Pickups, Priuses and Patterns of Polarisation
I love Bob Marley and Pink Floyd. According to Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide (2018) by Jonathan D. Weiler and Marc J. Hetherington there is one thing you can relatively safely infer from this piece of information: I am a liberal (which is spot-on). It is one of many books by now that tries to explain the increasing polarisation that we are seeing, not merely in the US. I really enjoyed it and I think it has an undeserved meagre 3.8 rating on Goodreads.
A lot of bad ratings come from people who lambast the book for spreading clichès about liberals and conservatives. I am not sure if those people got the idea of the book. There are a lot of liberal cliches I don’t correspond to, like I don’t like Starbucks as I think they are overrated and overpriced, which would align me more with the conservative side. True, a lot of things may seem exaggerated in the book, but exactly that is the point, painting a picture of two completely different worlds, and often there are some humorous gems hidden in those descriptions:
If a Republican partisan sees someone walking down the street carrying a yoga mat, she or he is very likely to categorise that person as a Democrat. The associations will be close to automatic-yoga mat equals contemptible liberal.
Yeah, picture this threatening person practising yoga on the mat, certainly someone to be wary of (weirdo). Or this one here:
While the Bleus eye the Ivies for their daughter, the Redds don’t appreciate the liberal indoctrination their kids might receive at a place like Yale or Princeton.
Yeah, we liberals love to do that, like telling our kids: “You better be an independent free-thinker and be pro-LGBTQ and pro-choice, or else you will… go to hell!”, or “not achieve Nirvana”, or whatever conservatives may think of liberal indoctrination (in case you haven’t noticed, the expression is an oxymoron).
I certainly do like interesting opposites, such as liberals like sushi, cities and Priuses and conservatives love burghers, the suburbs (or rural areas) and pickup trucks. The authors explain those differences, so that you can easily figure out who went for sushi and who went for burgers when McDonald’s opened in Japan in 1972. What’s more, while single clues are rarely reliable indicators, a bundle of a few clues is often enough to understand if someone is a liberal or a conservative. You often might easily glimpse these clues by looking into people’s yards (lawn, type of car, kind of dog, etc.) or inside their homes (the kinds of books they read, decorations, photos or paintings, etc.). Most of all, four questions regarding children speak volumes about your political orientation:
- Independence versus respect for elders
- Obedience versus self-reliance
- Curiosity versus good manners
- Being considerate versus being well behaved
These different ways of viewing the world are encapsulated by different answers to Stanley Feldman’s four questions about the qualities people value in children. Fixed people opt for respect for elders, obedience, good manners, and being well behaved. Fluid people choose independence, self-reliance, curiosity, and considerateness.
The authors prefer to use fixed and fluid mindset rather than conservative and liberal, as there is only a rough correlation between these two dimensions. The term “fixed” describes people who are warier of social and cultural change and hence more set in their ways, more suspicious of outsiders, and more comfortable with the familiar and predictable. This mindset correlates with the Big Five factor conscientiousness, whereas the fluid mindset, as described in the book correlates with openness. DeYoung’s theory of the Big Five metatraits, “stability” vs “plasticity” is highly interesting in this context, as it pretty much reflects the differences between the two types of mindset.
I have argued that these metatraits in turn reflect an evolutionary origin in sedentism/farming (stability) and nomadism (plasticity), with the latter split into pastoralism (extraversion) and foraging (openness). Pastoralists and foragers generally tend to be much more egalitarian than farming societies that tend to be structured hierarchically. This would also explain conservatives’ tendency to elect “strong” (authoritarian) leaders. The farmer vs forager dichotomy would also explain most phenomena mentioned in the book: farmers would have a preference for familiar foods whereas foragers would have to adapt their taste to new foods. The biggest contrast perhaps is in child-rearing and education. While farmers often force their children to work by beating them, foragers never do. There is simply no kind of coercion at all in foraging societies, which means there is also no formal education in foraging societies as that would entail giving “commands” to children. Needless to say, there is also no such thing as child punishment in foraging societies.
When I started working on farmer vs forager difference, one of my first aims was to divide apart farmer and forager type values in education. This is what I came up with:
Stanley Feldman’s four questions (well-mannered > tradition, obedience > conformity, etc.) can be derived from this table.
The irony here is that people with the stability profile (farmer types) are making the world increasingly unstable by voting for populist politicians. A huge part of the book is devoted to this problem (the authors do not hide their liberal preferences, which is kind of unnecessary as the vast majority of people in social science are liberals). The populist playbook is simple and always starts with appealing to the good farmers’ fear of external threats (immigrants, terrorists, etc.). Even this fear has its own evolutionary logic: unlike foragers and pastoralists, early farmers could not relocate easily and had to face external threats like natural disasters and raiders. Strong leaders were required to fend off these threats, and conformity was required to easily distinguish between friend and foe. Last, but not least, this explains why the “fixed mindset” people have this view that the outside world is dangerous and foreigners can’t be trusted.
The takeaway from the book: you can be a (social) conservative and love Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, but you most likely have never listened closely to the lyrics then.
For more check out my book Different Kinds of Minds: The Evolution of Us
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on June 21, 2022.