Breaking the Link Between Fear and Conservatism

New research suggests the contemplation of compassion can negate the power of threat to increase support for conservative values.
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New research suggests the contemplation of compassion can negate the power of threat to increase support for conservative values.

The notion that "threat causes liberals to think like conservatives," to quote the title of a 2009 paper, has been repeatedly confirmed by social psychologists. But can that link — which arguably contributed to the re-election of President Bush in 2004 — be broken? A newly published paper suggests it can.

Writing in the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, a research team led by psychologist Kenneth E. Vail of the University of Missouri, Columbia, asserts that reminders of our mortality can cut both ways in terms of influencing political opinion.

Vail and his colleagues, including Tom Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, describe a 2008 study in which 91 undergraduates were asked to focus on either a) the emotions that arise when they consider their own deaths, or b) the feelings that come up when they ponder the issue of uncertainty.

Half of each group then read and evaluated a series of quotations on the subject of compassion. Finally, all were asked whether they intended to vote for Barack Obama or John McCain in the upcoming presidential election.

As expected, the researchers found that "in the absence of compassionate values being primed, reminders of mortality led to greater support for McCain." But among those who had just been contemplating the notion of compassion, thinking about one's personal mortality led to increased support of Obama. (Both levels of support were measured against the control group, which consisted of the participants who had contemplated the notion of uncertainty.)

The scholars contend this provides "clear and direct evidence" that mortality-based threat is "capable of motivating support for either conservative or progressive politicians, depending on the values that are salient at the time."

John Jost isn't so sure. The New York University psychologist was lead author of a 2003 meta-analysis that linked threat with conservatism. He noted in an e-mail interview that the new paper essentially confirms his contention, pointing to its finding that for the participants in the neutral condition (that is, those who thought about uncertainty), the notion of threat led them to lean rightward.

Why is this so? Quoting a colleague, Jost wrote that "threat leads to increased cognitive narrowing (black/white thinking, a heightened need for closure), which in turn leads to a preference for conservative rhetoric and ideology."

Jost added that this dynamic — the bane of liberals everywhere — will likely hold true unless some way is found "of getting everyone who walks into a voting booth to write a brief essay about the virtues of compassion before they pull the lever."

Indeed, given the fact so many political campaigns are fear-based, it's difficult to imagine a scenario where too many people enter the voting booth with the notion of compassion in the forefront of their minds. So the threat-increases-conservatism dynamic appears secure.

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