Conservatives Deconstructed

by Joel Bleifuss

In These Times magazine, October 2003


Are they nuts?

Have you ever wondered about those ubiquitous conservatives?

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 think."

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 arts."

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.

Impulsively aggressive

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 gains)."

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 and Iraq.

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.

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