Political Opinion, Not Pathology
By Arie W. Kruglanski and John T. Jost
Thursday, August 28, 2003; Page A27
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this reflects a crude and outdated perception of psychological
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.
Arie W. Kruglanski is distinguished university professor of
psychology at the University of Maryland. 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.