘integrative complexity.'”
Sapolsky goes on to differentiate these intellectual approaches: “Conservatives start gut and stay gut; liberals go from gut to head.”
Going from “gut to head” is a pretty good quality for journalists. In fact, you could say it’s their job description.
Sapolsky cites a number of studies he bases this conclusion on. In the abstract of one of these studies, the researchers note: “Liberals are more likely to process information systematically, recognize differences in argument quality, and to be persuaded explicitly by scientific evidence, whereas conservatives are more likely to process information heuristically, attend to message-irrelevant cues such as source similarity, and to be persuaded implicitly through evaluative conditioning. Conservatives are also more likely than liberals to rely on stereotypical cues and assume consensus with like-minded others.”
This is about as good a description of the differences between mainstream media and the alt-right media as I’ve seen. The researchers further note that “Liberals score higher than conservatives on need for cognition and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives score higher than liberals on intuitive thinking and self-deception.”
That explains so much of the current situation. Liberals tend to be investigative journalists. Conservatives tend to be opinion columnists and pundits. One group is using their head. The other is using their gut.
Of course, it’s not just the conservative media that relies on gut instinct. The Commander in Chief uses the same approach. In a 2016 article in The Washington Post, Marc Fisher probed Trump’s disdain for reading: “He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions [with very little knowledge other than 'the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words "common sense," because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.'”
I have nothing against intuition. The same Post article goes on to give examples of other presidents who relied on gut instinct. Fisher notes, however, that even when these are factored in, Trump is still an outlier.
But when the stakes are as high as they are now, I prefer intuition combined with some research and objective evaluation.
We believe in the concept of equality and fairness, as we should. For that reason, I hesitate to put yet another wall between conservatives and liberals. But, in seeking answers to complex questions, I think we have to be open and honest about the things that make us different.
There is a reason some of us are liberals and some of us are conservatives: Our brains work differently.* And when those differences extend to our processing of our respective realities and the sources we turn to for information, we should be aware of them. We should take them into account in evaluating our media choices. We should go forward with open minds.
Unfortunately, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir. If you got this far in my column, you’re probably a liberal too.
* If you really want to dig further, check out the paper “Are Conservatives from Mars and Liberals from Venus?, Maybe Not So Much” by Linda Skitka, one of the foremost researchers exploring this question.