A Crackpot Theory

This is an observation borne from life experience, and it may not be correct. I call it my crackpot theory because I’ve never taken time to dig deeply into it, so take it for what it’s worth.

Certain personality traits tend to cluster among people on different sides of left-right political spectrum. Among conservatives, I see greater focus on and anxiety about security. I also see an intense focus, often bordering on obsession/compulsion, on the issues that matter most to them. They like hierarchies and clearly defined roles.

People on the left tend to exhibit creative impulses. They don’t worry much, and perhaps consequently, they don’t plan ahead very precisely, preferring to take things as they come. This results in some disorganization, and it manifests in personal behavior as well – it’s tougher to get people on the left all the same page. Herding cats is the common refrain.

Now of course not everyone fits neatly into a left/right divide, and some people will be somewhere in the middle. But I see these differences in personality even among people who pay no attention to politics at all.

That said, it strikes me that maybe a major factor that distinguishes the left/right worldview in any culture is attention span.

People with a shorter attention span will absorb a broader range of information, because they don’t dwell too long on any one thing. The appetite for stimulation and novelty spurs them to skim from topic to topic and because they are exposed to more information, they’re more readily able to see patterns.

Conservatives prefer to dig deep. They examine a subject or several subjects throughly, seeking to develop a firm grasp on each one, and show less interest in unrelated topics.

So you can see where this is going. Conservatives have longer attention spans. Viewed in terms of access to resources and information, conservatives focus narrowly and drill deep. Progressives survey a broader territory, but more shallowly, and can more readily form a “big picture” view.

The key thing is, *both* strategies are effective in the right time and place.

I don’t want a creative, absentminded progressive running a nuclear power plant. I’d prefer  a conservative who is absolutely obsessed with his job, knows it inside out, and is ready to react when something goes wrong.

By the same token, conservative authoritorian impulses don’t work well in areas that require flexibility, creativity and willingness to try new approaches.

We spend a lot of time and energy demonizing and belittling people on the other side of the spectrum, regardless of where we sit. That’s inevitable. Power, like any resource, is attained by some mixture of cooperation and competition, and we tend to cooperate with people most like us and compete with people most different.

But we would do well to recognize that simple differences like attention span can influence a wide range of behavior…including our own.