The False Hope of Compromise

Researchers into how people organize their thoughts have discovered a strong correlation with political leaning. They use a simple test that goes as follows. Subjects are presented with three images: a scarf, a mitten, and a hand. Then they are asked which two objects are most closely related.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct modes of thought. Holistic thinking is oriented toward context, basing choices on situations and circumstances. Analytic thinking detaches objects from contexts and uses categorical rules. In this test, holistic thinkers choose the relational pairing — mittens are worn on the hand — while analytic thinkers choose the categorical pairing — the scarf and mitten are items of winter clothing. Which did you pick?

People tend to think holistically when they hold an interdependent, connected view of the self, emphasizing harmony over self-expression. Analytic thinkers believe in autonomy and self-direction, with the stress being on personal responsibility. Of course each person can and does switch between these modes of thought, although one usually dominates.

The correlation which this research has revealed is that liberals tend to think holistically while conservatives tend to be analytical. Moreover this divergence appears most strongly at the outer fringes in both groups.

This goes a long way toward explaining the different world views of each political camp and why there is constant misunderstanding between them. It is often asserted that their conflicts primarily stem from differing values, but this research seems to indicate that it is even more basic than that. It isn’t the conclusions by which they differ as much as how they reach them. They simply think differently. Both modes of thought are sound and practical, but in specific circumstances each group would believe that the other ignores realities that they find obvious.

We Agree

So, anyone expecting either convergence or compromise is unrealistic. This does happen, but in such cases each side is simply putting up with some of the other’s ill-informed beliefs for the sake of some greater good. There is actually no agreement at all. What is worse is that each such arrangement fails to build trust that might lead to further compromises.