Ronald Bailey of Reason explores the latest research into liberal versus conservative approaches to complex, nuanced arguments.

It is almost a truism among psychological researchers that conservatives are simple-minded and dogmatic. Liberals, meanwhile, are supposed to be more complex and open-minded thinkers. But a new paper is calling those conclusions into question.

Writing in the journal Political Psychology, a team of researchers led by the University of Montana psychologist Lucian Gideon Conway III reports the results of four studies that together call “into question the typical interpretation that conservatives are less complex than liberals.” It turns out that liberals and conservatives are both simple-minded, depending on the topic under discussion.

Using the dogmatism scale devised in 1960 by the psychologist Milton Rokeach, who defined dogmatism in terms of “closed belief systems,” researchers have generally found a positive relationship between dogmatism and political conservatism. But while the Rokeach scale is supposed to be politically neutral, Conway and his colleagues argue that it actually includes a number of topics for which conservatives generally have a greater concern, such as religion and national defense. Conservatives who fill out the scale would more tend to come off as more dogmatic largely because they are endorsing conservative views.

So for their first study, Conway and his colleagues modified the Rokeach dogmatism scale by including items reflecting alternatively environmentalist and religious views. For example, item 7 reads alternatively: “When it comes to differences of opinion in protecting the environment/religion we must be careful not to compromise with those who believe differently from the way we do.”

Several hundred undergraduates (the traditional psych lab rats) filled out questionnaires that sorted them using a 7-point scale along the usual American bipolar liberal-conservative political continuum. They then administered the standard Rokeach scale along with their modified versions. Sure enough, the standard dogmatism test found conservatives to be more dogmatic than liberals. Once again, conservatives are simpleminded ideologues. Or are they?

Comparing the religion-dogmatism scale with the regular Rokeach scale, the researchers found essentially no differences in conservative dogmatism on either scale. This strongly bolsters the claim that Rokeach dogmatism scale is biased toward finding conservatives dogmatic.

The more interesting and telling results were found when comparing the liberal and conservative results derived from the environmentalism and religion dogmatism scales. The researchers report, “Conservatives are indeed more dogmatic on the religious domain; but liberals are more dogmatic on the environmental domain.” In fact, they note that “the highest score for simplicity was for liberals” (emphasis theirs).