portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary global

political theory

Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition - A Summary

In May of this year a group of psychology researchers released a paper which caused a stir, titled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition", which sought to synthesize years of research into conservatism and the right wing phenomena. The paper is lengthy, and some of the terminology is difficult, and so I thought it might be good to post a summary of some of the interesting points it raised.

Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition

In May of this year a group of psychology researchers released a paper which caused a stir, titled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition". Because some government grants were involved in funding the research, conservatives, who now control both the United States Congress and Senate took a sudden, and rather unfriendly, interest in the paper. It would seem that they did not particularly care for the results of the research, and certain threatening sounds were made about preventing further 'waste of government money' to fund research into the conservative mindset. The study was 'biased' against conservatives they insisted.

The paper is on line as an Adobe PDF document -> Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition PDF 600 KB ... and there is also a Google HTML cache version of the document online here -> Google Cache

The researchers set as their goal the synthesis of many previous methodologies of research in the hopes of coming up with a broad definition and analysis of Conservative thought and behavior.

Many different theoretical accounts of conservatism have stressed the motivational underpinnings of conservative thought, but they have identified different needs as critical. Our review brings these diverse accounts together for the first time and integrates them. Specific variables that have been hypothesized to predict conservatism include fear and aggression (Adorno et al., 1950; Altemeyer, 1998), intolerance of ambiguity (Fibert & Ressler, 1998; Frenkel-Brunswik, 1949), rule following and negative affect (Tomkins, 1963, 1965), uncertainty avoidance (Sorrentino & Roney, 1986; Wilson, 1973b), need for cognitive closure (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996), personal need for structure (Altemeyer, 1998; Schaller, Boyd, Yohannes, & O'Brien, 1995; Smith & Gordon, 1998), need for prevention-oriented regulatory focus (Higgins, 1997; Liberman et al., 1999), anxiety arising from mortality salience (Greenberg et al., 1990, 1992), group-based dominance (Pratto et al., 1994; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), and system justification tendencies (Jost & Banaji, 1994; Jost, Burgess, & Mosso, 2001). In what follows, we summarize major theoretical perspectives and use them to generate a comprehensive list of motives that are potential predictors of political conservatism. We first describe the theories and then, because many of them postulate similar motives, we review the cumulative evidence for and against each of the motives all at once.

Definitions of Conservatism

One of the interesting aspects of the paper is the separation that is postulated to exist between what the researchers refer to as 'the stable definitional core' of Conservatism, and certain peripheral issues that change with historical circumstances. These peripheral issues change as times change so that a conservative might be radically opposed to such things as school bussing at one point in history, while bussing might be a non-issue for other generations of conservatives. Under certain circumstances one generation of conservatives might be vehemently opposed to a certain phenomena and once the phenomena becomes an accepted part of society a new generation of conservatives will be just as vehemently opposed to any type of change to the same established phenomena. For this reason the researchers ignore these culturally specific manifestations of conservative behavior that change as times change and focus their attention on what they refer to as the 'stable definitional core'...

We argue that political conservatism, like many other complex social representations, has both a stable definitional core and a set of more malleable, historically changing peripheral associations (what Huntington, 1957, referred to as secondary issues). It is the ideological core of political conservatism (more than its peripheral aspects) that we hypothesize to be linked to specific social, cognitive, and motivational needs.

When secondary issues are separated from the ideological core of conservatism, there is revealed a core ideology of resistance to change in society, which seems to transcend changing times and define the core mind set of conservatism.

Conservatism in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences as "an attitude of opposition to disruptive change in the social, economic, legal, religious, political, or cultural order" (p. 291).3 He added, "The distinguishing mark of this conservatism, as indeed it is of any brand of conservatism, is the fear of change."

Dictionary definitions of conservatism stress "the disposition and tendency to preserve what is established; opposition to change" (Neilson, 1958, p. 568) and "the disposition in politics to maintain the existing order."

This resistance to change transcends transitory issues that arouse resistance to change by Conservatives. There is,

a relatively stable ideological core of conservatism comprised of resistance to change and acceptance of inequality (e.g., Giddens, 1998; Huntington, 1957; Mannheim, 1927/1986; Rossiter, 1968) and more ideologically peripheral issues (such as school busing or gun control) that are likely to vary considerably in their ideological relevance across time. Because the conservative core may be grounded in powerful and relatively stable individual needs, it may persist as a deep personality structure.

The surface manifestations of conservative behavior may change over time, for example displaying itself as vociferous opposition to school busing, during that time when school busing represents a change in the social order, with that issue moving off the center stage to be replaced by resistance to some other form of change once school busing has become a fact and a new generation of conservatives familiar with the practice come on the scene.

In addition to resistance to change, the authors identify acceptance of social inequality as one of the stable ideological core values of conservatism.

Muller's (2001) definition of conservatism similarly stresses resistance to change (as well as belief in the legitimacy of inequality). He observed: "For conservatives, the historical survival of an institution or practice?be it marriage, monarchy, or the market?creates a prima facie case that it has served some need" (p. 2625). That is, what conservatives share is a tendency to rationalize existing institutions, especially those that maintain hierarchical authority.

Due to the fact that human society has been patriarchal and hierarchical for ages past, the authors make a connection between the resistance to change and the acceptance of social inequality, since to historically to resist change means to preserve the status quo with all its inequalities, therefore it is one of the characteristics of conservative thought to seek to justify both inequality and the status quo.

The two core aspects of conservatism are generally psychologically related to one another for most of the people most of the time (Muller, 2001). In part, this is because of the historical fact that traditional social arrangements have generally been more hierarchical and less egalitarian compared with nontraditional arrangements. Therefore, to resist change in general has often meant resisting increased efforts at egalitarianism; conversely, to preserve the status quo has typically entailed entrusting the present and future to the same authorities who have controlled the past. Accordingly, several common measures of political conservatism include items gauging both resistance to change and endorsement of inequality.

Conservatives, in particular the religious right, can often be heard to call out for 'change in society' but for the most part this is a call to roll back the clock, and consists of undoing any changes made in recent times. Among such conservatives,

what appears to be a desire for change is really "an imaginatively transfigured conception of the past with which to criticize the present" (Muller, 2001, p. 2625). There are also cases of left-wing ideologues who, once they are in power, steadfastly resist change, allegedly in the name of egalitarianism, such as Stalin or Khrushchev or Castro (see J. Martin, Scully, & Levitt, 1990). It is reasonable to suggest that some of these historical figures may be considered politically conservative, at least in the context of the systems they defended.

Authoritarianism and RWA theory

The authors investigate a variety of previous studies of conservatism. Those who scored high on the theoretical construct being measured were found to also have a high degree of correlation with various expressions of conservatism in society (supporting Republicans, the death penalty, against equality for women). While the studies they integrate into their research all have been considered valid in their own way because of the high degree of correlation between their results and predictions of conservatism, they all have their individual strengths and weaknesses and the authors of this paper hope that by integrating them in one study a much broader and more precise definition of conservatism might emerge.

One of the methodologies they study is RWA, which focuses on measuring the correlation between authoritarianism and consequent expressions of conservatism in politics and society. The theoretical side of RWA attempts to explain the origins and social persistence of this authoritarianism by attributing it to parenting styles. According to RWA, harsh parenting styles,

led entire generations to repress hostility toward authority figures and to replace it with an exaggerated deference and idealization of authority and tendencies to blame societal scapegoats and punish deviants (see also Reich, 1946/1970). The theory of authoritarianism holds that fear and aggressiveness resulting from parental punitiveness motivate individuals to seek predictability and control in their environments. Authoritarian attitudes, which may be elicited by situational threats, combine an anxious veneration of authority and convention with a vindictiveness toward subordinates and deviants.

RWA is characterized by (a) "a high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate"; (b) "a general aggressiveness, directed against various persons, which is perceived to be sanctioned by established authorities"; and (c) "a high degree of adherence to the social conventions which are perceived to be endorsed by society" (p. 148). This reconceptualization, which combines resistance to change and endorsement of inequality, is consistent with two newly emerging theories, social dominance theory (Pratto et al., 1994; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999) and system justification theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994; Jost et al., 2003)

Scores on the RWA Scale have been found to predict a broad range of attitudes and behaviors related to social, economic, and political conservatism as defined in the general culture at the time. For instance, the scale has correlated reliably with political party affiliation; reactions to Watergate; pro-capitalist attitudes; severity of jury sentencing decisions; punishment of deviants; racial prejudice; homophobia; religious orthodoxy; victim blaming; and acceptance of covert governmental activities such as illegal bugging, political harassment, denial of the right to assemble, and illegal drug raids (Altemeyer, 1981, 1988, 1996, 1998). Peterson et al. (1993) reported correlational evidence linking authoritarianism to a wide variety of conservative attitudes, including opposition to environmentalism, abortion rights, diversity on university campuses, and services for AIDS patients and homeless people.

High RWA lawmakers also score higher in prejudice, and wish they could pass laws limiting the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of assembly, and other freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. They want to impose strict limitations on abortion, they favor capital punishment, and they oppose tougher gun control laws. Finally, politicians answer the RWA Scale with such extraordinary levels of internal consistency, it appears the scale provides our most powerful measure of the liberal-conservative dimension in politics.

Thus, a relatively strong relation has been established between RWA and political conservatism among political elites as well as the masses.

Some have found weaknesses in the theoretical underpinnings of RWA theory and its focus on the family and authoritarian parents as the theoretical source of this personality trait, since it is possible that people can adopt authoritarian behavior during threatening times, such as war, when such behavior becomes more wide spread and pronounced in societies. Whatever the source the results are usually quite negative, in particular for those who are seen as defying authority or living lifestyles deemed to be unauthorized, and thus illegal.

Authoritarian attitudes, which may be elicited by situational threats, combine an anxious veneration of authority and convention with a vindictiveness toward subordinates and deviants

(There are) two main directions in which extremely conservative and authoritarian attitudes may lead. First, they may lead to an actively hostile or dominant approach to dealing with socially sanctioned scapegoats and devalued out-groups, which is also the primary focus of social dominance theory (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999; Whitley, 1999). Second, RWA may lead to a more passively submissive or deferential posture toward authorities, which would make its subscribers ideal candidates to follow the next Hitler or Mussolini (Altemeyer, 1998; Fromm, 1941; Reich, 1946/1970). Thus, extreme right-wing attitudes "lock" people into a "dominance submissive authoritarian embrace".

Intolerance of Ambiguity

Intolerance of doubt or ambiguity is another measured trait that has been found to strongly correlate with subsequent predictions of conservative thought and behavior. Dislike of uncertainty leads to dichotomous thinking styles (good and evil, black and white types of stereotyping of both people and issues, denial of complexity, and intolerance for any idea that there is no absolutes in terms of dealing with social issues).

Intolerance of ambiguity constituted a general personality variable that related positively to prejudice as well as to more general social and cognitive variables. Individuals who are intolerant of ambiguity are significantly more often given to dichotomous conceptions of the sex roles, of the parent-child relationship, and of interpersonal relationships in general. They are less permissive and lean toward rigid categorization of cultural norms. Power-weakness, cleanliness- dirtiness, morality-immorality, conformance-divergence are the dimensions through which people are seen. . . . There is sensitivity against qualified as contrasted with unqualified statements and against perceptual ambiguity; a disinclination to think in terms of probability.

Intolerance of ambiguity has been defined as

"the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as sources of threat" (p. 29). Intolerance of ambiguity, by increasing cognitive and motivational tendencies to seek certainty, is hypothesized to lead people to cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic cliche?s and stereotypes.

The consequences of this tendency towards intolerance lead to dogmatically sticking with a single solution, disregarding all contrary evidence that might introduce ambiguity, or any of those troubling shades of grey, and a tendency to think in terms of 'good and evil' (much as people are sorted into rigid catagories such as 'saved and unsaved' or 'saint or sinner' by the religious right), and a tendency to jump to conclusions before sufficient evidence has been accumulated and then rigidly stick with a half thought out solution through thick and thin, while remaining closed to new experience or ideas. The researchers describe the consequences of such rigidity in thinking as,

Resistance to reversal of apparent fluctuating stimuli, the early selection and maintenance of one solution in a perceptually ambiguous situation, inability to allow for the possibility of good and bad traits in the same person, acceptance of attitude statements representing a rigid, black-white view of life, seeking for certainty, a rigid dichotomizing into fixed categories, premature closure, and remaining closed to familiar characteristics of stimuli.

Mental Rigidity, Dogmatism, and Closed-Mindedness

Dogmatism has also been found to correlate strongly with conservatism (and as the list grows here you can begin to understand why those congressional representatives and Senators were so peed off by this study).

Dogmatism is postulated to be related to both fear of the unknown and the uncertain and also as satisfying the need to know, the need for 'cognitive closure'. However it is often the case that this cognitive closure is artificially and prematurely imposed. (One classic example is the belief, common to the religious right, that a contradictory and inconsistent book like the bible is 'infallible and the Unerring Word of God'.) Dogmatism can thus be seen as a kind of artificial attempt to complete and then maintain cognitive closure, both to satisfy 'the need to know' and also to avoid fear which might be aroused by uncertainty. However dogmatism can lead to,

double think, which was defined as susceptibility to logically contradictory beliefs and denial of contradictions in one's belief system, as well as a narrow future orientation and a strong orientation toward authority.

Such stubbornness can lead to an artificial sense of completeness, of knowing, of certainty, and cognitive closure, but only that price of developing an intolerant and dogmatic mind set that can somehow hold inconsistent ideas in some kind of tension in the same mind.

"Frenkel-Brunswik (1949, 1951) developed further the theory of ambiguity intolerance and elaborated the antecedent conditions of if the closed or dogmatic mind is extremely resistant to change, it may be so not only because it allays anxiety but also because it satisfies the need to know"

Thus theories of this sort seeks to combine both cognitive and motivational needs in explaining ideological rigidity and dogmatism.

Polarity theory attempts to explain dogmatism and the orientation to conservatism by contrasting certain thinking patterns (ideo-affective postures) that resonate either with those who orient to the left or those who orient to the right.

According to polarity theory, there exist generalized orientations (or ideo-affective postures) toward the world that may be regarded as belonging either to the ideological left or to the right, and they are associated with liberty and humanism in the first case and rule following and normative concerns in the second. Those who resonate with left-wing ideologies believe that people are basically good and that the purpose of society is to facilitate human growth and experience. By contrast, those who resonate with right-wing ideologies believe that people are essentially bad and that the function of society is to set rules and limits to prevent irresponsible behavior.

Like RWA theory, polarity theory postulates that these differing 'ideo-affective postures' are acquired in childhood and via parenting methods, and that,

"this occurs through the acquisition of personal scripts, a term that refers to affectively charged memories of social situations involving the self and important others "

Like RWA, scores on the polarity scale have been found to correlate with both dogmatism and rule following, and consequently with conservatism in society and politics. The theory,

used a 59-item Polarity Scale Items tapping the right-wing or normative orientation include the following: "Children should be taught to obey what is right even though they may not always feel like it" and "If I break the law I should be punished for the good of society." Scores on the Polarity Scale have been found to predict reactions to presidential assassinations (Tomkins, 1995); preferences for individualistic versus sociotropic values (Carlson & Levy, 1970; de St. Aubin, 1996); attitudes toward war and peace (Eckhardt & Alcock, 1970); assumptions concerning human nature, religiosity, and political orientation its suggestion that a disproportionate number of conservatives are driven by a motivation to establish and follow rules and norms in a wide variety of domains inside and outside of politics.

Being a "compassionate conservative' is relatively new novelty in conservative thought, and traditionally those who score high on the conservative side of the polarity scale tend to not identify themselves with such terms as 'compassion'. This brings to mind Bush's speech to rally the troops for the recent Iraq war. When Bush used aggressive phrases such as 'when you get to the Gulf you will show them that Jack is Back' there were huge cheers, as there were for every expression of aggression (the speech was to the military from Jacksonville - hence they were about to show Iraq that 'Jack was Back'). However when Bush then changed course and started to talk the compassionate conservative talk, and he thanked the military for their love, and for showing such compassion in their communities, there was this really long awkward pause and no cheers at all, since those who score high for conservatism on the Polarity scale do not identify with such language.

In a study of emotional reactions to welfare recipients, Williams (1984) found that people who were classified as conservatives on the basis of scores on Tomkins's (1964/1988) Polarity Scale expressed greater disgust and less sympathy than did their liberal counterparts. A study of high school students also indicated that political conservatives were less likely than liberals to describe themselves as "sympathetic," and conservative boys (but not girls) were less likely to describe themselves as "loving," "tender," and "mellow" (Eisenberg-Berg & Mussen, 1980).

Other theories attempt to explain dogmatism and conservatism in general as being a fear management response. According to these theories, dogmatism brings a type of relief from fear caused by uncertainty or the unknown, since,

the common basis for all the various components of the conservative attitude syndrome is a generalized susceptibility to experiencing threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty.

(There are) different sources of threat or uncertainty, including death, anarchy, foreigners, dissent, complexity, novelty, ambiguity, and social change. Conservative attitudinal responses to these sources of uncertainty include superstition, religious dogmatism, ethnocentrism, militarism, authoritarianism, punitiveness, conventionality, and rigid morality.

F ear then leads to dogmatism, as the attempt to achieve cognitive closure leads to a desperate search for any 'firm belief' that can bring certainty and safety in the midst of a confusing world.

A central motivational construct in the theory of lay epistemics is the need for cognitive closure, which refers to the expedient desire for any firm belief on a given topic, as opposed to confusion and uncertainty. stronger relation between need for closure and conservatism ....

benefits of possessing cognitive closure include the potential affordance of predictability and the guidance of action. Consistent with the notion that situations lead people to seek out nonspecific closure, Dittes (1961) found that failure-induced threat caused research participants to reach "impulsive closure" on an ambiguous task....

T he consequence of this need for closure, even in ambiguous situations that do not lend themselves to simplistic black and white stereotyping, is dogmatism, and dogmatism in its turn leads to bigotry, an unchanging world view, a tendency to jump to a conclusion and then stick with it (primacy effects in impression formation), to use past stereotypes to label new situations (correspondence in attitude attribution), and to stubbornly resist new evidence and reject anyone with a different opinion.

The need for closure has been found to produce the same consequences. Specifically, it fosters the tendency to seize on information that affords closure and to freeze on closure once it has been attained ... it has been associated with tendencies to engage in social stereotyping (Kruglanski & Freund, 1983), to succumb to primacy effects in impression formation (Kruglanski & Freund, 1983; D. M. Webster & Kruglanski, 1994), to exhibit correspondence bias in attitude attribution (D. M. Webster, 1993), to resist persuasive influence (Kruglanski, Webster, & Klem, 1993), and to reject opinion deviates.

Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory attempts to explain why people often become more conservative during times of war, and other times of social catastrophe that seem to bring out an extremely conservative response in society at large. In particular, dissidents are usually more ruthlessly punished during times of war, than during peace times, as a ruthless intolerance for dissenting opinion becomes more common.

Terror management theory holds that cultural worldviews or systems of meaning (e.g., religion) provide people with the means to transcend death, if only symbolically...Fear of death, in turn, engenders a defense of one's cultural worldview (which) will be more heavily endorsed to buffer the resulting anxiety ... defense and justification of the worldview should be intensified, thereby decreasing tolerance of opposing views and social, cultural, and political alternatives ... people appear to behave more conservatively by shunning and even punishing outsiders and those who threaten the status of cherished worldviews.

(Fear of death) has also been shown to evoke greater punitiveness, and even aggression, toward those who violate cultural values. In one especially memorable study with relevance for political conservatism (Rosenblatt et al., 1989), municipal judges were found to set significantly higher bond assessments for prostitutes following a mortality salience manipulation (M $455) as compared with a control condition (M $50).

What they mean here is that if you are a prosecutor and you want to throw the book at a sex worker you should talk lots about AIDs to the judge (mortality salience manipulation) and the judge will then become more punitive, since manipulation of the fear of death always results in more conservative behavior.

Political conservatives' heightened affinities for tradition, law and order, and strict forms of parental and legal punishment (including the death penalty) are partially related to feelings of fear and threat.

Social Dominance Theory

Social dominance theory holds that,

human societies strive to minimize group conflict by developing ideological belief systems that justify the hegemony of some groups over others.

This is achieved through the promulgation of various "legitimizing myths" such as the following: (a) "paternalistic myths," which assert that dominant groups are needed to lead and take care of subordinate groups, who are incapable of leading and taking care of themselves; (b) "reciprocal myths," which claim that a symbiotic relationship exists between dominant and subordinate groups and that both groups help each other; and (c) "sacred myths," which allege that positions of dominance and subordination are determined by God or some other divine right (see Sidanius, 1993, pp. 207-209). Ideological devices such as these are inherently conservative in content because they seek to preserve existing hierarchies of status, power, and wealth and to prevent qualitative social change (e.g., Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Items from the SDO Scale tap agreement or disagreement with statements such as the following: "Some people are just more worthy than others"; "It is not a problem if some people have more of a chance in life"; and "This country would be better off if we cared less about how equal all people are."

Scores on the scale have been found also to correlate reliably with identification with the Republican party, nationalism, cultural elitism, anti-Black racism, sexism, RWA, and the belief in a just world (Altemeyer, 1998; Pratto et al., 1994). The scale predicts policy attitudes that are supportive of "law and order," military spending, and capital punishment, as well as attitudes that are unsupportive of women's rights, racial equality, affirmative action, gay and lesbian rights, and environmental action (see Jost & Thompson, 2000; Pratto et al., 1994).

T he researchers note that there is a relationship between high RWA (Right Wing Authoritarian) individuals, who have an idealized conceptualization of authority figures, and high SDO individuals, who typically would prefer to be the authorities themselves, and who feed these justifying mythologies to RWA types, who are ready to accept them.

Right-wing authoritarians, who do not score high on [personal power, meanness, and dominance], seem to be highly prejudiced mainly because they were raised to travel in tight, ethnocentric circles; and they fear that authority and conventions are crumbling so quickly that civilization will collapse and they will be eaten in the resulting jungle. In contrast, High SDO's already see life as "dog eat dog" and? compared with most people?are determined to do the eating.

High RWA's are scared. They see the world as a dangerous place, as society teeters on the brink of self-destruction from evil and violence. This fear appears to instigate aggression in them. Second, right-wing authoritarians tend to be highly self-righteous. They think themselves much more moral and upstanding than others?a self perception considerably aided by self-deception, their religious training, and some very efficient guilt evaporators (such as going to confession). This self-righteousness disinhibits their aggressiveness.

An inventive research program on the dream lives of liberals and conservatives in the United States found that Republicans reported three times as many nightmares as did Democrats (Bulkeley, 2001). This work, although speculative, suggests that fear, danger, threat, and aggression may figure more prominently in the unconscious motivations of conservatives than liberals.

"Conservatives know the world is a dark and forbidding place where most new knowledge is false, most improvements are for the worse" George Will

Together, (RWA and SDO) account for both halves of the "dominance submissive authoritarian embrace" ... the most inexorable right-wingers are those who are motivated simultaneously by fear and aggression.

Ateam of researchers found that high authoritarians were moved significantly more by threatening messages than by reward messages, whereas low authoritarians were marginally more influenced by the reward message than the threat message. Furthermore, these persuasive effects were found to carry over into behavioral intentions and actual voting behaviors.

Stressing losses rather than gains to evoke a prevention (vs. promotion) focus, was found to be associated with relatively low cognitive complexity, high mental rigidity, a narrowing of decision-making alternatives, and conservative and repetitive response styles, as well as with inabilities to complete multifaceted tasks and to rebound from failure. Liberman et al. (1999) found that individuals in a prevention focus, whether assessed as an individual-difference dimension or induced situationally through framing manipulations, were less inclined to switch to a new, substitute task and more likely to return to an old, interrupted task.

System Justification Theory

System justification theory refers to "Group-justifying and system-justifying motives that are satisfied in a particularly efficient manner by right-wing ideologies."

System justification theory attempts to explain why low status individuals will work so loyally to protect and preserve the status and interests of high ranking individuals, even when this means perpetuating social inequality to the benefit of a small few. The theory,

Stresses the emergence of conservative legitimizing myths as group-justifying attempts to rationalize the interests of dominant or high-status group members ... System justification theory focuses on the motivated tendency for people to do cognitive and ideological work on behalf of the social system, thereby perpetuating the status quo and preserving inequality ...

P eople are motivated to engage in this kind of behavior through the employment of mythology which justifies the system, which they then buy into since it satisfies certain motivations they have to perceive the world as sensible and well ordered and just. For example people may work to further the interests of 'the market economy', even despite its deleterious effects on poorer nations and the enviroment, etc., on the grounds that 'the market works' or through rationalizing mythology which teaches that the multinational corporate agenda is merely an expression of the most basic human nature and thus inevitable and irresistible.

Through such social justifying mythologies,

People are motivated to perceive existing social arrangements as fair, legitimate, justifiable, and rational, and perhaps even natural and inevitable ...(it) is especially well suited to address relatively puzzling cases of conservatism and right-wing allegiance among members of low-status groups, such as women and members of the working class ... those who suffer the most because of the system are also those who would have the most to explain, justify, and rationalize. One way to minimize dissonance would be to redouble one's commitment and support for the system, much as hazed initiates pledge increased loyalty to the fraternity that hazes them ... situations of crisis or instability in society will, generally speaking, precipitate conservative, system-justifying shifts to the political right.

Threat to the Stability of the Social System

Another theory which purports to explain the wide spread acceptance of conservatism at certain times in history, is that of threats to the system, however the correlation here is not always as strong, and it obvious that other factors must come into play if a threat to the social system is to benefit far right ideologues.

As the German economy fell precipitously between 1929 and 1932, the number of votes for the Nazi party rose from 800,000 to 17 million. History suggests that people do not always move to the political right under conditions of crisis; in the United States, the same economic depression resulted in a significant left-wing movement led by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nevertheless, the possibility remains that a threat to the stability of the social system, such as that felt in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, may increase right-wing conservatism, at least under certain circumstances.

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the New York Times has reported significant increases in right-wing populism in the following countries, among others: Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, and Portugal (Cowell, 2002; Gordon, 2002; Judt, 2002; Krugman, 2002). Conservative or right-wing parties were already on the rise in Italy, Austria, and the United States.

During system-threatening times, presidential candidates who were rated as high on power motivation, forcefulness, and strength were elected by larger margins of victory than during nonthreatening times. For nine tests of the hypothesis, all conducted with data from the United States but from different historical time periods, we found reasonably strong support for the notion that threats to the stability of the social system increase politically conservative choices, decisions, and judgments (weighted mean r .47, p .0001). As Huntington (1957) wrote, "When the foundations of society are threatened, the conservative ideology reminds men of the necessity of some institutions and desirability of the existing ones"


For the better part of the first part of their research paper, the authors focus on the various theories of conservatism, and during the latter part of the paper they then attempt a synthesis of the various approaches. The previous studies all tended to analyze conservatism based on three separate types of motivations, Epistemic, Existential, and Ideological Motives.

They list eight elements that fit into any one of these three categories...

We consider evidence for and against the hypotheses that political conservatism is significantly associated with (1) mental rigidity and closed-mindedness, including (a) increased dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, (b) decreased cognitive complexity, (c) decreased openness to experience, (d) uncertainty avoidance, (e) personal needs for order and structure, and (f) need for cognitive closure; (2) lowered self-esteem; (3) fear, anger, and aggression; (4) pessimism, disgust, and contempt; (5) loss prevention; (6) fear of death; (7) threat arising from social and economic deprivation; and (8) threat to the stability of the social system.

We have argued that these motives are in fact related to one another psychologically, and our motivated social-cognitive perspective helps to integrate them. We now offer an integrative, meta-analytic review of research on epistemic, existential, and ideological bases of conservatism.

The remainder of the paper is devoted to justifying the hypotheses by presenting and discussing data sets, presented as large tables of data which represent research results, and thus any reader interested in the discussion of the hypotheses and the integration of the research results is best directed to the actual paper itself. As you can tell by that list of eight items above, the Republicans in congress were not to pleased with the results of their research and the conclusions that they drew based on the analytical data sets. Let's just say it is not exactly a flattering list, to say the least, but science is based on data, and what the research indicates is that correlations do in fact exist between scoring high on such things and also identifying with conservatism and the right wing.

In their paper the authors point out that much more research has been done in this century on right wing extremism than has been the case of left wing extremism, and so they conclude that some of their conclusions might be conditional on more research in this neglected area being done. One of the reasons why right wing extremism has been so heavily studied is the fact that this century has been convulsed so violently by right wing extremism, notable examples being Hitler and Mussolini, and the kind of national extremism that resulted in such bloody conflicts as World War One. These great disasters led to great interest in studying conservatism and the right wing in general since there is an obvious correlation manifestations of conservatism and the potentiality for just this kind of destructive right wing extremism that was one of the tragedies of the previous century...While angered Republicans in Congress might raise a hue and cry about 'bias' and 'unfair criticism of conservatism and the right wing' it is a fact that right wing extremism was one of the most damaging movements of the last century, not just in loss of life (Nazism, and third world right wing despotism) but also in ruin of lives (McCarthyism) and it is for this reason that so much attention has been focused on studying and understanding right wing tendencies (not just simply a desire to express a bias).

The disadvantaged might embrace right-wing ideologies under some circumstances to reduce fear, anxiety, dissonance, uncertainty, or instability (e.g., Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003; Lane, 1962; Nias, 1973), whereas the advantaged might gravitate toward conservatism for reasons of self-interest or social dominance

We thus see in the case of fascism that ideological content and structure support each other. There is no incompatibility between them and thus psychological conflict is not engendered or guilt feelings aroused. For this reason, authoritarian ideological structures may be psychologically more reconcilable?more easily "attachable" ?to ideologies that are antidemocratic than to those that are democratic in content. If a person's underlying motivations are served by forming a closed belief system, then it is more than likely that his motivations can also be served by embracing an ideology that is blatantly anti-equalitarian. If this is so, it would account for the somewhat greater affinity we have observed between authoritarian belief structure and conservatism than between the same belief structure and liberalism. (p. 127)

Extremely conservative and authoritarian attitudes may lead ... to an actively hostile or dominant approach to dealing with socially sanctioned scapegoats and devalued out-groups (and) may lead to a more passively submissive or deferential posture toward authorities, which would make its subscribers ideal candidates to follow the next Hitler or Mussolini. Thus, extreme right-wing attitudes "lock" people into a "dominance submissive authoritarian embrace".


dialog with conservatives 28.Aug.2003 23:40

b herbert

Someone posted a comment on another site which attempted to differentitate between 'true conservatives' and 'right wing extremism' to advocate 'principled dialog' between left and right in resisting the extremism. These conservatives it was suggested do not fit the definitions given above...

It is important to realize that there are ranges of response, and everyone who identifies as a 'conservative' according to standard 'dictionary' definitions is not then a 'Nazi'.

However one of the points made in the original article is that none of these theories 'explain' the right wing phenomena in isolation and thus the researchers aim for a a synthesis since each in isolation is subject to criticism (such as the above).

Now as for the various forms of fascism you list above, it would seem to be the case that these are in fact manifestations of extreme 'conservatism' although they do not seem to fit the standard dictionary definitions.

For example, such ideologues as Reagan and his right wing supporters saw themselves as 'rolling back the clock' by undoing 'New Deal' social policies. IN this way the country could return to an idealized conception of the past (in truth, unregulated robber baron capitalism). This type of 'disruptive change' seems to contradict standard dictionary defitnitions of conservatism, yet the change being resisted in this case was 'liberal or left wing' changes to the system that took place decades previously.

Similarly 'neo-liberalism' seems to be best explained using Social Dominance theory and System Justifying theory, which attempts to initiate change to the benefit of certain elite groups at the expense of those at the bottom through the promulgation of mythologies. Naturally in the service of 'restoring' society to its pristine condition, and undoing the 'New Deal' change is taking place, even disruptive change, but once again this psuedo-change and revolution in society actually represents both an idealized return to the 'free enterprise system' of the past, which the mythology suggests was 'shackled' and ';corrupted' by 'unnatural' New Deal politics as well as remaking society in the service of the underlying mythology (which in its broadest sense describes the type of competitive, even dog eat dog capitalism we see practiced in its service as 'natural to human nature'...as well it is suggested that dog eat dog capitalism is a 'great engine for growth' and that the whole planet is being held in a backwards state due to the constraints of these hated 'New Deal' policies...here we can clearly see the Social Dominance and system justifying aspects of the mythology being expressed, since the truth of the matter is that the greatest period of economic growth in history took place in the decades after the second world war, when these supposedly hostile 'New Deal' policies were supposedly 'stifling progress'.)

Right Wing tendencies can be expressed in the form of disruptive change, but typically this consists of making 'changes' which roll back the clock, and undermine previous gains, with the Social Dominance and System Justifying myths serving to prop up the ideology and justify the disruptions. IN this case the right wing does not 'fear changes' that they themselves are instituting but rather the changes they hate are those policies they are attempting to destroy, which become the objects of their aversion to change, even when these policies have been in place for decades, which was the case in the Reagan era. Right wing activism had targetted 'New Deal' social policies and regulations for decades before finally achieving success in dismantling these hated 'changes' and much mythology was in service and remains in service which attempts to make those who are going to suffer the most from these activities into active supporters of policies not in their own best interests.

One of the things that makes 'principled dialogue with true conservatives' difficult is the fact that the two core ideologies that define conservatism are identified as 'resistance to change' (which should make conservatives unhappy with 'globalization' which brings disruptive changes, but which is actually a form of right wing extremism which looks to the idealized past when 'free enterprise' was truly 'free') and also the 'justification of inequality'.

While true conservatives might not be right wing extremists and thus likely to find common ground on certain issues of 'anti-globalization' they also tend to justify inequality, and this would seem to be true for less extreme conservatives and right wing ideologues and this type of thinking style makes 'principled dialogue' difficult since one of the core values of this kind of 'leftism' (which resulted in the 'New Deal' and various other current manifestations of liberalism and leftism today) is the focus on achieving greater equality in society.

Thank you! 31.Aug.2003 20:25

Dr. Evil

I'm so thankful that you are spending your time writing worthless shit like this. It means you don't have time to do anything