Political Conservatism From Motivated Social Cognitive Perspective Psychology Essay

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An individuals ideological beliefs regarding all elements of life, including social, economic, political, religious, and cultural ideologies, may be placed on a continuum ranging from flexible to fixed (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950). Those whose ideologies are flexible and variable are defined as liberalists. At the other extreme are conservatives, who hold rigid, inflexible beliefs about their world. This essay will explore the psychological underpinnings of political conservatism through an examination of Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway's (2003) motivated social-cognitive theory of political conservatism. Firstly, the psychological foundations of political conservatism will be discussed, followed by an examination of the core elements of political conservatism. Several of the key motivational factors thought to play a role in determining the development of conservative beliefs will be investigated. Three additional elements will then be explored; fear, threat, and uncertainty, and the role of each in the development of conservatism will be evaluated. Finally, the value of such a motivated social-cognitive theory to the research on political conservatism will be considered and potential improvements to this theory will be proposed. These suggestions will be based on ideas from social and cognitive perspectives. It is hoped that this essay will provide a comprehensive account of the value which a motivated social-cognitive theory can bring to the realm of political conservatism.

Much psychological research on political conservatism has been carried out within personality psychology, most notably in the field of individual differences. Attempts have been made to identify key traits or dispositions which predispose an individual to hold conservative ideologies. The majority of this research has focused on authoritarianism. Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1950) were the first to examine the possibility that political conservatism was correlated with a specific personality type: the authoritarian personality. According to their theory, personality is a crucial determinant of ideological beliefs. It is assumed that parenting styles, which are influenced by the social and economic climate, play a major role in personality development. Most notably, they conclude that authoritarianism is correlated with political conservatism (Adorno et al, 1950). In other words, individuals who grow up under strict, harsh parenting styles are more likely to idealise authority figures, to punish deviants and those viewed as a threat to the current social system (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway's 2003). These behaviours are the essence of conservatism. Altemeyer's (1981) Right-Wing Authoritarian (RWA) model develops the authoritarian personality theory and he also finds this same relationship. Therefore, it is evident that personality theories of individual difference, particularly those on authoritarianism, can provide evidence for a relationship between political conservatism and specific variables, thus offering some explanation as to why certain people are more resistant to change.

The psychological basis of political conservatism also comprises epistemic and existential theories of needs (Jost et al, 2003). Regulatory focus theory is one example. Regulatory focus theory is a motivational principle and is essentially an enhanced version of the pleasure-pain principle. It maintains that individuals possess two main self-regulation systems; a promotion system and a prevention system, and these lead to approach or avoidance behaviours respectively. The promotion system involves self-regulation that is motivated by a desire to achieve their goals and ideals, and is focused on securing gains. In contrast, the prevention system involves self-regulation that is motivated by obligations and responsibilities and by a desire to avoid losses. Which system one uses will depend on one's set of needs at a given time (Higgins, 1997). The key point to be emphasized in the context of this essay is that 'those in a prevention focus should have a 'conservative' response bias'. In other words, an individual with a prevention focus desires stability and predictability and are thus, more likely to hold politically conservative beliefs (Crowe & Higgins, 1997, p. 1).

One study aptly demonstrates the relationship between a prevention focus system and resistance to change. Participants were given a task to complete. They were interrupted midway through this task. After the interruption, they were given a choice to either continue with the previous task, or, to begin a new task. Participants in a prevention focus were more likely than participants in a promotion focus to choose to continue with the old task (Liberman, Idson, Camacho & Higgins, 1999). This relationship between a prevention focus system and resistance to change implies that political conservatives are more likely to use a prevention focus. Thus, epistemic and existential theories of need help explain the strong resistance to change which is characteristic of politically conservative individuals.

The third main psychological basis for political conservatism involves ideological theories of individual and collective justification and rationalisation. Such theories focus less on the individual and more on the social structure, maintaining that political conservatism may carry out certain psychological functions for the individual (Jost et al, 2003). One such theory is System Justification Theory. According to this theory, individuals create ideologies which decrease cognitive dissonance, allowing them to justify the dominance of one group over another in society (Jost et al, 2003). Thus, such ideological theories cover both elements of political conservatism: resistance to change and a justification of inequality. System justification theory predicts that in times of crisis where the societal structure is threatened, an increase in political conservatism is likely, as people justify the current system in order to resist change, thus preserving the status quo (Jost, Banaji & Nosek, 2004).

According to Jost and colleagues (2003), political conservatism is comprised of two core elements: resistance to change and justification of inequality (Jost et al, 2003). Oreg, who developed the Resistance to Change Scale, defines resistance to change as 'an individual's tendency to resist or avoid making changes, to devalue change generally, and to find change aversive across diverse contexts and types of change' (Oreg, 2003, p. 1). Justification of inequality includes an acceptance of both economic and social inequality, and approval of distinctions between elite groups and the socially disadvantaged groups (Thorisdottir, Jost, Liviatan & Shrout, 2007). These two core elements are thought to be stable and fixed, and are the unchanging essence of political conservatism. It is acknowledged that several other peripheral elements are also relevant to political conservatism. Peripheral traits are more variable than the core elements, changing as the historical and cultural context changes. Such traits include a need for order and consistency, or a tendency to idealise authority figures. However, Jost and colleagues focus specifically on the two core elements. Both resistance to change and justification of inequality are viewed as distinct elements in their own right but are generally positively correlated with each other. It is believed that these two core elements are related to psychological needs which may be cognitive, social, or motivational in nature (Jost et al, 2003).

There have been some criticisms of Jost and colleagues' definition of political conservatism as comprising the two core elements of resistance to change and justification of inequality. Greenberg and Jonas (2003) have argued that this definition is problematic when one examines political conservatism played out in real life situations. In terms of resistance to change, they claim that many conservatives promote change, for example Ronald Reagan, and that it is in fact liberals who seem more resistant to change (Greenberg and Jonas, 2003). While Greenberg and Jones do acknowledge that tolerance of inequality is a core element of political conservatism, they do argue that many liberal governments have endorsed unequal policies (Greenberg and Jonas, 2003). However, despite such criticisms, the method in which Jost and colleagues (2003) link both elements to various underlying motives, along with the abundance of empirical evidence they provide, leads one to believe that they have tapped into the core elements of political conservatism. Also, in one study it was found that resistance to change (along with rule following) predicted political conservatism in both Eastern and Western Europe. Justification of inequality was also found to predict political conservatism, if only in Western Europe (Thorisdottir et al, 2007).

The primary aim of the motivated social-cognitive theory of political conservatism is to make connections between certain psychological motives and the development of political conservatism. Each of the three theory typologies which comprise the psychological foundations for political conservatism proposes different motives for the development of politically conservative beliefs. These motives can be categorized into three different types: epistemic motives, existential motives, and ideological motives. All motives are viewed as a means of reducing the amount of uncertainty, threat, and fear that an individual faces throughout life (Jost et al, 2003). This essay will outline the most notable and strongly supported of each category.

Epistemic motives refer to the methods by which people aim to acquire beliefs which are definite and dependable. The most persuasive empirical evidence for individual differences between liberalists and conservatives based on epistemic motives focuses on mental rigidity and closed-mindedness. This factor can itself be divided into several different motives, including need for cognitive closure, intolerance of ambiguity, openness to experience, and integrative complexity (Jost et al, 2003).

Need for cognitive closure is an important variable to consider in examining political conservatism. Webster and Kruglanski (1994) developed the Need for Closure Scale (NFCS). They define the need for closure as a motivational predisposition to desire a specific answer to a given question rather than ambiguity and uncertainty of information. Need for closure encompasses five different aspects: 'desire for predictability, preference for order and structure, discomfort with ambiguity, decisiveness, and closed-mindedness' (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994, p. 1). Kossowska and Van Hiel (2003) employed the NFCS in a study which explored the relationship between need for cognitive closure and conservative beliefs. Need for closure was found to be positively correlated with conservative ideologies in both a Polish sample (r = .22) and a Flemish sample (r = .52) (Kossowska & Van Hiel, 2003, p. 9).

More specifically, Kemmelmeier (1997) investigated the relationship between need for cognitive closure and political conservatism. Again the NFCS was employed. He found that need for closure 'increased with the right-wing orientation of the party' (Kemmelmeier, 1997, p. 2). The correlations ranged from r = .18.5 to r =.23 as the political parties conservative affiliations increased (Kemmelmeier, 1997, p. 2). It is clear from such studies that need for cognitive closure is an important predictor of political conservatism and, thus, of resistance to change. Individuals with a high need for cognitive closure appear more likely to hold conservative beliefs. They wish to reduce the threat which ambiguity, unpredictability, or change may bring by freezing on the first piece of information they hear and closing off their mind to any additional information which may alter this view (Kossowska & Van Hiel, 2003).

A second epistemic motive which has received much empirical support in terms of its relationship to political conservatism is openness to experience. Openness to experience is one of the variables of the Big Five dimensions. Someone high on openness to experience tends to hold flexible beliefs and attitudes about their world and thus, is open to change and new experiences. In contrast, those low on openness to experience tend to hold rigid beliefs, and dislike change and new experiences, instead preferring predictability in their life events (Costa & McCrae, 1992). A negative correlation between political conservatism and openness to experience has been supported by empirical evidence. For instance, Joe, Jones, and Ryder (1977) found that people high on conservatism were less likely to take part in psychological experiments that required openness to experience in terms of fantasy (such as use of daydreams), unconventional views (such as discussions on astrology or reincarnation) and other such aspects (Joe, Jones & Ryder, 1977). It is evident that openness to experience is an important motive in the development of political conservatism. Political conservatives are likely to resist change due to a motivation to avoid new experiences. Again, this motive is likely to arise from a need to reduce fear and uncertainty brought on by new situations.

Existential motives are also important in determining whether an individual is likely to hold politically conservative ideologies. Existential motives refer to the human quest to find meaning and value in life (Jost et al, 2003). They comprise the more emotive determinants of political conservatism. One such motive is fear of death. This motive is best explained by relating it to theories of terror management. According to this theory, fear causes people to demonstrate politically conservative behaviours, such as resistance to change. Humans are inherently aware of their own mortality and this creates great psychological tension and anxiety. Such terror is more implicit than explicit, but nevertheless powerful in its effects. To reduce this fear of death, people deny this eventuality by providing meaning and a sense of self worth to their lives, usually through adhering to a set of social and cultural beliefs which govern their society (Landau, Solomon, Greenberg, Cohen, Pyszczynski, Arndt, Miller, Ogilive & Cook, 2004).

In one study, participants were primed with thoughts of death or the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. This increased mortality salience. Attitudes towards then U.S. President George. W. Bush were then measured. As Bush is a conservative politician this study provides an examination of the relationship between mortality salience and political conservatism. It was found that increasing mortality salience led to an increase in support for Bush. This occurs because conservative leaders provide a sense of stability, decreasing the threat of death by maintaining current social and cultural value systems (Landau et al, 2004).

Thus, it is clear that fear of death is a powerful existential motive in determining an individual's likelihood to support political conservative ideologies and to resist change. Indeed, Jost and colleagues found a very strong correlation (r = .50) between mortality salience and political conservatism when they analysed a broad range of studies similar to that of Landau and colleagues (Jost el at, 2003).

A second important existential motive in the development of politically conservative ideologies is fear, anger, and aggression. It is argued that political conservatives are more susceptible and sensitive to fear, and are much more likely than liberals to view the world as a highly threatening place. Thus, conservatives support authoritarian type behaviour such as punishment of deviants, in order to reduce this fear and threat. (Jost el al, 2003).

Lavine, Lodge, Polichak, and Taber (2002) carried out a study which investigated the relationship between political conservatism and fear, anger, and aggression. They presented participants with either a persuasive message which was either threat-based or reward-based. It was found that those high on authoritarianism recognised the threat-based message as more valid and more persuasive than the reward-based message, whereas those low on authoritarianism viewed the reward-based message as more valid (Lavine, Lodge, Polichak & Taber, 2002). As mentioned above, authoritarianism is correlated with political conservatism. Thus, it is clear that political conservatives do appear more susceptible to fear. In addition to a basis in authoritarianism, the motive of fear, anger, and aggression is also related to the regulatory focus theory discussed above, where political conservatives appear to use a prevention focus system as a means of self-regulation, thus focusing on minimisation of threat rather than maximisation of rewards.

Ideological motives also determine political conservatism. Ideological motives arise from a need to reduce uncertainty and threat, providing people with a sense of purpose and certainty. For example, the system justification theory discussed earlier, where individuals justify inequality and hegemony, offers a means of reducing uncertainty as it justifies the current social structure and thus, sees no need for change (Jost et al, 2003).

Epistemic, existential, and ideological motives are all interrelated in that they are all motivated by a need to reduce fear, uncertainty, and threat. All promote resistance to change in order to manage this fear and uncertainty (Jost et al, 2003). As a result, all contribute to the development of political conservatism.

Fear, uncertainty, and threat all play a central role in political conservatism as the need to reduce all three feelings leads to behavior that embodies the two core elements of political conservatism: resistance to change and justification of inequality. Each concept will now be discussed in turn.

Many empirical studies have implicated fear as a leading cause of political conservatism. Reduction of fear is a psychological need. Certain fears act as motives that bring about political conservatism. As mentioned above, politically conservative individuals may in fact be more sensitive to fear, which makes them more likely to resist change (Lavine et al, 2002). A myriad of different sources for fear exist. Also mentioned above is the finding that fear of death leads to politically conservative behavior such as resistance to change. This occurs as individuals who become increasingly aware of their own mortality develop rigid social and cultural beliefs in order to create a sense of meaning and self-worth which helps reduce the fear and terror experienced when faced with one's true destiny (Landau et al, 2004).

Another source of fear is the prospect of loss. Fear and prevention of loss lead to resistance to change. Political conservatives resist any change to the social structure or social and cultural beliefs as they believe it will result in personal loss, be it loss of meaning, value, or other factors (Jost et al, 2003). The role fear plays in the motive to prevent loss is explained by regulatory focus theory, where politically conservative individuals favour the use of a prevention focus system of self-regulation which emphasizes the minimization of losses as opposed to the maximization of rewards and gains (Higgins, 1997). An individual's decision to utilize either a prevention or promotion system is ultimately determined by their level of fear. It is clear that fear is generally related to the existential motives involved in political conservatism.

Like fear, threat is also primarily linked to existential motives involved in political conservatism. Threat has been linked to individuals' motivational desire to increase self-esteem. While the relationship between political conservatism and self-esteem requires further empirical investigation, some evidence suggests that individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to develop politically conservative beliefs (Jost et al, 2003). For instance, Fein and Spencer (1997) found that low self-esteem is positively correlated with an increase in prejudice. Participants were exposed to a target person and the sexual orientation of this person was manipulated. Also, some participants received negative feedback from an implicit association test completed previously. This was designed to increase threat to one's self-image. Participants who received negative feedback were more likely to stereotype the allegedly homosexual target than participants who did not receive this negative feedback (Fein & Spencer, 1997). Thus, threat to self-esteem appears to increase prejudice. Prejudice in turn is linked to justification of inequality which is one of the core elements of political conservatism.

Threat is also related to a motive to maintain a stable social system. Under certain circumstances, a threat to the stability of the social system often leads to the development of political conservatism, particularly a resistance to change. This is most likely to occur in times of crisis, leaving people insecure and vulnerable (Jost et al, 2003). Examples of such crisis' may include events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. or the economic crisis during the Wall Street Crash in 1929.

In contrast to fear and threat, uncertainty is primarily related to the epistemic motives involved in political conservatism. Wilson's (1973) theory of uncertainty avoidance offers some important insights into the relationship between uncertainty avoidance and political conservatism. The main assumption of this theory is that uncertainty poses a greater threat to political conservatives than to more liberalist individuals. Political conservatives are thus more motivated to avoid ambiguous situations and novel experiences. (Jost et al, 2003). There is much empirical evidence to support this argument. For instance, the personality trait of openness to experience is negatively correlated with uncertainty avoidance (Jost, Napier, Thorisdottir, Gosling, Palfai & Ostafin, 2007). Furthermore, a study by Atieh, Brief, and Vollrath (1987) found that in terms of work, conservatives, place greater value on job security than on job variety compared with liberalists (Jost et al, 2003). Thus, it is evident that uncertainty avoidance is a common motive for political conservatives.

In an interesting study, Leone and Chirumbolo (2008) developed this idea further by suggesting that emotions lead to increased uncertainty, and thus, political conservatives avoid affect in order to prevent uncertainty. A positive correlation was indeed found between political conservatism and emotional avoidance. It is thought that this relationship exists as conservatives hold as pessimistic view of humans in general, and believe societal norms and rules help govern an essentially bad species. Thus, they distrust powerful emotions, viewing them as unpredictable, erratic, and threatening to the stability of the societal system (Leone & Chirumbolo, 2008).

It is evident that fear, threat, and uncertainty all make independent contributions to the development of political conservatism. However, it should be noted that these concepts are all interdependent and that a comprehensive understanding of political conservatism requires a comprehension of the ways in which these concepts interact. For instance, uncertainty avoidance theories inform research on the role of threat to self-esteem and also the role of threat to the structure of the social system in the development of political conservatism. Also, fear may arise due to the presence of a particular threat (e.g. influx of foreigners might pose a threat to one's job by increasing competition for jobs). Fear may be linked to uncertainty in that one may fear uncertainty and the unknown (e.g. one may fear social change because change inevitably brings new situations). In addition, fear and uncertainty can be viewed as threats (Jost et al, 2003). All of these examples emphasise the strong inter-relatedness among all three factors. However, the main point to emphasise is the evident importance of all three concepts in determining whether an individual will be motivated to engage in politically conservative behaviours (uncertainty avoidance, resistance to change, prejudice, etc).

Overall, the motivated social-cognition theory proposed by Jost and colleagues (2003) is a valuable addition to the field of psychology, in particular political psychology, as it offers a comprehensive, integrative account of the multiple psychological foundations and psychological motives of political conservatism. The personality theories, epistemic and existential need theories, and theories of individual and collective rationalization, which are though to comprise the psychological foundations for political conservatism are robust psychological theories in their own right. Thus, they provide a strong, compelling framework from which to develop a motivated social-cognitive theory of political conservatism.

The two core elements proposed by Jost and colleagues (2003) are a little more controversial. Some have proposed that both resistance to change and justification of inequality are more reflective of liberalist rather than conservative ideologies (Greenberg & Jonas, 2003). However, the majority of researchers in the field of cognitive and political psychology appear to concur with the views of Jost and colleagues (2003).

The psychological motives are perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Jost and colleagues' (2003) theory. They succeed in merging a multitude of different motives and tendencies thought to influence political conservatism which were previously only discussed as largely unrelated constructs. It is shown how epistemic (e.g. need for cognition, openness to experience), existential (e.g. fear of death, threat to self-esteem), and ideological motives all play a role in determining whether an individual is likely to develop political conservative ideologies. Also, they include not only cognitive motives, but also social and cultural influences. Both the situational and contextual determinants of political conservatism are considered.

Finally, it is clear that fear, threat, and uncertainty are critical concepts in understanding the development of political conservatism. Jost and colleagues (2003) place appropriate importance on these three factors, acknowledging that they are in a sense the basis of political conservatism. Without the presence of fear, threat, or uncertainty, individuals would not develop a motivated desire to reduce all three factors, and thus, the two core manifestations of political conservatism (resistance to change and justification of inequality) would not be revealed.

There are of course several limitations to the analysis of political conservatism provided by the motivated social-cognitive theory. Much of the empirical evidence analysed is based on self-report data. Thus, Jost and colleagues (2003) analysis has been able to provide evidence for correlations between various motives and political conservatism but has been limited in making strong causal inferences regarding these relationships. A solution for future research would be to increase the focus on experimental research which could offer more insight into the contextual variations in the development of political conservatism. This might improve the predictive power of the conditions necessary for the development of political conservatism (Lavine et al, 2002). Jost and colleagues (2003) analysis certainly does try to account for contextual factors, but improvements could still be made.

In terms of a social psychological perspective, it is important that one acknowledges the influence of group processes on individual attitudes and behavior. While Jost and colleagues' (2003) analysis does include some social motives (e.g. social dominance theory, system justification), they focus primarily on individual differences in terms of cognitive motives.

Social identity theory is essentially a theory of intergroup discrimination. It has been a highly influential theory in social psychology for the last few decades. However, social identity theory has had little success in the domain of political psychology in terms of political identity (Huddy, 2001). It is suggested that an analysis of political conservatism that incorporates more elements of social identity theory would be beneficial to Jost and colleagues' (2003) analysis of political conservatism as it could help explain why outgroup discrimination may occur, something which is prevalent among conservatives. For example, it has been shown that political conservatives are more likely to hold prejudice attitudes towards certain outgroups and to justify inequalities between groups. One explanation for this is individual levels of self-esteem, by which individuals engage in outgroup derogation in order to increase their self-esteem (Fein & Spencer, 1997). Thus, social identity theory could offer important explanations for this discriminatory aspect of political conservatism which the motivated social cognitive analysis does not address.

In terms of cognitive perspectives, Jost and colleagues' (2003) analysis was fairly comprehensive. However, one specific cognitive factor examined individually by many psychologists failed to be included in their analysis of political conservatism: cognitive ability or intelligence. For example, Stankov (2009) found a negative correlation between political conservatism and cognitive ability (Stankov, 2009). Thus, individuals with lower educational attainment levels and lower scores on mathematical tests and verbal tests have been shown to be increasingly likely to hold politically conservative ideologies compared with those of higher cognitive ability.

In sum, Jost and colleagues' (2003) motivated social-cognitive approach to political conservatism is more true to cognitive perspectives than social psychological perspectives. However, their attempt to integrate both types of perspectives demonstrates a creativity and flexibility which has traditionally been lacking in psychological research. A further integration of social perspectives may lead to an even more integrative, useful motivated social-cognitive theory.