Chris Mooney in Washington Monthly:
If you want one experiment that perfectly captures what science is learning about the deep-seated differences between liberals and conservatives, you need go no further than BeanFest. It’s a simple learning video game in which the player is presented with a variety of cartoon beans in different shapes and sizes, with different numbers of dots on them. When each new type of bean is presented, the player must choose whether or not to accept it—without knowing, in advance, what will happen. You see, some beans give you points, while others take them away. But you can’t know until you try them.
In a recent experiment by psychologists Russell Fazio and Natalie Shook, a group of self-identified liberals and conservatives played BeanFest. And their strategies of play tended to be quite different. Liberals tried out all sorts of beans. They racked up big point gains as a result, but also big point losses—and they learned a lot about different kinds of beans and what they did. Conservatives, though, tended to play more defensively. They tested out fewer beans. They were risk averse, losing less but also gathering less information.
One reason this is a telling experiment is that it’s very hard to argue that playing BeanFest has anything directly to do with politics. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, that results like these are confounded or contaminated by subtle cues or extraneous factors that push liberals and conservatives to play the game differently. In the experiment, they simply sit down in front of a game—an incredibly simple game—and play. So the ensuing differences in strategy very likely reflect differences in who’s playing.
The BeanFest experiment is just one of dozens summarized in two new additions to the growing science-of-politics book genre: Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, by political scientists John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford, and Our Political Nature, by evolutionary anthropologist Avi Tuschman. The two books agree almost perfectly on what science is now finding about the psychological, biological, and even genetic differences between those who opt for the political left and those who tilt toward the right.