Conservatives Care More About Consensus Than Liberals

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Liberals get endless mileage out of making fun of Rush Limbaugh's listeners for embracing the label "Ditto Heads" — that is, for taking pride in saying "ditto" to Rush's every utterance, in working themselves into an agreeable lather as he rants about Democratic depredation. To left-leaning enemies of Rush, it's a useful microcosm for conservative groupthink and conformity. A new article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examines differences between liberals and conservatives when it comes to the desire for and perception of consensus, and it finds that elements of this critique are well-founded. Conservatives may still get the last laugh, though.

In the article's three studies, researchers from NYU and the University of Toronto asked study participants to make judgements on non-policy issues. Given only a picture of someone's face, for example, they were were asked to guess the person's sexual orientation and what month he or she was born in. Overall, conservatives perceived greater consensus with other conservatives on these questions than than did liberals with other liberals. This, the researchers write, "is attributable to [conservatives'] stronger motivation to foster a shared sense of reality."

In other words, agreement was more important to conservatives, and they were more likely to (rightly or wrongly) think that they were on the same page as their ideological fellow travelers, even on issues without a strictly political bent. And in advocacy and activism settings this tendency can backfire, write the researchers, because an overly rosy perception of consensus can lead people to be "unlikely to fully recognize the hurdles that they must overcome to succeed."

But don't get too haughty, liberals — your comparatively lower enthusiasm for consensus brings with it some serious disadvantages of its own. Anyone who has read about the bruising internecine feminism battles of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, can tell you that liberal movements have a tendency to tear themselves apart from the inside.

Conservatives aren't immune to this stuff, of course (you may have heard about a group called the tea party that has, shall we say, certain disagreements with the GOP establishment), but their reputation for being better political organizers is a deserved one, and these psychological factors could be part of the reason why.