Here is an excellent interview of Situationist contributor John Jost by an intern from the Breakthrough Institute.
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Why is the study of political psychology important?
At its best, political psychology has the potential to improve, on the basis of reason and evidence, our political institutions and public policies so that they are more congruent with what we know about human behavior. Social and political psychologists have, over the decades, offered sophisticated analyses and practical interventions with regard to stereotyping, prejudice, authoritarianism, sexism, aggression, nationalism, terrorism, war, and conflict resolution. [See Political Psychology book here.]
You conclude that fear motivates conservatism, but does this mean progressives should avoid fear-based appeals entirely? What about when dealing with genuinely scary things like terrorism and global warming?
For decades social psychologists have known that fear-based appeals in and of themselves are unhelpful and counterproductive, because they lead people either to deny problems that are too painful to face or to simply feel helpless and incapacitated. I think that we see both of these responses to the threat of global warming all the time. So, if you use a fear-based appeal you must simultaneously provide people with a clear, constructive solution to the problem.
In general, conservatives are much better than progressives at doing that, maybe because progressives tend to get bogged down in a complex, overly nuanced analysis of the problem. “We’ll kill all the terrorists,” may be an unrealistic goal (even setting aside the question of whether it’s a desirable goal), but it does assuage the fear, at least temporarily, in clear and unambiguous terms. Even with regard to global warming, conservatives (when they admit the problem) state simply that, “The market will fix it.” That’s simple and makes people feel better in the short run, even if it turns out to be false. Progressives who use fear-based appeals need to get better at communicating a clear (and reassuring) solution whenever the threat is made salient. Otherwise, I think that it will backfire.
What are some examples of the ways progressives have dealt with fear effectively?
I think that in the U.S. context, the best historical example is probably Franklin D. Roosevelt, who famously declared in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” This statement reframes the whole question of what the real threat is, highlighting the fact that fear can be a truly destructive political force, and that it can erode democratic systems from within, as Roosevelt was about to see with respect to Europe.
But Roosevelt did not stop at the level of rhetoric. He proceeded to roll out dozens of specific social and economic programs that were clearly designed to address the economic fears of the citizenry. For the most part he presented these solutions in clear, confident, certain terms. The solutions he proposed were unabashedly liberal, and he explained why they were good solutions for the problems that faced the nation. In other words, he promised to solve the problems and, in many ways, he did.
What kind of response does your work get from conservatives?
Conservatives are typically more bothered by oversimplified (mis)representations that sometimes spread through the media (especially the blogosphere), than by the actual details of our research. Once they learn about it, conservatives are prone to concede that there are personality and/or cognitive style differences between liberals and conservatives. There is obviously a difference between saying that conservatives score higher (on average) than liberals on personal needs for order or structure and saying that conservatives are stupid or crazy, but some people can’t (or, more likely, don’t want to) grasp the difference.
There are several ironies concerning the most hostile responses, though. Some people send hate mail that tends to confirm the worst, most authoritarian picture one could have of extreme conservatives. They are hardly helping their cause, it seems to me. Other negative responses in the blogosphere run the gamut from “ho hum,” “this is obvious,” and “we already knew this” to “this is outrageous” and “what bullshit.” Well, it can’t be both trivially true and spectacularly false. We need to conduct research in psychology because everyone thinks they know what really drives their own behavior (and that of others) and also because nearly everything about psychology sounds obvious once you know it to be true.
One might conclude from your study that conservatism is almost an aberrant behavior — a coping mechanism of sorts. Was this your intention?
No, I think that comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of psychology as a discipline; people assume that if psychologists are studying it, then it must be pathological in some way. In fact the opposite is probably closer to the truth in this case. Conservatism is intuitive, ordinary, commonplace, and probably has natural psychological advantages over liberalism. It makes a great deal of sense that when people feel threatened they would stick to what is familiar and known, that is, the status quo. All of us, even progressives, want to feel good about most of the customs, traditions, and institutions that surround us, and it can be a painful, disillusioning process when we feel disappointed in our country, its leaders, and its institutions.
To use one of the terms that is central to our research program, I think that everyone is motivated—at least to some degree—to engage in “system justification.” In this respect, I think that liberals and progressives are probably at a disadvantage. The notion that we should tolerate and respect people who are different from us and that we should offer equal protection even to those who reject or flout traditional norms is somewhat counterintuitive, in a psychological sense. In the context of human history as a whole, this liberal, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarian view is newer and far more of an “aberration.” As a philosophical belief system or a cultural innovation, it could be considered an accomplishment of our species, insofar as it was unlikely to catch on given our evolutionary background.
You posit that “resistance to change” and “acceptance of inequality” are the core dimensions of conservative thought. What are the core dimensions of liberal and progressive thought?
Actually, what we say is that at the core of the left-right (or liberal-conservative) distinction there are two basic values or polar orientations: (1) advocating vs. resisting social change, and (2) rejecting vs. accepting social and economic inequality. These two aspects tend to be correlated because traditional social arrangements were hierarchical and authority-based, and over the last several centuries most of the challenges to the status quo have been in the direction of increased rather than decreased egalitarianism. Thus, as a general rule, leftists are more in favor of social change and egalitarianism (with respect to outcomes as well as opportunities), whereas rightists are more in favor of tradition and more supportive of hierarchical social systems.
One of my former doctoral students, Hulda Thorisdottir, conducted what is probably the best applied test of our ideas in her dissertation work. She conducted several experiments in which she demonstrated that threatening stimuli (such as frightening movie clips) elicit a temporary increase in closed-mindedness (measured with a subset of items from the “need for cognitive closure” scale) and that increased closed-mindedness was associated with an affinity for conservative policies and opinions. She also showed that threat can increase approval of liberal policies, but only when those policies are communicated using certainty-oriented language. That is, liberal opinions must be offered as confident, unambiguously good solutions that will definitely solve the basic problem. Otherwise, they are dismissed under conditions of threat.
What do you think of the current economic panic in this country? Alan Greenspan recently observed that the current economic mess is “the most wrenching” since World War II; Fortune magazine’s Allan Sloan, who’s been covering the business of business for decades says, “I’m more nervous about the world financial system than I’ve ever been in 40 years.”
Yes, I do think that there are serious economic concerns looming, and the yawning gap between rich and poor has created an opportunity for the country to make an economic left turn. The Democratic candidate for president should make a note to himself (or herself), just as Bill Clinton did in 1992, that says, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But I do not think that panic helps progressives, as I said before, because fear inhibits the desire to experiment with bold, new initiatives, and that is the essence of progressive thinking. Progressives in the 21st century need to be as bold and creative as their predecessors in the last century who made the U.S. a moral leader on the world stage and not just a military and industrial leader. More than ever, progressives need to offer clear, courageous, and scientifically compelling solutions to the many problems that confront us. The solutions they propose should be realistic and congruent with what we know about the causes of human behavior; that is, they should be informed by political psychology.
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