Understanding the conservative mind



I wonder have you, like I have, puzzled about how the conservative mind works?

When Tony Abbott was prime minister, did you ask yourself how on earth he could hold some of his views?

Did you question how he could ignore the mountain of evidence that our planet is warming and how he could airily dismiss the catastrophic predictions for life on earth when increases in global temperatures exceed 2 degrees Celsius? Did you query how he could insist that ‘coal was good for humanity’ when all the evidence points to the burning of fossil fuels as a major cause of carbon pollution, the greenhouse effect, and global warming?

Did you ever ask yourself why Abbott so frequently warned us about threats from abroad: people smugglers bringing boat people to ‘invade our shores’, or ISIS terrorists ‘coming to get us’? He extended this to homegrown radicalized youth threatening us close to home. This is not to ridicule such threats, as the recent terrorist attacks on the Russian airliner, and in Turkey, Lebanon, and Paris attest, but to ask why he seemed so preoccupied with them, to the extent that even after he was removed as PM, he was warning European nations that their compassion towards refugees was leading them into 'catastrophic error', and that they, like Australia, must ‘stop the boats’!

Tony Abbott, by his own proud admission, is a conservative. There is now plenty of evidence that conservatives think differently, that their brains are wired differently from those on the other side of the political spectrum, and have likely been so all their lives. Can this explain Abbott’s thinking?

Conservatives contrast starkly with those who have a progressive mindset, so-called left wing thinkers. Of course there are those in the middle: Malcolm Turnbull is a contemporary example.

Instead of those of us who are progressive thinkers living in a state of perpetual frustration at the seemingly incongruous, indeed seemingly ridiculous workings of the conservative mind, it might be less irritating if we understood how their minds actually function. We don’t question why a person with a deformed foot or a short leg walks with a limp; it is obvious. But we can’t see how the way conservatives think results in the behaviour they exhibit. Until recently it has not been possible to get inside the conservative head to discern how its mental apparatus works. Now though we have some evidence from neuroscientists.

I will quote from several articles from the scientific literature to describe the conservative mind. As some of these use American terminology, read ‘LNP’ for ‘conservative’, which corresponds in the US to the Republican Party (or the Tea Party), and read ‘Labor’ or ‘progressive’ for ‘liberal’, which corresponds to the Democrat Party.

An article in Salon in September 2013 titled Inside the conservative brain: What explains their wiring? by Avi Tuschman, author of Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us concludes: “Conservatives tend to view human nature as competitive, while liberals are more prone to perceiving human nature as cooperative.”

How many times have we heard LNP members talk about competition, competitiveness, competition policy, and about working hard to achieve success and its rewards? These values align with their endorsement of capitalism, the power of free markets and the competition they encourage. Along with competition they value personal freedom, enterprise, entrepreneurship, initiative, innovation, investment, ‘start-ups’, risk-taking and self-improvement.

Scott Morrison had been Treasurer for only a week or two when he introduced his own three-word slogan, one that embodies these values: ‘Work, Save, Invest’.

There is nothing wrong with these values; indeed a prosperous society needs them. It is when they take precedence over other values, such as fairness, caring for the less well off, and supporting the ill and the disabled that the balance a cohesive society needs is lacking.

Understandably, Joe Hockey endorsed those conservative values, but at the same time he made an art form of demeaning the less fortunate. He proudly boasted about the political import of his 2012 speech in London The end of the age of entitlement. He repeated the concept endlessly, and put it into action in his 2014 budget where he punished the less well off, the ‘leaners’. Tony Abbott backed him all the way.

Here are some satirical representations of the brains of the Conservative Republican and the Progressive Democrat.


In contrast, Labor members and the Greens value an egalitarian society that provides equal opportunity for all its citizens. They emphasize fairness, ‘a fair go for all’, and a good education and universal healthcare for everyone, irrespective of social status or wealth. They highlight cooperativeness, social responsibility, sharing, inclusiveness, mutual support, empathy, human rights, empowerment, and an ethic of excellence.

How many times have you heard expressions of concern for the less well off from these progressives? Time and again!



It is noteworthy that Malcolm Turnbull, who we know is less radical in his conservative views, has gone out of his way to emphasize the crucial importance of fairness, especially in addressing tax reform.

It is not that conservatives don’t hold these progressive values at all, or that progressives don’t hold the values conservatives emphasize, it is that the balance is tilted one way for progressives, the other way for conservatives. As pointed out earlier, Tuschman’s thesis is: Conservatives tend to view human nature as competitive, while liberals [progressives] are more prone to perceiving human nature as cooperative.”

Do Abbott’s conservative values explain why he is so averse to accepting the reality of global warming? Apart from the obvious fact that he has always been wedded to the coal industry, and climate denial is a way of protecting this favoured industry for purely political reasons, his ideological support for enterprise and free markets and competitiveness must be another factor that drives him to deny climate science and dismiss climate scientists to boot. His position seems unreasonable and illogical to progressives who accept the science of climate change, but it is ‘logical’ to the conservative brain, which seemingly is wired differently to value science less than enterprise.

In the Salon article Tuschman went on to further illustrate his thesis by highlighting the difference in approach of conservative [Republican] and Democrat candidates for presidency of the US:
"Right-wing politicians like Ronald Reagan tend to make more appeals to the public based on the assumption of a self-interested audience. Reagan said: ‘As you go to the polls next Tuesday and make your choice for President, ask yourself this question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?’ In contrast, “Democrat president John F. Kennedy…famously entreated his ‘fellow Americans to ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ In Kennedy’s speech, the liberal president invoked a cooperative human nature."
The Salon article sums up as follows:
"To the extent that people identify free-market capitalism with self-interest, capitalism has polarized the political spectrum. The far left has decried self-interested capitalism as the root of all evil, and accused the right of celebrating self-interest by worshiping the god of free markets. The far right, on the other hand, has denounced socialist control economies for impeding the pursuit of competition and sapping away motivation.”
The article addresses another aspect of conservative thinking – the dangers that lurk in the contemporary world:
"If, as conservatives tend to believe human nature is fundamentally competitive and self-interest prevails, then people live in a dangerous world. The ‘dangerous world’ metaphor has long been associated with right-wing ideological views. In the last couple of centuries, though, this metaphor has taken the form of folk-Darwinism…in which ‘all creatures great and small are pitted against one another in a life-or-death struggle to survive and reproduce.’"
This proposition helps us understand Abbott’s preoccupation with threats to our country – from boat people close at hand, to ISIS terrorists from a distance, to home grown radicalized youth willing to do us harm in our own neighbourhood. To reinforce his message, Abbott persistently demonized boat people, conflated them with terrorists, repeatedly called ISIS 'the death cult', and sought to instill in us perpetual fear of terrorism. It is the terrorists who seek to foster fear; instead of allaying it, Abbott augmented their fear campaign. Following the Paris terrorist attack, still suffering from relevance deprivation, he appeared on the Bolt Report giving his sage advice that we must ‘tackle the ISIS toxin at its source’, presumably with more bombing! Turnbull’s calming and reassuring approach to the same atrocity stands in stark contrast.

Let’s look at a revealing experiment reported in Salon:
"The researchers showed a series of thirty-three images to a group of adults with strong political beliefs. Three of the pictures depicted threatening conditions: the first had a very large spider on the face of a frightened person; a second image showed a dazed individual with a bloody face; and the third one showed an open wound with maggots in it. In a control condition, the psychologists replaced the three startling pictures with nonthreatening ones (a bunny, a bowl of fruit, and a happy child).

“While the subjects viewed the images, the scientists monitored their skin conductance to measure fear…

“They discovered that the individuals who had a higher physiological response to the threatening images (i.e. the people who were more startled) were significantly more likely to have conservative attitudes. For instance, they tended to support capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Those who were less startled by the threatening images generally supported pacifism, foreign aid, and liberal immigration policies.

“This dangerous-world experiment is particularly valuable because it is quite clear what causes what. If an MRI scan reveals differences between the brains of liberals and conservatives, we cannot be sure whether nature or nurture is ultimately responsible. Brain differences could be innate or environmentally acquired or both. But as the physiological fear responses…are involuntary…it seems as though conservatives truly do perceive the world to be a more dangerous place than liberals do – even while asleep. Research on the dream lives of Americans found that Republicans reported nearly three times as many nightmares as Democrats. Conservatives were also more likely to initiate physical aggression in their dreams, and they were twice as likely as liberals to dream about male characters. Left-leaning dreamers, in contrast, reported more female characters in their dreams.”
The Salon article continues:
"Numerous political psychologists have commented on the right’s ‘Darwinian’ dangerous-world metaphor. The Authoritarian Personality group at UC Berkeley remarked how highly ethnocentric subjects had ‘a conception of a dangerous and hostile world’ that resembled an ‘oversimplified survival-of-the-fittest idea.’ One conservative subject recalled the discipline that he used to receive from his father: “I always accused him of being harsh. . . . And apparently this all falls in with Darwin’s theory too.’"
This dovetails with University of California, Berkeley cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff’s explanatory model of conservative and progressive thinking, (see The myth of political sameness The Political Sword, December 2013), which he explained in his book: The Political Mind (Penguin, 2009). Using the ‘Nation as Family’ metaphor, and its corollary: ‘Government as Parent’, Lakoff proposed that conservatives follow the ‘Strict Father Model’ of parenting (which they also apply to politics). In describing this model, he says:
"The strict father is the moral leader of the family, and is to be obeyed. The family needs a strict father because there is evil in the world from which he has to protect them – and Mommy can’t do it. The family needs a strict father because there is competition in the world, and he has to win those competitions to support the family – and Mommy can’t do it. You need a strict father because kids are born bad, in the sense that they do what they want to do and don’t know right from wrong. They need to be punished strictly and painfully when they do wrong, so they will have an incentive to do right in order to avoid punishment. That is how they build internal discipline, which is needed to do right and not wrong. With that self-discipline, they can enter the market and become self-reliant and prosperous. As mature, self-disciplined, self-reliant adults, they can go off on their own, start their own families, and become strict fathers in their own households, without meddling by their own fathers or anyone else.

“Mapped onto politics, the strict father model explains why conservatism is concerned with authority, with obedience, with discipline, and with punishment…”
Does that explain why Joe Hockey wanted to punish the ‘leaners’, whom he considered to be lazy, not pulling their weight, not out there working for a living, bludging on society, via his punitive 2014 budget? Does the ‘Strict Father model’ explain Hockey’s disdain for what he liked to describe as ‘the nanny state’, a view shared by many of his conservative colleagues? Also, does Lakoff’s model explain Abbott’s blokiness and his reluctance to appoint women to his cabinet? Does he believe ‘Mommy can’t do it’?

As a contrast, Lakoff describes an opposing model: the ‘Nurturant Parent Model’ in these terms:
"Progressives have a nurturant parent model: two parents, with equal responsibilities, and no gender constraints – or one parent of either gender. Their job is to nurture their children and raise them to be nurturers of others. Nurturance is empathy, responsibility for oneself and others, and the strength to carry out those responsibilities. This is the opposite of indulgence: children are raised to care about others, to take care of themselves and others, and to lead a fulfilling life. Discipline is positive; it comes out of a child’s developing sense of care and responsibility. Nurturance requires setting limits, and explaining them. It requires mutual respect…Restitution is preferred over punishment…The job of parents is protection and empowerment of their children, and a dedication to community life, where people care about and take care of each other.”
Mapped onto politics:
"…the result is the progressive politics of protection, empowerment, and community. The model is gender neutral: Fathers can, and do, form deep positive attachments to their kids. They, as well as mothers, can do all the things required by the nurturance model. Conservatives, however, often parody this model by describing it as a mommy or nanny model, calling the Democrats the ‘mommy party’ and speaking of the ‘nanny state’."
Lakoff sums up these models thus:
"Metaphorical thought is natural. We have a ‘Nation as Family’ metaphor. We have two very different idealized models of the family, which are mapped by the metaphor onto two very different views of the nation. Our models of moral and political thought are taken from these models. Until ten years ago, these were substantiated models. A lot has been learned about the brain since then. What has been learned basically verifies these views, but extends them to explain a lot more.”
He goes on to give a neurological explanation of the congruence of these two models with political orientation: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, against the background of the ‘Nation as Family’ metaphor, the Strict Father Model reinforces conservative thinking, and the Nurturant Parent Model reinforces progressive thinking. Technically, this is termed ‘neural recruitment’, a scientifically established mechanism for embedding and reinforcing modes of thinking.

This piece is already long enough. Further comment in the ‘Comments’ section, or even another piece that expands on the underlying psychology and the neurological underpinnings, may be necessary.

But in the meantime, please let us know what you feel about the explanations of conservative and progressive thinking offered here, and what you think about the neurological justification of these explanations.

Do these explanations help you better to understand how the conservative mind works?

Tell us what YOU think.