19 October 2007

Psychological Bases of Conservatism


I came across a citation to an article* addressing the political-psychological bases of conservatism that I think is quite revealing. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

"What Have We Learned?

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of conservatism has for centuries posed a challenge for historians, philosophers, and social scientists. By now, hundreds of empirical investigations have been carried out worldwide, and at least three types of theories have been offered to explicate the psychological bases of conservative and right-wing ideologies. Our contribution here has been to review and summarize this work and to integrate it within the ambitious and broad framework of motivated social cognition. In doing so, we have drawn a number of conclusions, which should be made explicit in order to better understand the various ways in which political conservatism may be thought of as a form of motivated social cognition.

An important conclusion that follows from our analysis is that political attitudes and beliefs possess a strong motivational basis. Conservative ideologies, like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs. To say that ideological belief systems have a strong motivational basis is not to say that they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence. Although the (partial) causes of ideological beliefs may be motivational, the reasons (and rationalizations) whereby individuals justify those beliefs to themselves and others are assessed according to informational criteria.

Many different theoretical accounts of conservatism over the past 50 years have stressed motivational underpinnings, but they have identified different needs as critical. Our review brings these diverse accounts together for the first time. Variables significantly associated with conservatism, we now know, include fear and aggression, dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty avoidance, need for cognitive closure, personal need for structure, terror management, group-based dominance, and system justification. From our perspective, these psychological factors are capable of contributing to the adoption of conservative ideological contents, either independently or in combination.

The socially constructed nature of human belief systems makes it unlikely that a complete explanation of conservative ideology could ever be provided in terms of a single motivational syndrome. Ideologies, like other social representations, may be thought of as possessing a core and a periphery, and each may be fueled by separate motivational concerns. The most that can be expected of a general psychological analysis is for it to partially explain the core of political conservatism because the peripheral aspects are by definition highly protean and driven by historically changing, local contexts.

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change. Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality. Although resistance to change and support for inequality are conceptually distinguishable, we have argued that they are psychologically interrelated, in part because motives pertaining to uncertainty and threat are interrelated."


~~~~~~~~~~
The authors review the findings of 88 studies ranging across a dozen countries and half a century. Their "meta-analysis" is insightful and useful. The grounds of conservative political leanings turn out to not just reflect internal proclivities but to be thoroughly situational or circumstantial. Conservatism on this view seems a way that certain sorts of people respond to social conditions they perceive as uncertain or threatening. That said, I want to call attention to the passage I've highlighted.

This paper helps me understand why I so often find it remarkably difficult to figure out what conservatives want or why they think the way they do. It suggests too that progressives, if they hope to appeal to large constituencies, must find ways of addressing conditions that make people feel insecure and fearful. In particular, it seems to me that this research supports the view of Roberto Unger (on which I've posted before) that progressives need to distance themselves from the notion that social and political change must be tied to and result from crisis.
__________

* T. Jost, et. al. 2003. "Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," Psychological Bulletin 129(3): 339-75.

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8 Comments:

Blogger stanco said...

Having grown up the sole minority in a white neighborhood, I have never had a problem figuring out how conservatives think.

That's the easy part.

20 October, 2007 00:26  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is very little there that doesn't also apply to the Left. Or are you suggesting the Right is all irrational, fear based, insecure etc and the Left is all rational, balanced, and self aware? Are you now going to start suggesting the Left is more psychologically evolved?

You really are treading on strange ground, seemingly trying to construct a self-justifying mythos.

If you want a better ie more balanced understanding, you need to consult some psychology as it applies to the Left - there's plenty of it.

20 October, 2007 05:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a new low, even for you, Jim. It's amazing to see someone who is supposedly an academic in the field of political science say outright: "I so often find it remarkably difficult to figure out what conservatives want or why they think the way they do." You've basically just admitted that you're a hack! How can an academic say he can't comprehend other people's concerns whose philosophy differs from his? How ironic that you've recently made some posts about solidarity and "the psychology of compassion" and here you are blatantly saying, "I don't get those people!" Hang it up, you're a fraud.

20 October, 2007 06:20  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon#1,

Actually, the research reviewed here offers zero evidence for your initial assertion. At several points the authors explicitly consider that point since it has been made since the 1950s. That does not mean that the there is not some analogous syndrome underlying leftist ideologies. But this group of characeterisitics simply does not apply to the left just as well. I recommend the paper rather than just the conclusion. And if you know of analogous reearch on pinkos I am happy for you recommendation.

Anon2, Your rant would apply if I didn't try to understand others who I find opaque. As always you leap to inferences based on your own weird logic. And of course, this is a pepr reporteing a half century of research not anything I constructed. But if your conclusion seems valid to you please don't waste any of your precious time at this freaudulaent blog. Bye!

20 October, 2007 07:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To shed more light on how and why people think politically, check out
Drew Westen's, "The Political Brain".

Among other things, Westen argues that generally we're hardwired to find certain postures, images and narratives compelling and that if Democrats want to start winning national elections, then they need to cast their campaigns and policy proposals within narratives and themes that feel right as well as make sense.

20 October, 2007 13:38  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"they need to cast their campaigns and policy proposals within narratives and themes that feel right as well as make sense."

Well yes, its obvious that much of party politics is essentially just mass psychological manipulation - along exactly those lines. Ascertain what turns people on, then tell them you'll make it better. That's the life of a politician.

That's one thing.

Its another thing again - both needed, and legitimate - to use the same psychological intelligence in relation to the "theory", ie the stuff that gets debated seperate from the voting system.

And that applies equally to the Left as much as the Right. There are elements of irrational BS, basically, that fulfils psychological needs based on "attitude" rather than balanced intelligence: politics gets religious.

20 October, 2007 13:52  
Blogger Greg said...

"Well yes, its obvious that much of party politics is essentially just mass psychological manipulation" - obvious to you and me perhaps, but clearly not in the radar of the Dems for some time.

And regarding the process as simple "manipulation" seems reductive and dismissive. The point of the book is that people tend to operate emotionally far more than most of us would like to admit. And if you hope to win the public over, its important to strike emotional chords in the process. Of course it can be manipulative, but understanding how stories and images resonate psychologically is as important in organizing as it is in electoral campaigns (and just as important for the broader Left - many who fall outside the realm of the Democratic Party).

I think many on the Left are too often satisfied with being the smartest one in the room, endlessly debating the finer points of policy and political theory with one's peers while dismissing those who live beyond their social and political comfort zone. That's a recipe to remain in the political margins. Couching those important ideas within compelling stories and pictures is proven way to engage folks we don't usually reach.

21 October, 2007 21:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

""Well yes, its obvious that much of party politics is essentially just mass psychological manipulation" - obvious to you and me perhaps, but clearly not in the radar of the Dems for some time. And regarding the process as simple "manipulation" seems reductive and dismissive. The point of the book is that people tend to operate emotionally far more than most of us would like to admit. And if you hope to win the public over, its important to strike emotional chords in the process. Of course it can be manipulative, but understanding how stories and images resonate psychologically is as important in organizing as it is in electoral campaigns (and just as important for the broader Left - many who fall outside the realm of the Democratic Party). I think many on the Left are too often satisfied with being the smartest one in the room, endlessly debating the finer points of policy and political theory with one's peers while dismissing those who live beyond their social and political comfort zone. That's a recipe to remain in the political margins. Couching those important ideas within compelling stories and pictures is proven way to engage folks we don't usually reach."

All of which is a comment about biassed political strategy.

My point is not that, but a comment on human nature and the stupidity of how so called politics operates.

" (1) The point of the book is that people tend to operate emotionally far more than most of us would like to admit. (2) And if you hope to win the public over, its important to strike emotional chords in the process."

1) I know.
2) I know again.

And the point is, that has nothing to do with intelligent ministering or organisation of society: a matter on which you appear entirely oblivious, insisting on the machinations of vote-winning politics as if its a domain of wisdom.

22 October, 2007 17:05  

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