Social Science Discovers Experience-Loving, Hard-Thinking Libertarians

In his response essay, Michael Shermer asks, “Are Conservatives Fearful Dogmatic Thugs?” His query is provoked by the fact that many academic researchers claim to have reached this conclusion through the objective application of the scientific method. In particular, Shermer cites New York University professor John Jost, whose work he critiqued in his book The Believing Brain. Jost and his colleagues have concluded:

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change. Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality.

Jost, who was given the opportunity to review Shermer’s book, accused Shermer of engaging in ad hominem attacks on Jost and his fellow researchers, thus, in a sense, proving that Shermer is in fact motivated by thuggish fear as opposed to objective science.[1] In effect, Shermer’s “attacks” are just more QED for Jost’s research on conservatives.

Shermer ends his essay by asking other participants in this round of Cato Unbound if they see “same bias that I do, or is it my own libertarian (and fiscally conservative) bias that bristles at being so characterized by such personality dimensions as ‘fear of uncertainty,’ ‘dogmatism,’ and ‘endorsement of inequality’?”

To answer Shermer’s question: Yes, I do see the same bias that you do. But then again, according to Jost, I would, right? Still, the interesting question remains: Is it possible that academic psychological researchers are biased against conservatism? A telling anecdote was reported in the New York Times earlier this year when University of Virginia researcher Jonathan Haidt asked participants in the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology how many in the audience considered themselves to be politically liberal. As the Times reported:

A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility—and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

The process of science is supposed to help humanity overcome our innate tendencies toward confirmation bias—a point strongly made in Shermer’s new book. Science is necessary because confirmation bias is everywhere. Research by Dan Kahan and colleagues at the Yale Cultural Cognition Project[2] has shown time and again that when confronted with policy issues involving tradeoffs involving technological benefits and risks, it turns out that those who identify as liberals (egalitarians and communitarians) in particular fear change and—to quote Jost—“reject out of hand scientific findings that might be experienced as disagreeable.”

For example, a 2009 poll[3] by the Pew Center for the People and the Press reported that 70 percent of scientists favored building additional nuclear power plants. Sixty-two percent of Republicans also favored this, but only 45 percent of Democrats did. A more recent Pew poll [4] (without reference to scientific opinion) done after the nuclear disaster in Japan found that 49 percent Republicans still favored increased use of nuclear power, whereas only 31 percent of Democrats did.

Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have been doing political and moral values surveys for a number of years and have consistently identified value differences among conservatives and liberals. But new research shows when it comes to really being open to new experiences and evidence, an often overlooked group surpasses both liberals and conservatives—libertarians.

In their paper “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology,”[5] Haidt and colleagues turn their attention to libertarians. The researchers found that libertarians are as open to new experiences as liberals and outscore both liberals and conservatives when it comes to a need for cognition. The researchers explain that people who score high on need for cognition are more likely to form their attitudes by paying close attention to relevant arguments, whereas people with low need for cognition are more likely to rely on peripheral cues, such as how attractive or credible a speaker is. Libertarians certainly have biases and values, but they attend more closely to evidence and logical argument when issues arise. I translate this to mean that libertarians are just a bit more amenable than either liberals or conservatives to having their minds changed by new evidence.

In the end, I believe that the shift in social science research signaled by the work of Haidt and his colleagues is a strong indication that the blinkered ideology that blinds old-style left-leaning academicians like Jost is already being swept away.


[1] New York Times, “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within,” Feb. 7, 2011.

[2] Yale Cultural Cognition Project, various studies.; see also my article, “More Information Confirms What You Already Know,” June 12, 2007,

[3] Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, July 9, 2009 poll; see also AAAS press release, July 9, 2009.

[4] Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, March 21, 2011.

[5] “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology”; see also my article “The Science of Libertarian Morality,” Nov. 2, 2010.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael Shermer discusses scientific findings about belief formation. Beliefs, including political beliefs, are usually the result of automatic or intuitive moral judgments, not rational calculations. One cluster of those intuitions presumes that human nature is malleable; these usually produce a liberal politics. Another group of intuitions presumes that human nature is static; these tend to produce conservatism. But Shermer argues that humans really fall somewhere in between — malleable, within some important limits. He argues that this set of findings should produce a libertarian politics.

Response Essays

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky suggests that the partial mutability of human traits is an auxiliary reason at best for Michael Shermer’s libertarianism. Take that fact away, and Shermer’s politics probably wouldn’t go with it. Yudkowsky says that his own small-l libertarian tendencies come from the long history of government incompetence, indifference, and outright malevolence. These, and not brain science, are the best reasons for libertarians to believe what they do.

    Moreover, we make a logical error when we infer shares of causality from shares of observed variance; the relationship between nature and nurture is cooperative, not zero-sum. One thing, however, is clear: Human genetic variance is tiny, as indeed it must be for human beings all to constitute a single species. Environmental manipulation can only achieve so much in part because of this universal human inheritance.

  • Joe Carter invokes an argument by philosopher Alvin Plantinga: If purely naturalistic evolution created the human brain, then we should expect our brains to be tuned for survival, not for truth detection. Michael Shermer appears to agree, at least so far. But if this is the case, then we have no reason to consider the theory of purely naturalistic evolution, or for that matter any other set of propositions, to be true. Under this rubric, truths are at best possible; they can never be necessary. Indeed, the monkey mind can never know that it knows the truth.

  • Ronald Bailey argues that the freedom envisioned by classical liberals is congruent with science and democracy, and that the progress of all three together has enriched much of the world in the last two centuries. The enemies of this libertarian project hearken back to tendencies from mankind’s evolutionary history; for much of that history, experiment of any type could often be fatal, and therefore we find within us what may well be an evolved resistance to experiment. This resistance manifests politically as either conservatism, or a yearning for a purer, more primitive time, when noble savages walked the earth. It is a vice found on both left and right, Bailey argues, and one for which the antidote is libertarianism.