Since the pioneering study the “authoritarian personality” by Adorno et al (1954), the psychology of politics has moved on both in theory and empirical findings. Our own work, published in The Psychology of Conservatism (1973), focused on a dimension relating to resistance to change and dislike of complexity, sometimes called “conservatism with a small C”. We identified a general factor underlying attitudes across all fields that seemed to reflect a fundamental personality trait. Why should attitudes toward “the death penalty” predict those toward “evolution”, “fluoridation”, “jazz” and “premarital sex”? On the face of it these issues seem unconnected, but something was causing them to cohere. We hypothesised that the organizing force underlying this attitude constellation was fear of uncertainty and that it was to some degree inborn.
The C-Scale we devised to measure this trait used a “catch-phrase” item format rather than lengthy, leading statements, because it was closer to the emotional core of the attitude. The idea was that if enough randomly chosen controversial issues were included (their topicality varying over time), each would faucet some element of general conservatism and their specific variance would cancel out (rather as IQ scores provides a measure of general ability averaged across various cognitive skills).
Evidence that conservatism derives from fear of uncertainty has accumulated in recent decades (Jost, 2006). Among the variables that predict conservatism are death anxiety, fear of threat and loss, intolerance of ambiguity, dislike for complexity, and needs for order and structure. In our own studies we found that conservatives (relative to liberals) liked music that is familiar and predictable, art that is simple and representational, and humor that is non-tendentious (safe) and which provides “incongruity resolution” (a sense of closure) (Wilson, 1990).
Confirmation that conservatism derives from fearful emotions comes from a study of physiological responses to threat signals. Oxley et al (2008) measured startle reflexes (eyeblink magnitudes) to sudden, loud noises and increases in skin conductance to threatening visual images (e.g., spiders and open wounds). Conservatives showed higher fear responses to threat signals on both indicators, pointing to the involvement of neural activity patterns in the amygdala. Others have shown that conservatism relates to disgust sensitivity, indexed by squeamishness towards insects and insanitary conditions (Inbar et al, 2011) and that reminders of cleanliness (e.g., notices about the importance of washing hands) shift attitudes in a conservative direction (Helzer & Pizzaro, 2011).
The Psychology of Conservatism was an important book because it helped generate a wealth of research on a major dimension of social attitudes that reflects personality and motivational factors. It is very gratifying to see its reissue 40 years down the line.
For further information or to order a copy, visit www.routledge.com/9780415661652
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