Political conservatives in the United States are somewhat like East Asians in the way they think, categorize and perceive, while liberals in the U.S. are more extreme in thought, categorization and perception, according to a new cultural psychology analysis.

But both sides are correct in trying to appeal to and shape young people because thought styles - whether analytical or holistic - can be changed through training, enough to at least temporarily change political thought and the way a person might vote.  The wave of enthusiasm and support for President Barack Obama in 2008 appealed to people with analytical styles - though it helped that he abandoned campaign finance reform after his opponent was stuck with it and outspent Senator John McCain 2:1 to make sure that framing stuck long enough for the polls to close.

"We found in our study that liberals and conservatives think as if they were from completely different cultures - almost as different as East and West," said lead author Thomas Talhelm, a University of Virginia doctoral candidate in cultural psychology. "Liberals and conservatives categorize and perceive things differently, just as East Asians and Westerners look differently at the world." 

Analytical thinkers predominate in Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies (termed "WEIRD" societies in 2010 by cultural psychologists at the University of British Columbia) but are only about 15 percent of the world's population.

How WEIRD are you? American conservatives, not very. Credit: Shutterstock

According to Talhelm, political conservatives in the United States, like East Asians, are intuitive or "holistic" thinkers, while American liberals are more "analytical". This makes sense when distinct styles such as Presidents Reagan and Obama are compared. One got elected through calculation and strategy (like abandoning campaign finance reform after his opponent had already committed to it) while the other appealed with non-specific vision.

Of course there are cultural differences - that is what culture is

The "culture war" is not just American nationalism making it sound like they are each vying for world domination but instead cultural differences in the thought processes of liberals and conservatives - at least according to sociology and cultural psychology. One big drawback of psychology in general, and this paper is no different, is over-reliance on surveys of college students. 

"On psychological tests, Westerners tend to view scenes, explain behavior and categorize objects analytically," Talhelm said. "But the vast majority of people around the world - about 85 percent - more often think intuitively - what psychologists call holistic thought, and we found that's how conservative Americans tend to think."

Holistic thought more often uses intention and the perception of whole objects or situations, rather than breaking them down to their parts - such as having a general feeling about a situation involving intuition or tact.

Analytic thinking styles tend to look at the parts of a situation, and how they work together toward the whole. This involves "slicing up the world and analyzing objects individually, divorced from context," Talhelm said. 

So in a WEIRD society, such as the United States, analytically thinking liberals are "extreme Americans," Talhelm said, in the sense that they are particularly disinclined to think in the style of a vast majority of the rest of the world, including their holistic-thinking conservative countrymen.

For liberals in WEIRD countries, this is a compelling voting strategy.
Amber Lee Ettinger, "Obama Girl". 

There is value in both ways of thinking, Talhelm said. Intuitive thinking likely is the "default" style most people are born with, while analytical thinking generally must be learned, usually through training, such as in Western-style school systems.

Psychologists test thought styles by giving study participants a short battery of tests to determine if they are holistic or analytic thinkers.

One such test asks participants to choose two of three items to categorize together, such as a mitten, a scarf, and a hand. Analytic thinkers usually match the scarf and mitten because they belong to the same abstract category - items of winter clothing. Holistic thinkers usually match the mitten and hand because the hand wears a mitten.

When Talhelm and his colleagues matched thought styles with political leanings of participants, they found that the liberals tended to be analytic thinkers and the conservatives holistic thinkers.

They further found that political thought was somewhat malleable. They discovered that if they trained holistic thinkers to think analytically, for example, to match scarf with mitten, they would subsequently start viewing the world more liberally (though not on economic policy). Likewise, liberals, if trained to think holistically, would come to form more conservative opinions.

"The change in thought style, we found, can be enough to change people's opinion on social issues like welfare or criminal sentencing," Talhelm said. "The switch was actually large enough that it would have changed the outcome if it had been a vote."

He noted that liberals in the West tend to live in urban or suburban areas and often have fairly weak social and community ties, move more often and are less traditionally religious. They are more individualistic than conservatives and very unlike most people in Eastern cultures. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be more connected to their communities and may live in the same areas throughout their lives, maintaining strong social and familial bonds and commitments, and are more traditionally religious. This puts them more in line with the holistic-thinking majority of the world.

"This study shows that the two sides in the 'culture war,' conservatives and liberals, really approach the world as if they came from two very different cultures," Talhelm said.

Citation: Thomas Talhelm, Jonathan Haidt, Shigehiro Oishi, Xuemin Zhang, Felicity F. Miao, and Shimin Chen, Liberals Think More Analytically (More “WEIRD”) Than Conservatives Pers Soc Psychol Bull February 2015 41: 250-267, December 24, 2014 doi:10.1177/0146167214563672