Psychobabble as motivated political liberalism

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A number of my colleagues in academia seem to be confused about the nature of the two major political forces in America these days. A particularly egregious example of this was a recent article in the American Psychological Association's journal Psychological Bulletin ("Political conservatism as motivated social cognition", Psychol Bull. 2003 May;129(3):339-75 by Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway) which tries to link conservatives such as George W. Bush and Rush Limbaugh with the mass murderers Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. "The core ideology of conservatism," wrote the authors, "stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat." Using a form of logic unknown to ordinary earthlings, they use this premise to conclude that dictators fear change, and therefore they can be put in the same category as the guy in the local redneck bar who thinks, for some unfathomable reason, that all academics are brainless dweebs.

Some of the many political commentators who have criticized this paper do not appear to have read it in its entirety. Nonetheless, even a passing assertion in the normally truth-respecting and cautious scientific literature that Stalin, Castro, and Hitler were all "conservatives", as this paper claims, is remarkable, and invites close scrutiny of their methodology and reasoning.

From the very start, the paper characterizes conservatives using value-laden terms based on outdated liberal stereotypes. Conservatives are "authoritarian", "dogmatic", "closed-minded", and "intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty" and have a "strong need for cognitive closure". By page 12 of this paper, the paper succumbs entirely to the prevailing left-coast mythology about conservatives, declaring that "fear and uncertainty are centrally linked to the core convictions of political conservatives to resist change and justify inequality."

This work is heavily influenced by R. A. Altemeyer, the author of Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right-Wing Authoritarianism, a book that has been described by workers in his own field as "pseudoscientific" and as politics disguised as psychology. Such was Altemeyer's need for cognitive closure that when no one who was tested on his ill-fated LWA (Left-Wing Authoritarian) scale ever achieved a high score, he concluded, improbably enough, not that his scale had some flaw, but that left-wing authoritarianism does not exist. This will no doubt come as a relief to those who survived the 74 years of left-wing tyranny in Soviet Russia.

Similarly, Jost et al. looked through history and found--lo and behold--that all the people they disliked, including Stalin, Hitler, Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro, were actually "conservatives". The reasoning is so self-evidently circular that the authors could only have formed their conclusions about who would match these traits beforehand; indeed, the authors would do well to read the article by A.L. Brownstein titled "Biased predecision processing", which appeared in the subsequent issue of the same journal, where the author discusses, in the context of cognitive dissonance and groupthink, how people redefine the world to suit their pre-established beliefs. In fact, it may safely be said that left-wing groupthink is the prevailing tone of the article. (In fairness, however, the authors do have some good words to say about conservative George F. Will).

The One-Nut Theory

This paper provoked outrage among conservatives (that is, real conservatives, not the mass-murdering left-wing Communist dictator kind) and dismay among scientists who had hoped that the field of psychology, with its still-tenuous association with harder sciences like neuroscience and biology, had finally shed its unsavory image as the science of rolfing, R.D. Liang, penis envy and Jungian mysticism. With this stumble, the APA has bypassed R.D. Liang altogether and headed toward the realm of Lysenko and Stalin's "insane asylums" for political prisoners, where political belief determined diagnoses and conclusions.

The idea of Hitler and Stalin as "conservatives" is as nuts as the thesis that conservatism--or for that matter liberalism or totalitarianism--is the product of a set of specific shared psychological traits. The satirical columnist Doug Powers wrote on that "Joe Stalin snuffed out some 20 million human lives, but then again, he had both testicles, so he was twice as nuts as Hitler. As far as I can tell, the only thing these men have in common is that they've all been compared to each other by faculty dweebs from Freetime University."

The authors' political agenda is made clear by their other statements. Jack Glaser of UC Berkeley said, "[Conservatives] are more comfortable seeing and stating things in black and white in ways that would make liberals squirm ... The latest debate about the possibility that the Bush administration ignored intelligence information that discounted reports of Iraq buying nuclear material from Africa may be linked to the conservative intolerance for ambiguity and need for closure."


Psychology benefits little by delving into politics. It receives enough scorn and opprobrium for its past association with Freudian psychiatry, which was based on the unproven and untestable belief that subconscious conflicts (which are subjective, idiosyncratic, and unquantifiable) can be resolved by achieving insight into their causes. Behaviorists and neurophysiologists worked long and hard to bring psychology into line as a science based on objective empirical research and dispassionate measurement.

Of course, Thomas Szasz and others have long argued that psychology and psychiatry are a form of politics, and that even schizophrenia, because its diagnosis is based on behavioral observations and not biochemical measurements, is at least partially a political and social construct. There's much to be said for this point of view. But the field of psychology also has vitally important insights to offer. By dabbling in politics, Jost et al. threaten the credibility of real behavioral scientists.

So let's set the record straight on American liberalism and conservatism.

Liberals are the party of collectivism and redistribution of wealth. They give things away, even at times to our enemies and to dictators, with the hope that giving things to them will reform them, inducing them to change. By giving things to and compromising with adversaries, liberals hope to make the adversary emotionally feel more favorably toward them and more disposed to do what the liberals want. From this point of view, conservatives often appear heartless and stingy. Liberalism is also associated with collectivism because in order to ensure that things are given away, centralized control is needed in the form of higher taxes and large social programs. Liberalism views the economy as something that needs to be managed so that resources can be distributed in an egalitarian manner by the government. To ensure that the government has more control, American-style liberals strive to weaken the individual by undermining the traditional cohesive bonds within society, such as the family, religion, and moral values. Liberals are willing to give up some freedom in the interest of having a bigger government. Modern liberals also try to weaken the nation-state to promote control by trans-national organizations, and are generally opposed to a strong national defense.

Conservatives are the party of self-reliance and individualism. They believe that people don't value what they have unless they earn it for themselves. To them, liberals often appear weak and appeasing. They also believe that becoming dependent on the government or supranational organizations constitutes a loss of liberty. Conservatives believe that an adversary usually acts for practical reasons, such as a wish to acquire resources or power, rather than for emotional reasons such as personal likes or dislikes, and is therefore unlikely to be dissuaded by appeasement and generosity. Conservatism views the economy as an organic, self-organizing entity that functions best without central control, and requires only an occasional tweak to prevent injustice and prevent inequality of opportunity. Conservatives are individualists and value individual freedom above almost all else. American-style conservatives strive to strengthen the country economically by encouraging private initiative and tend to support traditional values.

Note that "resistance to change" (or "fear of change" as Jost puts it) is not included in this definition. If willingness to change were what distinguished conservatives from liberals, you could argue, only half-jokingly, that everyone would eventually become a conservative. Whenever a liberal began to feel a little bit conservative (by random chance, or just by having a bad day), that person immediately would become resistant to changing back. Over time, that person would become more and more conservative; but no one could ever become less conservative. Of course, many people do resist change; but these are found on both sides of the political spectrum.

In fact, the article by Jost et al. is, unintentionally, a good example of reductio ad absurdum. The authors start with the premise that "conservatives fear change" and deduce that therefore, Hitler and Stalin are both conservatives. Since this conclusion is obviously absurd, the premise, that conservatives are defined by their resistance to change, is therefore false. So then what are conservatives?

In the simplest terms, American conservatives value equality of opportunity or chance to succeed, while liberals value equality of the result. It is a struggle between individualism and collectivism. There may be many reasons why people select one philosophy over the other; but trying to correlate personality traits with ideological beliefs is doomed to failure because it ignores certain basic facts:

  1. As the partisan arguments and value-laden terminology used by Altemeyer and others make clear, the measures used to score the traits are themselves partly or mostly based on ideology. Hence the two parameters (personality and ideology) are not independent, and any correlation between them would be spurious.
  2. Ideology and personality interact in complex ways, so the ideology may be affecting the personality traits rather than the other way around. For example, if conservatives are more defensive than others, it may well be because they are bombarded 24 hours a day with left-wing propaganda from the newspapers, television, Hollywood, and from hostile Berkeley psychologists wielding clipboards.
  3. This constant bombardment and harassment directed against conservatives undoubtedly creates sample bias in the authors' results as well. Only the most stubborn, dogmatic, and extreme conservatives would be willing to reveal their beliefs on a questionnaire knowing the rampant intolerance and discrimination that occurs against conservatives at universities. I have observed myself on several occasions that conservatives are forced to hide their beliefs to avoid being discriminated against and even fired. Such social pressures will result in extreme sample bias in any measurement of political values.

    Even anonymous questionnaires are of no value under these conditions, because most subjects are aware that surveys are frequently done not to gather information, but to provide a means of launching a political crusade.

    The assertion in this paper that Hitler and Stalin were "conservatives" is a perfect example of this. This paper was clearly written not for the purpose of increasing human knowledge, but merely as a "hatchet job" on the authors' political enemies.

  4. Even if the correlation were statistically and methodologically valid, the measures chosen by the authors describe personality traits are more likely to be correlated with some parameter related only superficially to ideology, such as class, regional and ethnic background, age, or educational status.
  5. The most basic assumption, that political conservativism, especially of the American variety, can be equated to or correlated with "resistance to change", is unproven and most likely false, especially when corrected for parameters such as age and class.
  6. Finally, the most obvious explanation (at least, obvious outside of academia) is that persons are likely to choose an ideology because of the practical benefits it provides in their life situation. For example, an academic dependent on funding from the government would be highly motivated to support higher taxation and other liberal causes, than someone in industry who sees the economic harm caused by excessive taxation. A similar case can be made for other political values. If this same academic gets to define the personality traits that are worth studying ... well, you can probably guess what might happen.

The temptation of psychologists to rationalize the political beliefs of others is a recurrent theme in the psychology literature; hence the many pseudo-psychoanalyses of Adolf Hitler, which have shed about as much light on his ideology and behavior as the single-testicle theory alluded to by Doug Powers. Indeed, many graduate students have elaborated similar theories about the origins of the psychological or physiological peccadilloes of their professors.

However, to consider these sets of beliefs as extremes of a simple unidimensional parameter that reflects undesirable personality traits is no less inflammatory than asking what unsavory personality traits cause a person to believe in, say, global warming. Such a question would poison the global warming debate, just as the paper of Jost et al. acts to poison the important political debates in this country. In fact, the core values of liberals and conservatives are largely orthogonal, not opposite, in many respects. Polarization and unidimensionality arise mainly when members of one party view the other as interfering with the realization of their values; but unidimensionality is not an inherent characteristic of political views, only of a naive interpretation of them.

The authors' statement that the "core dimensions" of conservatism are "resistance to change and acceptance of inequality" also betrays a superficial understanding of the reasoned political beliefs held by both conservatives and liberals. Nothing proves this point better than the sometimes dramatic shifts in political opinion as people observe the favorable and unfavorable outcomes of various policy initiatives in the real world. The possibility that, just perhaps, the researchers themselves may not have the most nuanced understanding of political philosophy, however, appears to have eluded many of the workers in this field.

Given the radical reordering of the existing world order for which these Berkeleyites blame contemporary conservatives, the idea that American conservatives resist change must provoke enough cognitive dissonance to induce a George F. Will-scale migraine. Neither liberals nor conservatives deserve to be compared with the likes of mega-murderers like Stalin or Hitler. By imposing their political views on their research, the authors drag the field of psychology into the muck of politics. Politics is the realm of speculative opinions, vicious name-calling, unsubstantiated insinuations, and wild flights of hyperbole; but these are not a part of science. Science is all about stealing ideas, vicious name-calling, depriving others of credit, and wild flights of unsubstantiated speculation. Totally different.

November 4, 2003 (Last updated Dec 17, 2005)