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Political Conservatives Tend to Black-White Thinking

"The political conservative is characterized by his relation to uncertainty and fear that he seeks to avert by fleeing into order. Rwesistance to changes and tolerance for inequalities are central. The conservative tends to dgomatism, allows no ambivalences, avoids uncertainties, needs `cognitive closure' and carries out `terror management'. The latter can be seen in post 9/11 America.." Translated from German
Political Conservatives Tend to Black-White Thinking

A study of American researchers on conservatives financed with research funds doesn't go down well in the White House

By Florian Rotzer

[This article originally published in the German cyber journal Telepolis is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.telepolis.de/deutsch/inhalt/co/15432/1.html.]

Seldom has an article by social scientists received more attention in political circles. Four American psychologists financed by research grants accomplished this in drawing a profile of political conservatives. The conservatives are in power. President George W. Bush obviously serves the scholars as a classic example of a conservative.

The article "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" was published in the May edition of the journal Psychological Bulletin [1] (2003, Vol.129, No.3, 339-375) of the American Psychological Association (APA). In a footnote, the authors Jack Glaser (University of California), Frank Sulloway (University of California at Berkeley), John Jost (Stanford University) and Aric Kluglanski (University of Maryland) noted their study was supported by research funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH). This enraged angry conservatives. The White House found out that three of the four researchers received altogether $1.2 million for the investigation of political conservatism.

For their study, the researchers sought common models in over 20,000 cases from articles, books and conference reports. The material originated from 12 countries and included speeches and interviews of judges, decisions of judges and conclusions of surveys and experiments. The result is a description of well-known personality features of the authoritarian character.

Hitler, Mussolini and Reagan

The political conservative is characterized by his relation to "uncertainty and fear" that he seeks to avert by fleeing into order. Resistance to changes and tolerance for inequalities are central. The conservative tends to dogmatism, allows no ambivalences, avoids uncertainties, needs "cognitive closure" and carries out "terror management". The latter can be seen in post-9/11 America where many people would outlaw or punish "outsiders and persons who threaten the status of their beloved worldviews". Conservatives incline to prevention out of fear of death.

Relation to fear is connected with maintenance of inequality. This is clear in India's caste system, in the former apartheid system in South Africa and in the racial separation policy of American politicians like Strom Thurmond. Different conservatives adopt rejection of change and acceptance of inequality. Alongside Hitler and Mussolini, Ronald Reagan can be named here, the hero of the neoconservatives in the government who gained their political orientation from the Reagan time. Conservatives preach a return to an idealized past. The connection between resistance to change and acceptance of inequality is historically conditioned since social change as a rule means overthrowing hierarchies.

Conservatives tend to a simplified worldview

All people tend to resist changes. However liberals have a greater acceptance of change than conservatives even though leftists like Stalin also oppose any change when they are in power. Conservative ideologies arise on account of psychological needs. This doesn't mean "that conservatism is pathological or that conservative ideas are necessarily false, irrational or unjustified". Resistance to ambivalence, the authors write, can lead people to cling to the family, to come to hasty conclusions or to be susceptible to stereotypes and clichés. That the Bush administration holds fast to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq despite doubts is ascribed to "cognitive closure" by Jack Glaser, one of the authors.

The conservative worldview, the authors are convinced, finds fertile human soil in times of crisis and instability. While people from the lower class are attracted to conservatism to cope with fear and uncertainty, self-interest and preservation of power are vital in the higher social classes. Conservatives are cognitively less "integratively complex" than other people. This doesn't mean that they are simply intellectually impaired. The authors say conservatives don't need to go through complex intellectual trains of thought to justify their positions: "It is enough for them to see and describe things in black and white forcing liberals to shudder with horror."

The way to the US president is not far. The Bush doctrine consists in the model that one is either for or against the US. There is nothing in between. Glaser quotes a Bush statement from 2001: "I know what I believe and I believe what I regard as right." In the university press conference [3] on publication of the study, Glaser tried to dismiss the suspicion that the study was one-sided. This was a little half-hearted. There is simply more information about conservatism than liberalism. This is not entirely incomprehensible because science presupposes openness and falsifiability which aren't conservative virtues. That's why the number of conservative (social) scientists could be few. Conservatives don't need complicated explanations but already know what is central.

The study obviously didn't make conservatives happy [4]. Waste of tax funds was denounced in the conservative National Review: The "Conservatives Are Crazy" Study: Paid For by Taxpayers [5]. The republican representative Tom Feeney from Florida angrily urged that taxpayers not pay for the "analysis of such absurd hypotheses for political goals".

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Adorno Did it First 25.Aug.2003 11:23


Theodor Adorno's "The Authoritarian Personality" covers all of these bases and in much more depth of course, since it is a book, check it out.

But Altemeyer did it better 08.Sep.2003 19:45

Out of state reader

The early work by Adorno was a somewhat ungraceful start. For several years now, Dr. Robert Altemeyer (University of Manitoba) has published a series of books with a similar theme. His most recent books on right-wing authoritarianism are "Enemies of Freedom" and "The Authoritarian Specter". Dr. Altemeyer was awarded the AAAS Behavioral Science Research Prize. Here's a link about one of his books...