Skip to main content

Threats, Anxieties Ingredients of Conservativism

Conservative ideas, like support for the status quo and justifications for inequality, can make the world seem like a more secure place for those who don't like uncertainty.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Over the past year, a conservative right-wing movement has found a loud political voice in the United States. Strongly anti-government, the movement seems largely oriented around a message that anything the Obama administration wishes to accomplish is an attack on American tradition, and it is up to them to stop this radical socialist agenda emanating from Washington to preserve the country.

This burst of activity has left some asking where such a rush of conservative energy might come from. Is it a response to the anxiety and uncertainty of tough economic times? Does having an African-American president have anything to do with it?

According to some new research on the cognitive origins of political conservatism, the answers may be yes and yes.

Miriam Matthews, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the Claremont Graduate University, Shana Levin, an associate profess of psychology at Claremont McKenna College, and Jim Sidanius, a professor of psychology and African-American studies at Harvard University, have found evidence that both general feelings of threat and specific anxiety about other ethnic groups sometimes do lead individuals to embrace two tenets of political conservatism — support for the status quo and a belief that there is a natural social hierarchy to society. These tenets provide a salve for uncertainties and anxieties by offering a belief system in which there is a strong order to things.

This theory was originally elaborated in a 2003 paper, "Political conservatism as motivated social cognition," by John T. Jost and colleagues. They posit that individuals embrace political conservatism to satisfy internal needs for order, structure and closure in the face of uncertainty, complexity and fear. The paper was based on a meta-analysis of numerous studies showing that people who were more uncomfortable with complexity and ambiguity generally tended to also be more conservative. (For more on Jost's work, see here and here.)

But correlation does not provide causation, and Matthews and colleagues wanted to know: Did conservative ideas make people more anxious or vice versa? To evaluate how this process played out over time, they analyzed survey data on almost 1,000 undergraduates at the University of California, Los Angeles, as they progressed through four years of college. The findings are reported in Political Psychology.

"The research is built on the idea that conservatism is an ideology that is in response to both motivations and cognitions, and that fear and uncertainty and threat stimulate certain motivations," Matthews explained.

The survey first measured students' threat perceptions by asking them how much they agreed with the statement, "More good jobs for other groups come at the expense of fewer good jobs for members of my group." And it measured something scholars call "intergroup anxiety" by asking students to evaluate the statement: "I feel uneasy around people of different ethnicities."

The survey also measured students' attitudes on something called the social dominance orientation scale (a measure of how much individuals believe in the superiority of certain groups over others and are thus unconcerned about inequality), and evaluated students' support for system justification (a measure of whether one believes that the current distribution of resources is fair).

Finally, the students were asked about their political identification: How strongly did they identify as being either a Democrat or a Republican?

By measuring how students answers' to these questions changed over the four years, the researchers showed that the higher a student scored on questions regarding threat perception and discomfort around other ethnicities as freshmen, the higher they scored on both the social dominance and the system justification scales as sophomores and juniors. (Not surprisingly, the two measures were highly correlated.)

And sophomores and juniors with high social dominance orientation and system justification scores became more politically conservative as seniors. In other words, there was a process in which threats and anxieties led students to adopt particular political beliefs that helped them to deal with those threats and anxieties.

"What makes it really interesting is that using very conservative methods, and looking at processes over time, we still found that there was a conservative shift in response to threat perceptions," said Matthews. "A lot of people just treat conservatism as a personality variable that doesn't change, but that doesn't seem to be the case. It seems to be influenced by the situation, and it can be affected by threat perceptions."

Though this study looked only at individuals, it is not hard to extrapolate. Many studies have documented the extent to which national political moods shift rightward in response to external threats, such as 9/11. For example, one study found that, between 2001 and 2004, President Bush's approval ratings peaked in response to terrorism warnings.

Currently, however, with unemployment now topping 10 percent, economic uncertainty is probably weighing more heavily. And there is good reason to think that this kind of uncertainty might be one factor underlying the current conservative movement.

"There is a lot of research into the connection between economic threats and increasing conservatism," said Matthews. "And it makes sense because you've got this idea of resistance to changing the social system because the system seems so unstable, you want to stick with what you know, what seems familiar."

And then, of course, there is the tricky issue of race. America now has its first African-American president. And as the research described here suggests, there seems to be a direct link from "intergroup anxiety" to political conservatism. If having an African-American president makes this anxiety more salient for certain segments of society, it might indeed heighten their turn to system-justifying and social-dominance feelings and lead to increased conservatism.

In addition to offering some insights into the current political climate, the idea of conservatism as motivated cognition also points to some reasons why people tend to grow more conservative as they grow older. Fear of death may loom larger as a threat, as might a feeling of being increasingly out of touch with the world. This might lead individuals to worldviews that give them more security and stability, hence making them more conservative.

Not surprisingly, this study has not sat well with conservatives. But Matthews wants to be clear: "We're not saying that conservatism is completely crazy. We're just trying to figure out what are all the possible factors that contribute to conservatism. And there can be a shift toward conservatism when managing uncertainty gets to be a little more difficult."