How liberals and conservatives deal differently with new information

The differences in the mental gymnastics that go on inside the minds of liberals and conservatives when they are presented with new information can be quite startling. As I have previously stated in my series on “The Republican Brain,” it is important to be cautious in drawing hard and fast lines between what liberals and conservatives think and how they behave. Regarding how conservatives and liberals receive new information, we will draw stark contrasts to be illustrative; then we will qualify these positions in order to place them more into a realm of current reality.

One of the key differences is in the way  liberals and conservatives respond when they are presented with new information is how they process the introduction of new facts. It goes somewhat like this:

  1. Liberals receive new facts and related information and immediately go into an analytic mode. They weigh the validity of the new information. If they find it to be false, they discard it. If they find it to be somewhat true, they file it away for further analysis. If they find it to be true, they reassess their thinking on the particular topic. If the new information is of sufficient strength, they may alter their positions on issues related to the information.
  2. Conservatives receive new information and do not particularly weigh the validity of it. They process the information in light of what current views they have on the subject. Then they call upon the facts as they know them. They recall arguments that they have used in the past to construct a position which denies the validity of the new information and sustains their position as it has been and still is. This process is often called rationalization.

As Charles Mooney says in his book, The Republican Brain:

To see how it plays out in practice, consider a conservative Christian who has just heard about a new scientific discovery—a new hominid finding, say, confirming our evolutionary origins—that deeply challenges something he or she believes (“human beings were created by God”; “the book of Genesis is literally true”). What happens next, explains Stony Brook University political scientist Charles Taber, is a subconscious negative (or “affective”) response to the threatening new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations that are called into the conscious mind based on a network of emotionally laden associations and concepts. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” says Taber, “and that will lead them to construct or build an argument and challenge to what they are hearing.”

Examples of Republicans essentially ignoring facts and context would be Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Ted Cruz regarding the regrettable incident in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. Where liberals saw it as an unfortunate occurrence which taught us the necessity of providing better funding and resources for our foreign embassies and consulates, Republicans viewed it as a way to resurrect the old saw that “liberals are soft on foreign aggression.”

As humorist Andy Borowitz recently said,

(The Borowitz Report)—A growing chorus of Republican lawmakers are demanding that President Obama take some action in Syria so that they can attack whatever action he took in Syria.

Borowitz goes on to facetiously say,

Arguing that there are a variety of options available to Mr. Obama for dealing with Syria, Sen. Graham said, “The President needs to choose one of those options so that we can immediately identify it as a catastrophic choice and demand that he be impeached.”

Decades ago when the Republican Party largely consisted of moderates, they agreed with Democrats that “partisanship ended at our nation’s shores.” Now, regardless of how well thought out a foreign initiative by President Obama is, there is a herd of Republicans who will criticize him with no basis in fact. It truly is a case of “Don’t let the facts bother me.”

In 2002, nearly half the Democrats in the Senate joined with all Republicans to buy a barrel full of untruths about Iraq including the supposed presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Democrats too can ignore or diminish the importance of facts, but it is much less frequent than with Republicans.