Wednesday, 19 August 2009

How to turn a liberal into a conservative

For people who feel psychologically all at sea, the conservative values of authority, order and tradition provide a comforting anchor. That's according to psychologists who further argue that a psychological threat, for example in the form of injustice or reminders of mortality, can even turn a liberal-minded person temporarily into a conservative - a response they call "defensive conservatism".

Across three studies, Paul Nail and colleagues tested the conservatism and liberalism of students before and after subjecting them to a threat. Their consistent finding was that a threat turned liberal students into conservatives.

In the first study, 68 students were categorised as liberal or conservative based on their political attitudes. Next they read about a fraudulent senior executive at Enron who was either jailed (the control condition) or who escaped punishment due to a legal loophole (the injustice condition). Afterwards, the students gave their opinion of an anti-USA essay written by a foreign exchange student. As expected, conservative students in the control condition rated the essay more harshly than liberal students. In the injustice condition, by contrast, the liberal students rated the essay just as harshly as the conservative students - that is, they'd started to think like a conservative.

As well as being measured politically, conservatism and liberalism can also be measured psychologically, for example, by gauging people's "preference for consistency" (as indicated by agreement with a series of statements like "I typically prefer to do things the same way").

A second study with 58 undergrad students involved them thinking about their own death or, as a control condition, thinking about TV. As expected, psychologically conservative students in the control condition held beliefs about issues such as capital punishment and abortion with more conviction than liberal-minded students. By contrast, of the students in the death condition, those who were identified as psychologically liberal subsequently expressed just as much conviction as their conservative minded peers. Once again, threat had made the liberal students resemble their conservative class mates.

A third and final study used a measure that captured both political and psychological conservatism. This time, liberally minded students who were asked to think about their own death, subsequently took a homophobic stance in relation to an employment issue (rights for a gay employee's partner) and said they thought there would be widespread consensus for this opinion. In other words, they behaved liked the conservative minded students from the control and threat conditions.

A key feature of these studies was that the outcome measures of conservative thinking were not directly linked to the threats, so it's not the case that the liberal students were simply responding to the threats in a pragmatic fashion.

"We believe that political conservatism has psychological properties that make it particularly appealing when vulnerability is dispositionally or situationally salient," the researchers said. "Moreover, defensive conservatism appears to be a general psychological response to vulnerability that is not necessarily strategically linked to the eliciting threats."

ResearchBlogging.orgNail, P., McGregor, I., Drinkwater, A., Steele, G., & Thompson, A. (2009). Threat causes liberals to think like conservatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 901-907 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.04.013

If you like this post, you might also like:
Why conservatives are happier than liberals.
Conservatives are less creative than liberals.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


NYC_Chic said...

I've been arguing this with people for years now. Conservatism is powered by fear. And that's not only an unhealthy mindset, it's also by nature irrational.

Anonymous said...

how do you get conservatives to go liberal?

Unknown said...

Just a guess: make them feel safe? Perhaps the lesson from this research is that liberalism and conservatism are states of mind that emerge as a result of a person's (perceived) circumstances.

Michael F. Martin said...

C.f. Woody Allen's *Everybody Says I Love You*

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon,

I don't recall where I saw it, but I believe that there was a study that came out in the last year, perhaps two years, that found when people were encouraged to think about what kind of a role luck played in their good fortune, their attitudes became more liberal, and when encouraged to think about what a role effort played, they tended to become more conservative.

Sam Holden said...


You don't recall where you read it because you just made it up.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider:

Don't ever tell someone they're not free, or they'll get busy maimin and killin to *prove* to you that they are.

(your post inexplicably reminded me of that quote)

Igroki said...

totally agree NYC_Chic. Conservatism is founded on fear.

Anonymous said...

I would say that not the fear makes one more conservative but the responsibility. The liberals (neo-) are less fearful (or responsible) because they think that somebody else ( the gov, for example) should help them when in trouble. This is not true for conservatives because they think they are responsible for themselves.
In the experiment above it is not proven that conservatives are more fearful but that liberals become conservative when scared.

Igroki said...

Your points are solid, anonymous. The experiment does demonstrate that liberals become conservative when scared. My personal extrapolation is as above. I agree it is not directly reflected in the study.

Anonymous said...

i like when conservatives try to act like they know how "liberals" think.

Unknown said...

If Conservatives govern out of fear,why do the liberal politicians always try to tell us we are in a crisis? Global warming,healthcare,gun violence,failing Insurance industry,failing auto industry,etc. Liberals use a "crisis" to gain control of the people's FEAR in order to take OUR money through enormous taxes.

Unknown said...

Why do more Liberals turn Conservative as opposed to Conservatives turning to Liberalism? Because once they finally "get it", they would never dumb down their thinking enough to buy back into all of the Liberal/Progresive double talk and completely absurd lies that are constantly being spewed by the left.

Anonymous said...

If you are not a liberal by the time you are 18 you have no heart and if you are a conservative by the time you are 40 you have no head.

Winston Churchill

Anonymous said...

There are 20 definitions of liberal and only 4 definitions for conservative. Conservative is careful as liberal is to careless.

Anonymous said...

That Churchill quote is retarded.

Anonymous said...

What a crock of crap....PS 'The truth hurts'

Anonymous said...

Take away their allowance.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's a very good point.

Anonymous said...

It is not, as this research points out, unhealthy. Conservatism (and Liberalism) as mind sets both convey some advantages and some disadvantages, neither is inherently "unhealthy" over all. Conservatives consistently report greater life satisfaction and happiness - by definition not an "unhealthy mindset."

Anonymous said...

The Churchill statement was not quoted accurately in the earlier post. Here is the accurate quote:

"If you are not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. If you are not conservative by 40, you have no brain."

I agree. One becomes conservative when one realizes what weak and sanctimonious hypocrites the liberals are. It also has to do with recognizing human nature. You get a skewed view of it when you are in college. It is when you are out in the dog-eat-dog world that you realize how shitty people can really be. It's called "maturity."

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