How Fear of a Physical Threat Can Foster Social Conservatism

New research confirms right-wing resistance to change is based largely in fear.
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It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a less-rigid social conservative!

That's a less-than-tantalizing tagline for the next Superman movie. But it does reflect the findings of a new study, which finds that conservatives are less resistant to social change if they imagine they have a superpower that makes them impervious to physical harm.

"Safety and security can foster more progressive attitudes," writes a research team led by psychologist Jaime Napier of New York University–Abu Dhabi. "Just as threats can turn liberals into conservatives, safety can turn conservatives into liberals—at last while those feelings of threat or safety last."

Political psychologists have established a strong link between fear and social conservatism. One line of research suggests this is, at least in part, biologically based; there is evidence that engaging in risky behavior creates stronger negative emotions in conservatives than liberals. Other studies have found fear can temporarily turn liberals in a rightward direction, which explains why support for George W. Bush's policies spiked following the 9/11 attacks.

But the inverse also appears to be true. At least, that's the implication of two studies Napier and her colleagues describe in the European Journal of Social Psychology. The first featured 145 people (two-thirds of whom were female) recruited from a university-based online pool.

They began by reading one of two versions of a vignette, in which they visualized being gifted with a specific superpower. For half, this power made them "invulnerable to physical harm." For the others, it gave them the ability to fly.

After writing "a few sentences about how they felt" about this opportunity, they reported their political party affiliation, and estimated how liberal or conservative they were on social issues and, separately, on economic concerns.

Republicans who were ruminating about physical invulnerability were significantly less socially conservative (by their own report) than those who thought about the ability to fly. The idea of being impervious to pain reduced the difference between Democrats and Republicans on the social-conservativism scale by more than half.

The second study, which featured 128 people, used the same two vignettes. Participants reported their general political orientation on a scale of one (very liberal) to nine (very conservative), and then responded to four statements assessing "their resistance to change and acceptance of inequality."

The researchers report that thinking about being invulnerable "significantly reduced conservatives' resistance to change, but did not have a reliable impact on attitudes about inequality." As with the first study, liberals' attitudes were not affected by the manipulation.

The results suggest that "physical threat is especially tied to people's attitudes concerning preserving the social order and resisting social change," Napier and her colleagues conclude. "Increasing people's sense of safety did make them more socially liberal, but did not influence their stance on economic issues."

If liberals hope to soften what they see as the narrow-minded views of social conservatives, a smart strategy will start with acknowledging—and, to the extent possible, assuaging—the fear that underpins such beliefs.

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