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."
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.