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Defining political conservatism

Written By: - Date published: 9:53 am, October 18th, 2007 - 20 comments
Categories: articles - Tags:

325-nailgun-1.jpgA month or so ago we posted on a study that appeared to show that the brains of conservative and liberals differed.

A related study has been conducted recently by UC Berkeley.

It was looking for consistent underlying motivations to politically conservative agendas.

Four researchers who culled through 50 years of research literature about the psychology of conservatism report that at the core of political conservatism is the resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, and that some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include:

  • Fear and aggression
  • Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Need for cognitive closure
  • Terror management

… “[Conservatives] are more comfortable seeing and stating things in black and white in ways that would make liberals squirm,” [a lead researcher] said.He pointed as an example to a 2001 trip to Italy, where President George W. Bush was asked to explain himself. The Republican president told assembled world leaders, “I know what I believe and I believe what I believe is right.”

(Hat tip: r0b)

UPDATE: here’s a like to the full study (PDF)

20 comments on “Defining political conservatism ”

  1. it’s really not that surprising that a constant state of fear produces a different brain state, and eventually a different brain architecture

  2. Wodger 2

    I suppose 4 years ago is recent?

    Perhaps you should quote a little more of the press release?

    “Glaser acknowledged that the team’s exclusive assessment of the psychological motivations of political conservatism might be viewed as a partisan exercise. However, he said, there is a host of information available about conservatism, but not about liberalism.

    The researchers conceded cases of left-wing ideologues, such as Stalin, Khrushchev or Castro, who, once in power, steadfastly resisted change, allegedly in the name of egalitarianism.”

    I wonder why there is little material available on liberalism – perhaps there is little mental ability to support publication and reading?

    Also, no link to the actual study?

    A related interesting factoid is that the UC Berkely was rated at 91% liberal in one study. Surprise surprise.

    Here’s some more on this point

  3. r0b 3

    Also, no link to the actual study?

    Quite so. Here’s
    a link.

  4. Nih 4

    Perhaps one day we’ll be able to treat a conservative mindset as a minor mental disease. Free up the old thinker then see if they feel the same way about everything.

  5. NeilM 5

    It’s hardly surprising that political preferences would be mirrored by physical processes in the brain – what else could those preferences be other than physiological, thoughts are a product of brain chemistry.

    The interesting questions surround how this links into evolution. Have a read of some Steven Pinker.

    And don’t be getting too smug about this particular study; there must be something pathological about Left-wingers as well since they managed to kill more people last century.

  6. ak 6

    Right on Neil: and a comparison of the attractiveness of right-wing politics and the visage of your average tory like, say, David Farrar or Ruth Richardson, gives strong validity to the notion of physiognomy.

  7. robinsod 7

    ak – I’ve met a few Labour MP’s and I’ve gotta say, I wouldn’t be getting into that argument if I was you. It might be better to point to the fact that good looks and politics seem to be mutually exclusive. I mean take any group of 120 people and if the best looking of them is Katherine Rich then you’ve got to start wondering if we’re talking statistical aberration or some causative link…

  8. ak 8

    True – thought I was watching parliament the other day till the Animal Planet logo came up. Then again, wee Kath being on the outer in the nats sort of backs up the theory, but that could be caused by the politics of envy of course – which is amazingly strong among tories by the way. I’m constantly amazed at the references to size of farms etc in that quarter. Might be interesting to do a study on the ranking/selection of tory pollies over the years compared to the size of their personal holdings….not too surprising really, size really does matter in the dog-eat-dog world they want to drag us back to.

  9. come on everyone knows politics is show business for ugly people

  10. r0b 10

    It’s hardly surprising that political preferences would be mirrored by physical processes in the brain – what else could those preferences be other than physiological, thoughts are a product of brain chemistry.

    Hi NeilM. I agree completely. What does surprise me though is that these differences are obvious enough to be observed with the very crude tools that we have today.

    Re the evolutionary drivers, that’s interesting stuff. The left / right (liberal / conservative) split seems to be fairly fundamental in many cultures (and the proportions seem to be about 50:50 too). Why? What drives these two different ways of viewing the world?

  11. Phil 11

    All this talk of ugly politicians, and not one mention of HC’s teeth or JA’s Comb-over!

  12. NeilM 12

    “Re the evolutionary drivers, that’s interesting stuff. The left / right (liberal / conservative) split seems to be fairly fundamental in many cultures (and the proportions seem to be about 50:50 too). Why? What drives these two different ways of viewing the world?”

    The 50/50 split is so pervasive that it certainly demands some sort of evolutionary explanation. It may be a secondary effect. People find tremendous joy in dividing into teams to either compete in sports or kill each other. So the 50/50 could be a sort of averaging over a range of teams, there are of course lots of political positions across the spectrum but when one decides who to vote for there is a strong tendency to stick to two parties.

    There may be other statistical effects – if there are a large number of independent factors that contribute to political preference (of the binary choice of left vs. right) than the distribution will tend to be binomial and hence symmetrical.

    This in turn rests on there being a range of personality types that have a genetic origin which is fairly easily explained in terms of genetic variability.

    What implications all this has for politics is another question. The big lesson to take from Pinker’s “Blank Slate” is the danger of working too much against our innate nature – which is the best explanation of why there were such disastrous consequences of both left-wing and right-wing utopianism.

  13. r0b 13

    Interesting, but none of that seems basic and robust enough to account for the effect. I wonder if it’s anything to do with the competing evolutionary pressures for cooperation (altruism, kin effects) vs competition (basic “survival of the fittest”).

    “the danger of working too much against our innate nature”

    Certainly agree there.

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