Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition

In May of this year a group of psychology researchers released a paper which caused a stir, titled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition". Because some government grants were involved in funding the research, conservatives, who now control both the United States Congress and Senate took a sudden, and rather unfriendly, interest in the paper. It would seem that they did not particularly care for the results of the research, and certain threatening sounds were made about preventing further ‘waste of government money' to fund research into the conservative mindset. The study was ‘biased' against conservatives they insisted.

The paper is on line as an Adobe PDF document ->Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition PDF 600 KB ... and there is also a Google HTML cache version of the document online here ->Google Cache

The researchers set as their goal the synthesis of many previous methodologies of research in the hopes of coming up with a broad definition and analysis of Conservative thought and behavior.

Many different theoretical accounts of conservatismhave stressed the motivational underpinnings of conservativethought, but they have identified different needs as critical. Ourreview brings these diverse accounts together for the first time andintegrates them. Specific variables that have been hypothesized topredict conservatism include fear and aggression (Adorno et al.,1950; Altemeyer, 1998), intolerance of ambiguity (Fibert &Ressler, 1998; Frenkel-Brunswik, 1949), rule following and negativeaffect (Tomkins, 1963, 1965), uncertainty avoidance (Sorrentino & Roney, 1986; Wilson, 1973b), need for cognitive closure(Kruglanski & Webster, 1996), personal need for structure (Altemeyer,1998; Schaller, Boyd, Yohannes, & O'Brien, 1995; Smith& Gordon, 1998), need for prevention-oriented regulatory focus(Higgins, 1997; Liberman et al., 1999), anxiety arising from mortalitysalience (Greenberg et al., 1990, 1992), group-based dominance(Pratto et al., 1994; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), and systemjustification tendencies (Jost & Banaji, 1994; Jost, Burgess, &Mosso, 2001). In what follows, we summarize major theoreticalperspectives and use them to generate a comprehensive list ofmotives that are potential predictors of political conservatism. Wefirst describe the theories and then, because many of them postulatesimilar motives, we review the cumulative evidence for andagainst each of the motives all at once.

Definitions of Conservatism

One of the interesting aspects of the paper is the separation that is postulated to exist between what the researchers refer to as ‘the stable definitional core' of Conservatism, and certain peripheral issues that change with historical circumstances. These peripheral issues change as times change so that a conservative might be radically opposed to such things as school bussing at one point in history, while bussing might be a non-issue for other generations of conservatives. Under certain circumstances one generation of conservatives might be vehemently opposed to a certain phenomena and once the phenomena becomes an accepted part of society a new generation of conservatives will be just as vehemently opposed to any type of change to the same established phenomena. For this reason the researchers ignore these culturally specific manifestations of conservative behavior that change as times change and focus their attention on what they refer to as the ‘stable definitional core'...

We argue that politicalconservatism, like many other complex social representations, hasboth a stable definitional core and a set of more malleable, historicallychanging peripheral associations (what Huntington,1957, referred to as secondary issues). It is the ideological core ofpolitical conservatism (more than its peripheral aspects) that wehypothesize to be linked to specific social, cognitive, and motivationalneeds.

When secondary issues are separated from the ideological core of conservatism, there is revealeda core ideology of resistance to change in society, which seems to transcend changing times and define the core mind set of conservatism.

Conservatism in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciencesas "an attitude of opposition to disruptive change in thesocial, economic, legal, religious, political, or cultural order" (p.291).3 He added, "The distinguishing mark of this conservatism, asindeed it is of any brand of conservatism, is the fear of change."

Dictionary definitionsof conservatism stress "the disposition and tendency to preservewhat is established; opposition to change" (Neilson, 1958, p. 568)and "the disposition in politics to maintain the existing order."

This resistance to change transcends transitory issues that arouse resistance to change by Conservatives. There is,

a relatively stable ideological core of conservatism comprised of resistanceto change and acceptance of inequality (e.g., Giddens, 1998; Huntington,1957; Mannheim, 1927/1986; Rossiter, 1968) and more ideologically peripheralissues (such as school busing or gun control) that are likely to varyconsiderably in their ideological relevance across time. Because the conservativecore may be grounded in powerful and relatively stable individualneeds, it may persist as a deep personality structure.

The surface manifestations of conservative behavior may change over time, for example displaying itself as vociferous opposition to school busing, during that time when school busing represents a change in the social order, with that issue moving off the center stage to be replaced by resistance to some other form of change once school busing has become a fact and a new generation of conservatives familiar with the practice come on the scene.

In addition to resistance to change, the authors identify acceptance of social inequality as one of the stable ideological core values of conservatism.

Muller's (2001) definition of conservatism similarlystresses resistance to change (as well as belief in the legitimacy of inequality).He observed: "For conservatives, the historical survival of an institutionor practice—be it marriage, monarchy, or the market—creates a primafacie case that it has served some need" (p. 2625). That is, what conservativesshare is a tendency to rationalize existing institutions, especiallythose that maintain hierarchical authority.

Due to the fact that human society has been patriarchal and hierarchical for ages past, the authors make a connection between the resistance to change and the acceptance of social inequality, since to historically to resist change means to preserve the status quo with all its inequalities, therefore it is one of the characteristics of conservative thought to seek to justify both inequality and the status quo.

The two core aspects of conservatismare generally psychologically related to one another for mostof the people most of the time (Muller, 2001). In part, this isbecause of the historical fact that traditional social arrangementshave generally been more hierarchical and less egalitarian comparedwith nontraditional arrangements. Therefore, to resistchange in general has often meant resisting increased efforts ategalitarianism; conversely, to preserve the status quo has typicallyentailed entrusting the present and future to the same authoritieswho have controlled the past. Accordingly, several common measuresof political conservatism include items gauging both resistanceto change and endorsement of inequality.

Conservatives, in particular the religious right, can often be heard to call out for ‘change in society' but for the most part this is a call to roll back the clock, and consists of undoing any changes made in recent times. Among such conservatives,

what appears to be a desire for changeis really "an imaginatively transfigured conception of the past withwhich to criticize the present" (Muller, 2001, p. 2625). There arealso cases of left-wing ideologues who, once they are in power,steadfastly resist change, allegedly in the name of egalitarianism,such as Stalin or Khrushchev or Castro (see J. Martin, Scully, &Levitt, 1990). It is reasonable to suggest that some of thesehistorical figures may be considered politically conservative, atleast in the context of the systems they defended.

Authoritarianism and RWA theory

The authors investigate a variety of previous studies of conservatism. Those who scored high on the theoretical construct being measured were found to also have a high degree of correlation with various expressions of conservatism in society (supporting Republicans, the death penalty, against equality for women). While the studies they integrate into their research all have been considered valid in their own way because of the high degree of correlation between their results and predictions of conservatism, they all have their individual strengths and weaknesses and the authors of this paper hope that by integrating them in one study a much broader and more precise definition of conservatism might emerge.

One of the methodologies they study is RWA, which focuses on measuring the correlation between authoritarianism and consequent expressions of conservatism in politics and society. The theoretical side of RWA attempts to explain the origins and social persistence of this authoritarianism by attributing it to parenting styles. According to RWA, harsh parenting styles,

led entire generations to represshostility toward authority figures and to replace it with an exaggerateddeference and idealization of authority and tendencies toblame societal scapegoats and punish deviants (see also Reich,1946/1970). The theory of authoritarianism holds that fear andaggressiveness resulting from parental punitiveness motivate individualsto seek predictability and control in their environments.Authoritarian attitudes, which may be elicited by situationalthreats, combine an anxious veneration of authority and convention with a vindictiveness toward subordinates and deviants.

RWA is characterized by (a) "a high degree ofsubmission to the authorities who are perceived to be establishedand legitimate"; (b) "a general aggressiveness, directed againstvarious persons, which is perceived to be sanctioned by establishedauthorities"; and (c) "a high degree of adherence to the socialconventions which are perceived to be endorsed by society" (p.148). This reconceptualization, which combines resistance tochange and endorsement of inequality, is consistent with twonewly emerging theories, social dominance theory (Pratto et al.,1994; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999) and system justification theory(Jost & Banaji, 1994; Jost et al., 2003)

Scores on the RWA Scale have been found to predict a broadrange of attitudes and behaviors related to social, economic, andpolitical conservatism as defined in the general culture at the time.For instance, the scale has correlated reliably with political partyaffiliation; reactions to Watergate; pro-capitalist attitudes; severityof jury sentencing decisions; punishment of deviants; racial prejudice;homophobia; religious orthodoxy; victim blaming; and acceptanceof covert governmental activities such as illegal bugging,political harassment, denial of the right to assemble, and illegaldrug raids (Altemeyer, 1981, 1988, 1996, 1998). Peterson et al.(1993) reported correlational evidence linking authoritarianism toa wide variety of conservative attitudes, including opposition toenvironmentalism, abortion rights, diversity on university campuses,and services for AIDS patients and homeless people.

High RWA lawmakers also score higher in prejudice, and wish theycould pass laws limiting the freedom of speech, freedom of the press,the right of assembly, and other freedoms guaranteed in the Bill ofRights. They want to impose strict limitations on abortion, they favorcapital punishment, and they oppose tougher gun control laws. Finally,politicians answer the RWA Scale with such extraordinarylevels of internal consistency, it appears the scale provides our mostpowerful measure of the liberal-conservative dimension in politics.

Thus, a relatively strong relation has been established betweenRWA and political conservatism among political elites as well asthe masses.

Some have found weaknesses in the theoretical underpinnings of RWA theory and its focus on the family and authoritarian parents as the theoretical source of this personality trait, since it is possible that people can adopt authoritarian behavior during threatening times, such as war, when such behavior becomes more wide spread and pronounced in societies. Whatever the source the results are usually quite negative, in particular for those who are seen as defying authority or living lifestyles deemed to be unauthorized, and thus illegal.

Authoritarian attitudes, which may be elicited by situationalthreats, combine an anxious veneration of authority and convention with a vindictiveness toward subordinates and deviants

(There are) two main directions in which extremely conservative and authoritarianattitudes may lead. First, they may lead to an activelyhostile or dominant approach to dealing with socially sanctionedscapegoats and devalued out-groups, which is also the primaryfocus of social dominance theory (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999; Whitley,1999). Second, RWA may lead to a more passively submissiveor deferential posture toward authorities, which would make itssubscribers ideal candidates to follow the next Hitler or Mussolini(Altemeyer, 1998; Fromm, 1941; Reich, 1946/1970). Thus, extremeright-wing attitudes "lock" people into a "dominance submissiveauthoritarian embrace".

Intolerance of Ambiguity

Intolerance of doubt or ambiguity is another measured trait that has been found to strongly correlate with subsequent predictions of conservative thought and behavior. Dislike of uncertainty leads to dichotomous thinking styles (good and evil, black and white types of stereotyping of both people and issues, denial of complexity, and intolerance for any idea that there is no absolutes in terms of dealing with social issues).

Intolerance of ambiguityconstituted a general personality variable that related positively toprejudice as well as to more general social and cognitive variables.Individuals who are intolerant of ambiguityare significantly more often given to dichotomous conceptions of thesex roles, of the parent-child relationship, and of interpersonal relationshipsin general. They are less permissive and lean toward rigidcategorization of cultural norms. Power–weakness, cleanliness–dirtiness, morality–immorality, conformance–divergence are the dimensionsthrough which people are seen. . . . There is sensitivityagainst qualified as contrasted with unqualified statements and againstperceptual ambiguity; a disinclination to think in terms of probability.

Intolerance of ambiguity has been defined as

"the tendency to perceive ambiguoussituations as sources of threat" (p. 29).Intolerance of ambiguity, by increasing cognitive and motivationaltendencies to seek certainty, is hypothesized to lead peopleto cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic cliche´s and stereotypes.

The consequences of this tendency towards intolerance lead to dogmatically sticking with a single solution, disregarding all contrary evidence that might introduce ambiguity, or any of those troubling shades of grey, and a tendency to think in terms of ‘good and evil' (much as people are sorted into rigid catagories such as ‘saved and unsaved' or ‘saint or sinner' by the religious right), and a tendency to jump to conclusions before sufficient evidence has been accumulated and then rigidly stick with a half thought out solution through thick and thin, while remaining closed to new experience or ideas. The researchers describe the consequences of such rigidity in thinking as,

Resistance to reversal of apparent fluctuating stimuli, the early selectionand maintenance of one solution in a perceptually ambiguoussituation, inability to allow for the possibility of good and bad traits inthe same person, acceptance of attitude statements representing arigid, black-white view of life, seeking for certainty, a rigid dichotomizinginto fixed categories, premature closure, and remaining closedto familiar characteristics of stimuli.

Mental Rigidity, Dogmatism, and Closed-Mindedness

Dogmatism has also been found to correlate strongly with conservatism (and as the list grows here you can begin to understand why those congressional representatives and Senators were so peed off by this study).

Dogmatism is postulated to be related to both fear of the unknown and the uncertain and also as satisfying the need to know, the need for ‘cognitive closure'. However it is often the case that this cognitive closure is artificially and prematurely imposed. (One classic example is the belief, common to the religious right, that a contradictory and inconsistent book like the bible is ‘infallible and the Unerring Word of God'.) Dogmatism can thus be seen as a kind of artificial attempt to complete and then maintain cognitive closure, both to satisfy ‘the need to know' and also to avoid fear which might be aroused by uncertainty. However dogmatism can lead to,

double think, which was defined as susceptibility to logicallycontradictory beliefs and denial of contradictions in one'sbelief system, as well as a narrow future orientation and a strongorientation toward authority.

Such stubbornness can lead to an artificial sense of completeness, of knowing, of certainty, and cognitive closure, but only that price of developing an intolerant and dogmatic mind set that can somehow hold inconsistent ideas in some kind of tension in the same mind.

"Frenkel-Brunswik (1949, 1951) developed further the theory ofambiguity intolerance and elaborated the antecedent conditions ofif the closed or dogmatic mind is extremely resistantto change, it may be so not only because it allays anxiety but alsobecause it satisfies the need to know"

Thus theories of this sort seeks to combine both cognitive and motivationalneeds in explaining ideological rigidity and dogmatism.

Polarity theory attempts to explain dogmatism and the orientation to conservatism by contrasting certain thinking patterns (ideo-affective postures) that resonate either with those who orient to the left or those who orient to the right.

According to polarity theory, there exist generalized orientations(or ideo-affective postures) toward the world that may be regardedas belonging either to the ideological left or to the right, and theyare associated with liberty and humanism in the first case and rulefollowing and normative concerns in the second. Those who resonatewith left-wing ideologies believe that people are basicallygood and that the purpose of society is to facilitate human growthand experience. By contrast, those who resonate with right-wingideologies believe that people are essentially bad and that thefunction of society is to set rules and limits to prevent irresponsiblebehavior.

Like RWA theory, polarity theory postulates that these differing ‘ideo-affective postures' are acquired in childhood and via parenting methods, and that,

"this occurs through theacquisition of personal scripts, a term that refers to affectivelycharged memories of social situations involving the self and importantothers "

Like RWA, scores on the polarity scale have been found to correlate with both dogmatism and rule following, and consequently with conservatism in society and politics. The theory,

used a 59-item Polarity ScaleItems tapping the right-wing or normative orientationinclude the following: "Children should be taught to obey what isright even though they may not always feel like it" and "If I breakthe law I should be punished for the good of society." Scores onthe Polarity Scale have been found to predict reactions to presidentialassassinations (Tomkins, 1995); preferences for individualisticversus sociotropic values (Carlson & Levy, 1970; de St.Aubin, 1996); attitudes toward war and peace (Eckhardt & Alcock,1970); assumptions concerning human nature, religiosity, and politicalorientationits suggestion that adisproportionate number of conservatives are driven by a motivationto establish and follow rules and norms in a wide variety ofdomains inside and outside of politics.

Being a "compassionate conservative' is relatively new novelty in conservative thought, and traditionally those who score high on the conservative side of the polarity scale tend to not identify themselves with such terms as ‘compassion'. This brings to mind Bush's speech to rally the troops for the recent Iraq war. When Bush used aggressive phrases such as ‘when you get to the Gulf you will show them that Jack is Back' there were huge cheers, as there were for every expression of aggression (the speech was to the military from Jacksonville - hence they were about to show Iraq that ‘Jack was Back'). However when Bush then changed course and started to talk the compassionate conservative talk, and he thanked the military for their love, and for showing such compassion in their communities, there was this really long awkward pause and no cheers at all, since those who score high for conservatism on the Polarity scale do not identify with such language.

In a study of emotional reactions to welfare recipients, Williams(1984) found that people who were classified as conservatives onthe basis of scores on Tomkins's (1964/1988) Polarity Scale expressedgreater disgust and less sympathy than did their liberalcounterparts. A study of high school students also indicated thatpolitical conservatives were less likely than liberals to describethemselves as "sympathetic," and conservative boys (but not girls)were less likely to describe themselves as "loving," "tender," and"mellow" (Eisenberg-Berg & Mussen, 1980).

Other theories attempt to explain dogmatism and conservatism in general as being a fear management response. According to these theories, dogmatism brings a type of relief from fear caused by uncertainty or the unknown, since,

the common basis for all the variouscomponents of the conservative attitude syndrome is a generalizedsusceptibility to experiencing threat or anxiety in the face ofuncertainty.

(There are) different sources ofthreat or uncertainty, including death, anarchy, foreigners, dissent,complexity, novelty, ambiguity, and social change. Conservativeattitudinal responses to these sources of uncertainty include superstition,religious dogmatism, ethnocentrism, militarism, authoritarianism,punitiveness, conventionality, and rigid morality.

Fear then leads to dogmatism, as the attempt to achieve cognitive closure leads to a desperate search for any ‘firm belief' that can bring certainty and safety in the midst of a confusing world.

A central motivational construct inthe theory of lay epistemics is the need for cognitive closure,which refers to the expedient desire for any firm belief on a giventopic, as opposed to confusion and uncertainty.stronger relation between need for closure and conservatism ....

benefits of possessing cognitive closure include thepotential affordance of predictability and the guidance of action.Consistent with the notion that situations lead people to seek outnonspecific closure, Dittes (1961) found that failure-induced threatcaused research participants to reach "impulsive closure" on anambiguous task....

The consequence of this need for closure, even in ambiguous situations that do not lend themselves to simplistic black and white stereotyping, is dogmatism, and dogmatism in its turn leads to bigotry, an unchanging world view, a tendency to jump to a conclusion and then stick with it (primacy effects in impression formation), to use past stereotypes to label new situations (correspondence in attitude attribution), and to stubbornly resist new evidence and reject anyone with a different opinion.

The need for closure has been found to produce thesame consequences. Specifically, it fosters the tendency to seize oninformation that affords closure and to freeze on closure once it hasbeen attained ... it has been associated with tendencies toengage in social stereotyping (Kruglanski & Freund, 1983), tosuccumb to primacy effects in impression formation (Kruglanski& Freund, 1983; D. M. Webster & Kruglanski, 1994), to exhibitcorrespondence bias in attitude attribution (D. M. Webster, 1993),to resist persuasive influence (Kruglanski, Webster, & Klem,1993), and to reject opinion deviates.

Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory attempts to explain why people often become more conservative during times of war, and other times of social catastrophe that seem to bring out an extremely conservative response in society at large. In particular, dissidents are usually more ruthlessly punished during times of war, than during peace times, as a ruthless intolerance for dissenting opinion becomes more common.

Terror management theory holds that cultural worldviews orsystems of meaning (e.g., religion) provide people with the meansto transcend death, if only symbolically...Fear of death, in turn, engenders adefense of one's cultural worldview (which)will be more heavily endorsed to buffer the resulting anxiety ... defense and justification of theworldview should be intensified, thereby decreasing tolerance ofopposing views and social, cultural, and political alternatives ... people appear to behave more conservatively by shunningand even punishing outsiders and those who threaten the status ofcherished worldviews.

(Fear of death)has also been shown to evoke greater punitiveness,and even aggression, toward those who violate culturalvalues. In one especially memorable study with relevance forpolitical conservatism (Rosenblatt et al., 1989), municipal judgeswere found to set significantly higher bond assessments for prostitutesfollowing a mortality salience manipulation (M $455) ascompared with a control condition (M $50).

What they mean here is that if you are a prosecutor and you want to throw the book at a sex worker you should talk lots about AIDs to the judge (mortality salience manipulation) and the judge will then become more punitive, since manipulation of the fear of death always results in more conservative behavior.

Political conservatives' heightened affinities fortradition, law and order, and strict forms of parental and legalpunishment (including the death penalty) are partially related tofeelings of fear and threat.

Social Dominance Theory

Social dominance theory holds that,

human societies strive to minimize group conflict bydeveloping ideological belief systems that justify the hegemony ofsome groups over others.

This isachieved through the promulgation of various "legitimizingmyths" such as the following: (a) "paternalistic myths," whichassert that dominant groups are needed to lead and take care ofsubordinate groups, who are incapable of leading and taking careof themselves; (b) "reciprocal myths," which claim that a symbioticrelationship exists between dominant and subordinate groupsand that both groups help each other; and (c) "sacred myths,"which allege that positions of dominance and subordination aredetermined by God or some other divine right (see Sidanius, 1993,pp. 207–209). Ideological devices such as these are inherentlyconservative in content because they seek to preserve existinghierarchies of status, power, and wealth and to prevent qualitativesocial change (e.g., Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Items from the SDO Scale tap agreement or disagreement withstatements such as the following: "Some people are just moreworthy than others"; "It is not a problem if some people have moreof a chance in life"; and "This country would be better off if wecared less about how equal all people are."

Scores on the scale have been found also tocorrelate reliably with identification with the Republican party,nationalism, cultural elitism, anti-Black racism, sexism, RWA, andthe belief in a just world (Altemeyer, 1998; Pratto et al., 1994).The scale predicts policy attitudes that are supportive of "law andorder," military spending, and capital punishment, as well asattitudes that are unsupportive of women's rights, racial equality,affirmative action, gay and lesbian rights, and environmental action(see Jost & Thompson, 2000; Pratto et al., 1994).

The researchers note that there is a relationship between high RWA (Right Wing Authoritarian) individuals, who have an idealized conceptualization of authority figures, and high SDO individuals, who typically would prefer to be the authorities themselves, and who feed these justifying mythologies to RWA types, who are ready to accept them.

Right-wing authoritarians, who do not score high on [personal power,meanness, and dominance], seem to be highly prejudiced mainlybecause they were raised to travel in tight, ethnocentric circles; andthey fear that authority and conventions are crumbling so quickly thatcivilization will collapse and they will be eaten in the resulting jungle.In contrast, High SDO's already see life as "dog eat dog" and—compared with most people—are determined to do the eating.

High RWA's are scared. They see the world as a dangerousplace, as society teeters on the brink of self-destruction from evil andviolence. This fear appears to instigate aggression in them. Second,right-wing authoritarians tend to be highly self-righteous. They thinkthemselves much more moral and upstanding than others—a self perceptionconsiderably aided by self-deception, their religious training,and some very efficient guilt evaporators (such as going toconfession). This self-righteousness disinhibits their aggressiveness.

An inventive research program on the dream lives ofliberals and conservatives in the United States found that Republicansreported three times as many nightmares as did Democrats(Bulkeley, 2001). This work, although speculative, suggests thatfear, danger, threat, and aggression may figure more prominentlyin the unconscious motivations of conservatives than liberals.

"Conservatives know theworld is a dark and forbidding place where most new knowledgeis false, most improvements are for the worse" George Will

Together, (RWA and SDO) account for both halves of the "dominance submissiveauthoritarian embrace" ... the most inexorableright-wingers are those who are motivated simultaneously byfear and aggression.

Ateam of researchersfound that high authoritarians were moved significantly more bythreatening messages than by reward messages, whereas low authoritarianswere marginally more influenced by the reward messagethan the threat message. Furthermore, these persuasive effectswere found to carry over into behavioral intentions and actualvoting behaviors.

Stressing losses rather than gains to evoke a prevention (vs.promotion) focus, was found to be associated with relativelylow cognitive complexity, high mental rigidity, a narrowing ofdecision-making alternatives, and conservative and repetitive responsestyles, as well as with inabilities to complete multifacetedtasks and to rebound from failure. Liberman et al. (1999) foundthat individuals in a prevention focus, whether assessed as anindividual-difference dimension or induced situationally throughframing manipulations, were less inclined to switch to a new,substitute task and more likely to return to an old, interrupted task.

System Justification Theory

System justification theory refers to "Group-justifying and system-justifying motives that aresatisfied in a particularly efficient manner by right-wing ideologies."

System justification theory attempts to explain why low status individuals will work so loyally to protect and preserve the status and interests of high ranking individuals, even when this means perpetuating social inequality to the benefit of a small few. The theory,

Stresses the emergence of conservative legitimizingmyths as group-justifying attempts to rationalize the interestsof dominant or high-status group members ... System justification theory focuses on the motivatedtendency for people to do cognitive and ideological work on behalfof the social system, thereby perpetuating the status quo andpreserving inequality ...

People are motivated to engage in this kind of behavior through the employment of mythology which justifies the system, which they then buy into since it satisfies certain motivations they have to perceive the world as sensible and well ordered and just. For example people may work to further the interests of ‘the market economy', even despite its deleterious effects on poorer nations and the enviroment, etc., on the grounds that ‘the market works' or through rationalizing mythology which teaches that the multinational corporate agenda is merely an expression of the most basic human nature and thus inevitable and irresistible.

Through such social justifying mythologies,

People are motivated to perceive existing social arrangementsas fair, legitimate, justifiable, and rational, and perhaps evennatural and inevitable ...(it)is especially well suited toaddress relatively puzzling cases of conservatism and right-wingallegiance among members of low-status groups, such as womenand members of the working class ... those who suffer the most because of the system are alsothose who would have the most to explain, justify, and rationalize.One way to minimize dissonance would be to redouble one'scommitment and support for the system, much as hazed initiatespledge increased loyalty to the fraternity that hazes them ... situations ofcrisis or instability in society will, generally speaking, precipitateconservative, system-justifying shifts to the political right.

Threat to the Stability of the Social System

Another theory which purports to explain the wide spread acceptance of conservatism at certain times in history, is that of threats to the system, however the correlation here is not always as strong, and it obvious that other factors must come into play if a threat to the social system is to benefit far right ideologues.

As the German economy fell precipitously between 1929 and 1932,the number of votes for the Nazi party rose from 800,000 to 17million. History suggests that people do not always move to thepolitical right under conditions of crisis; in the United States, thesame economic depression resulted in a significant left-wingmovement led by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nevertheless, the possibilityremains that a threat to the stability of the social system, suchas that felt in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, may increaseright-wing conservatism, at least under certain circumstances.

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the New YorkTimes has reported significant increases in right-wing populism in thefollowing countries, among others: Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland,Norway, Denmark, and Portugal (Cowell, 2002; Gordon, 2002; Judt, 2002;Krugman, 2002). Conservative or right-wing parties were already on therise in Italy, Austria, and the United States.

During system-threatening times,presidential candidates who were rated as high on power motivation,forcefulness, and strength were elected by larger margins ofvictory than during nonthreatening times. For nine tests of thehypothesis, all conducted with data from the United States butfrom different historical time periods, we found reasonably strongsupport for the notion that threats to the stability of the socialsystem increase politically conservative choices, decisions, andjudgments (weighted mean r .47, p .0001). As Huntington(1957) wrote, "When the foundations of society are threatened, theconservative ideology reminds men of the necessity of someinstitutions and desirability of the existing ones"


For the better part of the first part of their research paper, the authors focus on the various theories of conservatism, and during the latter part of the paper they then attempt a synthesis of the various approaches. The previous studies all tended to analyze conservatism based on three separate types of motivations, Epistemic, Existential, and IdeologicalMotives.

They list eight elements that fit into any one of these three categories...

We consider evidence for and against the hypothesesthat political conservatism is significantly associated with (1)mental rigidity and closed-mindedness, including (a) increaseddogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, (b) decreased cognitivecomplexity, (c) decreased openness to experience, (d) uncertaintyavoidance, (e) personal needs for order and structure, and (f) needfor cognitive closure; (2) lowered self-esteem; (3) fear, anger, andaggression; (4) pessimism, disgust, and contempt; (5) loss prevention;(6) fear of death; (7) threat arising from social and economicdeprivation; and (8) threat to the stability of the social system.

Wehave argued that these motives are in fact related to one anotherpsychologically, and our motivated social–cognitive perspectivehelps to integrate them. We now offer an integrative, meta-analyticreview of research on epistemic, existential, and ideological basesof conservatism.

The remainder of the paper is devoted to justifying the hypotheses by presenting and discussing data sets, presented as large tables of data which represent research results, and thus any reader interested in the discussion of the hypotheses and the integration of the research results is best directed to the actual paper itself. As you can tell by that list of eight items above, the Republicans in congress were not to pleased with the results of their research and the conclusions that they drew based on the analytical data sets. Let's just say it is not exactly a flattering list, to say the least, but science is based on data, and what the research indicates is that correlations do in fact exist between scoring high on such things and also identifying with conservatism and the right wing.

In their paper the authors point out that much more research has been done in this century on right wing extremism than has been the case of left wing extremism, and so they conclude that some of their conclusions might be conditional on more research in this neglected area being done. One of the reasons why right wing extremism has been so heavily studied is the fact that this century has been convulsed so violently by right wing extremism, notable examples being Hitler and Mussolini, and the kind of national extremism that resulted in such bloody conflicts as World War One. These great disasters led to great interest in studying conservatism and the right wing in general since there is an obvious correlation manifestations of conservatism and the potentiality for just this kind of destructive right wing extremism that was one of the tragedies of the previous century...While angered Republicans in Congress might raise a hue and cry about ‘bias' and ‘unfair criticism of conservatism and the right wing' it is a fact that right wing extremism was one of the most damaging movements of the last century, not just in loss of life (Nazism, and third world right wing despotism) but also in ruin of lives (McCarthyism) and it is for this reason that so much attention has been focused on studying and understanding right wing tendencies (not just simply a desire to express a bias).

The disadvantaged might embraceright-wing ideologies under some circumstances to reduce fear,anxiety, dissonance, uncertainty, or instability (e.g., Jost, Pelham,Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003; Lane, 1962; Nias, 1973), whereas theadvantaged might gravitate toward conservatism for reasons ofself-interest or social dominance

We thus see in the case of fascism that ideological content andstructure support each other. There is no incompatibility betweenthem and thus psychological conflict is not engendered or guiltfeelings aroused. For this reason, authoritarian ideological structuresmay be psychologically more reconcilable—more easily "attachable"—to ideologies that are antidemocratic than to those that aredemocratic in content. If a person's underlying motivations are servedby forming a closed belief system, then it is more than likely that hismotivations can also be served by embracing an ideology that isblatantly anti-equalitarian. If this is so, it would account for thesomewhat greater affinity we have observed between authoritarianbelief structure and conservatism than between the same belief structureand liberalism. (p. 127)

Extremely conservative and authoritarianattitudes may lead ... to an activelyhostile or dominant approach to dealing with socially sanctionedscapegoats and devalued out-groups (and) may lead to a more passively submissiveor deferential posture toward authorities, which would make itssubscribers ideal candidates to follow the next Hitler or Mussolini. Thus, extremeright-wing attitudes "lock" people into a "dominance submissiveauthoritarian embrace".