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How Science Can Predict Where You Stand on Keystone XL

Want to make sense of the feud between pipeline activists and "hippie-punching" moderates? Talk to the researchers.

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

THE TRUTH IS, ​there is every reason to suspect that both groups are driven by divergent emotions, passions, and personality dispositions—or at least, so says the body of research (admittedly, still in an early phase) that exists on the matter. 

We live in an era in which politics seems less and less comprehensible without turning to psychology. In particular, there is a growing realization that today's Democrats and Republicans simply don't understand one another, and are trapped in a kind of unending political Mars and Venus saga due to their divergent personalities, psychologies, and emotionally rooted moral systems.

Yet anyone who has hung around the environmental movement long enough may have noticed an eerily similar version of this phenomenon in the divide between moderates and activists. And there are at least some researchers out there helping us to make sense of this divide.

In the "moderate" camp, we might expect plenty of instinctive contrarians, like the pundits and journos who enjoy declaring a pox on both houses.

First, let's consider the personalities of so-called moderates: Research by Yale political scientist Alan Gerber and his colleagues suggests that people who score high on the personality trait "openness to experience" are not only more likely to lean liberal (a long-standing finding in political psychology) but, more surprisingly, are more likely to insist on remaining politically unaffiliated—in which case they tend to identify themselves as centrist, moderate, or independent.

It appears that openness to experience, beyond its literal meaning, signals a desire to stand out from the crowd. These people are not joiners, or team players. So it would not be out of character for them to criticize people on their side of the aisle in order to distinguish themselves from their presumed allies. In this camp, we might expect to see plenty of instinctive contrarians, like the pundits and journalists who enjoy declaring a pox on both houses.

So, are moderates like Nocera really more rational or reasonable than activists? Gerber's results suggest that there may simply be a "moderate" personality for whom this contrarian hippie-punching instinct simply feels right.

Beyond the personality studies, there is a growing body of research on the deep-seated emotions that underlie our personal politics. Dubbed "moral foundations theory," it consists largely of work done by New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California, and their colleagues and collaborators. Their approach is to measure the five (sometimes six) moral "foundations" that seem to drive our responses. (They are: "care/harm," "fairness/cheating," "loyalty/betrayal," "authority/subversion," and "sanctity/degradation.") In short, they have been able to demonstrate that people's views on right and wrong, and the intensity with which we respond to moral and political situations, have more to do with our gut instincts than rational consideration of the facts before us; our moral "reasoning" is actually a form of post hoc rationalization.

What can moral-foundations theory tell us about the chasm between environmental moderates and activists? Ravi Iyer of USC, a collaborator of Haidt and Graham, agreed to run some data for me, based on a sample of 15,552 individuals who responded to the researchers' moral-foundations questionnaire, as well as a separate questionnaire that included a question about environmental attitudes.

Click here to read Ravi Iyer's explanation of the data.

The result was revealing: People who had professed that it is important to "protect the environment" not only tended to be liberal (no surprise), but they also exhibited a considerably higher sensitivity to moral considerations about "care/harm." In other words, when they weighed the right and wrong of a given situation, these respondents were more concerned than their fellow citizens about "whether or not someone suffered emotionally" and "whether or not someone cared for someone weak or vulnerable."

Iyer suggests that environmentalists' care/harm considerations extend far beyond the immediate and the local—they also apply to distant peoples, animals, habitats, and future generations. (This finding is consistent with a recent study on the "moral roots" of environmentalism by Matthew Feinberg of Stanford and Robb Willer of the University of California-Berkeley.)

Iyer then ran a second analysis. He compared the moral responses of liberals who scored highest in their desire to protect the environment with those of liberals who scored lower, yet still said they cared about the environment. This analysis, a proxy for the differences between the environmental purists and moderates, turned up relatively small but still noteworthy differences. The purists, or activists, tended to be more sensitive to three of the five moral foundations: "care/harm," "fairness/cheating," and "sanctity/degradation." This suggests that if you want to engage an environmentalist activist on an emotional level, you should try a moralizing narrative: A corporation with too much power (unfair) is causing devastating damage (care/harm), defiling (sanctity/degradation) the environment and jeopardizing the planet for future generations (care/harm). Sound familiar?

Environmental activists, who associate nature with purity, may be viscerally offended by perceived abuses of its sanctity.

Perhaps most revealing, though, was the center-vs.-left difference in the realm of "sanctity/degradation," a moral sensibility associated with disgust that is usually much stronger on the political right than on the left. It is measured by asking people how much they factor in "whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency" and "whether or not someone did something disgusting" when deciding what is moral or immoral. Iyer's analysis suggests that environmental activists, more so than the moderates, associate the environment with purity and feel revulsion when it is defiled. This may leave them viscerally offended by perceived abuses of the sanctity of nature—and less willing to compromise on their ideals.

The moderates, who are less driven by pure "care/harm" concerns, may tend to be less emotional about preserving the environment in a pristine state, and are thus more willing to endorse trade-offs. "The more moderate you are, the less extreme you are in any of the moral foundational domains," says Stanford's Matthew Feinberg. "So you probably are more utilitarian or consequentialist in the way you perceive the world."

Does this mean that moderates are more rational? Insofar as they are less moralistic, they have something of a claim. But it is offset by their tendency towards knee-jerk centrism, which can be just another reflex.

The bottom line is that the activists and moderates respond and feel differently when faced with the same moral and political situation. And both factions are likely biased by their initial, emotional responses. Thus, a moderate can be just as reactionary as an activist—especially if he or she never moves beyond that first instinct and simply splits the difference between the opposing sides in every situation.

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