Friday, January 13, 2006

Liberals Really Aren't Nicer or More Altruistic Than Conservatives

As a Harvard alum, I get the Harvard Magazine, which always has something unintentionally amusing, and sometimes has something intentionally instructive.

The following little snippet, in an article on political preferences, is in the latter category. Believe it or not, people still need to point out that being a conservative or Republican is not a form of personality disorder. A new longitudinal studies surprised the study's author with the fact that Republicans aren't disfunctional:

In addition to the influences of family, religion, and demographics, the mysterious chemistry partakes of the force of personality. The Harvard Study of Adult Development (originally known as the Grant Study) is a continuing project that began with 268 men who were Harvard sophomores between 1940 and 1942. The study was conceived in 1937 to identify factors leading to mental and physical health. It has also yielded interesting information about political preferences.

Few of the study subjects, for instance, were moderates; most were either solidly liberal (34 percent) or solidly conservative (37 percent). And their political ideologies were remarkably durable. “The interesting thing about these men is that over time, their politics didn’t change,” says professor of psychiatry George Vaillant, lead researcher of the study. “The Republicans at 25 were still Republicans at 85, and the same was true for the Democrats.”

In 1944, a psychiatrist evaluated the men and assigned them characteristics from a group of more than 25 possible traits. Those who identified themselves as Republicans “are more likely to be practical-organizing and pragmatic. They are ‘Show me, don’t tell me,’” Vaillant explains. “The Democrats are more likely to be cultural, verbalistic, shy, and to have a sensitive affect, or to be ‘thin-skinned.’” Aside from these traits, there’s little to distinguish the two groups. They were equally likely to have happy childhoods and to experience alcoholism, mental illness, and divorce. They were also equally likely to exhibit altruism, which the researchers defined as the ability to use personal difficulties to benefit others, as in the case of a childhood polio sufferer who went on to become a pediatrician to help disabled children.

They did differ in certain ways. The Democrats were more likely to have highly educated mothers. Republicans tended to make more money, and to be less open to new ideas. It’s also worth noting that the Republicans were more likely to be athletes, Vaillant says. He theorizes that the propensity for sports arose because the Republicans “were men of action, not reflection.” But in the end, these differences didn’t matter much; the conservatives and liberals aged equally well. These similarities surprised Vaillant, a lifelong Democrat who says he has never voted for a Republican presidential candidate. “I certainly had all kinds of prejudices, and doing the study got me to change them,” he says. “I thought that the Democrats would be a whole lot nicer and more altruistic, and that wasn’t the case at all.”

The actual distinctions they found are also quite interesting, too, even if neither can be classified as a form of pathology.