The Brain in Two Acts

by Scott Wagner

(excerpted from The Liberal's Guide to Conservatives)

Does cerebral lateralization impact political disposition?

Nearly every animal bigger than a bug has a split-brain structure, and we all share many of the same basic communication patterns between the brain hemispheres.i Virtually all major brain processes– the senses, speech, metaphor interpretation and use, and emotions– involve various parts of both brain hemispheres actively. Each of these processes require separate stages (sometimes over 20), and there is strong evidence for negotiation and comparative processes that do incredibly complicated tasks. We know that the split-brain structure takes advantage of deliberately isolated strengths. As one celebrated neuroscientist wrote, “except in the light of lateralization [two hemispheres] nothing in human psychology/psychiatry makes any sense.”ii

We usually think of the brain’s halves as mirror-images of each other, but they’re quite different. Like grocery bags filled with different products, the right one is normally bigger than the other, usually with an overlap on one side, and a mild twist to the whole affair. The sides make use of different mixes of neurotransmitters, the chemicals involved in all brain processes, and have a contrasting mix of cell types. Data is processed on both sides at the same time, or nearly so, and often pours both ways across the divide between them in multiple streams during even many simple acts, often with a fading glow of cross-town traffic, a ghosting audit trail.

The original brain hemispheres formed over 400 million years ago, in the ocean. Many birds will watch prey with the left eye, which means their right hemisphere is “watching” it (most parts of the right side are controlled by the left hemisphere, and vice versa). Crows will focus on close work with tools using their right eye; toads shift the focusing hemisphere once they get used to a new sight or experience. The split takes advantage of groupings of tools that are different for each hemisphere, to alter the “point of view”, and to compare and contrast quickly and consistently, so that one approach doesn’t inappropriately dominate.iii The two sides have separate reasons for existing; all animals sort out how to use the different impulses and strengths of the modules on both sides to arrive at our interpretation and reactions. Humans tend to use more of their right hemisphere when learning things, and more of their left once they have learned the action. That general move from more right to more left-side activity is seen across human lives; one prominent neurologist thinks we shift this way gradually as our lives trend toward more established routine.iv

Until the late 1960’s, people suffering from certain types of severe epilepsy got relief from the problem by cutting a certain part of the neural bridge between the hemispheres, so the hemispheres couldn’t communicate as well with each other anymore. Researchers accidentally discovered that the surgery usually revealed two seemingly-complete, separate personalities in each individual, especially right after surgery. Researchers could talk to one personality by standing on one side or speaking into one ear, and then switch to the other personality. The many useful discoveries eventually led to a Nobel Prize for Dr. Roger Sperry, who directed much of the research.

Incredibly, almost every one of the many distinctive traits of the left hemisphere’s “personality” correspond remarkably to statistical findings about Americans who label themselves conservatives. The same statistical connection can also be seen between the right hemisphere and American self-styled liberalsv (for a list of each those 19 traits, and explanations of how they relate to ideology, see the Ideology and the Brain Hemispheres Appendix).

We all use both sides of our brain as we do almost everything. But for reasons we don’t fully understand, many of us rely more on one of the two perspectives, or philosophies, of these brain hemisphere “sub-personalities” when we interpret the world and act in it. That choice seems to dictate our ideological viewpoint. It’s also seen in our personalities, and strongly inherited. This makes sense in light of one prominent research team’s findings: “Several distinct lines of evidence indicate that each hemisphere plays a unique role in inference making,” or in interpretation of the world around Since ideology involves some of humanity’s most vital inference making, we shouldn’t be surprised to see its influence in the divided structure of our brain.

This is a big claim, and has been considered controversial. Many people, even some scientists, think any kind of talk about right-brain and left-brain is forbidden, as if there’s nothing to be learned from the most fundamental division of any organ in biology. There’s a whole roving squadron of people on the web who gleefully call anything a myth if it has to do with the brain hemispheres. But not the premier neuroscientists in the field, especially those who specialize in hemispheric difference. Several have spent much of their lives exploring the reasons for the split. One of them has a great metaphor that will help us begin to understand the most fundamental schism between us and conservatives, that seems to be rooted in our basic biology.

The General and the Scout

Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Research on Brain and Cognition in San Diego, California, is slightly stooped, and dark-featured: he gesticulates energetically, and paces often while he talks. He uses a simplifying metaphor of the left hemisphere of the brain, the one statistically associated with conservative traits. He says it’s like a general assigned to fight a battle using conventional weapons. The right hemisphere (that’s us liberals) is like a scout, who gives an update to the general just before battle.vii As the general prepares to attack, the scout comes back from over the hill and tells him that the enemy has nuclear weapons. This forces the general to change his plan, and to make a new one, because there’s far too much risk of failure if the scout is right.

The coping strategies of the two hemispheres are fundamentally different. The left hemisphere's job is to create a model and maintain it at all costs. If confronted with some new information that doesn't fit the model, it relies on…defense mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate [make up fables]; anything to preserve the status quo. The right hemisphere's strategy, on the other hand, is fundamentally different. I like to call it the 'anomaly [exception] detector', for when the anomalous information reaches a certain threshold, the right hemisphere decides that it is time to force the left hemisphere to revise the entire model.viii

This analogy shows the left hemisphere trying to get an important process (the battle) done, and the right hemisphere trying to provide crucial exceptions to the plan to improve the process (bad guys have nuclear weapons.

There’s a big difference between easy and tough decisions, though. With nukes, as long as you trust the scout, all that’s left is to just pack your bags and go home. But what if the scout came in at the last moment and told the general that, instead of nuclear weapons, there were 800 tanks on the enemy side, not the 500 planned for– what would the general do? Here’s Dr. Ramachandran again:

A good general would ask the scout to shut up and instruct him [to] not tell anyone about what had been seen. Indeed, he may even shoot the scout and hide the report in a drawer,…[or] tell the scout to lie to the other generals and tell them that he only saw 500 tanks, which would be analogous to a confabulation [lying to yourself]. The purpose of all of this is to impose stability on behavior and to avoid vacillation. [my emphasis]

This example hints at what a mess it is inside our heads all of a sudden when the “scout” picks up information that suddenly threatens a well-laid plan by the “general”. It’s even worse than that: the scout might be wrong, or might exaggerate to get the general to do what he wants. These two partners worked so well together on a simple case, but now we’re talking repression, confabulation, exaggeration, and who knows what.

This isn’t all bad, even if it sounds like it might involve quiet metaphorical murders, or little pieces of us telling lies to other little pieces. Neurological life is a complicated business. After all, maybe the general is right: maybe they should attack anyway. Decision-making, or having to choose all of one side of an argument as the winner, often has a big downside, no matter which we do. But we can’t half choose, even though the price paid might be high if we make a wrong choice. Half choosing, or vacillating, is another way of saying we do nothing, which is really just another expensive choice. There’s no way to avoid messiness.

Conservatives love the general and scout story, because the boss in the tale is associated with them (“that’s exactly right!”). I wish my guy was king of the story, but he ain’t.ix Michael Gazzaniga, the most experienced and celebrated hemispheric researcher, agrees with Ramachandran that the left hemisphere generally manages our life, with important exceptions; other researchers aren’t so sure. It turns out to be a tough question to answer, and it’s not important for our purposes. The point for us is unmistakable: the left hemispherex uses strategies and approaches that inspire the conservative orientation toward supporting important processes, in the spirit of the general. To borrow a phrase from a popular conservative manifesto,xi “the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity” to get things done. Exceptions to the process– anomalies, complications– are often either ignored or fought against, unless conservatives are convinced with powerful evidence that an exception needs to affect the process.

The right hemisphere uses strategies and capabilities that inspire the liberal orientation toward supporting important exceptions, in the spirit of the scout. This hemisphere is the exception detector, focused on things like how an individual or a minority group is being hurt by an established process. Because of this mission or attitude, it’s attracted to novelty in general, to discovering interesting or useful new ways of doing things; its world is one where “exceptions”, or unusual items, get most of the attention.

As we review the details of these perspectives throughout this guide, you’ll be able to see many ways we’ve each taken quite direct inspiration from these contrasting viewpoints. Inside our heads, the two approaches are naturally at odds, but are also quite dependent on each other to get our affairs done correctly. We should derive some bit of comfort from knowing that these biological approaches we each key off are not only different, but sometimes even irreconcilable, for practical reasons. As human beings, we each have to figure out how to get our life’s work done, but also how to adjust our approach when we’re doing it wrong, or even figure out when we need to stop it and do something else. That simple idea turns out to be a good way of summing up a basic human dilemma that we’re trying to solve with the hemispheric design.

Unfortunately, we can’t run all the way from that scientific fact to a fanciful conclusion that we have a wonderful, healthy ideological conflict going on that’s all for the good, so everyone smile for the camera; that it’s tough, but it’ll be great. We should be careful with such generalities, even if there’s some truth to it, because we live in a specific time and place, with jerks and angels and geniuses and dummies working it out. Remember murderous generals, and exaggerating scouts. It matters enormously sometimes which side wins when ideologies conflict, and it matters what particular notion we each foist as truth. That’s true both personally, and as a nation. Ideological competition might well be healthy in some ways, in theory, but we don’t live in Theory-istan, any more than the general or scout does.

In our regular lives– not the abstract one, where we’re whining about world hunger or Republicans; the one with alarm clocks, and kids, and jobs, and sore ankles– we all dash between depending more on one or the other hemisphere’s perspective all the time. We’re pretty slick at it. Think in terms of climbing a stairwell in bad light, for instance. Normally, the process or pattern of climbing stairs has you on a kind of calm, easy autopilot, because you’re an expert at stairs. But if it’s very dark, you may have to be struggling to see obstacles in the way, and be tentative about where you put your feet: that uses much more of a right-hemisphere (and visual) orientation, as exceptions to the normal process become important.xii As individuals, we all have the responsibility to find ways to be a judicious general, working efficiently on vital things, and a careful scout, making sure we don’t run ourselves over a cliff with too much emphasis on whatever we normally do.

We might wonder if a focus on process is actually playing out in the world of conservatives: instead of valuing a process of some kind, conservatives seem as if they’re just attacking what we want all the time. For example, some attack gay marriage– in other words, they try to stop important exceptions from enjoying the right to the “process” of marriage. In their mind, they’re defending something crucial. We need to remember their default perspective: that it’s wrong to change the current process, exactly the way it is, because the exceptions we liberals are pointing out shouldn’t have influence.

Did you catch that “exactly” part? It’s like the fine print of a contract you end up in court over. If you think about it, a process of any kind is just a collection of rules for how things should happen. If someone who’s focused on the process sees you lopping off a rule you don’t like, it can make them crazy. Conservatives aren’t going to be flexible about such things the way we are. Our version of common sense might be “just make it work, and bend the rules if you have to.” Their version would be “just make it work, unless it breaks a rule.” Think of it like a conversation we raise with them when we see a problem:

This isn’t working for him.

That’s too bad. Life sucks sometimes.

Well, life shouldn’t suck for him this time. Adjust the rules.

Why are you trying to change rules out of the blue?

Because they suck.

Yeah– well, my daddy made the rules. Life sucks sometimes.

It ties back to this need to preserve, to save something exactly as is, that can seem so alien to us. One Senator sponsored a bill to keep Harriet Tubman’s face off the twenty dollar bill: "It's not about Harriet Tubman; it's about keeping the picture on the twenty, y'know? Why would you want to change that? I am a conservative, I like to keep what we have.”xiii If something seems to work fine as is, keeping it the same becomes vital, because of an orientation far beyond politics, rooted deeply in the psyche.

Knowing why conservatives do what they do means everything. In the political world, we should always concentrate on our role of improving processes, instead of attacking them. That view of our role has unexpected power, and it leads to odd opportunities. It lets us avoid what amounts to a cultural misunderstanding. Two groups of people who usually live in different worlds, and who have different values, and particular, mysterious expressions of those values, are essentially different cultures. Thinking in terms of cultural difference can be helpful, because it can help us press pause on our reactions when they waylay us.

For those of use who have travelled, it’s a little easier to be more careful with our judgments about motivations and meaning with conservatives. Sometimes, they’re just different than us; dragging in morality every chance we get is a waste of time, and counter-productive.

Let’s take an example from a cultural difference we can easily yank out of a moral frame, so we can see how this might work. Many French people commonly use insults that are brutally true with those they are close to, and even people they don’t know well but whom they like.xiv It’s a cultural tic, mostly among males, that happens at parties and other casual situations where most Americans would normally be pleasant as a rule, especially with a foreigner. The French are trying to say, typically while a little drunk, “our relationship is so much bigger and broader than these weaknesses you and I have, that we can joke about them.” It’s a little similar to how American grade-school boys might relate to each other, in their rough-edged way. Your role in this game is to accept the insult easily and simply, , maybe with a grin and a shrug, because it doesn’t matter, in light of how neato the guy is– and then, later, you’re supposed to insult him back in the same way, as if his weakness is no big deal. They love hearing Americans do that.

If, instead, you take their insult seriously, they get angry, frustrated, and defensive, because you’re saying that their friendly little insult is more important than any relationship you might develop with them. That’s when you will see the supposed French rudeness in full flower. This one French oddity is a big reason why so many Americans run screaming back home from French vacations, utterly clear on how rude French people are. Yet navigating that alien gauntlet successfully was one of the most interesting and satisfying bonding experiences of my travel life. After all, how often do people break forth in a great grin when you insult them truthfully and accurately?

I have had thousands of similar experiences with conservatives, turning what most liberals think of as an unavoidable argument into a bonding experience. Knowing why one is being “attacked” is powerful enough to change a potential disaster into an opportunity.

Order in the Court

Our left hemisphere’s orientation around the day-to-day processes or patterns that get our lives done makes for a kind of fixation on patterns, like useful abstractions, rules, and fundamental values.xv It’s a first-principles approach to life. We’re going to go over eight values they have, most of them unconscious, that drive their lives. This will help us remember where they’re coming from when they do or say something mysterious. There’s nothing sacred about this list, mind you; it’s only 2016, and we’re still early in this game. A different researcher might well have a different list. But we’re not interested in perfection; we just want a door in to these people, and this list is a great way in.

The most accepted theory of values in psychology is the Schwartz Theory of Basic Human Values. It lists ten broad values that all humans share; three of them are a group of values called “Conservation” by the theory, and they are the first three below. All the rest of the values listed are evidenced directly and strongly from the hemispheric studies, and they support the three Conservation values directly. There’s some give-and-take with certain people and their values, but Donald Trump’s in here, and all the Bushes, and those conservative preacher types, and my Uncle Donald. Their differences can matter, as we’ll see through their personalities, but they share almost all of these same values. xvi

The Foundation Values of Conservatives

Security. In the words of Dr. Schwartz, security is “safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self.” This basic human value, which liberal share, colors everything for practically all conservatives, lying behind all the other values. Like all humans, valuing security bleeds over into a desire for consistency and certainty, in a very general sense.xvii If our reality’s wobbling in unexpected ways, we can’t feel safe.

All humans react strongly when threatened, but conservatives have been shown to be more threat-sensitive than liberals. This might be great sometimes, while, other times, studies have shown that they can see a threat where there isn’t one. Most conservatives share a view that the world is a dangerous place; many also think of the world as a competitive jungle, ruthless and cruel.xviii

Hierarchy means trusting that it’s healthy for people to have limits on their capabilities and influence, depending on their place in society, their personal gifts, and chance. The traditional (and religious) version of valuing hierarchy, embraced by two-thirds of conservatives, is knowing one’s place, being obedient, appreciating the importance of conforming to tradition, and following good leaders: these are called social conservatives. They see hierarchy as a tool for social control, and concern themselves greatly with the moral behavior of all Americans.xix

The other use of hierarchy is by roughly two-thirds of conservatives as well, who want to provide opportunities for wealth or influence through unlimited personal freedom, and who are comfortable with class hierarchy.xx These are economic conservatives, who see hierarchy as a requirement for opportunity.

Roughly half of conservatives use both these kinds of hierarchy greatly, especially “elites” like the Bushes, and virtually all politicians. They want Americans to be limited by traditional values, and they want no limits to economic freedom.xxi

Using strong hierarchies is a primary technique of maintaining order; they help make relationships, business, social groups, and all kinds of processes much clearer, simpler, and effective.xxii There are many statistical differences between liberals and conservatives that illustrate this appreciation of hierarchy, such as: family roles; organized religious; business attitudes; and a heightened emphasis on loyalty in a broad sense, to brands, habits, people, and groups.

–Tradition provides consistency, certainty, and especially order to our lives. This is probably the value that is talked about the most by “social conservatives,” or about two-thirds of conservatives, over half of whom are religious; we see it in their emphasis on organized religion, lessons from history, ‘traditional’ values, traditional capitalism, and being extremely careful about change. Tradition comes from the Latin word traditio, which meant handing down something; it’s a reverence for reference points that seem to have worked, from the past.

Orderliness is how we control and structures our lives, and it supports all the other values. Dr. Sperry’s work on split-brain patients showed a strong emphasis on order in the left hemisphere.xxiii Orderliness is the strongest conservative personality trait.xxiv Social conservatives are particularly orderly, but both kinds of conservatives, social and economic, have a zillion ways of being orderly. As Russell Kirk said at the beginning of the first of “Ten Conservative Principles”, a popular conservative manifesto (see the Appendix for the whole thing; italics in the original):

order is made for man, and man is made for it… This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth…The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics…

you get the idea. I think the concept of order is so broad and fundamental to conservatism that the emphasis isn’t captured completely in personality tests. You can make a good case that, when conservatives argue between themselves, it’s because they disagree how to best be orderly.

The last four values below can be thought of as sub-values to order, because they exist to support a need for order, often in the service of safety or security. All were prominent in the studies of the left hemisphere perspective. These help us break down the conservative emphasis on orderliness into useful handles, because it takes on several basic forms. Think of these as their most important versions of order in our lives.

-Certainty lets us feel that we know how to do things, and that we know what’s going to happen; being uncertain is nerve-wracking when we’re trying to do something essential, such as staying safe.xxv Being certain about things makes conservatives much happier than it does liberals, on average.

-Consistency, a cousin of certainty, provides not only a sense of control, but also helps us feel as if life is predictable, which the left hemisphere values highly. Routine is preferred to variability. Consistency in life provides a lulling that can actually feel like certainty; it can also helps us feel safer. Most of the problem conservatives have with changing rules is that it’s not consistent. Liberals often have the biggest problem with the conservative demand for consistency; it can feel like the most alien form of order to us.

Simplicity, which may sound like “simplistic” or “simpleton” to the liberal ear, can actually have great advantages. Explaining and understanding feel easier and more complete when explanations are kept simple. This is a kind of philosophical preference, that keeps to the old saying that when you’re looking for an answer to a problem, the simplest solution is probably the best. The preference for simplicity was another strong finding from hemispheric studies, because it helps obtain certainty and order. Complexity is the opposite, and can appear suspicious.

Strong Boundaries are best thought of as how order actually gets done: they’re the primary tool of order. Order makes it vital to piece out life into clear categories, and boundaries do that for us. There isn’t any better way of thinking about order than compartmentalizing in life, using separations or boundaries between things, people, and ideas. Conservatives have a great appreciation for definite, strong boundaries,xxvi and a sense that competition (struggle across boundaries, or to maintain them) is natural and healthy in life, from the fight between good and evil, all the way down to a football rivalry.

Boundaries can be extremely helpful for all of us as we puzzle out situations. Human attitudes about boundaries of all kinds seem tied up with hemispheric specialization; emphasizing important processes in life makes us want relatively “thick” boundaries, so we can organize, categorize, and separate: between disgusting and pure things; countries; one’s community and everyone else; family roles; economic classes; and even between friends. The Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall”, is about New Hampshire neighboring farmers working on their wall together, and it makes the point directly: “good fences make good neighbors.”

Boundaries include hierarchy, which also separates people and things, but it goes beyond hierarchy; it’s a more fundamental tendency to both enclose and separate items and groups. Our liberal emphasis on newness and exceptions, in contrast, has us emphasizing thinner or even non-existent boundaries, in an effort to find, highlight, and champion exceptions properly.

It’s easy to overlook the desire for order as the central, founding member of this club of fundamental conservative values– to get distracted by security, or tradition. The Senator who didn’t want the twenty dollar bill changed is motivated by a need for order. I have come to realize that it’s actually a difficult trait for us liberals to overemphasize about conservatives when trying to work with them, especially those who are very conservative.

To liberals, order can seems minor in the scheme of life, like a bookkeeping skill, but it’s actually the primary tool that even liberals use to get safety, certainty, and consistency in our lives. We don’t think in those terms, but we should try. If one’s life is about trying to get things done, think about how everything needs its place: to have a schedule whenever possible; to be able to rely on rules, or laws; to categorize; to know where you’re going; to think abstractly; to divide friend and foe. Everything should be either important or unimportant, sensible or doubtful, easy or complex, safe or unsafe, disgusting or acceptable. Conservatives use this universal human effort as more of a strict approach to success in life than we do, in keeping with the left hemisphere’s perspective.

We all know that emphasizing order in life has a down side, though. A good summary of this guide is to call it a manual for dealing with orderly beings. Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, who worked on hemispheric studies for over 40 years, discovered what he calls the left-brain interpreter:

The left hemisphere is always hard at work, seeking the meaning of events. It is constantly looking for order and reason, even when there is none—which leads it continually to make mistakes. It tends to overgeneralize, frequently constructing a potential past as opposed to a true onexxvii.

In the research about conservative psychology, they want “cognitive closure”, which is a fancy way to say they want to be sure about everything, that they want to “close the books” and make a decision. They engage in “motivated social cognition”, which means they’re biased, and can grind their way to seeing what they want to.

Now, don’t be a wise guy about this tendency. From a certain angle, those research findings are perfectly reasonable. It looks bad on paper the way Dr. Gazzaniga puts it, but constructing meaning is a good thing. Meaning is always “constructed”, or created in our mind from clues gathered in life. We just don’t like seeing what a frail and goofy process it is, for all of us. Yet we’d all be lost without it, and we all make mistakes while we do it. We all have a left brain hemisphere, after all.

Those are human faults sometimes, yes, but the overall urges are in the service of some very good causes. For one thing, our personal narratives seem to be formed completely in the left hemisphere, and we rely on those for inspiration, and clarity about our place and purpose in life. We make those up out of thin air, and haven’t got a whole lot of justification for them, but we’d be miserable or dead without them. The left-brain interpreter is where our whole brain seems to begin the notion of establishing meaning in what it sees– the why of it all. In the isolated, left hemisphere of the brain studies, we’re just seeing the origins of that meaning-making ideal, barricaded off from much of the brain it needs to do it correctly.

So: order is absolutely essential, and usually quite advantageous. Sure wish I had me some. But like any other tool, using order too much in life comes at a cost.

Let’s look again at our list of fundamental conservative values or goals, seen in evidence from the split-brain studies, but also over and over in both general life and the narrower world of politics.

* Security

* Hierarchy (conforming, obedience)

* Tradition

* Order

* Certainty

* Consistency

* Simplicity

* Boundaries

The first three values,xxviii with an asterisk beside them, are the ones that conservatives speak of the most. The other values are best thought of as strong unconscious drives, though they are sometimes mentioned and championed. The desire for order is best thought of as the unconscious primary driver for all the rest of these values, even though it is rarely discussed as having that importance.xxix

Notice how talking about each of these values loops the others in naturally; how it can even be difficult to talk about them without mentioning the others. Conservatives work for safety and stability, through orderliness. The constellation of values naturally reinforce each other, which is one reason why conservatives group together so much socially, more so than liberals.

Let’s look in some detail at a case of alleged police brutality, to illustrate how these values mechanically play out for those who side more with the perspective of the brain’s left hemisphere. Here are some legitimate, healthy “processes” that are involved with what we see as conservative resistance to the police brutality movement, in rough order of importance. In parenthesis are the fundamental conservative values that play out in the process.

Public safety (safety, order, certainty, boundaries, and hierarchy)

Respect for authority (hierarchy or authority, tradition, certainty)

Obeying the law (order, consistency, boundaries)

Saving money or time (safety, order, consistency)

To a liberal activist working a specific case of police brutality, these four processes can usually be accepted as valuable, but they seem almost completely unrelated to the matter at hand– some innocent has been killed, or beaten, or jailed unfairly. Concern for the victim isn’t listed, not because conservatives don’t care, but because conservatives typically inherit the same tendency we have to focus on one side of an issue, and they choose to focus on defending the process of good law enforcement, in keeping with their left hemispheric orientation toward their basic values.

That makes victim concerns, or concerns about an exception to law enforcement, less visible to them (at least initially. Proof of illegal police behavior sometimes changes that.) It’s common that what we see as an important exception, they take to be a dangerous one; they see it threatening the process of law enforcement from being kept strong. This conflict is a natural fallout from the emphasis of our opposing perspectives, and it happens constantly in the police brutality fight.

Neglect of the victim is often all we liberals see, and it usually seems incredibly obvious to us; it can disgust or anger us. We also see a vicious irony when we think police have broken the law, or taken advantage of their authority cruelly; good guys being bad burns us up.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are quite afraid that hurting the police’s reputation is dangerous to public safety, because criminals– exceptions, who don’t abide by the law– will feel emboldened to break the law. They’re also anxious to consistently provide positive motivation for the majority of police not involved in brutality, who they see as honest and heroic on a day-to-day basis. They despise activists emphasizing how evil the police can be, which can demoralize and shame the officers. Discussions can often focus on the police not involved in the incident, and the negative effects of the publicity on their motivation. This often confuses us liberals. We think, what could protecting the process possibly have to do with us highlighting this exception that’s been hurt?

Conservatives also worry greatly about budget cuts that can occur through disrespect for what police do; they usually think police budgets are already too low, because it’s a primary social safety process. Because one important process is promoting respect for authority, the evidence needed to convince a conservative of wrongdoing on the police’s part has to be very strong. That high standard can be seen in the many defenses and protections of police that are built into the system through law, procedure, secrecy, and standard practice (police practices are a system generally built by conservatives, to protect conservative values).

Many of the cruel incidents and killings by the police occur to criminals during law-breaking activity, which naturally makes conservatives sympathetic to law enforcement’s perspective, especially unconsciously; it looks like hero vs. jackass right from the start to them, and it’s tough to move their view elsewhere.

Finally, the interests of saving time and money can also enter into a specific event (“We don’t have time for this,” or a similar phrase, is sometimes heard on recordings or by witnesses when police brutality is committed). Police can feel overworked and overstressed, and conservatives feel that pain of their heroes far more than liberals usually do. Many police forces have budget challenges, which means less officers in the field, and a need to take less time with each incident, so the officer can get back on patrol.

Listening to a conservative talk about police brutality is to hear a swirling cocktail of those related values, intermixed and strengthening each other, as they defend the police, often as the actual victim.

I watched a nearly half-hour film multiple times with a conservative, in which Esa Wroth, an injured, inebriated, handcuffed man, later convicted of drunk driving, was held face-down on a cement floor awaiting the arrival of an ambulance. He screamed in pain most of the video, occasionally was threatening, and occasionally tried to turn to his side from his stomach, either in rebellion or in pain, as he was held down with his arms held high behind his head, pulled out of their sockets. He was tazed over two dozen times as a half-dozen deputies kept him down, cursed at him and beat him when he moved, and ignored his pleas and concerns about pain.

It seemed a straightforward case of abuse to me, but the fellow I watched the video with disagreed strongly, pointing out avidly whenever the suspect “was trying to get up” (disobedience of authority by a lawbreaker), the two times he cursed and threatened the deputies (safety, hierarchy, tradition), and the health risk the deputies were taking when Mr. Wroth may have tried to bite a deputy (safety of the hard-working officers; law-breaking criminal/exception). My conservative acquaintance told me that an officer had been head-butted by Mr. Wroth before the video started; he also pointed out repeatedly (correctly) that the deputies were following the vague local procedures for arrests. That it was a lawful arrest and per procedure was paramount to him, much more important than my opinions about cruelty.

Film footagexxx was made available to the public quickly and voluntarily by the Sheriff’s office involved. They usually delay such things as long as they can, but they thought, like my conservative friend, that it proved conclusively that Mr. Wroth was handled professionally. They quickly realized that their perception wasn’t universally shared.

While I saw an unconscionable, risky, cruel attack on a victim, my conservative friend only saw officers who:

obeyed the law;

risked their health on our behalf, for the public’s safety;

had their authority dangerously disrespected, by someone who had broken the law; and

did their job promptly, to ensure the ambulance service happened on time.

He didn’t see an attack by police: he saw an important process being threatened by an risky exception. The damage and risk to Mr. Wroth, my exception, was viewed as very secondary. I could tell that it felt inappropriate to even acknowledge the physical damage or pain of Mr. Wroth, the way it’s often tough for humans to acknowledge the other side has a modest point to make (and the way the principal wouldn’t acknowledge the mother’s complaint about her daughter’s punishment). He felt the process, and therefore his foundational values, were unfairly attacked.

Although I believed that Mr. Wroth’s rights were grossly violated (he later received a sizable out-of-court settlement, which Mr. Wroth’s lawyer felt resulted from the film we watched), my conservative friend was asking me to spend the time to focus on his justifications of the officers’ actions. He did this not only to make his points, but also to see if I valued the healthy processes that he did; he was checking out my moral fiber. The challenging effort of showing him that I shared many of those values, while trying hard not to veer back over to my more natural values, led to a good, practical conversation. We talked about better procedures, some of which were quite difficult to get right; equipment that should’ve been available; reducing the risk of expensive lawsuits; how communicating better with Mr. Wroth during the incident might’ve helped; and how time and money can enter into these situations. We both learned, and we respected each other more afterwards.

One of the best tools we have when relating to conservatives is to unbury our own appreciation of their values, especially safety, hierarchy, and tradition, the most conscious conservative values. Those last two, hierarchy and tradition, may be hard to find within us at first, because many of us keep those values in a storage unit in the next town over, or in the barn. We have more interesting things to pay attention to, and though we actually do value them, we don’t think or speak in those terms. While conservative respect for their various values related to orderliness can be a little beyond us liberals, these three are universal human values, appreciated by everyone to some degree.

Even if we do this, though, it can be hard going. They can’t understand why we can’t follow them in their mostly-unconscious emphasis on certainty, consistency, simplicity, and strong boundaries–all the tools that their orderly nature uses to support safety, hierarchy, and tradition. That leads to tedious repetition, for both of us, as they try, over and over, to explain things they see as basic. We appear to them to be stupid, or at least in possession of an incredible blind spot. On my side, I sometimes experience it like being a bull rider, trying to stay alert and sensitive to clues, but liable to get bucked off at any time, because the unexpected twists of their order-driven points seem so alien to me that I fly off onto the dirt. In those moments, we’re both perplexed that we can’t get the basics across.

Let’s sum up by saying that it helps enormously to always be trying to see behind and around what conservatives say, to the values that drive them. It doesn’t magically dissolve the conflict, but looking past what’s being said to the whys will make a positive outcome much more likely.

The Dark Continent

To make progress on the most practical aspects of understanding and working with conservatives, we’ll need to learn how we liberals play into the situation. To do that, we have to understand our own motivations, and how they create challenges for conservatives; we need to look at the right hemisphere perspective.

Early neurologists took the view that the right hemisphere was the dark continent of the brain; in the words of Dr. Robert Sperry, it was thought of as “illiterate, and relatively retarded.” Until the early 1960s, it was believed to be a kind of reserve brain, like a spare tire. This ignorance of half the brain’s function came about because of how the right hemisphere works with the left. Dr. Sperry’s work with split-brain patients initially seemed to align with this early confusion: many commonly-present hemispheric personality traits are clear and helpful to understand left-hemisphere leanings, but, other than problems with speech and logic that arise from the disconnection to those centers in the left side, there are only a few right side traits, and they seem a little strange. Patients were often more anxious; they were more pessimistic; and they would treat problems that they were familiar with as if they were new each time, even though they remembered how they did it before. (Actually, those symptoms don’t seem strange to conservatives at all: their reaction is often, “yes! Proof that they’re stupid whiners.” While we liberals hear those symptoms and get a puzzled look on our face as we stroke our beards: “Mmm. Mysterious.”)

Strange as it may seem, all those traits are symptoms of one overwhelmingly important factor: the right hemisphere emphasis on exceptions, or novelty. Let’s see how that can be.

Children who damage their right hemisphere when very young have a very difficult time learning to speak, ever; it usually creates a permanent problem for them with language. But adults that get the same right-side damage usually have almost no problems afterwards with their speaking ability. This was confusing until quite recently, when neurologists hit upon the fact that the right side specialization in novelty or newness is designed for learning.

Here’s what was happening. While learning language as a small child, the right hemisphere’s specialization with novelty was used. As we learn language, we shovel what we figure out using their right hemisphere into the parts of the left hemisphere that manage speech permanently. In the left hemisphere, we turn those lessons learned about language into a slew of reusable routines or patterns. Once those are in place, the adult can lose a large portion of their right hemisphere, and it doesn’t matter, because language doesn’t have much to do with the right hemisphere any more. But the child lost his training module with the damage, and language wasn’t in his left hemisphere yet.

This role of handling new things, of learning, explains the tendency of the right hemisphere of the split-brain patients to see everything as new. It’s not designed to do half of everything; it’s designed to focus on learning, and adjusting ourselves.

We’re so used to doing things that are new as if they were new, and old things as if they were old, that we don’t realize that those are two entirely different tasks, with completely different skill sets and values. Think of building a robot that puts a bumper on a car, and a robot that can learn how to put a bumper on a car, from scratch. Different animals, huh?

An openness and exploration approach seems to be a kind of default for the right hemisphere, and no wonder. It seems as if the only reason it won’t take on that specialized job of using an original approach on a problem in real life is if the left hemisphere pops in to say ‘never mind, I’ve got this’, so the right hemisphere can relax while something already learned gets used.

But what if the right hemisphere never got to do that handoff– what if no signal of “never mind, I’ve got this” ever comes from the left hemisphere? Not having any ‘stop’ signals by the left hemisphere, like the patients being studied by Dr. Sperry, Dr. Gazzaniga, and their team, seems to explain the anxiety and pessimism in those patients: not only are the usual routines not available to solve even simple problems, but new routines don’t have a way of being established or set aside; no one is there to tell that exception engine to relax, to stop solving the problem. Nothing ever feels doable, or done.xxxi Typically, these patients are left very indecisive, which is stressful. Even small problems sit and fester in their minds, leading a large minority of such patients to become suicidal, with various levels of depression in the rest considered normal.xxxii

Another aspect of the right hemisphere provides great insight about our liberal perspective, but we have to promote Dr. Ramachandran’s scout to give you a more complete story about your right hemisphere, the inspiration for your perspective on life. After all, being a scout is a pretty wimpy role in the battle, compared to the left hemisphere general. Scouting seems way too humble a role for half of our brain– until you think of it as having responsibility for finding out what’s really going on out there in the world, and in ourselves.

An avalanche of evidence has shown one of the most reliable generalizations that can be made about our brain hemispheres is that the right hemisphere (scout) takes a perspective by taking a detailed picture of a specific event, usually at a quite specific time.

A patient who still has their right hemisphere (the scout) intact but is damaged on the front left side can be blindfolded and be given an object to hold in their hand, and they usually know what it is. They can guess what it looks like, about as well as you or I could. They have a 3-D image of it in their head, and they can draw a decent version of it. Someone with just their left hemisphere remaining, though, has no 3-D capability; blindfolded, they can describe pieces of the object (like any parts sticking out), or how the surface feels, but usually have no idea what it is, even if it’s familiar to them. Their sketches of the items are hilarious, and often completely unrecognizable. Their problem was eventually shown to not just be with physical objects; they were just as bad at understanding stories. They knew details of the story, but couldn’t understand the overall idea, or moral,xxxiii which they seemed to need to pick up from the right hemisphere that it can’t access.

This difference between the hemispheres that inspire our ideological outlook has huge implications, but not necessarily the ones you’d think. Our minds want to run to “ah, yes, we liberals get the ‘big picture’ accurately, while conservatives are stuck in the weeds with facts, screwing it up.” Nmph. No. Try to avoid thinking about this in terms of who’s wrong and who’s right, or who gets it and who doesn’t. The brain has these two ways of doing things, because we need them both, quite literally all the time. They do different things, for different reasons. If one sucked at everything, evolution would’ve disappeared it for us, and we’d have a lovely half-head working.

The puzzle piece this picture-vs-facts difference gives us is how we prefer to build our world views. Think of it as a picture versus a thousand words, or, better, a picture versus a nicely organized, explanatory essay, with a little flow diagram included at no charge. That’d be a start. Another way is to think that the right hemisphere uses a special inspiration from visual sensitivity (because the right side is tied in closely to more of the brain’s visual processing). It longs to focus on the gist of the issue around living, breathing, specific examples, the same way we use our vast field of vision to focus ultimately on only the pertinent portions of what we have in our field of view. In particular, complex emotion aspects can be captured better by the right side, to help find that critical detail that matters.

The left hemisphere is, instead, quite anxious to put the facts of the situation into an overall context; it wants to categorize or break a situation into its component parts, so that it can explain them in relation to one another, and arrive at the “picture” that way. And it’s better at doing that. The lack of 3-D capability is made up for with a logical and abstraction emphasis, so that certain patterns can be followed well. It’s about first principles, precedents, and building a picture from them.

Imagine a right hemisphere struggling to learn how to read music, and a left one reading it later, using all the rules and structure built from all that pain of the initial learning process. The right hemisphere was invaluable as it made the link between random lines on a page and a note, or a key on the piano; the left hemisphere was invaluable later, when the note was well-known, and it rapidly and unconsciously lets us ‘see’ the note itself when we see those random lines on the page.

The right side doesn’t care about principles and precedents nearly as much; it’s living through the event it sees, not trying to make as much sense of it, or put it in context, or categorize it usefully.

In the police beating example, I looked at it as an overall carelessness about the suspect’s well-being, while my acquaintance saw a series of difficult, required steps of the process of justice. Yes, he saw the category of “suspect”, but it had to be factored in with other categories that make up the process of law enforcement. I saw one particular suspect, and latched onto the details of his treatment as the pertinent exception in the picture: the endless screaming; the arms wrenched at an unnatural angle; the 20+ tasings and beatings. My focus was on the cruelty. The overall process of law enforcement– the suspect’s law-breaking, the procedures, risks, time pressures, and hard work–were blurred out for me.

In contrast, my conservative friend saw that overall process of justice and criminality rolling forth in great detail, and the cruelty was blurred out for him; it didn’t matter as much. The list of procedural steps were happening properly; that’s what mattered.

This is a common pattern of ideological interactions, even more outside of politics than in it: liberals try to get attention on only what we think needs to be fixed, based on this one particular example, while conservatives tend toward “a slavish following of the internal logic of the situation,” as one neuroscientist said about the left hemisphere, to make sure that exceptions are seen as unimportant when the overall context is considered. My conservative friend might’ve said, “We can’t stop the world for you every time someone screams in pain, to set aside the rules we live by.” For him, the whole point of rules is to follow them unquestioningly, so that the world picture he’s built up continues to make sense. That entails almost preventing exceptions from being considered. That’s effectively the opposite of the common saying among my activist friends that “rules are made to be broken.”

Conservatives get frightened when we second-guess the rules whenever our own specific (and often emotion-driven) picture questions the process. Why even bother to have rules, Scott, if you’re going to ignore them every time we turn around because you notice something, or feel something? This is a special drunk driver? His violence and threats are a unique case, somehow?

The neuroscientist and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist characterizes this as the individual-versus-category conflict, to contrast how a living, immediate image of reality is different from one that is built up logically from categories. As Dr. Sperry said when accepting his Nobel Prize, the two brain hemispheres are “mutually antagonistic modes of cognitive processing”; they work largely apart, are “antagonistic” toward each other, and only communicate and negotiate in highly specific ways, through a specialized bridge of nerves that connect those different views of reality.

That’s tough enough, but there are many related complications. For instance, notice how utterly dependent the right hemisphere of an adult is on the left hemisphere, but how the left hemisphere has an easy time convincing itself it doesn’t depend on the right much. I love this about the general and scout metaphor. They’re both needed, but it’s quite easy for a certain party to think they don’t need the other much. That stilted relationship is so fundamental to both our perspectives of life that it ends up having an influence on how we have to work with conservatives, which we’ll address later. That’s only one of many strange, uneven aspects of our relationship: each side has its own language, its own goals, and its own challenges.xxxiv

None of this talk about perspectives should be taken to mean that conservatives are experts at getting processes done, or that liberals are fantastic at seeing needed exceptions to the process, and getting those done. One of the knotty problems of ideology is that we each think we’re good at what we emphasize in life. But being inspired to highlight injustices, or to defend law enforcement, doesn’t mean we defend what’s important to us well. That leap in logic, which most of us do about ourselves without thinking, is no more rational than assuming you’re a good computer programmer because you can imagine how great it’d be to work at Google. Or that you have a green thumb because you adore walking around in pretty gardens.

This seems so small and simple a point: it isn’t. It means that understanding and working with conservatives requires us to learn two quite separate things. First, we need to know what drives conservatives, which we can think of as the pure, underlying motivations and tendencies that they mostly get handed involuntarily, through inheritance and early exposure. That’s what we’ve been covering, and we’ll continue through the next three chapters. The rest of the guide after that covers the particular things they do, showing some of those actions as awkward, frustrating, or terrible attempts to reach their usually hidden goals like certainty, or maintaining a strong boundary, on the way to championing processes. Our own common liberal strengths and weaknesses will be factored in, since much of what they’re doing is reacting to us.

By the end, we’ll have learned how to keep their intentions in mind, even in the difficult cases, so their actions and words don’t get in the way of you being able to see what they’re really after, and what they want from you. Not that we’re getting to happy outcomes every time (though it’s surprising how effective this knowledge can be.) The goal is simply to plan how to best work with a person by knowing them well, and then– the hard part– following through on your plan.

We’ve learned how conservatives have an underlying perspective that seems mysteriously inspired by basic aspects of our biology. They think of a successful life as built around important processes (either existing ones, or traditions that are being neglected or poorly followed), which focuses them on safety, hierarchy, tradition, and the several ways they keep order in their life, to keep those established processes clicking along well. We focus on important exceptions to those processes because of our emphasis on novelty in life.

These principles provide the foundation for this guide. Fortunately, these conservative values also show up even more clearly behind our detailed personality traits. Thanks to the work of hundreds of hard-working psychologists, looking at conservatives through the lens of personality theory provides striking detail, to build a much clearer image of that statistical conservative of ours.

Scott's email address:

i Joseph B. Hellige, Hemispheric Asymmetry: What's Right and What's Left,  By Joseph B. Hellige, Harvard University Press, 1993

ii Timothy Crow, attr. By Iain McGilchrist in “The Master and his Emissary”.

iii Interhemispheric switching mediates perceptual rivalry: Steven M. Miller, Guang B. Liu, Trung T. Ngo*, Greg Hooper, Stephan Riek, Richard G. Carson, John D. Pettigrew Current Biology 10:383-392 2000

iv Elkhonon Goldberg, “The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older, NY: Penguin, 2005. The tendency toward becoming more conservative as one grows older, which is a long-known phenomenon in social science, probably reflects this statistical migration of hemispheric dependence, perhaps related to a shift in dependence from fluid or innate intelligence to crystallized intelligence, which is more like what you’ve put in your hard drive and use from experience.

v See the Brain Hemispheres Appendix for more detailed information, including an expanded set of ideological connections from more recent research.

vi Marinsek NTurner BOGazzaniga M, Miller MB., “Divergent hemispheric reasoning strategies: reducing uncertainty versus resolving inconsistency.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 8: 839.

vii To see a more detailed description, along with a great deal of other insights into the machinery of our perception and how we use it, see VS Ramachandran, The Evolutionary Biology of Self-Deception, Laughter, Dreaming and Depression: Some Clues from Anasognosia, Medical Hypotheses (1996), 47, 347-362.

viii In the context of defense mechanisms, he went on to say, « Of course, when I speak of a 'general' in the left hemisphere or that the right hemisphere is required for 'paradigm shifts', I am being strictly metaphorical. But the use of metaphors is quite permissible in a field such as ours, that is still in its infancy, so long as one recognizes their tentative status and does not take them too literally. After all, even the notion of a gene or an electron as a 'particle' was once a metaphor, useful only as an approximation until more accurate accounts could be formulated. What is exciting to me, however, is that one can even begin to experimentally approach such questions as self-deception or Freudian psychology at a neurological level.”

ix Another very useful metaphor of brain hemispheres, by the neuroscientist and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, has the conservative side as the “emissary” to the “master” hemisphere. Not as cool for them.

x A minority of left-handers have these hemispherical relationships flipped, and very few right-handers. But the hemispheric specialization still seems to occur similarly. Hemispheric talk of the left doing this and the right doing that is heavily dumbed-down from the rather snarly statistical results, because brains are incredibly varied in structure. Virtually all the statements about the brain in this chapter are stereotypes, statistical composites.

xi Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles”, which is in the Appendix of the same name, with kind permission from Mrs. Kirk and

xii Try not to think in terms of actual brain processing as we talk about hemispheric this-and-that. For instance, if you could miraculously track brain processing accurately and in real-time (which is very difficult), you’d see very little correlation between novelty and the right hemisphere, even though that’s a very well-founded connection, because only the parts of novelty related to the philosophical idea of novelty, or the initiations of processing it, originate there. Processing to get anything done might be spread anywhere in the brain, especially when one considers that much of what’s going on in the brain electrically is inhibitory, i.e., activity to get highly specific circuits and processes shut down or de-emphasized. The split-brain studies this guide is based on were psychological, not neurological studies. The evidence is solely based on clues from behavior. For our purposes, actual brain processing is irrelevant.

xiii, 6/21/16, “House GOP dodges vote to block Harriet Tubman from $20 Bill”

xiv Raymonde Carroll, “Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience”, University of Chicago Press, 1990.

xv We’ll be discussing instrumental values, which are how we want to behave, not terminal values, which are what we are trying to achieve in life. We focus this way because the analysis is simpler and ties back directly to our fundamental hemispheric perspectives. It’s not always best to ignore terminal values, but we get to them well enough through our later discussion of personality and morality.

xvi This list is from the hemispheric studies, but was also necessary that it agree with an amalgam of several different political psychological theories, combined with my own qualitative research with conservatives in the Midwest and South. It is too early in political psychology to posit a final, clear model of conservative psychology, as the great minds of the effort haven’t resolved on one yet; but they’re overlapping and converging. I’ve tried to do a compromise between what’s out there as of June, 2016 and my own research, but this list is best thought of as a practical combination of strategic (safety, order, certainty) and more tactical (strong boundaries, consistency, simplicity, hierarchy, loyalty) values/goals, for the practical purpose of understanding conservative behavior. The first of the theories used is from applicable parts of Schwartz’s 10 universal human values theory; next is Xu et al’s DiGI theory of political ideology formation, which speaks in terms of goals instead of values, and extends the “conservatism” Schwartz values somewhat (X.Xu, J.E. Plaks, J. Peterson, “From Dispositions to Goals to Ideology: Toward a Synthesis of Personality and Social Psychological Approaches to Political Orientation”, Social and Political Psychology Compass 10/5, 2016, pp267-280); and finally, the work of Gary Lewis and Timothy Bates on personality and ideology, in the form of moral foundation theory’s “binding foundations” mediating the relationship between ideology and personality (G.J. Lewis, T.C. Bates, “How the Personality System Allows Basic Traits to Influence Politics Via Characteristic Moral Adaptations”, British Journal of Psychology, August 2011, pp. 546-558.) My own additions are the integration of boundaries as the central tactic of orderliness, and the modest use of boundary theory from psychoanalysis: this also allows dragging simplicity in along with the other values/goals, as a fallout of boundary-based valuation of simplicity, via the concomitant goal of breaking down categories into discrete ‘pails’ that are simple, or unitary.

xvii Safety isn’t seen as a distinguishing high relative value of the left hemisphere; it is the only value listed that didn’t arise directly out of observed left hemisphere values. The other two values that are part of Conservation in the Theory of Basic Values can be easily seen in the hemispheric studies as left-side values. Security is a conservative value because it’s a human one. The isolated left hemisphere is noted for its lack of care. It’s not clear why safety isn’t revealed in the left hemisphere like the other values, though a sense of safety is clearly overridden by repressions and confabulations that are designed to keep patterns or processes consistent and certain. Valuing safety greatly may require communication with the right hemisphere, or perhaps the right hemisphere drives part of the logic needed to focus on safety considerations.

xviii John Duckitt, “A Dual-Process Cognitive-Motivational Theory of Ideology and Prejudice,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 33:41-113, December 2000.

xix The main Schwartzian value related to hierarchy might be fairly thought of as centered around social conservatism, which concerns itself most with morality; that value is called Conformity, and is explained by Dr. Schwartz as “restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms”. In Schwartz’s model, the values nearest conformity may also involve a love or use of hierarchy. In Schwartzian value terms, then, the love of hierarchy is a mélange of Conformity, Achievement (personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards), Power (social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources), and Benevolence (Preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom one is in frequent personal contact, i.e., the ‘in-group’.)

xx Freedom is a tricky, two-faced concept. This version refers to the concept of negative freedom, meaning “don’t tread on me,” which most conservatives and all libertarians are very fond of. Positive freedom is associated more with liberals, and concerns people having similar chances to succeed by removing unfair barriers to success for some people. These are typically viewed as in natural conflict, and, though they do conflict sometimes, there are important ways that they don’t. Negative vs positive freedom is another way of stating the natural conflict between the Schwartzian Self-enhancement and Self-transcendence families of values, i.e., Achievement and Power vs Universalism and Benevolence. Libertarians think of positive liberty as mostly oppression, a violation of natural human rights; liberals feel the same way about negative liberty.

xxi Stanley Feldman, Christopher Johnston, “Understanding the Determinants of Political Ideology: Implications of Structural Complexity,” Political Psychology, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2014.

xxii Hierarchy and authority is such a useful ‘handle’ on conservatives that the linguist and political strategist George Lakoff bases his approach for communicating with conservatives on what he terms their “strict father” viewpoint on life, versus the “nurturant parent” approach of liberals. This approach, while limited due to its emphasis on hierarchy, is remarkably powerful anyway in helping divine conservative thinking in many settings, because order is expressed so often through hierarchical thinking. Hierarchy or conformance emphasis is mixed via hemispheric studies, much less clear than the orderliness-related values. Patients can lose their normal obedience, and similar to their attitude about safety, will override conforming preferences in a powerful, fantasy-driven attempt to keep patterns in place and consistent. Patients commonly deny they are ill, try to check themselves out of the hospital when they’re not even mobile, or argue that their limbs aren’t paralyzed. Yet other forms of conformance are still evident through their execution of patterns they obsess on, like following rules of games and other aspects of ‘authority’ that are integral to an ordered existence.

xxiii For example, this took the form of a fascination with simple patterns, which were often repeated endlessly, in very good humor.

xxiv Jacob B. Hirsh, Colin G. DeYoung, Xiaowen Xu, and Jordan B. Peterson, Compassionate Liberals and Polite Conservatives: Associations of Agreeableness With Political Ideology and Moral Values, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(5) (2010), pgs. 655–664. Conscientiousness, one of the Big 5 factors of personality, is generally positively correlated with conservativism, but the correlation is through one of two aspects of this factor, Orderliness (which includes rigidity), while we’re yet unclear that there’s a correlation with the other aspect, industriousness. To understand the two aspects better as defining conscientiousness, see Colin G. DeYoung, Lena C. Quilty, Between Facets and Domains: 10 Aspects of the Big Five, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 93/5 (2007), pgs. 880 –896.

xxv Safety shouldn’t be considered being evident as a higher value from split-brain studies’ findings about the left hemisphere–it’s not–but is at the foundation of all human values, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and other psychological indicators of value. It’s not clear that conservatives actually value safety any more than liberals do; what’s important to recognize is that it is a primary values, and that they express that value through emphasizing certainty, consistency, and order (which are all indicated as much more important for the left hemisphere). That perspective helps greatly later when we look at their approach to personal safety, sanctity/purity, policing, national defense, and imperialism.

xxvi Eviatar Zerubabel, “The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life” Free Press, 1991; an entertaining and somewhat philosophic treatment. Boundary Theory is a little-known field of social psychology that has great currency in ideological issues, expressing either ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ boundary orientation as an important personality trait. The current Big 5 personality theory seems to mostly ascribe boundary issues to the traits of personality related to orderliness, closely tied to hierarchical thinking. See also Ernest Hartmann, “Boundary in the Mind: A New Psychology of Personality”, Basicbooks, 1991.

xxvii Michael Gazzaniga, “The Split Brain Revisited”, Scientific American 2002.

xxviii The listed asterisked values that conservatives consciously hold align perfectly with Schwartz’s list of universal human values, a popular and well-researched list of 10 universal human values; they are the three values that make up the “conservation” category of values, which are tradition, safety, and conformity (conformity, one can argue, is a kind of synonym, in this context, of hierarchy). Safety isn’t found to be a documented left hemisphere relatively high value; if anything, it’s more important for the right hemisphere. Of course, conservatives value many more than these listed items, as all humans do; and all humans value these things, to some degree. See Schwartz, S.H., “Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, M. Zanna, San Diego: Academic Press, 1992.

xxix While it’s true that order is mentioned only occasionally explicitly, with many very conservative people, whole conversations can sometimes be interpreted fairly as various takes on order: desired order, poor order, disorderly people, how order is fun, etc.

xxx The footage is available on by searching for “Esa Wroth”.

xxxi The problem the solo right hemisphere has with logic in split-brain patients is complex and not fully understood. One known part of it is that the relatively straightforward logic-handling needed to create and especially run the learned routines of our lives is normally provided by the left hemisphere, in a classic share of roles in which a kind of handshake agreement happens on what a routine is; the two hemispheres normally then work together to agree on and build usable routines. In the brain-damaged patients, though, those left-side logic facilities weren’t available, so the right hemisphere is weak on certain aspects of mathematical or symbolic logic on its own.

xxxii Damage to the left hemisphere language and logical processing areas render these patients mute or often confused, as well, which is very stressful, and may contribute even more to suicidal thoughts or depression, or be part of a cascading group of causes. Individual cases vary much more widely than many of the other statistical effects covered in this guide.

xxxiii L.I. Benowitz, K.L. Moya, D.N. Levine, Impaired Verbal Reasoning and Constructional Apraxia in Subjects with Right Hemisphere Damage, Neuropsychologia, Volume 28, Number 3, 1990, pp 231-241.

xxxiv The equivalent of this book for conservatives will be much tougher to write, for many reasons; one way of sensing the challenge is to recognize how much easier it is for anybody to understand what the brain’s left hemisphere does for a living.