Political Opinion, Not Pathology

The Washington Post

Thursday, August 28, 2003; Page A27

By Arie W. Kruglanski and John T. Jost*

In the May issue of Psychological Bulletin, we published a review that statistically summarizes dozens of studies conducted over 50 years dealing with psychological differences associated with left- vs. right-wing thinking. Based on this literature, we found that the likelihood of adopting conservative rather than liberal political opinions is significantly correlated, among other psychological dimensions, with a sense of societal instability, fear of death, intolerance of ambiguity, need for closure, lower cognitive complexity and a sense of threat.

Apparently without reading our original articles or attempting to contact any of us, many commentators and syndicated columnists, including Ann Coulter and Cal Thomas -- George Will [op-ed, Aug. 10] apparently read but misunderstood our work) -- assumed that such a psychological analysis of ideology entails a judgment that conservatism must be abnormal, pathological or even the result of mental illness. The British media seem to have settled on the highly stigmatized and equally inaccurate term "neuroses." All of this reflects a crude and outdated perception of psychological research.

Historically, some of the better known psychological analyses of right-wing thinking, especially the famous Adorno et al. volume on "The Authoritarian Personality" (1950), assumed that anti-Semitism and racial intolerance were consequences of faulty parenting styles and traumatic childhood experiences. The German psychologist Erich Jantsch in 1938 had described liberalism as morbid. We part ways with these and other theories based on a "medical model" that ranks political orientations on dimensions of abnormality. All the variables we have reviewed pertain to normal cognitive and motivational functioning. We would argue that all beliefs have a partial basis in one's needs, fears and desires, including beliefs that form one's political ideology. Our research has identified several factors that seem to underlie the propensity to find conservative vs. liberal thought systems appealing.

It's wrong to conclude that our results provide only bad news for conservatives. True, we find some support for the traditional "rigidity-of-the-right" hypothesis, but it is also true that liberals could be characterized on the basis of our overall profile as relatively disorganized, indecisive and perhaps overly drawn to ambiguity -- all of which may be liabilities in mass politics and other public and professional domains. Because we assume that all beliefs (ideological, scientific and otherwise) are partially (but never completely) determined by one's needs, fears and desires, we see nothing pathological about this process. It is simply part of what it means to be human. Our "trade-off" model of human psychology assumes that any trait or motivation has potential advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation. A heightened sensitivity to threat and uncertainty is by no means maladaptive in all contexts. Even closed-mindedness may be useful, provided one tends to have a closed mind about appropriate values and accurate opinions; a reluctance to abandon one's prior convictions in favor of new fads can be a good thing. The important task for social scientists is to identify the conditions under which each of these cognitive and motivational styles is beneficial, rather than touting one or the other as inherently and invariably superior.

Our findings highlight the importance of situations and historical factors that can produce political shifts by affecting psychological needs pertaining to uncertainty and threat. The need to achieve closure and to resolve ambiguity, for example, are heightened under conditions of destabilizing uncertainty (for example, with the outbreak of terrorism, economic turmoil or political instability). Thus our research is best understood as addressing the cognitive and motivational bases of conservatism (and liberalism) rather than the personalities of conservatives (and liberals).

We readily acknowledge that identifying the motivational underpinnings of a belief system does not constitute a valid argument in a political debate any more than it does in scientific debates. What counts is the cogency of the political arguments and the degree to which they fit with independently verifiable facts and reasonable assumptions. When the dust settles on the current debate, we hope that these important messages will be seen as the real focus of our research. 

John T. Jost is an associate professor in Stanford's Graduate School of Business. This article was written in collaboration with Jack Glaser and Frank J. Sulloway, both of the University of California at Berkeley.  

Representative Publications

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition.

    Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339-375.

    Download full article: Jostetal2003.pdf

Greenberg, J., & Jonas, E. (2003). Psychological motives and political orientation - The left, the right, and the rigid: Comment on

    Jost et al. (2003). Psychological Bulletin, 129, 376-382.

    Download full article: GreenbergJonas2003.pdf

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Exceptions that prove the rule - Using a theory of motivated

    social cognition to account for ideological incongruities and political anomalies: Reply to Greenberg and Jonas (2003).    

    Psychological Bulletin, 129, 383-393.

    Download full article: Jostetal2003-reply.pdf


BBC appearance (August 13, 2003)