Thought Experiments for Left and Right

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

Whether your politics lean left or right, a couple of thought experiments can help you understand people who lean the other way.

History's most famous thought experiment inspired Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity. In 1895, aged only 16, Einstein imagined what it would be like to chase a beam of light. That image led him to insights that would revolutionize our views of space, time, matter, and energy.

My thought experiments for you aren't nearly so grand, but they might help you see:

  • How left-leaning and right-leaning people feel about the world.
  • Why they believe the things that they do.

Experiment #1: For Lefties

Let's start with the thought experiment for left-leaning people.

You've got a nice house. You picked out the furniture yourself. The walls are the color you like. For dinner, your spouse is making Jambalaya, which is your favorite dish. You like your neighbors and you've spent many happy hours talking with them about mutual interests.

You get home from work, but something seems wrong. The front door isn't where it should be: it's been moved to the back of the house. Inside, the walls have been repainted a hideous color. The furniture has been replaced with weird arty stuff that looks uncomfortable. All the rooms have been moved. You're still having "Jambalaya" for dinner, but the recipe has completely changed so the food is unrecognizable. You ask for a glass of water but your spouse says you can't call it "water" anymore. Your old neighbors are gone, replaced by new people who don't speak English and who seem unfriendly.

But you make it through the evening. The next morning, you go to work. When you return home after work, everything has changed again. The front door is on the roof. The inside of the house is chaos. Your neighbors' houses and their inhabitants have been replaced by bail bondsmen, convenience stores, and pawnshops. A couple of seedy-looking characters are loitering around your mailbox.

What's the problem? Why would you not like that situation?

The answer is obvious: People need some stability in their lives, not just to plan their activities but to keep their sanity. If too much changes too fast, it's painful and confusing. That's true even if the changes are good when considered abstractly, one at a time.

If you're a lefty, then maybe you can see why most people don't like having society turned inside out for reasons that make no sense to them. They especially don't like being called nasty names just for voicing their concerns.

Experiment #2: For Righties

Now we'll do the thought experiment for right-leaning people.

I admit that "righties" sounds a little weird, but let's keep our terminology consistent. Changing it too much and too fast would confuse things (see Experiment #1).

Same situation: You've got a nice house. You like the furniture. You like the walls. You like Jambalaya. You like your neighbors. And the front door is in front, exactly where it should be. All is right with the world.

The years pass. Same house. Same furniture. Same walls. Same damn Jambalaya for dinner every damn night. Same neighbors talking about the same things. At least the front door hasn't started to annoy you, since there's not much that a front door can do except be in front and be a door.

But still, you cry: "Can't we do something different for a change?"

"Nope," says your spouse. "This is the way we've always done it, and that's good enough for me."

What's the problem? Why would you not like that situation?

The answer is just as obvious as in experiment #1: Stability is great, but people also need change. Sometimes we think of ways to improve things. Sometimes our tastes evolve or technology advances. And sometimes, we just need new experiences to make life interesting.

Life itself is change, every time we take a breath. And even though our lungs are the same ones we had a year ago, almost all of the cells in our lungs have died and been replaced during that time.

If you're a righty, then maybe you can see why lefties want to change things. They think there are better ways to do them. They think you're just being stubborn and inflexible when you object. Whether they're right or wrong about their wonderful new ideas, most of them mean well.

Not Just Politics, But Also Psychology

Many social disputes aren't just about the merits of particular ideas. They're also about how much different people like stability or change.

Psychologists have known since the early 1900s that some people crave stability or change more than other people do. More recently, neuroscientists are finding differences in brain function that correspond to the cravings. We can't resolve such disagreements by logical argument because they're not about logic. They're about the social conditions in which different people feel comfortable.

Since no society ever has been or ever will be perfect, we have to figure out which imperfections we can live with and which we want to change. Every change will risk causing new and different imperfections, sometimes worse than the ones we "fixed."

People who crave novelty will naturally want to make lots of changes. They will come up with plausible-sounding reasons why the changes are needed. And maybe the reasons will be good ones. But they started out just wanting to change things, and their reasons came later. People who prefer stability will make the same moves, just with the opposite goal.

The challenge is to handle such disagreements in ways that most people consider fair and mutually acceptable. It's in everyone's interest to do so. But if it were easy, we'd already be doing it.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."