Skip to main content

Political Ideology Is Surprisingly Malleable

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Liberals and conservatives routinely accuse one another of ideological rigidity. But in fact, when it comes to political and social issues, Americans — and Canadians as well — are remarkably malleable. That's the conclusion of two separate studies just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The first of these has the self-explanatory title "Threat Causes Liberals to Think Like Conservatives." It describes three experiments conducted by a research team led by Paul R. Nail of the University of Central Arkansas and Ian McGregor at York University. The tests began by measuring the ideological positions of the participants (who were either American or Canadian college students). They then explored whether the introduction of a threatening element would push those on the left more toward the right.

In one test, the participants read one of two news stories about a major corporate scandal involving illegal activity. In the first version of the story, given to half the group, the executive in charge was appropriately prosecuted; in the second, he got away with his crimes due to a legal technicality. The latter story was concocted to promote a sense of threat, presumably because such a miscarriage of justice implies the world is not a fair or rational place.

The students then read one of two essays purportedly written by a foreign-exchange student. One expressed views highly critical of the U.S., while the other extolled the nation's virtues. The students were asked to evaluate both, grading them for accuracy and fairness.

Conservatives, not surprisingly, reacted more favorably to the pro-American essay. But so did liberals who had previously read the news report about the corporate criminal who escaped punishment.

"When not under threat, liberals were more open to criticism of their in-group than were conservatives," the researchers report. "Under threat, however, liberals became just as conservative as conservatives," bristling at the anti-American statements in the negative essay.

In another study, half the students were asked to describe in writing the feelings that are evoked by thoughts of their own death. All of the participants were then surveyed on the issue of health benefits for gay couples. The result: "Liberals' anti-gay sentiment was significantly greater" when the left-leaning students had first thought about their own mortality.

The researchers conclude that a sense of threat "caused liberals to become as conservative as conservatives chronically were," even though the issue at hand (anti-American sentiment, gay rights) had nothing to do with the implied threat. To these scholars, this confirms the notion that conservatism "is a defensive reaction against feelings of personal vulnerability."

In other words, if you feel threatened — even if the threat is vague — you're more likely to identify closely with your own "tribe" and view outsiders warily. In political terms, that generally correlates with a conservative ideology.

In a separate study titled "Political Mindset,"students from a prestigious American university were asked to explain their academic success by focusing on their hard work, self-discipline and wise decisions, or by emphasizing the role of chance, opportunity and the help of others. Those in the first group were effectively primed to think in conservative terms (equating success with personal merit), while those in the second were primed to think in liberal terms (equating success with good fortune).

All participants then read four vignettes dramatizing specific social issues, including affirmative action and capital punishment, and expressed their views on the controversies. The results: Participants in the "personal merit" condition expressed consistently more conservative opinions than those in the "good fortune" condition.

"This demonstration offers support for the hypothesis that political judgments are not only the product of individual differences and stable social forces; they are also the product of situational activation of available schemas and knowledge structures," concluded the research team, led by Christopher J. Bryan of Stanford University.

So, if we feel threatened in some way, or become convinced (even temporarily) that our success is primarily a matter of personal merit, we're more likely to come down on the conservative side during political debates. But if we feel safe, and concede that luck and the help of others helped got us where we are today, we're more likely to lean left.

Since people tend to move back and forth on those questions, depending upon circumstance and mood, we are vulnerable to political manipulation by candidates, their speechwriters and the people who create their ads. So next election cycle, it might be worth stepping back to determine what mindset those 30-second spots are trying to put you in — and whether they succeeded.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.