Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What makes a conservative?

Today, Mr. Sullivan has a link up to a very provocative article in Psychology Today about what personality traits go into a person becoming politically conservative or liberal.

It begins by talking about a woman who went from being staunchly left to staunchly right after 9/11, and discovered so many other people that had done the same thing that she even formed a group called the 911 Neocons. I totally disagree with her reasoning (On the political left, she wrote, "There was little sympathy for the victims," and it seemed to her that progressives were "consumed with hatred for this country" and had "extended their misguided sympathies to tyrants and terrorists."), but it makes for an interesting foundation on which to write about various studies conducted on what exactly goes into political determinates.

A lot of it talks about personality traits such as liberals being messier, more voracious readers of a more broad range of subject matter, less religious, people who enjoy traveling more, etc etc. Which is all very interesting I guess, but what really fascinated me was the studies they did on childhood dispositions and political affilitions. You can take it for what it's worth (and the scientists insist that the evidence is emperical, proveable, and non-biased) but they had this to say:

In 1969, Berkeley professors Jack and Jeanne Block embarked on a study of childhood personality, asking nursery school teachers to rate children's temperaments. They weren't even thinking about political orientation.

Twenty years later, they decided to compare the subjects' childhood personalities with their political preferences as adults. They found arresting patterns. As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the Blocks hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics.

Aside from that, and this would seem to back up the above finding, the article talks about how a fear of death and cultural zeitgeist has as much to do with political leanings as anything, hence the upsurge in support for Bush after 9/11. They talk about numerous tests performed on people who make close associations with death (or with 9/11 specifically) and how that affects their answers about social and political issues immediately afterwards as opposed to the same questions when asked to just "think rationally" about them for 30 seconds. The results are pretty astounding.

To test the theory, Jost prompted people to think about either pain—by looking at things like an ambulance, a dentist's chair, and a bee sting—or death, by looking at things like a funeral hearse, the grim reaper, and a dead-end sign. Across the political spectrum, people who had been primed to think about death were more conservative on issues like immigration, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage than those who had merely thought about pain, although the effect size was relatively small. The implication is clear: For liberals, conservatives, and independents alike, thinking about death actually makes people more conservative—at least temporarily.

And then:

Solomon and his colleagues prompted two groups to think about death and then give opinions about a pro-American author and an anti-American one. As expected, the group that thought about death was more pro-American than the other. But the second time, one group was asked to make gut-level decisions about the two authors, while the other group was asked to consider carefully and be as rational as possible. The results were astonishing. In the rational group, the effects of mortality salience were entirely eliminated. Asking people to be rational was enough to neutralize the effects of reminders of death. Preliminary research shows that reminding people that as human beings, the things we have in common eclipse our differences—what psychologists call a "common humanity prime"—has the same effect.

"People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."

The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.

1 comment:

karen said...

I feel like such a dummy lately! All I read are fashion and home decorating magazines. I haven't even been reading the Times on the weekend, except to scan the headlines and read the Real Estate section.
I need to get with the program and stop turning into a superficial, materialistic New Yorker.
Thanks for being such a smarty-pants.