a plea for subtler work on the psychology of political ideologies

I don’t study this topic closely, but I gather there’s a lot of research that asks survey subjects their ideology (on a scale from very liberal to very conservative) and sometimes whether they identify as Democrats or Republicans. They are also asked about their attitudes and opinions, and they may be exposed to stimuli, such as watching a treatment video versus a control video. The researchers investigate whether the liberals and conservatives in the sample seem to differ psychologically. So one reads results like this:

Research participants who held more culturally conservative attitudes were more likely to score higher on measures of the belief that knowledge is certain, dogmatism, need to evaluate, and fear of death. They also scored lower on need for cognition than did their less conservative counterparts. Moreover, participants who scored higher on cultural conservatism were more likely to exhibit dogmatic aggression.

I am concerned about the effects of this kind of research: predominantly liberal academics design studies (with control over all the subtleties) and announce unflattering generalizations about conservatives. If these generalizations are true and valid, so be it. But I also have my suspicions about validity. “Liberal” and “conservative,” after all, name very loose configurations of political ideologies that overlap and that vary profoundly over time. I’m told that today, self-identified liberals score higher on tolerance for ambiguity and take more pleasure in irony. I can imagine that the ironists of 1930 were the conservatives, whereas New Dealers were straight-arrows who wanted clear, linear, and explicit arguments and had no tolerance for the reactionary forces arrayed against them. It’s well known that many neoconservatives converted from Marxism, and those two character types seems consistent. As Emerson might say:

Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many–colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. …  Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung.

One temperament may unite neoconservatives and Marxists, but Burkeans of right and left seem to be be strung on their own wire. Ayn Rand wasn’t exactly an ironist, but Evelyn Waugh was, and he was arguably the true conservative. I’d propose that if we disaggregated the big blocs of conservatives and liberals for the purpose of psychological research, we’d get much more valid and interesting results.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.