Why do conservatives become conservative? It’s not a rational choice.

December 2, 2007 | By | 9 Replies More

Nor is it primarily the result of a rational choice (i.e., a systematic analysis of facts) that liberals become liberals. 

We’d like to believe that we adopt our political views rationally, only after careful consideration of the “facts.” That’s a pipe dream, however.  Jay Dixit’s article, “The Ideological Animal,” (published by Psychology Today) demonstrates that our political persuasion takes root well before the cerebrum kicks fully into gear.  There are deep triggers that lead individuals to crave one political ideology over the other.  For many of us, rational thought is post-facto justification.  As David Hume famously argued,

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

Dixit’s arguments dovetail with Hume’s beliefs.  As Dixit argues,

We tend to believe our political views evolve as a result of rational thought, in that we consider arguments, weigh evidence, and draw conclusions. But the truth is more complicated. Our political preferences are equally the result of factors we’re not aware of—such as how educated we are, how scary the world seems at a given moment, and personality traits that are first apparent in early childhood. Among the most potent motivators, it turns out, is fear.

What else correlates with political leaning?  You won’t be surprised at some of these differences:

conservatives and liberals boast markedly different home and office decor. Liberals are messier than conservatives, their rooms have more clutter and more color, and they tend to have more travel documents, maps of other countries, and flags from around the world. Conservatives are neater, and their rooms are cleaner, better organized, more brightly lit, and more conventional. Liberals have more books, and their books cover a greater variety of topics. And that’s just a start. Multiple studies find that liberals are more optimistic. Conservatives are more likely to be religious. Liberals are more likely to like classical music and jazz, conservatives, country music. Liberals are more likely to enjoy abstract art. Conservative men are more likely than liberal men to prefer conventional forms of entertainment like TV and talk radio. Liberal men like romantic comedies more than conservative men. Liberal women are more likely than conservative women to enjoy books, poetry, writing in a diary, acting, and playing musical instruments.

And there’s more:

As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the [the researchers] hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics.

Here’s another finding that might be easy to guess.  People who have exposed themselves to many ideas and cultures tend to be less conservative:

People who venture from the strictures of their limited social class are less likely to stereotype and more likely to embrace other cultures. Education goes hand-in-hand with tolerance, and often, the more the better:  Professors at major universities are more liberal than their counterparts at less acclaimed institutions. What travel and education have in common is that they make the differences between people seem less threatening. “You become less bothered by the idea that there is uncertainty in the world,” explains Jost.

The Psychology Today article also makes reference to an elaborate meta-analysis conducted by Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway in 2003. The data included 88 samples from 12 countries and 22,818 cases.  The Jost, et al study found that:

conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

The Jost study carefully noted that conservatism “is a function of many different kinds of variables, though conservatism correlated well with the above-described set of relatively stable set of interrelated beliefs.   Those correlates include death anxiety, intolerance of ambiguity, and the need for order, structure and closure.  The data strongly supports that conservatives tend to resist change and are more willing to justify inequality.

[p. 339]. The Jost study isn’t about making political cartoons of people; it is a thoughtful survey of many other studies.  The authors don’t shy away from ostensible inconsistencies in their findings.  For instance, the following passage of the Jost article takes a stab at explaining why many of those who are likely to suffer the effects of right-wing political ideology often embrace it:

Although we grant that self-interest is one among many motives that are capable of influencing political attitudes and behavior, our review requires a reexamination of this issue. Specifically, many of the theories we integrate suggest that motives to overcome fear, threat, and uncertainty may be associated with increased conservatism, and some of these motives should be more pronounced among members of disadvantaged and low-status groups. As a result, the disadvantaged might embrace right-wing ideologies under some circumstances to reduce fear, anxiety, dissonance, uncertainty, or instability . . ., whereas the advantaged might gravitate toward conservatism for reasons of self-interest or social dominance . . .

[see p. 342].

The Psychology Today article notes that the Jost study sparked furious controversy when it was first published, though this criticism was unwarranted.  The dependent variable of the studies, political leaning, was determined by asking the subjects themselves about their political affiliation. The Sulloway co-author is Frank Sulloway, who has also done an elaborate, meticulous and persuasive analysis regarding the effects of birth order. 

There are some significant parallels to be found between the writings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt and these studies concerning the nature of conservatism.  See here and here.  For instance, all of the studies find that conservatives allow disgust to serve as a more significant factor in their political judgments, than do liberals (see the Jost study, p. 362).

Other studies have studied the brains of subjects in search of correlates to political association.  This article from New Scientist describes a study that involved brain recordings taken using electroencephalogram (EEG) technology. The study found that conservatives are more resistant to recognizing and reacting to novel stimuli in the lab. 

Why are conservatives conservative?  What is the psychological factors behind the “choice” to become a conservative?   And, as shown by Antonio Damasio, it would be foolish to discount the power of emotion or to over-emphasize the results of rational introspection.  See here and here.

The above studies go well beyond the off-the-cuff guesswork made during lunchtime political/psychological discussions with co-workers—actually, these conversations are not nearly as common as they used to be pre-9/11, given the likelihood that people on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum so often end up sitting at the same table.  One must be diplomatic in order to successfully raise topics like this in “mixed company.”

There’s no need to blindly guess about many of the deep correlates to political conservatism, given the data mined by the above studies (the Jost study includes several hundred references in its bibliography).  Not that the work of the psychologists is finished, however.  Not by a stretch, as witnessed by the section of the Jost article entitled, “A Plea for Future Research.”

Based upon pain-staking review of dozens of studies, the Jost team writes (p. 366), “how people respond to threatening environmental stimuli, such as fear and uncertainty, plays a significant role in the development and expression of political beliefs concerning resistance to change, inequality and other core aspects of conservative ideology.”


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Category: Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. —As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the [the researchers] hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics.—-

    By that reckoning, I should be right of Pat Buchanan. I fit the description of the conservative kid perfectly. In fact, I was far more conservative than my peers in high school. My "liberalization" was a process of ideological changes beginning with a dose of Libertarianism through the medium of Robert A Heinlein, which led me to a deeper analysis of history and, then, sociology, finally coming to the conclusion that conservatism was little more than elitist power-hoarding.

    To be fair, though, I can't claim to be a liberal, either. I find a lot of liberal thinking mushy, particularly in those areas of Realpolitik and the hard-edged "facts" of the human race's proclivities that seem to make conservative thinking so solid. Both sides, to my mind, avoid central issues by a variety of mechanisms which allow them to embrace their own vision of what ought to be at the expense of recognizing what's actually in front of them.

    But all in all, I would have to say that I lean more to the liberal. I like classical music and jazz, abstract art, books on a wide range of topics, and my office is a wreck.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Study shows that conservatives are three times more fearful than liberals:

    The researchers, whose findings were published today in the journal Science, looked at 46 people who fell into two camps — liberals who supported foreign aid, immigration, pacifism and gun control; and conservatives who advocated defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq war.

    In an initial experiment, subjects were shown a series of images that included a bloody face, maggots in a wound and a spider on a frightened face. A device measured the electrical conductance of their skin, a physiological reaction that indicates fear.

    In a second experiment, researchers measured eye blinks — another indicator of fear — as subjects responded to sudden blasts of noise.

    People with strongly conservative views were three times more fearful than staunch liberals after the effects of gender, age, income and education were factored out.


  3. Erich Vieth says:

    "It's pleasurable for liberals to think more. They gravitate toward art, to things that are not as concrete," says Carney. "Conservatives have a need for order, for there not to be ambiguity. There you see that expressed by being more orderly, having more cleaning supplies, needing to have everything lined up and organized so that one feels one's environment is predictable and therefore safe."


  4. Erich Vieth says:

    The bedrooms of Republicans "were neater and better lit—they had more laundry baskets, ironing boards, cleaning supplies, and sewing thread." That's the story told by Bill Bishop of Slate:

    When Sam Gosling studied the differences between liberal and conservative college students, he and his colleagues went snooping for cleaning supplies. In the dorm rooms of conservatives, they found more cans of Ajax and ironing boards.

    In an unpublished paper titled "The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives," Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, and three other colleagues* looked for the underlying personality traits that defined left and right. Gosling is the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. He's a specialist in analyzing what the things people have around them say about their personalities and beliefs. When it comes to politics, your stuff does define you. . . Gosling and his co-authors hypothesized that liberals and conservatives differed in two major "personality dimensions." Liberals are more likely to be open to experiences. Conservatives would score higher on measures of conscientiousness. Liberals would be more motivated by curiosity, creativity, and diversity of experiences. Conservatives would value following the rules, self-control, and order.


  5. Batti5 says:

    Conservatism is like the emo current, they're all sad, feel unsafe, and fear the future, they need help. If one of you is a conservative, god is not; he can help you.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    From the January 2009 edition of Scientific American: Self-identified Republicans were more likely than self-identified Democrats to interpret vague facial expressions as "anger" or "disgust." This experiment was reported in the October 21 edition of Nature Proceedings. The work was done by psychologist Jacob M. Virgil.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    “The occasion of this revelation is a paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. (The paper can be read for free here.) In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including their own experiments using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of “a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it,” as one of their papers put it).

    In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.” http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/07/biology-ideology-john-hibbing-negativity-bias

    From the cited paper:

    Jonathan Haidt and colleagues demonstrate convincingly
    that liberals and conservatives tend to employ different
    considerations when making moral judgments. Liberals
    rely primarily on concerns for equality and harm avoidance,
    whereas conservatives are more likely to take into
    account considerations such as purity, authority, and ingroup/
    out-group status (Graham et al. 2009; Haidt &
    Graham 2007; Haidt & Joseph 2004). As was the case
    with personality traits and core values, these connections
    of moral foundations to politics apply in numerous
    countries (Graham et al. 2009; for additional work on the
    political relevance of selected moral foundations, see Petersen
    2009). The connection between purity concerns and
    conservatism is consistent with the previously mentioned
    finding that conservatives tend to have more cleaning
    supplies in their living spaces (Carney et al. 2008). It is
    also consistent with the finding (replicated cross-nationally)
    that people with stronger self-reported disgust are more
    conservative (Inbar et al. 2009a; 2012b; but see Tybur
    et al. 2010). Jost et al.’s

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