April 5, 2017

The Psychology of Conservatism and Liberalism

CDS_W2Political psychologists, true to their name, explore the intersection between psychology and political science. That’s precisely what John Jost, a Professor of Psychology and Politics, Co-Director of NYU’s Center for Social and Political Behavior, and affiliated faculty member at CDS investigates in his work.

Earlier this year, Jost, along with Joanna Sterling, Chadly Stern, and Nick Rule, released two quantitative studies that revisited previous research of his from 2003. The original study,  “Political conservatism as motivated social cognition,” examined the correlation between psychology and political ideology by meta-analyzing over 80 studies spanning 44 years from 12 countries worldwide. The results? Conservatism was associated with psychological traits such as dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and personal needs for closure and structure.

Unsurprisingly, Jost’s 2003 study was met with some skepticism. Some wondered whether studies of ideological differences should rely on people’s self-perceptions rather than their actions, and whether liberals, given their political history in Europe, were just as rigid as conservatives.

Therefore, it was apt for Jost–during his Presidential Address to the International Society of Political Psychology this year– to revisit the topic and respond to some of the skepticism by analyzing the new pool of studies. In “Getting closure on conservatism, or the politics of epistemic and existential motivation,” Jost and colleagues scaled up the project and incorporated new evidence.

This time, they summarized 181 studies from 14 countries worldwide involving 134,000 participants. They focused on nine categories and observed that conservatism was positively correlated with five of them: intolerance of ambiguity, personal needs for order and structure, dogmatism, need for cognitive closure, and cognitive/perceptual rigidity.

Liberalism was positively correlated with the remaining four categories: integrative complexity, uncertainty tolerance, cognitive reflection, and need for cognition. In general, these epistemic variables capture the tendency to think in shades of gray vs. “black-and-white.”

As for ideological asymmetries in existential motivation, or the need for security, a forthcoming article entitled “The politics of fear: Is there an ideological asymmetry in existential motivation?” reviewed 134 studies involving nearly 370,000 participants from 16 different countries. Jost and colleagues investigated existential categories like mortality salience, perceptions of danger, and threat on political ideology. Overall, they found that support for conservative parties, policies, and leaders was boosted by events that triggered fear or threat, such as terrorist attack.

In his Presidential Address, Jost pointed out that discussing psychological differences between liberals and conservatives makes some people, even other social scientists, uncomfortable. Jost addressed this discomfort directly, explaining that the role of the scientist in society is to identify the “facts as they are and not how we would like them to be.” Any other position, he says, is “antithetical to the truth.”

“As Elie Wiesel knew all too well,” he adds, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

by Nayla Al-Mamlouk