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The Subtle Bias That Underlies Our Ideological Leanings

Our reflexive approach to explaining the world strongly predicts our political orientation.

There are many theories as to why someone grows up to be a liberal or a conservative. These range from psychological (liberals tend to be more open to ambiguity) to developmental (authoritarian parents tend to have conservative children) to physical (taller people tend to lean right).

New research points to something even more basic—a way of making sense of the world that underpins one's political orientation. It's best described as the answer to a question: When you are asked to judge a situation, do you instinctively reach for an inherent explanation, or an extrinsic one?

In other words, when you see a poor person (or community, or nation), do you assume their deprivation reflects the fact they're less capable than others, or do you see it as due to circumstances beyond their control? Are they unworthy, or just unlucky?

Similarly, if women earn less than men, is that because of inherent differences between the genders (as an already infamous Silicon Valley memo argues), or due to societal constraints (such as a lack of mentors and the difficulty of finding affordable child care)?

According to previous research, inherent explanations come to our minds more easily than extrinsic ones. Considering the many external factors that play a role in an individual's success or failure requires considerable cognitive effort. In contrast, "those people are simply like that" is a simple idea to process—a way to make a reasonable-seeming snap judgment and move on.

If your tendency is to simply go with that initial explanation, you will find yourself in sync with conservative values, including the idea that society is basically fair, and people get what they deserve.

"Part of the foundation for mature political attitudes may be laid surprisingly early by subtle biases in the way children make sense of the world."

However, if are inclined to think it through and conclude that larger forces might be in play, you will become more conscious of the influence of both societal inequality and serendipity. This leaves you more sympathetic to liberal ideas such as safety-net programs.

Thus, our biases in how we explain the world drive our ideological beliefs—and the stronger they are, the firmer our convictions. What's more, conclude psychologists Larisa Hussak of the University of Illinois and Andrei Cimpian of New York University, the influence of these predispositions can be found very early in life.

In the journal Developmental Science, the researchers describe a series of studies that provide evidence for their thesis. In the first, 103 adults recruited online read and responded to vignettes about two fictional groups of people living on another planet, the Blarks and the Orps.

For example, some were told that the Blarks are far wealthier than the Orps, and then asked which explanation for this was more likely true: an intrinsic one ("The Blarks are better or smarter workers"), or an extrinsic one ("The Blarks won a war or found gold").

After choosing one, they expressed their level of certainty regarding their choice on a one-to-nine scale. They were then asked their views about the inequality between the two groups, and how important it was to change that situation.

"Participants' preference for inherent (over extrinsic) explanations of social phenomena was significantly correlated with their endorsement of conservative views," the researchers report.

Further studies found this held true even after taking into consideration other explanations for ideological leanings, including discomfort with uncertainty (which has been linked to conservatism).

Perhaps most intriguingly, the researchers conducted a final experiment using 48 children between the ages of four and eight. They, too, were introduced to the Blarks and the Orps, but each child was given either an inherent or an extrinsic reason for their unequal status.

They were then asked a series of questions, including "Do you think it's bad that the Blarks have a lot more money than the Orps?" and "Do you think that it's important to change the way things are (on their planet)?"

The result: "Children adopted more conservative views when social phenomena were explained via inherent facts," the researchers report. "When structural inequities in unfamiliar societies were explained by appealing to inherent facts about the groups involved—which are typically easy to retrieve from memory—children thought these inequities were acceptable, and that nothing should be done to address them.

"These findings suggest that part of the foundation for mature political attitudes may be laid surprisingly early by subtle biases in the way children make sense of the world," the researchers write.

These findings not only provide a compelling (albeit partial) explanation of our ideological differences; they also provide guidance for parents who wish their children to grow up with open minds. They suggest it's easy and natural to blame or celebrate people for their status in life. The fact that larger, society-level forces play a major role has to be taught.

Otherwise, you might find yourself raising the next Paul Ryan.