Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Coulter, from Pampers to Depends

It must be the Toronto air. Science and business freelance writer Kurt Kleiner breathed in the breeze of a dry sociological follow-up study. He exhaled a gust of comedy that has conservative Americans pouting, stomping and fulminating.

His How to spot a baby conservative has become a Net meme. Search for the string and find a moderate number of online pubs and leftist blogs chuckling, but you'll be amazed at the flood of threatened, defensive rightwing blog postings.

Kleiner is a low-key pop writer parsing some pretty dry topics, including this one. His cutesy take on psychologist Jack Block's Nursery school personality and political orientation two decades later grabbed the collective conservative nose and gave it a vigorous twist.

The original, published in the Journal of Research in Personality is 16 pages of serious scholarship, including two pages of reference. It is fairly typical of his work. He has a doctorate in psychology and has done clinical research -- much of it with his late wife -- since 1950. He has a ponderous CV and several bookcases of published material. In short, if those humorless, emotional critics want to smear him as politically motivated and of poor scholarship, they are waaaaay off base.

The Blocks found strong correlations from some nursery-school characteristics, such as Anxious in unpredictable environment with later self-identified political conservatism. They do not write it, but the literature supports such traits as avoiding uncertainty as being typical of conservatives. The Blocks' work is not at all out of line.

The lead in the Star piece is, "Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative."

That's not inaccurate, but compare it with the opening of the abstract for the original -- "The present study reports on the personality attributes of nursery school children who two decades later were reliably stratified along a liberal/conservative dimension An unprecedented analytical opportunity existed to evaluate how the political views of these young adults related to assessments of them in nursery school, prior to their having become political beings."

Basically Jack and Jeanne Block tested, observed and followed about 100 kids from pre-school into their 20s. Jack notes that this is likely the only such longitudinal study like it. He'd like to see more. I'd bet, from his writing, he doesn't mind either Kleiner's trivialization or the reactionaries' demonization. He sees the chance to study and learn.

The pop-psychology spin in the newspaper article does not deal in the pages of data, deltas and differentiating factors. However, it does list some of the Blocks' conclusions. They were surprised to find steady consistency in personality from 4 to 24 years. Jack is too much of a scholar to write it, but I'd bet that he was pleasantly thrilled to discover such apparent predictability in a soft science. Knowing what he does now, he could probably call the political leanings of young adults from their diaper days behavior.

As Kleiner puts it, the young kids who felt picked on and looked to their teachers and care givers to save them from their peers "grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity." In contrast, "confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests."

In fairness to Kleiner, he eventually points out that there are ways and ways to interpret the traits. "For conservatives...if they really did tend to be insecure complainers as kids, they might simply have recognized that the world is a scary, unfair place. Their grown-up conclusion that the safest thing is to stick to tradition could well be the right one."

Among Block's findings of the over 20-year study were:
For conservatives -- As 23 year old adults, "Both sexes separately evaluated, are viewed as conservative, uncomfortable with uncertainty, conventional, traditionally sex-type, constricted in their behaviors, judging self against conformist norms, and moralistic. The young men also display an egocentric self-image, with an orientation toward the virtues of power, a willingness to offer advice, and a concern about their status within the pecking order."

For liberals -- As adults, "The young men and women are alike in being bright, distinctive, having a wide range of interests, being aesthetically responsive to the world around them. They appear welcoming of change, easily cast off the usual, and they tend toward non-conformity...the young men are relatively introspective, reflective about existential problems, and intellectually oriented; the young women, on the other hand, are more interpersonally oriented, perceptive of others and socially instrumental, aware also of sensuality."
Jack Block notes some limits to his work. Berkeley does not directly extrapolate to the whole country. Also, by the time he and his wife began studying them, the kids had already combined key elements of nature and nurture in personality development.

In his rambling attack in response to the Star article, National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg took a breather to comment:
To call these sorts of studies entirely useless is probably unfair. No doubt Block has more or less accurately charted the path of his subjects. And even he concedes that the study tells us little about the rest of the country. But it's also pretty clear that Block wants to find psychologically satisfying explanations for what makes people conservatives. It's not hard to imagine that if the whiny, sniveling brats turned out to be liberals, he would explain this as proof that liberals are born more emotionally sensitive and with a greater acuity for spotting injustice.
So what is it about Kleiner's report or the academic article that so irritates so many conservatives? If the commenters on the rightist blogs are representative, we can infer easily that they resent any implication that they were set in early childhood. Many also clearly take offense at having one of their favorite anti-liberal slurs -- whiners -- used against them.

Of course, it is very human to want to feel as though we have all our favorite virtues and that we are constantly improving and growing. It appears that one the one hand, many conservatives want to brag about their rigidity in adhering to tradition and correct thought and morals. On the other, they like to pretend that they are so reasonable that they remain flexible. That really doesn't work, but you can see the emotional pull of the desire for both.

To us who follow things political, we think the themes of the Block research offer a worthwhile view. Suppose, as we have more than once in this blog, that there is a wide chasm between left and right, based in large part by very different ways of perceiving.

Many studies in the past 70 years have come at such factors as discomfort with ambiguity and need to authoritative leaders as hallmarks of self-defined conservatives. The Blocks' work in this area lends a bit more support. Understanding how people think and how in turn that affects their voting should be beneficial all around.

Perhaps we need a Jack and Jeanne Block to expand their longitudinal studies up and down. Find out what effect parents' strongly-held political positions have on their offspring at 40, 50, 60 and beyond. Figure out why so many of us turn to the Dark Side after middle age. See what relationship avoidance of uncertainty has in careers and how that relates to political views.

For a taste of the conservative reactions try:

There are many more -- search Technorati, Yahoo or Google. Be sure to check the comments for the full effect.

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