Can moral psychology explain why libertarians are (maybe) bad dancers? (Part 2/2)

In the first part of this post, I summarized a few parts of Jonathan Haidt’s theory of political psychology, particularly the connection between genetics, morals, and brain chemistry. Now let’s apply that specifically to libertarians, given these three traits that Haidt and several coauthors identified:

  1. Libertarians mostly care about individual liberty.
  2. They veer “cerebral” rather than “emotional” in their cognitive styles.
  3. They’re less interdependent and social.

We can assume that, if Haidt’s other research holds true, these traits are at least partially genetic, and that libertarians may be attracted to that political philosophy because it’s associated with a lot of stuff they like, such as not being told what to do, approaching things from a brain over heart perspective, and being mildly to extremely introverted, except at national conventions.

What follows is an extremely non-scientific analysis of why libertarians might, among other things, not be so great at the macarena. It will be short, since you can probably already guess where this is going.

Trait 1: Liberty is all

Libertarians tend to back-burner other priorities in favor of making sure nobody is being told what to do in a way that interferes with their ability to do, within reason, things they want to do. Of course, they apply this to themselves as well, and this points to a pretty (gasp) individualist mode of thought. Let’s assume that someone who is biased towards individualism won’t be so much into things that are other-focused. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–it just means that libertarians don’t value groups as much, though they have great respect for the individuals within those groups. This trait doesn’t directly point towards non-dancing, except in the sense that libertarians might be more vocal and resolute about abstaining from pressure to participate in activities they don’t like, but it’s a great setup for the next two.

Trait 2: It’s all about that brain

Libertarians also are (or perceive themselves to be) cerebral; they demonstrate a preference for approaching things systematically rather than instinctively. There are obvious upsides to this, but a distinct downside is that, like most people with strong political beliefs, they can have trouble empathizing with people with different values–particularly those high on the care index (liberals) or who place high on a variety of other values that libertarians find less important (conservatives). More directly, though Spock wouldn’t agree, libertarians probably experience less emotional range than average given that they don’t seem to dwell on feelings as much.

This might be exemplified, then, by dancing–or lack thereof. Dancing is inherently an emotional activity, whether due to the chemical production it stimulates in the brain (due both to physical exertion and group proximity), or simply due to the music, style, tempo, et cetera and the switches that the environment flips. Libertarians seem to mostly be drawn from a personality range that doesn’t exhibit a preference for high-emotion activities. Whether this is a genetic or a learned trait, the survey responses and my anecdotal experiences would at least seem to indicate that given a choice, someone with these political beliefs would, on average, prefer talking over a fancy beer to feeling their bones vibrate to the latest EDM.

Trait 3: Libertarians don’t need you! They don’t need anyone!

Here comes the killstroke: at least according to the survey data (as well as stereotypes and probably your personal experience with that libertarian guy you met in college), libertarians are kind of about doing their own thing. Again, not surprising, given their name, but very pertinent to my point. Haidt and co. found that libertarians are less connected to others both “broadly” and “tightly” (that is they have fewer friends overall and smaller direct social circles). This has not gone unnoticed among the subjects; those libertarians surveyed reported that they felt less connected to everyone than average, which jives with their narrower social lives.

That can be spun a number of different ways. Libertarians are just lonely ogres who haven’t found love; libertarians are attracted to their political philosophy because it provides justification for their antisocial ways; libertarians are psychologically disturbed and probably prefer to be alone because it gives them more time to burn ants with magnifying glasses. Personally, I’d argue that libertarians generally feel independent of others and, while they enjoy interacting with people as ordinary humans do, their personality makeup just requires less human contact than average. Whatever combination of genes, chemicals, and learned behavior is responsible, they feel less connected–but they are not necessarily worse off for that lack of connection.

An (speculative) explanation that might follow from what we know so far is that libertarians are generally predisposed to need less group contact through some neurochemical mechanism, and thus generally don’t get much of a biological rush in high-contact settings.

Libertarians drink alone (or in small groups)

So, imagine someone who is a bit of a lone wolf and doesn’t seem to need human company in large doses. Now imagine your typical dance setting–any genre is fine. You’ve got a whole lot of human company there, and someone who doesn’t find all that contact very interesting. They try to get into the dance rhythm, and they can probably fake it for the utilitarian value of building social capital with their friend group, but that oxytocin (et al) doesn’t necessarily flare off as much, and even if it does, they don’t seem wired to get that much connectivity benefit anyway.

Even smaller settings, say with just a few people who spontaneously start a dance party in a fairly quiet bar, would be a bit tricky. Libertarians don’t just have lower rates of desiring broad-group-bonding, but aren’t necessarily that into tight-group bonding either. The exercise might be nice, the music might be infectious, but that interactional aspect isn’t high on their to-do list. They’d prefer to hang back, and if any bonding is to be done, it’ll be less emotion-based and probably not so much about grouping as about mutually beneficial information-sharing or something equally utilitarian.

This group has been quite understudied in most academic branches, possibly because they haven’t made much of a difference and have only just managed to be gain broad recognition in the U.S. Nonetheless, as Haidt points out, they are quite distinct from both the left and the right, and if microscopes were applied to them to the same degree as they are to other groups, there would certainly be some interesting results. This is just one of them.

Conclusion: We need more research! Or not.

That said, my application of Haidt’s research is by no means supported by anything beyond me applying the transitive property and some additional assumptions to his findings. In sum, I argue:

  1. Morals and political beliefs have a basis in genetics and biology
  2. Libertarianism tends to be common among people with less groupish, more individual brains
  3. Dancing is groupish
  4. Libertarians do not enjoy dancing

Anecdotally, this has been true for most libertarians I know. As with everything, however, there is bound to be wide deviation from the average; there is bound to be a libertarian out there who is an absolute beast on the dance floor.

Jonathan Haidt is not to blame for any of this; also, my opinions and perceptions, as all behavioral science enthusiasts know by now, are not guaranteed to be correct.

If you read this and have an opinion about libertarian dancing, drop me a line on Twitter at @braunecon.

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