Friday, February 23, 2007

Conservatism, Wikipedia, and Daniel Brandt

As I write this, a very vigorous "debate" (if it can in fact be called that) is underway on Wikipedia over whether or not Daniel Brandt's article should remain deleted. Or, depending on who you ask, whether the article was deleted "in accordance with process" or not.

I'm not really interested in arguing here whether or not Daniel Brandt's article should be deleted. I've already had my say on that issue in the debate already linked. (The fact that I was willing to break self-imposed exile to comment on that on-wiki should say something all by itself. Or maybe not. Whatever.) Rather, what I'm writing about here is the strenuousness with which quite a few editors in that debate are not arguing about the merits of letting Daniel Brandt have an article or not. Rather, they are trying to make the entire discussion about whether "process was followed".

The other day, I tracked down and read a good part of John Jost's infamous metastudy, "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition". This study, which was widely derided by conservatives but appears to be methodologically sound to my not entirely untrained eye, documents a large number of correlations between political conservative and a variety of personality traits. What struck me as I read this is that these same traits appear to be those exhibited by many of Wikipedia's worst process fetishists.

Jost, et al identified a number of traits that they found to be associated with political conservatism to some significant degree of confidence:
  1. mental rigidity and closed-mindedness, including
    • increased dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
    • decreased cognitive complexity
    • decreased openness to experience
    • uncertainty avoidance
    • personal needs for order and structure
    • need for cognitive closure
  2. lowered self-esteem
  3. fear, anger, and aggression
  4. pessimism, disgust, and contempt
  5. loss prevention
  6. fear of death
  7. threat arising from social and economic deprivation
  8. threat to the stability of the social system
Not all of these are applicable to Wikipedians (especially "fear of death"), but I see many of these same traits in play in this component the Wikipedia community. Wikipedians commonly recognized as being "process bound" exhibit, in my eyes, at the very least, a strong desire for dogmatic rule systems lacking ambiguity -- hence their strong objections to broadcloth "rules" like "don't be a dick" and "ignore all rules". They strongly dislike uncertainty and want straightforward systematic rules that can be applied to any situation to yield a predictable, programmable result. They have a strong need for order and structure, and seek to impose hierarchy on Wikipedia in order to obtain that. (The desire for hierarchy is another trait identified by the authors of the study, as is the willingness to accept inequity in order to obtain stability.) They are very strongly concerned about maintaining stability of the system, and will even sacrifice the goals of the project to maintain that stability (as evidenced by the people who are urging that Brandt's article be undeleted not because that is in the interest of the project, but because "the process was not followed").

What I find really interesting is that people who I know to be political liberals are demonstrating many of these traits on Wikipedia (although the authors do note that similar authoritarian tendencies are noted in radical liberals to almost the same degree as in political conservatives), and also that some people I know to be political conservatives are not exhibiting these tendencies. However, in general I don't know the political bents of most Wikipedians, and in most of the cases where I do know them they match the trend in the study.

Wikipedia historically has drawn a more-liberal-than-average crowd. There are no doubt a lot of different reasons for this, and I may choose to speculate on them in a later article. However, I have to wonder to what degree the recent changes in the community have been due to the influx of an increasingly large number of people who are not liberals, or at least not psychologically disposed to be liberals, and the resulting conflict between the almost antiauthoritarian history of Wikipedia's culture with the strong authoritarian culture that these newer imports are attempting to impose.

Considering how badly our society does at reconciling these psychological divergences, I can certainly understand why Wikipedia is having a hard time of it.