Right-brain vs. left-brain: Sarah Palin

Posted in Politics at 1:48 pm by ducky

Sarah Palin is, you might have noticed, a very polarizing politician.  Liberals are absolutely flummoxed that anybody could like her.  Conservatives can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t like her.  I think that Sarah Palin shows up a fundamental difference in values between liberals and conservatives: conservatives value right-brain thinking and liberals don’t.

As I have posted before, Jonathan Haight found that liberals and conservatives place different weights on aspects of morality.  Liberals weight fairness much more highly than conservatives, for example, and conservatives weight what Haight calls “purity” much more highly than liberals.  “Purity” is IMHO a poor term for it: “gut instinct” is probably a better term.  It’s getting the feeling that something is wrong or right.  This is a right-brain function.

Our educational system works hard to get people to stop listening to their gut, to process with the logical, procedural, lingual left-brain side.  There are good pedagogical reasons for this: the right brain is fundamentally non-lingual, so it is difficult (if not impossible!) to explain right-brain decisions, to examine the decisions for errors in reasoning or assumptions, or to grade right-brain reasoning.  The right brain can only communicate its conclusions with feelings, with “gut instincts”.

The right-brain does not communicate its decisions well, but that doesn’t mean that its processing is invalid.  There are many things that the right brain can do that the left brain cannot.  You cannot derive a great song, deduce that your spouse loves you, or prove that that figure a block away is your cousin Chris.  People who make decisions only with the left-brain, only with facts and logic are more vulnerable to errors in the models or starting assumptions.  (One might argue that the entire mortgage meltdown came from an over-reliance on left-brain reasoning and paying inadequate attention to the little voices saying, “waitaminute — can this really work?”)

If you value right-brain processing, then the political climate for you must be very frustrating.  Liberals don’t even pay lip service to right-brain processing: it is so non-valued that it is a complete blind spot for them.  (If Obama was any more left-brain, he’d fall over.)   I can imagine that it would also be scary to see your beautiful country in the hands of people who apparently are paying no attention at all to their gut.

Sarah Palin is total right-brain.  Here is what she said when asked when Bill O’Rielly asked her if she was smart enough to be president:

I believe that I am because I have common sense, and I have, I believe, the values that are reflective of so many other American values. And I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of a spinelessness that perhaps is made up for that with some kind of elite Ivy League education and a fact resume that’s based on anything but hard work and private sector, free enterprise principles. Americans could be seeking something like that in positive change in their leadership. I’m not saying that has to be me.

Nothing in her answer has to do with left-brain facts or logic, and in fact she skewers left-brain training (“elite … education” and “a fact resume”).  She is also completely unapologetic about being right-brained; instead of being guilty and ashamed of it, she gets angry and frustrated at her critics.  This is a high-status behaviour, and people think that high-status people do good things, as I have posted about before.

Meanwhile, liberals look at her left-brain abilities and are appalled.  They find fault with her left-brain abilities, as evidenced by what they see as her rhetorical weaknesses: her inability to marshal facts into the type of coherent, rhetorically logical arguments that they favour.  They do not value her right-brain rhetorical abilities — her ability to reach people’s “guts” — because they do not value right-brain skills.  The conservatives are less bothered by her weakness in left-brain skills because they do not value left-brain skills as much.

The left also remembers G. W. Bush, who was also very right-brain, going on gut and instinct.  They think that his instincts were frequently wrong (e.g. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction) with disastrous consequences.  So to some extent, they are punishing Sarah Palin for what they saw as G. W. Bush’s mistakes.

Note: I have been somewhat loose with the terms “liberal” and “conservative” here.  While I think there are probably not very many right-brain liberals, there are left-brain conservatives.  Andrew Sullivan is clearly a left-brain conservative, and Sarah Palin clearly drives him absolutely nuts.


  1. Andrew Eisenberg said,

    November 22, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    I think your notion of “right-brained” is a nice way of saying anti-intellectual. The right-brainers you mention here are more than just going on gut instinct, but they are actively shunning any other way of thinking.

    I do think there are a lot of left-brainy conservatives out there. Conservatives that I still don’t like very much, or agree with, but who at least I have some intellectual respect for them. These tend to be libertarian economist thinkers/writers/lobbyists. One of my favorites to read is Randall O’Toole http://ti.org/antiplanner/, mostly because of the entertaining and lively commenting on the site.

    Ironically, these left-brainy conservatives often complain that liberals are too right-brainy (they don’t use the term, but they are saying the same thing). The stereotyped liberal that they describe is the idealist who wants to save the planet by driving a prius, thinks corporations are evil, and wants world peace, but doesn’t think deeply about any of this.

    These people exist (because I know some), but unlike right-brainy conservatives, they are not currently the driving force behind a political party.

  2. Andrew Eisenberg said,

    November 22, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    And on a vaguely related note, I just listened to this podcast:


    Highly worth listening to. The moral question is based on the last episode of MASH, where (apparently…I haven’t actually seen the episode) there are a bunch of villagers hiding somewhere from the enemy. One villager has an infant with a cold who will cough and give away the villagers’ hiding place (and certain death from the enemy). The only way out of this if the villager smothers her baby.

    Logically, this is a no-brainer—kill your baby and save the village, or don’t kill your baby and everyone dies (including you and your baby). But most people when asked (especially those with babies) said that they couldn’t do it (including me).

    Why? It is apparently because of two conflicting moral imperatives fighting for dominance in our puny brains. There is the left-brainy logical morality, which says “save more people by killing one”, and the right-brainy intuitive morality, which says “don’t kill your own baby”.

    In this case, the right-brainy morality wins. Unfortunately, though, most of the big problems that we face these days, such as global warming, nuclear war, over-fishing, global poverty, etc, are just not very easily solved using right-brained morality. Gut instinct will not find a way out of any of these global crises (whether it comes from the left or the right).

  3. admin said,

    November 22, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Andrew — “anti-intellectual” doesn’t explain *why* someone is anti-intellectual. It sounds like someone is just still mad at that kid in grade school who showed them up in the spelling bee or something like that.

    I think that it’s more complex than just “people who are [left-brain] smart are bad!”, it’s “making decisions only based on facts is dangerous”. (I can actually agree with that: I want people in charge who are good at both left-brain AND right-brain thinking!)

    I hadn’t really thought about the crunchy-granola wing of the liberals being right-brain. I’ll have to think about that.

    And absolutely, I agree that the left-brain conservatives are NOT running the GOP right now.

    Interesting about right-brainy “don’t kill the baby”. Overpopulation certainly is bad for the planet, but people really don’t want to kill their babies in order to save the planet. 😉

  4. Andrew Eisenberg said,

    November 22, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Yeah. I over-simplified a bit. People who rely too much on logic are all to capable of falling prey to invalid initial conditions or a logical flaw. You can argue that’s how the whole housing bubble started. It looked good on paper, and all the numbers worked out. But, taking a step back and not looking at it logically—what the hell was everyone thinking?

  5. Tim said,

    November 24, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    My ‘middle’ brain tells me that she is devoid of any capacity of thinking that could possibly be misconstrued as empirical. Yet, she has either employed people who understand what to say and when, or her elusiveness escapes the prison projected by my rational mind regarding her cognitive abilities.

    Its one thing to have an idea, or an idle but seemingly promising thought. Its another thing to be able to articulate either adequately when millions of people are watching live. I’ll happily afford her that handicap.

    As I avoid ‘consensus thinking’ as if it were a disease, I’m keeping an open mind. However, she rarely fails to produce evidence that a village in Alaska is missing an indecisive and broadly incoherent idiot.

    In regards to your post, you don’t know your capabilities or resolve until confronted with problems that they might resolve. Most members of the Donner party would reject eating human flesh if the question was posed hypothetically prior to their plight. Speculation into such extremes, therefore, is a waste of oxygen with no possible factual outcome. Have you ever been in a situation that promised death or eminent disfiguration where there is no positive outcome?

    However, it does make for challenging and very interesting reading! I’m enjoying your blog, hopefully you can equally enjoy my heckling.

  6. admin said,

    November 24, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Tim — thanks for the comments! You have very nice turns of phrase.

    In regards to your penultimate paragraph, it seems like you are saying I shouldn’t speculate on… something… but I can’t figure out what it is that I shouldn’t be speculating on. Could you please clarify?

  7. Tim said,

    November 29, 2009 at 10:59 am

    @admin: She’s on a book tour, gaining traction and (may) extol a different kind of drivel in the future when she’ll be challenged once re-entering politics. What remains is, is she currently chewing off an arm, or avoiding meat in her diet?

    I can not in a reasonable mind attribute her numerous quotations to someone either coy or driven enough to run as a VP on a major ticket.

    In short, I’m hoping she remains of interest to you, and I find your investigative skepticism refreshing. Unlike me, you tend to avoid romanticized and theoretical interlude as a replacement for making concrete points.

  8. Diego Moita said,

    December 14, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Sorry but I totally disagree. I tend to be a liberal, although not in fiscal and trade issues.

    What you call “left brain” x “rigth brain” is misleading. You fail to recognize that there is, at least an attempt to be rigorous and carefull in “left brain” thinking. Many times “from the gut” is just a cover to avoid rigor and care on thinking; a shortcut to prejudice and prejudgement. As I see, gender, race and religious discrimination come from “the gut”, don’t they?

  9. Mutale said,

    July 16, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Wasn’t Haidt arguing that liberals tend to be right brained and conservatives tend to be left brained? It’s worth noting that the left brain is only ‘logical’ in that it has a simplistic, black and white, sequential view of the world whereas the right brain sees gray, is more open to seemingly unlikely or unusual possibilities. Empathy is a right brain function, and liberals tend to be more empathetic.

  10. TanteWaileka said,

    March 24, 2011 at 11:53 am

    You clearly are fuzzy-minded and I don’t mean that in the programming sense. You still see through a glass darkly. That’s all the time I’m going to waste on someone like you.