Bad News For Conservatives? Or Bad News For Rational Thought?

Let’s examine Marcus Arvan’s peer-reviewed paper, “Bad News for Conservatives? Moral Judgments and the Dark Triad Personality Traits: A Correlational Study”, published in the 25 July 2011 issue of Neuroethics. Marcus Arvan

Through the generosity of the “Yale Experiment Month initiative, a program financially sponsored by the American Philosophical Association for the purpose of encouraging experimental research by philosophers”, Avran went on-line and found “302 male, 257 female, 2 transgendered” persons to take part in a survey.

People self-reported, on a 1-7 scale, their fiscal and social conservatism or liberalism. (Arvan self-reported himself as a philosopher.) His subjects self-reported their age, sex, and several other variables that never appeared in Arvan’s analysis (why?). He also asked questions that sought—reminder: to seek does not imply to find—opinion on contentious political topics. He had the idea that conservatives would be more “‘hard-hearted’ or callous'” than liberals. Statistics and small p-values would vindicate him.

How did he come by this hypothesis? “Commonsense,” Arvan tells us, “suggests that there is a relationship between personality traits and moral value judgments.” He noted that “Adolf Hitler”—who he helpfully reminds us was a “mass murderer”—had the “notable personality trait” of “counteractive narcism,” [sic] which is “a type that is stimulated by real or imagined insult or injury” and that the briefly mustachioed dictator entertained the “notable moral judgment” of anti-Semitism. Arvan forgot that Hitler was a non-smoking, vegetarian, teetotaler. Perhaps these (more liberal than conservative) personality traits drove him to the Final Solution?

A typical Arvan question: “Homosexual behavior is: morally wrong, morally bad but not forbidden, morally neutral (neither good nor bad), morally good but not required, morally required.” Now, there are many arguments about the propriety of homosexual behavior, but to suggest it is “morally required” is not common. It is not clear whether this response is understandable to the audience Arvan polled. It is, at the least, ambiguous; at worst, nonsensical. He also had the same question and responses for gay marriage. “Morally wrong” is clear here, as is “morally right”, but “morally required” is not.

The wording on his economics questions is worse. Example:

A government ought to tax its citizens in order to ensure that all citizens enjoy basic life necessities (example: Social Security, which provides old-age/retirement benefits, and temporary assistance for needy families, such as food stamps etc.).

Who but a cold-hearted brute would withhold “basic life necessities” from his neighbor? Arvan’s word choice reveals his obvious bias: it ignores the conservative argument—whether you agree with it or not is irrelevant—that low or no taxes are better guarantors of “basic life necessities” than is government control. A person’s sympathies with his brother is confounded with his judgment of what makes sound tax policy.

And then there is his amateur psychological quiz. Answer (1 through 5 here) high on the question “I am a thrill seeker” and, according to Arvan’s view, you might be a psychopath. Say that you “like to get acquainted with important people” and Arvan says you’re a narcissist. Or agree that “It’s not wise to tell your secrets” and you are Machiavellian. Answer positively on all three and you descend into the “Dark Triad.”

Says Arvan. Not directly, of course, but by calling these questions part of an “instrument” with “face validity” and by quoting others in the “growing body of literature” he rubs a patina of legitimacy on his survey. Finding correlations between arbitrarily labeled questions all the rage and guarantee the road to publication. Over confidence in their results abounds. Why?

It might be true, for example, that all psychopaths would agree that “People who mess with me always regret it” but it is far from obvious, and probably false, that all psychopaths would openly admit it on a public survey. It is also unclear how many non-psychopaths would also agree with this and other similar questions.

Finally comes Arvan’s statistics, which is nothing more than Pearson straight-line correlation between answers on the personality and political and moral questions. Because of the discrete form of the responses, he should not have used this measure: doing so can inflate correlation. Most of his correlations were (in absolute value) in the 0 to 0.4 range, most were near 0. But they all had small p-values, which is unfortunately all you need to publish. Suspiciously, he never reports what percent of respondents were conservative, liberal, or religious, nor does he give any demographic breakdown (besides noting “gender”).

To the results! He found, for example, that psychopaths are more likely to agree that “A government ought to detain suspected terrorists as long as necessary without trial to prevent terrorist attacks”, but only to the tune of a dismal 0.2 correlation. He calls this finding a confirmation of “conservative judgment”, which means he doesn’t follow current politics closely, as calls for eliminating habeas corpus are now more likely to originate from the White House than the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

His says his conclusions are “bad news for conservatives.” Time and again Arvan implies that conservatives are Machiavellian, Narcissistic, and psychopathic—“‘morally worrisome’ traits” in his words. Yet he gushes that his conclusions are “provocative” and “significant” and that luckily they raise “many questions worthy of further research.” After putting a good word in for ad hominem arguments, he states he has raised “provocative moral questions worthy of further philosophical research.”

A psychologically more interesting question that they ones “raised” by Avran are how these sorts of papers ever see the light of day. If anybody wants to fund such as study, then I am your man.

Arvan’s work has also been picked up in the press.


  1. This paper should be included in the Asinine Science Roundup. My 8 year old niece can create a more scientific study than this, using SurveyMonkey.

  2. Chuck L. ,

    Think of it as the questionnaire equivalent to Modern Abstract Art. Note the application of Scientific Minimalism and conclusions only suggestive of Logic and Reality modulated by Inner Smugness and In-Crowd Camaraderie. In questionnaires of this form, the author reveals to us, through portrayal, his Psychological State of Being. If you don’t understand the distortions and exaggerations you obviously Don’t Get It.

  3. Have pity on poor Arvan. How else is he to prove his personal prejudices are rational? He’s driven to prove them “scientifically” with bogus studies. Otherwise the face in the mirror seems distorted.

  4. I dunno, lets take the economics question you use and example and see what it says. The first implication is that government is the only possible means to provide the necessities of life, if there is an alternative structure in a society which provides the necessities of life is it preferable that government do so instead of this alternative structure? The second implication is that, assuming government is the best means of providing the necessities of life, is taxation of citizens the best means of securing the wherewithal for that provision?

    To the first implication, the answer is a resounding no. The universe ought to be constructed so that everyone can receive all their wants and desires by the expenditure of a minimal amount of will, however until humans evolve enough and join the Q Continuum this is is not going to happen. Almost as attractive would be the idealized communist system where there is no government and people willing ensure that all other people have the necessities of life. Government providing the necessities of life to it’s citizens is actually pretty low on the list of possible ways to provide for the necessities of life because of the politics of governments, if a government of human beings could be trusted to provide the necessities of life without playing games with the definition, allocation and distribution of those necessities then those same human beings could no doubt do the same outside the government.

    To the second implication, the answer is also no. A variation on the Q Continuum, would be best. Securing wealth from non-citizens is preferable for governments than taking wealth from their citizens, taking wealth from one group of citizens and distributing it to another group does not directly increase the wealth in a nation in itself while taking wealth from outside the nation and giving it to the citizens will directly increase the wealth of the nation. Failing some generous outsiders or the ability to extort wealth from non-citizens, voluntary contributions of wealth by the citizens should be considered preferable to extractions of wealth under threat of violence, if we are talking “ought” then citizens “ought” to voluntarily give enough money to the government to provide the necessities of life to all the citizens (there is an argument that taxation is a good in itself but it’s pretty weak).

    I could go on or deal with the other question but there are so many unstated assumptions that it isn’t even worth considering seriously as a philosophical work.

  5. ” … for the purpose of encouraging experimental research by philosophers”

    There’s your problem. Philosophers are clueless about research and the interpretation of experimental results.

    Things are perverse. For instance, there are studies that show that excess body fat increases the chances of having many kinds of health problems: heart disease, cancer, diabetes etc. etc. On the other hand, people who are somewhat fat live longer than thin people.

    I suspect that, although conservatives tend to have lower IQ and less education than liberals, they are more likely to be in their right minds. Things are perverse that way.

  6. Government “ought to” do thing A or thing B? I think the conservative response is to ask “What government are we talking about here?”

    As a citizen of the US, if the federal government does thing A, and I care about thing A, there’s a 100% chance it’s going to affect me. Even if thing A ultimately proves inane, there’s a near 100% chance it’s going to continue to affect me for my lifetime.

    If a state government does thing A, there’s a 2% chance it’s going to affect me. But if thing A ultimately proves inane, that percentage drops appreciably during my lifetime. Thing A might get withdrawn, or replaced with thing B that worked better in another state, or I might move to another state.

    If a local government does thing A, the odds are approaching 100% that I don’t care at all.

    The liberals I know can’t seem to understand this concept – I didn’t when I was very liberal, a very many years ago. Back then, I thought all ‘our’ ideas for how everyone else should live their lives were clearly ‘very good’, so these ideas MUST be implemented at the federal level so everyone could benefit from our wisdom. And liberals hate competition; a good idea shouldn’t have to compete with a clearly inferior idea.

    Liberals are very smart and selfless and caring – just ask ’em. The older I get, the dumber and more conservative and selfish I get, focusing more and more on just fixing myself letting other people fix themselves as they see fit. And, *gasp*, I’m actually willing to let people (and organizations) fail, and suffer the full consequences of that failure, for I am becoming a heartless bastard.

  7. @ commieBob:
    This comment essentially aspires to enucleate your suspicion of a presumptive deficiency of perspicacity aduced to Conservatives merely engenders your solo evolvement into a lower form of equine hybridization.

  8. commieBob !

    “I suspect that, although conservatives tend to have lower IQ and less education than liberals, they are more likely to be in their right minds.”

    where did you pull that from? My head is spinning !

  9. Sorry Roman

    I’ve been working my way through The Master and his Emissary. It’s a book about the brain. The important bit seems to be as follows:

    1 – The right half of the brain is responsible for putting things into context. It has the big picture.
    2 – The left half of the brain is responsible for looking at details. It also has the advanced linguistic abilities.
    It is basically a psychopath.
    3 – IQ and education are more about the left brain than the right brain.

    The author develops the argument that the modern predominance of the left side of the brain has had some quite bad consequences for society.

    One of the facts about the left brain that most got my attention is this: The left brain will believe anything as long as it is self consistent. For me, that is one of the explanations of why better educated people are willing to believe in AGW.

    Even if we accept the research (I have seen several studies) that conservatives have less education and lower IQ, that is not necessarily a bad thing. My interpretation is that they are less likely to be dominated by their left brains. In other words, they are more likely to be in their right minds 😉

    Kindly read my post more closely. There is more than one study that shows that conservatives are more likely to have lower IQ and less education. The fact that I am willing to believe that is no reason to call me an ass. If you think I am wrong, assert some facts.

    While I’m at it: There are plenty of studies that show that once someone has the minimum IQ and education to do a job, extra education or IQ don’t help job performance and may hinder it. People skill and work ethic are much more important to job performance. Unless your next promotion requires another degree, you are better off down at the pub drinking with your work mates. And yes, there is a study that shows that drinkers perform better on the job than teetotalers.

  10. @ commieBob.
    Well, there you have it. It’s in a study. So it must be true.
    I freely acknowledge the “education” bit might have merit, though that’s a “might” not a “does”, but the IQ assumption I thought simplistic and self-serving. And almost directly opposed to my experience. Also, I blame Oscar Wilde for the name calling.

    No dispute, btw, on differences between brain hemispheres. They have distinctive functions. And Dr. McGilchrist’s book and theories are fascinating. Rely on them if you wish, but even the doctor acknowledges his belief of how the brain may have effected civilization’s development is a theory. I’m gonna go with that and give credence to my personal experience. Of the geniuses I’ve known or know, about 50% were/are conservative, 30% liberal and 20% unknown. But none of them politically active. It bored them.

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