Cluttered Desk, Liberal Mind?

My office is a cluttered mess and always has been. You can't see my desktop, and my books are not alphabetized. I rarely file anything, though I do make neat piles on the windowsills and floor. I have artwork and mementos, but I have never quite gotten around to actually nailing them to the walls. They sit leaning against the wall. I decorate with Post-It notes.

I have never given much thought to my disorderly life. I figured I was just a slob. But new research suggests that there be meaning in my mess, indeed that my office disarray may reflect my views about everything from women's reproductive choice to the war in Iraq. According to this view, habits like tidiness and messiness are really habits of the mind; they are meaningfully linked to basic personality traits, and these traits in turn shape political ideology. Put another way, our deepest psychological needs and fears may play a big part in determining where we fall on the political spectrum: left or right, liberal or conservative, Blue or Red.

That's a big swallow, because most of us, left or right of center, like to think we come to our political positions through rational analysis. Our views may be self-serving, but they're at least logical. Well, maybe not, according to accumulating evidence from the laboratory. A team of psychologists has recently been exploring just how deep-wired the core tenets of conservatism and liberalism are, with some surprising results.

Most people would agree on the core tenets: the conservative tendency to value tradition and authority over change, and the liberal tendency to value equality over hierarchy. New York University psychologist John Jost and his colleagues have been using time-tested instruments to plumb the unconscious attitudes of both self-proclaimed conservatives and liberals. Although most everyone prefers order to chaos, the psychologists found this yearning to be much more potent in conservatives than in liberals. Put another way, conservatives have little tolerance for any messiness, let alone rebelliousness, even on this basic neuronal level. Liberals, by contrast, have a deep-wired preference for flexibility and progress over tradition. The starkest difference between conservatives and liberals was related to feminism, which conservatives believe in their gut to be a threat to their ordered world.

This may seem at first to merely reflect tired old stereotypes. But remember that these laboratory probes are designed to tunnel below conscious thought, suggesting that ideology permeates the most basic cognitive machinery we have. If so, views on civil rights, welfare, affirmative action and much more are not just politically meaningful but psychologically meaningful as well.

Why would this be? Well, it may be a matter of basic inborn temperament, or personality. As Jost and his colleagues (Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia and Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin) explain in the March issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, extreme political ideologies appear to fit with certain core personality traits. Specifically, conservatives are more "conscientious" than liberals, who are more "open to experience" than conservatives. In two large studies of University of Texas students, the psychologists found strong liberal preferences for novel experiences like foreign travel and unusual foods and art, plus greater tolerance of everything from tattoos and erotica to street people and drugs. Conservative students favored fraternities and mainstream activities like fishing and watching TV, in addition to traditional religious practices such as prayer.

Again these are our stereotypes, but now there is a deeper psychological explanation for these predictable tastes and attitudes. It's human nature to crave certainty and structure. But individuals crave security to varying degrees, depending on how fearful they are. People who are the most fearful see safety in stability and hierarchy, where more emotionally secure people can tolerate some chaos and unpredictability in their lives. The psychologists gathered data from 12 different countries to test this out, and they found that conservative politics were inextricably linked to several measures of emotional insecurity: intolerance of ambiguity, need for structure, desire for closure, and so forth. They also found that conservatives had a more intense existential fear of death.

So what does all this have to do with my messy office? Another of Jost's colleagues, Dana Carney of Harvard, actually went into people's offices and bedrooms to probe the "secret lives" of liberals and conservatives, and found dramatic differences. The conservatives' rooms were not only tidy and orderly, they were full of utilitarian stuff like cleaning supplies, calendars and postage stamps. The liberals' rooms were painted in bold colors and cluttered with books and art and travel brochures. The Red rooms, if you will, were places to hole up and be safe, while the Blue rooms felt more like staging areas for exploration.