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The Psychology of Conservatism

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Politically conservative agendas may range from supporting war to opposing welfare. But are there consistent underlying motivations? What can psychology tell us about the way we think?

Four researchers who culled through 50 years of research literature about the psychology of conservatism report that at the core of political conservatism is the resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, and that some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include:

  • A sense of fear and feeling threatened
  • Intolerance of ambiguity
  • Uncertainty avoidance

"From our perspective, these psychological factors are capable of contributing to the adoption of conservative ideological contents, either independently or in combination," the researchers wrote in an article published in the American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin.

The researchers looked at patterns involving 22,818 participants, taken from  material originating from 12 countries (including the U.S.) that included speeches and interviews given by politicians, opinions and verdicts rendered by judges, as well as experimental, field and survey studies. Ten calculations performed on the material - which included various types of concepts and approaches from different countries and groups - yielded consistent, common threads, the researchers said.

The avoidance of uncertainty, for example, as well as the striving for certainty, is particularly tied to one key dimension of conservative thought - the resistance to change and a tendency to support the status quo, they said. Many conservatives appear to shun and even punish those who threaten the status of cherished conservative positions, they wrote.

Concern with fear and threat, likewise, has been linked to a second key dimension of conservatism -- a tolerance for inequality, a view reflected in the Indian caste system, South African apartheid and the conservative politics in the US. According to the researchers, conservatives share a resistance to change and a greater acceptance of inequality in terms of race or income.

While most people resist change, the researchers said, liberals appear to have a higher tolerance for change and uncertainty than conservatives do. Liberals also tend to be less dogmatic and to feel less threatened.

As for conservatives' penchant for accepting inequality, they said, one contemporary example is liberals' general endorsement of extending rights and liberties to disadvantaged minorities compared to conservatives' opposing position.

The researchers found that being intolerant of ambiguity is associated with such conservative characteristics as unwavering certainty and strong loyalty to particular people and positions. This intolerance of ambiguity can lead conservatives to cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic clichés and stereotypes.

Conservatives don't feel the need to jump through complex, intellectual hoops in order to understand or justify some of their positions. They are more comfortable seeing and stating things in black and white, the researchers concluded

An important component of conservative psychology is repressed or displaced fear and the related sense of feeling threatened by various events, ideas and people around them. Conservatives often report feeling threatened by what they view as the "liberal media" or " atheists" who they see as attacking them and jeopardizing their place in society. This often produces an anger response as a defense mechanism against the perceived threat. Anger expressed toward such people as homosexuals or Muslims is related to displaced fear and is a significant factor in understanding conservative psychology according to the researchers. It should be noted that the ultimate fear is the fear of death and a very strong desire to achieve life after death is particularly important in understanding the psychology of many religious conservatives. 

We all like to believe that our politics is based on rational thought, but the truth is that our politics comes from a much deeper place that we need to acknowledge. Our subconscious minds play a bigger role in our political beliefs than many of us would like to admit. Our early childhood experiences, our relationship with our parents, how we cope with fear, and how we respond to authority figures all play a role in our political views. Instead of simply declaring what we believe in, we need to explore why we believe as we do. If we want to understand politics, we must first try to understand ourselves.

 

Joe Parko is a retired college professor who taught for 28 years in the School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and serves on the steering committee of Cumberland (more...)
 
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The psychology of conservatism points to 3 ways we... by Joe Parko on Friday, Jun 22, 2012 at 3:29:22 PM
Good article that highlights a subset within each ... by Gary Williams on Saturday, Jun 23, 2012 at 10:48:44 PM
This seems to tie in well with the work on authori... by Mike Zimmer on Friday, Jun 22, 2012 at 10:40:12 PM
because it is just easier. It is not more efficien... by bogi666 on Saturday, Jun 23, 2012 at 9:29:55 AM
Great analysis into the origins of Conservative th... by Howard Schneider on Saturday, Jun 23, 2012 at 11:37:31 AM
I appreciate the comments I have received on this ... by Joe Parko on Saturday, Jun 23, 2012 at 6:18:21 PM