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In a study that ponders the similarities between former President Ronald Reagan, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Rush Limbaugh, four American university researchers say they now have a better understanding of what makes political conservatives tick.
Underlying psychological motivations that mark conservatives are “fear and aggression, dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity; uncertainty avoidance; need for cognitive closure; and terror management,” the researchers wrote in an article, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” recently published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin.
“From our perspective, these psychological factors are capable of contributing to the adoption of conservative ideological contents, either independently or in combination,” they wrote, according to a press release issued by the University of California at Berkeley.
The researchers also contend left-wing ideologues such as Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro “might be considered politically conservative in the context of the systems that they defended.”
The study was conducted by Associate Professor Jack Glaser and visiting Professor Frank Sulloway of UC Berkeley, Associate Professor John Jost of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and Professor Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland at College Park.
Glaser allowed that while conservatives are less “integratively complex” than others, “it doesn’t mean that they’re simple-minded.”
Conservatives don’t feel the need to jump through complex, intellectual hoops in order to understand or justify some of their positions, he said, according to the Berkeley news release.
“They are more comfortable seeing and stating things in black and white in ways that would make liberals squirm,” Glaser explained.
The assistant professor of public policy said President George W. Bush’s comments during a 2001 trip to Italy provide an example.
The Republican president told assembled world leaders, “I know what I believe, and I believe what I believe is right.”
Glaser also noted Bush told a British reporter last year, “Look, my job isn’t to nuance.”
‘Elegant and unifying explanation’
The Berkeley news release said the psychologists sought patterns among 88 samples, involving 22,818 participants, taken from journal articles, books, conference papers, speeches, interviews, judicial opinions and survey studies.
Consistent, common threads were found in 10 “meta-analytic calculations” performed on the material, Glaser said.
Berkeley’s Sulloway said the research is the first of its kind, synthesizing vast amount of information to produce an “elegant and unifying explanation” for political conservatism under the rubric of “motivated social cognition.”
This area of psychological study, the news release explained, “entails the tendency of people’s attitudinal preferences on policy matters to be explained by individual needs based on personality, social interests or existential needs.”
Noting most all belief systems develop in part to satisfy psychological needs, the researchers said their conclusions do not “mean that conservatism is pathological or that conservative beliefs are necessarily false, irrational, or unprincipled.”
Their finding also are not judgmental, they emphasized.
“In many cases, including mass politics, ‘liberal’ traits may be liabilities, and being intolerant of ambiguity, high on the need for closure, or low in cognitive complexity might be associated with such generally valued characteristics as personal commitment and unwavering loyalty,” the researchers wrote.
However, the study showed, according to Glaser, liberals appear to have a higher tolerance for change than conservatives.
The conservatives’ intolerance for ambiguity and need for closure can be seen, he said, in the current controversy over whether the Bush administration ignored intelligence information that discounted reports of Iraq’s alleged purchase of nuclear material from Africa.
“For a variety of psychological reasons, then, right-wing populism may have more consistent appeal than left-wing populism, especially in times of potential crisis and instability,” he said.
The researchers said the “terror management” tendency of conservatism is exemplified in post-Sept. 11 America, where many people appear to shun and even punish outsiders and those who threaten the status of cherished world views.
Likewise, they said, concerns with fear and threat can be linked to another key dimension of conservatism, an endorsement of inequality.
That view is reflected in the Indian caste system, South African apartheid and the conservative, segregationist politics of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, the researchers wrote.
A current example of conservatives’ tendency to accept inequality, he said, can be seen in their policy positions toward “disadvantaged minorities” such as gays and lesbians.
Stalin a conservative?
A broad range of conservatives share a resistance to change and acceptance of inequality, the researchers said, linking Reagan, Hitler, Mussolini and talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
These men were all right-wing conservatives, the study said, because they preached a return to an idealized past and condoned inequality in some form.
Glaser conceded the research could be viewed as partisan because it focused on political conservatism, but he argued there is a vast amount of information about conservatism and little about liberalism.
The researchers acknowledged left-wing ideologues such as Stalin, Castro and Nikita Kruschev resisted change in the name of egalitarianism after they established power.
But these men, the study said, might be considered politically conservative in the context of the systems that they defended.
Stalin, for example, was concerned about defending and preserving the existing Soviet system.