Psycho-Conservatism: What it Is, When to Doubt It


Epistemic status: I’m being emphatic for clarity here, not because I’m super confident.

I’m noticing that a large swath of the right-of-center infovore world has come around to a kind of consensus, and nobody has named it yet.

Basically, I’m pointing at the beliefs that Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind , The Happiness Hypothesis), Jordan Peterson (Maps of Meaning), and Geoffrey Miller (The Mating Mind) have in common.

All of a sudden, it seemed like everybody “centrist” or “conservative” I knew was quoting Haidt or linking videos by Peterson.

(In absolute terms Peterson isn’t that famous — his videos get hundreds of thousands of Youtube views, about half as popular as the most popular Hearthstone streamer. There’s a whole universe of people who aren’t in the culture-and-politics fandom at all.  But among those who are, Peterson seems highly influential.)

All three of these men are psychology professors, which is why I’m calling the intersection of their views psycho-conservatism. Haidt is a social psychologist, Peterson is a Jungian, and Miller is an evolutionary psychologist.

Psycho-conservatism is mostly about human nature.  It says that humans have a given, observable, evolved nature; that this nature isn’t always pretty (we are frequently irrational, deceptive, and self-centered); and that human nature’s requirements place limits on what we can do with culture or society.  Often, traditional wisdom is valuable because it is a good fit for human nature. Often, utopian modern changes in society fail because they don’t fit human nature well.

This is, of course, a small-c conservative view: it looks to the past for inspiration, and it’s skeptical of radical changes. It differs from other types of conservatism in that it gets most of its evidence from psychology — whether using empirical experiments (as Haidt does) or evolutionary arguments (as Miller does).  Psycho-conservatives have a great deal of respect for religion, but they don’t speak on religious grounds themselves; they’re more likely to argue that religion is adaptive or socially beneficial or that we’re “wired for it.”

Psycho-conservatism is also methodologically skeptical.  In the wake of the psychology replication crisis, it’s reasonable to become very, very doubtful of the social sciences in general.  What do we really know about what makes people tick? Not much.  In such an environment, it makes sense to drastically raise your standards for evidence.  Look for the most replicated and hard-to-fudge empirical findings.  (This may lead you to the literature on IQ and behavioral genetics, and heritable, stable phenomena like the Big Five personality dimensions.) Look for commonalities between cultures across really long time periods.  Look for evidence about the ancestral environment, which constituted most of humans’ time on Earth. Try to find ways to sidestep the bias of our present day and location.

This is the obvious thing to do, as a first pass, in an environment of untrustworthy information.

It’s what I do when I try to learn about biology — err on the side of being pickier, look for overwhelming and hard-to-fake evidence, look for ideas supported by multiple independent lines of evidence (especially evolutionary evidence and evidence across species.)

If you do this with psychology, you end up with an attempt to get a sort of core summary of what we can be most confident about in human nature.

Psycho-conservatives also wind up sharing a set of distinctive political and cultural concerns:

Where are the weaknesses in psycho-conservatism?

I just said above that a skeptical methodology regarding “human nature” makes a lot of sense, and is kind of the obvious epistemic stance. But I’m not really a psycho-conservative myself.  So where might this general outlook go wrong?

  1. When we actually do know what we’re talking about.

If you used evolved tacit knowledge, the verdict of history, and only the strongest empirical evidence, and were skeptical of everything else, you’d correctly conclude that in general, things shaped like airplanes don’t fly.  The reason airplanes do fly is that if you shape their wings just right, you hit a tiny part of the parameter space where lift can outbalance the force of gravity.  “Things roughly like airplanes” don’t fly, as a rule; it’s airplanes in particular that fly.

Highly skeptical, conservative methodology gives you rough, general rules that you can be pretty confident won’t be totally wrong. It doesn’t guarantee that there can’t be exceptions that your first-pass methods won’t reach.  For instance, in the case of human nature:

Basically, the heuristics you get out of methodological conservatism make sense as a first pass, but while they’re robust, they’re very fuzzy.  In a particular situation where you know the details, it may make sense to say “no thanks, I’ve checked the ancestral wisdom and the statistical trends and they don’t actually make sense here.”

2. When psycho-conservatives don’t actually get the facts right.

Sometimes, your summary of “cultural universals” isn’t really universal.  Sometimes, your experimental studies are on shaky ground. (Haidt’s Moral Foundations don’t emerge organically from factor analysis the way Big Five personality traits do.)  Even though the overall strategy of being skeptical about human nature makes sense, the execution can fail in various places.

Conservatives tend to think that patriarchy is (apart from very recently) a human universal, but it really isn’t; hunter-gatherer and hoe cultures have done without it for most of humanity’s existence.

Lots of people assume that government is a human universal, but it isn’t; nation-states are historically quite modern, and even monarchy is far from universal. (Germanic tribes as well as hunter-gatherers and pastoralists around the world were governed by councils and war-leaders rather than kings; Medieval Iceland had a fairly successful anarchy; the Bible is a story of pastoralist tribes transitioning to monarchy, and the results are not represented sympathetically!)

It’s hard to actually compensate for parochial bias and look for a genuinely universal property of human nature, and psycho-conservatives deserve critique when they fail at that mission.

3. When A Principle Is At Stake

Knowledge of human nature can tell you the likely consequences of what you’re doing, and that should inform your strategy.

But sometimes, human nature is terrible.

All the evidence in the world that people usually do something, or that we evolved to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it.

The naturalistic fallacy isn’t exactly a fallacy; natural behaviors are far more likely to be feasible and sustainable than arbitrary hypothetical behaviors, and so if you’re trying to set ideal norms you don’t want them to be totally out of touch with human nature.  But I tend to think that human values emerge and expand from evolutionary pressures rather than being bound wholly to them; we are godshatter.

Sometimes, you gotta say, “I don’t care about the balance of nature and history, this is wrong, what we should do is something else.”  And the psycho-conservative will say “You know you’re probably gonna fail, right?”

At which point you smile, and say, “Probably.”