The Difference Between a Right-Wing and Left-Wing Media Brain

I’ve been hesitating to write this column. But increasingly, everything I write and think about seems to come back to the same point – the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. That divide is tearing the world apart. And technology seems to be accelerating the forces causing the rift, rather than reversing them.

First, a warning: I am a Liberal. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of my columns, but I did want to put it out there. And the reason I feel that warning is required it that with this column, I’m diving into the dangerous waters – I’m going to be talking about the differences between liberal and conservative brains, particularly those brains that are working in the media space.

Last week, I talked about the evolution of media bias through two – and what seems increasingly likely – three impeachment proceedings. Mainstream media has historically had a left bias. In a longitudinal study of journalism,  two professors at University of Indiana – Lars Willnat and David Weaver – found that in 2012, just 7% of American journalists identified themselves as Republican, while 28% said they were Democrats. Over 50% said they were Independent, but I suspect this is more a statement on the professed objectivity of journalists than their actual political leanings. I would be willing to bet that those independents sway left far more often than they sway right.

So, it’s entirely fair to say that mainstream media does have liberal bias. The question is – why? Is it a premediated conspiracy or just a coincidental correlation? I believe the bias is actually self-selected. Those that choose to go into journalism have brains that work in a particular way – a way that is most often found in those that fall on the liberal end of the spectrum.

I first started putting this hypothesis together when I read the following passage in Robert Sapolsky’s book “Behave, The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.” Sapolsky was talking about a growing number of studies looking at the cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives: “This literature has two broad themes. One is that rightists are relatively uncomfortable intellectually with ambiguity…The other is that leftists, well, think harder, have a greater capacity for what the political scientist Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania calls ‘integrative complexity’.”

Sapolsky goes on to differentiate these intellectual approaches, “conservatives start gut and stay gut; liberals go from gut to head.”

Going from “gut to head” is a pretty good quality for a journalist. In fact, you could say it’s their job description.

Sapolsky cites a number of studies he bases this conclusion on. In the abstract of one of these studies, the researchers note: “Liberals are more likely to process information systematically, recognize differences in argument quality, and to be persuaded explicitly by scientific evidence, whereas conservatives are more likely to process information heuristically, attend to message-irrelevant cues such as source similarity, and to be persuaded implicitly through evaluative conditioning. Conservatives are also more likely than liberals to rely on stereotypical cues and assume consensus with like-minded others.”

This is about as good a description of the differences between mainstream media and the alt-right media as I’ve seen. The researchers further note that, “Liberals score higher than conservatives on need for cognition and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives score higher than liberals on intuitive thinking and self-deception.”

That explains so much of the current situation we’re finding ourselves in. Liberals tend to be investigative journalists. Conservatives tend to be opinion columnists and pundits. One is using their head. The other is using their gut.

Of course, it’s not just the conservative media that rely on gut instinct. The Commander in Chief uses the same approach. In a 2016 article in the Washington Post, Marc Fisher probed Trump’s disdain for reading, “He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

I have nothing against intuition. The same Post articles goes on to give examples of other presidents who relied on gut instinct (Fisher notes, however; that even when these are factored in, Trump is still an outlier). But when the stakes are as high as they are now, I prefer intuition combined with some research and objective evaluation.

We believe in the concept of equality and fairness, as we should. For that reason, I hesitate to put yet another wall between conservatives and liberals. But – in seeking answers to complex questions – I think we have to be open and honest about the things that make us different. There is a reason some of us are liberals and some of us are conservatives – our brains work differently*. And when those differences extend to our processing of our respective realities and the sources we turn to for information, we should be aware of them. We should take them into account in evaluating our media choices. We should go forward with open minds.

Unfortunately, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir. If you got this far in my column, you’re probably a liberal too.

* If you really want to dig further, check out the paper “Are Conservatives from Mars and Liberals from Venus?, Maybe Not So Much by Linda Skitka, one of the foremost researchers exploring this question.

4 thoughts on “The Difference Between a Right-Wing and Left-Wing Media Brain

  1. Left or mainstream media use to be liberal, but they’re full on leftists now…that goes for the Democratic Party, and the majority of government bureaucrats as well. Basing that on their intolerance to any view or ideal but their own. Shaming instead of debating ideas, the left seeks to destroy their opponents.
    Clinton and Obama’s mentor Saul Alinsky pretty much sums it up in his book “Rules for radicals”. I could definitely see these rules being in play today in politics and left shame media. Obama also distributed 1m copies. It might be safe to call it the DNC playbook.

    You refer to the right as alt-right. I’d bet your a Leftist.
    I’m curious…who do you consider alt-right?

    I’d bet the primary difference in media is crafted through indoctrination.
    Those who enter college empty, likely come out leaning left, at best, if not full on Communist.
    Those who enter college with values come out in more variety.

    I consider myself a liberal and independent until Obama’s second term, when my eyes were open to the corruption, and it appeared only Republicans cared to address it.
    Funding Iran, the FBI purge, fast and furious, IRS & FTC targeting, Enron scandal, college admission scandal, Steele dossier, FISA abuse, Trump Russia collusion setup, Crossfire hurricane, Biden selling White House access and Quid pro quo, Trump Impeachment, general Flynn setup, Bengazi, Clinton emails, Bohai Harvest RST, Imran Awan, Jeffrey Epstein pedophile ring…etc… And in the case of Nick Sandmann. That attack was entirely created by left stream media.

    Name one main stream investigative reporter that opened these up? And specifically the one first to uncover it? Instead, Left media buried or poo pooed allegations as fast as possible, then attacked and shamed those who did expose it, as if doing so was an attack on them personally.
    Why do you protect the swamp?

  2. I don’t agree on right being gutsy.
    I’m gay, ex Muslim. So going through that process was quite difficult. I can’t be gutsy and ended to be more analytical and more evidence driven. This maybe bias but I feel like the left generally can be quite emotional and lack of reasonable reasoning sometimes, of course this goes both ways for the extremists side.
    But mostly for the left would be, feelings first, judgement second.
    I do believe me and others who are centrist or conservative should law low the Karen attitude sometimes.
    I still don’t grasp or quite understand the idea of Muslim being an ally for liberals. Which make me stray away from the left.
    I know there is moderate non extremists people out there, but they still hold their values.
    I do understand extremists in any form is not healthy. People do need to surround themselves with people that will challenge their views but not to the point where it causes conflict like these days.
    People are hurting due to political views. Which is saddening. Sadly I too am can be one of those extremists based on a certain subject.
    Still learning to just relax, understand, and wait for the truth and then give a proper answer for what I think is right.
    My advice would be, don’t see us as enemies, we all do want the same thing. Freedom and equality. But for that, you need to give us solid reasonable reason of why you believe such, and evidence that it’s good and doing good for the whole people.

  3. I am a classical liberal, but not a leftist.
    Do you know which you are?

    Undoubtedly there are brain differences that affect not only our chosen career, but political choices. I guess that is why my wife calls me a bleeding heart conservative 🙂 and I suppose she is correct; Full Disclosure: I’ve been gritting my teeth and voting Republican for many years. However, IMHO, I rarely use my gut; I try to think things out logically and see where I end up on the issues. Because of the partisanship that surrounds us, this is a difficult challenge. How does one find the truth? No matter what kind of brain you have, logic is logic.

    I have found that the people who have the best arguments are those who have strongly held one position, and then changed their minds.

    Personally, I think that Anselme Batbie had a piece of the puzzle when he observed that “If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no brain.”

    Many people become more conservative as they get older. Why? Is it changes in their brains, or does wisdom sometimes come with age?

    There is one very strong exception to the emotional heart of the left, and I was struggling with it when I was in college: abortion. I ended up calling Dr. Bernard Nathanson because he started out as a NARAL founder and ended up a staunch pro-life supporter. As an atheist, he was a good person to talk to because he didn’t bring up faith-based concepts such as souls, sacredness, and Christian sacrifice. He said that he had changed his mind because of the advances in prenatal medicine, especially in-utero surgery. He had had no problems performing abortions until he noticed that one wing of his hospital was treating pre-born fetuses as patients, working hard to save their lives, while in the next wing over, they were destroying the same aged fetuses and calling them “lumps of tissue.” The logic just did not compute.

    Then he went on to explain the essential issue: Is the fetus a person? If it is not, then what’s the problem with abortion? There is no reason to even feel uncomfortable about it. Unfortunately, if the fetus looks like a baby, sucks his or her thumb, etc. then why isn’t it a person? This emotional reasoning is why Americans are generally against late-term abortions. Except for Democrats, who in every other case have emotional, caring hearts. But in this one single case, they see ultrasounds of their own unborn children, but have hardened their heart to stone.

    This is crazy. Don’t they realize that if you don’t have a right to life, then universal health care, free college, open borders, etc. doesn’t matter at all because you have to be alive to enjoy them?

  4. P.S. Thanks for the pointer to Skitka’s “Are Conservatives from Mars and Liberals from Venus?, Maybe Not So Much”! It is a fascinating study that examined the three main cognitive differences between the right and the left: dispositional differences, ideological scripts, or motivated reasoning. Highly recommended, no matter how you vote.

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