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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/9/14

Social Science Findings about Conservatism

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(Article changed on April 9, 2014 at 13:25)

The great empirical social psychologist who specialized in studying bigotry, Bob Altemeyer, in his 1996 The Authoritarian Specter, and his other writings, reported his exhaustive empirical studies, of more than 50,000 individuals in many countries, demonstrating that bigotries against each and every minority group were the highest amongst the individuals who scored as being the most religious in any religion. In each religion, the more fundamentalist one was, the more bigoted one tended to be, not just against non-believers, but against homosexuals, Blacks, and so forth. Religious belief, in other words, causes bigotry. His studies also found that his scale for "Right-Wing Authoritarianism" (RWA) or what's commonly called conservatism was exhibited the most strongly by fundamentalists (and, in the Soviet Union, those fundamentalists took as their inerrant Scripture not the Bible, but instead Marx's Das Capital ). 

Moreover, as one would expect from persons of faith (even of an atheistic one), people of high RWA tended to make incorrect inferences from evidence, accept internal contradictions within their own beliefs, oppose constitutional guarantees of individual liberty, believe more strongly in sticks than in carrots to correct a person's behavior, and were closed-minded to criticism of themselves. In 1992, Altemeyer had co-authored in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion , "Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, Quest, and Prejudice," which examined "the relationships among right-wing authoritarianism, various indices of religious orientation, and prejudice. Measures of religious fundamentalism ... were good discriminators between prejudiced and unprejudiced persons."     

Three authors -- Westman, Willink and McHoskey -- published, in the April 2000 Psychological Reports, their study "On Perceived Conflicts Between Religion and Science: The Role of Fundamentalism and Right-Wing Authoritarianism," and reported that Fundamentalism and Right-Wing Authoritarianism varied together (or tended to be the same group), and that both groups were hostile toward science, and even toward technology.

Furthermore, a summary, and meta-analysis, of not just Altemeyer's, but numerous other empirical psychological studies of conservatism, was published in the May 2003 Psychological Bulletin under the title "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition." This dealt with confirmation bias: the prejudice that people have to pay attention to what confirms their prior beliefs and to ignore what disconfirms or conflicts with their prejudices. Conservatives were found to have this bias even more than liberals do. (An excellent summary of this article was "Conservatives Deconstructed," by Joel Bleifuss, in the 19 September 2003 In These Times. Another was U. Cal. Berkeley's press release on this study, "Researchers Help Define What Makes a Political Conservative.") Not only did this research find strong correlations between conservatism and dogmatism, but one of the strongest correlations it discovered was between conservatism and fear of death. Because the meta-analysis was partly funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health -- which are federally funded -- it excluded any exploration of the correlation between conservatism and bigotry, and also excised religion as a factor. Despite this, Britain's Guardian reported, on 13 August 2003, "Republicans are demanding to know why" this study "received $1.2m in public funds." Even though investigation of the links between conservatism, religion, and bigotry was excluded, the findings still managed to offend conservatives to such an extent that it was unlikely any scientific study of conservatism would be able to be funded in the U.S. in the future, until Republicans decisively lost power in Washington. "Death anxiety" was found to be the factor which was the most strongly correlated with "political conservatism." Next was "system instability" (meaning anything that endangers the existing cultural order). Nothing else was even close to those two factors in predicting an individual's conservatism. In other words, it found: Conservatism is driven by fear.

A study by Bouchard and four other authors, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, in 2003, and titled "Evidence for the Construct Validity and Heritability of the Wilson-Patterson Conservatism Scale: A Reared-Apart Twins Study of Social Attitudes," reported that political conservatism correlated at a stunningly high rate with Altemeyer's Right-Wing Authoritarianism, and that it also "demonstrated significant and sizable genetic influence," so that the inclination to be conservative or religious is influenced not only by one's environment but by one's genes. In other words, such conservative traits as lack of compassion, preference to use sticks instead of carrots, etc., are partly a reflection of one's genetic make-up or temperament, and not entirely a result of one's training.

The "Wilson-Patterson C Scale" was introduced by G.D. Wilson and J.R. Patterson in their 1968 "A New Measure of Conservatism," in the British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. It is similar to Altemeyer's scale.

The observation is commonly made that conservatives are driven by fears, such as of "the other," and are therefore obsessed with military solutions, and police solutions, and with having guns themselves -- all solutions which enable them to force their own way, against the will of "the other," regardless of whether "the other" is "the Jew" or "the Black" or "the socialist," or whatever. Religion is, for the buyer, a way to deal specifically with his fear of death. But for the seller of religion, it's a way of enslaving buyers to his personal ends (which can likewise be a craving for salvation).

The rather blatant ugliness of the personality traits and beliefs correlating with political conservatism (e.g., opposition to equality of opportunity, eagerness to punish people, especially high fear of death, widespread bigotry, etc.) has led some conservatives to attack this entire body of research. For example, the proud conservative John J. Ray, in The Journal of Social Psychology, in 1985, headlined "Defective Validity in the Altemeyer Authoritarianism Scale," and in a "Post-Publication Update" on the web he said that, "Altemeyer (1988, p. 239) reports that Right-Wing Authoritarians as detected by his scale, 'show little preference in general for any political party'! In other words, according to the RWA scale, half of Right-Wing authoritarians vote for Leftist political parties! So how can they be rightist if they vote for Leftist parties?" However, Altemeyer wrote what Ray quoted here only as a scholar (in order to appear not to be "biased" against conservatives, to mollify them), not at all as a scientist (social or otherwise). Though most of Altemeyer's assertions were supported by empirical data that he cited, this assertion from him was not, and was purely a go-along-to-get-along statement, which here backfired. Altemeyer provided no data whatsoever to support that allegation which Ray quoted; and, in fact, Altemeyer promptly proceeded, right after that statement, to assert that his actual studies showed the exact opposite. For example: "In every sample of Canadian students and parents I have studied over the last 15 years" (and he was Canadian himself, so this referred to most of his data), the more conservative party's "supporters have scored significantly higher (as a group) on the RWA scale than" the liberal party's "backers." And, "In the United States, ... Republican supporters scored significantly higher on the RWA scale than Democrats at each of six state universities I visited." So, there was no exception to the correlation between RWA and exhibited political conservatism. Conservatives simply don't want to know how ugly-charactered they are, but it's demonstrated consistently by the actual and massive data, regardless whether conservatives want to see themselves as they actually are, which empirical studies also show they refuse to do.

Regarding Ray's charge of "defective validity" of RWA, numerous independent studies have shown otherwise. For example, "Evidence for the Construct Validity and Heritability of the Wilson-Patterson Conservatism Scale" said that, "the Conservatism Scale" exhibited high "validity. It correlates .72 with RWA, a scale which has been extensively validated ... and which is considered by some to be 'the best current measure of" authoritarianism. A 1991 study was cited as the source of that evaluation.

Subsequently, the first major competing scale for conservatism, the Social Dominance Orientation or SDO Scale, was developed by Felicia Pratto and Jim Sedanius, and introduced in the 1994 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, as "Social Dominance Orientation: A Personality Variable Predicting Social and Political Attitudes." There are about 15 questions on the scale, and they all relate to "groups" and to whether (for example) "It would be good if groups could be equal," and, "In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups." It was the first authoritarianism-measure that failed to correlate with either of the Altemeyer-Wilson ones ("RWA" or "C" Scales). Whereas both types of conservatism (the Altemeyer-Wilson, and the SDO) correlate with sexist, racist, homophobic, and anti-dissident attitudes, SDO correlates more with prejudice against subordinates and victims, regardless of category. Young males, perhaps due to high testosterone, were found to score especially high on the SDO scale. Also, high SDO people tended to be more economic, and high RWA people tended to be more cultural, conservatives. Altemeyer's 2006 The Authoritarians theorized that high-SDO people tend to be conservative politicians, whereas high-RWA people tend to be conservative voters. Altemeyer also hypothesized that George W. Bush was probably high on both forms of conservatism. Furthermore, Chris Sibley and Marc Wilson issued in the April 2013 Political Psychology, "Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism: Additive and Interactive Effects on Political Conservatism," which showed that when individuals were studied over a period of time, an increase in one score turned out to correlate with an increase in the other score, even though a high-scorer on one scale had no tendency to be a high-scorer in the other. Furthermore, "Both constructs are associated with increasing political conservatism, and the lowest levels of conservatism (or highest levels of political liberalism) are found in those lowest in both SDO and RWA." So: those are two different types of supporters of conservative political parties. However, Altemeyer's hypothesis that one conservative type are the leaders, and the other are the followers, has not yet been tested, even though it makes sense.

Conservatives, such as Ray, have similarly condemned the SDO Scale as indicating anything about conservatism. They don't say they're personally insulted by the scientific findings on conservatism; they say it's no science at all. Basically, they reject the sampling methods, or even, sometimes, the basic mathematical methods: factor analysis, and cluster analysis, of data.

Clearly, SDO focuses more on raw power, and RWA focuses more on majority-minority in terms of religion, gender, ethnicity, and all the rest. Recent studies of psychopaths have shown psychos to be power-focused. Sibley and Wilson have in press, "Does endorsement of hierarchy make you evil? SDO and psychopathy," which found that though there was only a moderate degree of correlation between the two, "higher SDO at time 1 is associated with an increase in psychopathy at time 2, and vice-versa." In other words: those two traits reinforce each other.

Research into SDO is in its infancy, as is research into psychopathy. However, research into "authoritarianism" or "conservatism" is in its adulthood, with an enormous scientific literature, having started in 1950 with Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality, which was inspired by the then-recent case of Adolf Hitler.

In addition, Guiso, Sapienza, and Zingales headlined in the 2003 Journal of Monetary Economics (pp. 225-82), "People's Opium? Religion and Economic Attitudes," where they analyzed the results of the huge World Values Survey, to find not just the "economic attitudes," but all attitudes, that were correlated with respondents' religious background, current affiliation, beliefs, and frequency of church attendance. Among the findings were: "Religiosity is associated with a stronger belief that the market outcome is fair. Interestingly, religious people are more likely to believe that people are in need because they are lazy and lack will power rather than because society treats them unfairly. Overall, religious people tend to be more supportive of markets." "The characteristics that make somebody attend religious services on a regular basis also make her more intolerant toward immigrants and people of other races." "The relation between religion and intolerance seems to be present in all religious denominations. ... Only Buddhists are more tolerant [however, more recently the majority Buddhists are trying to exterminate minority Muslims in Thailand]." "Intolerance is mostly an outcome of being raised religiously" and is less correlated with a person's current frequency of church attendance. "All religious denominations are associated with a more conservative attitude toward women. However, that effect is twice as strong among Muslims than for any other religion." "Religious people of all denominations (except Buddhists) are more inclined to believe that people in need are lazy." "Not surprisingly, religions tend to increase intolerance only when they are dominant." In other words, regarding that last one, the majority exclude from membership in "God's People" the members of minority faiths, who are therefore strongly motivated to be more tolerant than are those people in the majority faith. Buddhism tended to be the least religious of the religions, because Buddhism is actually a cross between a philosophy and a religion.

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Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of  They're Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010,  and of  CHRIST'S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that (more...)
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