by Joel Bleifuss
In These Times magazine,
Are they nuts?
Have you ever wondered about those ubiquitous
Why do they support tax breaks for the
rich when so many of their fellow citizens are in dire straits?
Why do they applaud John Ashcroft and his post-9/11 curtailment
of civil liberties? Why do they oppose laws that address historic
wrongs and enforce constitutionally guaranteed rights? Why do
they respond to a societal drug problem with incarceration and
expanded prison construction? Why do they gut regulations that
are meant to protect the environment? Why do they invest more
than half of our tax dollars in the military? Why are they so
meanspirited? In other words, why do conservatives do what they
do? Are they nuts?
No, not according to a fascinating new
study in Psychological Bulletin, "Political Conservatism
as Motivated Social Cognition." Conservatives do, however,
possess certain psychological traits and motives that no one in
their right (or is that left?) mind would want to share.
The study's four authors, John T. Jost,
Jack Glaser, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Frank J. Sulloway, write,
"People embrace political conservatism (at least in part)
because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety and uncertainty; to
avoid change, disruption and ambiguity; and to explain, order
and justify inequality among groups and individuals." To
come to this conclusion the authors examined 88 different psychological
studies conducted between 1958 and 2002 that involved 22,818 people
from 12 different countries. They boiled that information down
into a number of psychological attributes that are closely associated
with people who are politically conservative.
Rigid and closed-minded
"Dogmatism has been found to correlate
consistently with authoritarianism, political-economic conservatism,
and the holding of right wing opinions," write the authors.
Conversely, studies have found that conservatives in general have
little tolerance for ambiguity. A fact that helps in decoding
this statement that George W. Bush made in Genoa, Italy: "I
know what I believe and I believe what I believe is right."
Such thinking could explain why the Bush
administration officials ignored those intelligence reports that
failed to support going to war with Iraq. "[Conservatives']
intolerance of ambiguity can lead people to cling to the familiar,
to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic clichés
and stereotypes," write the authors.
Numerous studies have also shown that
conservative policymakers entertain less cognitively complex thoughts
than their liberal or moderate counterparts. A study of speeches
made in the House of Commons in 1984 found that "the most
integratively complex politicians were moderate socialists."
Their complexity of thought was found to be significantly higher
than that of extreme socialists, moderate conservatives or extreme
conservatives. Similarly, in the United States, a study of speeches
on the floor of the Senate in 1975 and 1976 found that senators
with liberal or moderate voting records exhibited significantly
more complex thinking than their conservative counterparts.
That explains a lot, doesn't it. Bush
again comes to mind. As he told a British reporter, "Look,
my job isn't to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I
Further studies show that conservatives
have been found to shun new, stimulating experiences and to avoid
situations where the outcome is uncertain.
The authors write that the fact that conservatives
are "less tolerant of ambiguity, less open to new experiences,
and more avoidant of uncertainty. may help explain why "congressional
Republicans and other prominent conservatives in the United States
have sought unilaterally to eliminate public funding for the contemporary
From an early age, conservatives demonstrate
a personal need for order and structure. One study has shown that
conservative teens are more likely to say they are "neat,
orderly and organized" than are liberal adolescents. The
authors note that this desire for set rules correlates with the
examples of mental rigidity mentioned above, and can be seen in
the political realm when conservatives attempt to order their
own and other's lives by advocating drug testing, core educational
curriculum, controls on people with AIDS, and strict parental
control of children.
R.A. Altemeyer, a psychologist who has
extensively studied people with right-wing beliefs, has observed:
[Right-wing authoritarians] see the world
as a dangerous place, as society teeters on the brink of self-destruction
from evil and violence. This fear appears to instigate aggression
in them. Second, right-wing authoritarians tend to be highly self
righteous. They think themselves much more moral and upstanding
than others - a self perception considerably aided by self-deception....
This self-righteousness disinhibits their aggressive impulses
and releases them to act out their fear-induced hostilities.
George Will seems steeped in that fear.
To illustrate that point the authors quote this passage from an
essay by Will: "Conservatives know the world is a dark and
forbidding place where most new knowledge is false, most improvements
are for the worse." Psychological studies back Will up. People
with right-wing personalities hold more pessimistic views and
left-wing personalities hold more optimistic ones. And that pessimism
and optimism appears to inform how conservatives and liberals
view their fellow humans. A 1984 survey of "emotional reactions
to welfare recipients" found that conservatives "expressed
greater disgust and less sympathy" than liberals.
While this propensity of conservatives
to be threatened and fearful does not appear to induce neurotic
behavior, one study of dream lives discovered that Republicans
had three times as many nightmares as Democrats, indicating that
fear, anger and aggression might be a factor in the subconscious
motivations of conservatives.
The authors speculate that this susceptibility
to fear "may help explain why military defense spending and
support for national security receive much stronger backing from
conservative than liberal political leaders."
Afraid of loss
It has long been known that conservatives
resist change while progressives accept change. Indeed, according
to studies, this is the most common way that people from both
groups self-define themselves.
"To the extent that conservatives
are especially sensitive to the possibilities of loss-one reason
why they wish to preserve the status quo-it follows that they
should be generally more motivated by negatively framed outcomes
(potential losses) than by positively framed outcomes (potential
Consequently, conservatives respond better
to threats. In a study conducted five days before the 1996 presidential
election, researchers presented voters with persuasive arguments
that stressed either the potential rewards of voting ("it
is a way to express and live in accordance with important values")
or the potential losses from not voting ("not voting allows
others to take away your right to express your values").
More generally, the authors suggest that "framing events
in terms of potential losses rather than gains leads people to
adopt cognitively conservative, as opposed to innovative, orientations."
Haunted by death
Of course, the greatest personal loss
is death. Studies demonstrate that the people who most fear death
are the most conservative. More generally, the fear of death and
the resulting protective posture that such a threat engenders
cause people to become conservative and to strongly "defend
culturally valued norms and practices" and "to distance
themselves from, and even to derogate, out-group members to greater
extent." Similarly, the fear of death has also been linked
to "system-justifying forms of stereotyping and enhanced
liking for stereotype-consistent women and minority group members"
and "greater punitiveness, and even aggression, toward those
who violate cultural values." Applying that knowledge, the
authors write, "High profile terrorist attacks such as those
of September 11, 2001, might simultaneously increase the cognitive
accessibility of death and the appeal of political conservatism."
While trying to retain the impartiality
of scientists, albeit social ones, the authors warn that the available
evidence indicates that governments can manipulate people's conservative
tendencies by raising the specter of death. They write, "Priming
thoughts of death has been shown to increase intolerance, out-group
derogation, punitive aggression, veneration of authority figures
and system justification."
That is what we have seen in the wake
of 9/11 as public opinion and media coverage took a sharp turn
to the right, setting the stage for pre-emptive wars in Afghanistan
The authors acknowledge what has long
been assumed by sociologists, economists, and political scientists:
people adopt conservative beliefs to serve their own self interests.
They agree that this helps explain the conservatism of "upper-class
elites." However, the authors hold that the personal need
to "reduce fear, anxiety, dissonance, uncertainty or instability"
better explains why a vastly greater number of people who are
not part of the elite, and particularly those who are disadvantaged
or from low-status groups, "might embrace right-wing ideologies."
The authors also take issue with the common
notion that people inherit ideological beliefs from their parents.
A statistically significant correlation exists between the two,
but it is far from overwhelming. The authors maintain, "Conservative
ideologies, like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted
in part because they satisfy various psychological needs."
Conservatives have not taken kindly to
"Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition."
Will, perhaps fearing the truth, ridiculed the study in the Washington
Post, making fun of the authors' academic jargon.
Yet this delineation of the psychological
needs that motivate conservatives provides progressives with lessons
on how they might communicate with a wider audience. For example,
when speaking to the problems of the PATRIOT Act, administration
critics could reach out to a conservative audience by emphasizing
that the act presents a radical infringement on the Bill of Rights,
and should therefore be opposed by all who value the precepts
on which America was founded.