Inquiring minds would like to know if being “open” is the same as being “tolerant,” and if liberals are truly more tolerant than conservatives. In particular, Mark Brandt wants to know; he is a professor of social psychology who is interested in “how ideological and moral beliefs structure attitudes and behaviours, and provide people with meaning.”
Brandt begins by asking what it means to be “open”. He notes that “Openness to experience is a key personality dimension. People who score high on this measure tend to be curious, imaginative and interested in new people and ideas.”
In that sense, he says, liberals are indeed more open than conservatives:
A number of studies, including my own, use data from a variety of people to find that liberals score higher on personality measures of openness to experience and curiosity than do conservatives. This is true of studies using self-report and observer report measures, including a study where researchers analysed the contents of participants’ living areas (ie dorm rooms). Liberal dorm rooms tended to have a wider variety of books and music than conservative dorm rooms. The link between ideology and openness is consistent.
Social science: scrutinizing our books and our music collections in hopes of proving a hypothesis! Of course, consulting a definition of what it means to be “conservative” (resistant to change, loyal to tradition and to the “tried and true,” etc.) could have produced the same result.
Whatever the validity of this measure of “openness,” the quality itself would seem to be desirable. According to Brandt, lack of openness leads to bad things:
Scoring low on openness, meanwhile, has been linked to prejudice towards black people, immigrants, and the LGBT community. In one study, people scoring low on openness rated a black individual as less likeable than did people who scored high on openness. A second study found that people low in openness rated black job candidates as less intelligent, responsible and honest than did people high in openness. All of this research suggests that people who are low in openness will be less likely to deal well with diversity, while people high in openness will be well-suited for it
So far, so good—for liberals, who are admirably open and accepting of diversity; so far, not so good—for conservatives, who are, it seems, shamefully inclined towards bigotry.
But Mark Brandt is not done yet; he wonders if there might be a fly in the otherwise attractive ointment of liberalism. And by golly, after much research, it turns out that there is:
The evident tolerance of people high in openness might actually just be tolerance for people who share their own values. Alternatively, the evident prejudice of people low in openness might actually be prejudice towards people who do not share those values. That is, openness might be bounded by the conventionality of the social groups. It might be openness to unconventionality – not openness to everyone. If this is true, then perhaps liberal pundit Nicholas Kristof is right to say, ’We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.’
What Brandt is saying is that liberals are tolerant of pretty much everyone except conservatives, because conservatives refuse to embrace the diversity to which liberals are open:
Openness, it turns out, is bounded by the conventionality of the social group. Valuing openness as such does not hurt – in fact, it is surely a step in the right direction. However, our data shows that it is very hard for people not to be prejudiced towards people they disagree with, however open they might be.
That last dictum is yet another triumph for social science: who would have guessed, without rigorous empirical testing, that people have difficulty being open and accepting towards, or tolerant of, those with whom they disagree?
I’ll say this for Brandt’s results: they offer a mild rebuke and a helpful reminder to smug liberals who can’t understand why conservatives are so closed-minded and intolerant. Liberals, Brandt says, don’t do any better than conservatives when it comes to avoiding or escaping “group think” and peer pressure; they don’t do any better at seeing both sides of an argument or at agreeing to disagree. No one should be surprised by this, of course; all of us, regardless of ideology, tend to believe ourselves more reasonable than we actually are.
When I say “us” and “we,” of course, I'm referring to the rest of you. I think this blog, over the years, has consistently shown me to be fair, tolerant, and open-minded, as has my personal conduct and my personal conversations. No epistemological or ideological blinders narrow my expansive, unbiased, and generous openness to contrary views; so I’m exempt from Mark Brandt’s cautions.
The rest of you, though, have some serious soul-searching to do.