Pathologizing Conservatism

Is it an unfortunate evolutionary holdover, or the product of bad upbringing?


At the recent conference in Chicago of the Association of Politics and Life Sciences, a panel on "Biobehaviorial Approaches to Politics" addressed the important question: What is wrong with people who disagree with the mainstream of American academic social scientists? Nancy Meyer-Emerick, an assistant professor of public administration at Cleveland State University, made a presentation on "Evolutionary Perspectives on the Authoritarian Personality."

Professor Meyer-Emerick wants to know if there are genetic tendencies that promote what she dubs "authoritarianism." She defines this distasteful quality through the work of University of Manitoba associate professor of psychology Robert Altemeyer. He's developed a helpful questionnaire, the Right Wing Authoritarian (RWA) Scale, to identify those harboring authoritarian tendencies.

According to Professor Altemeyer, right-wing authoritarians are cognitively rigid, aggressive, and intolerant. They are characterized by steadfast conformity to group norms, submission to higher status individuals, and aggression toward out-groups and unconventional group members. On the RWA Scale, subjects are asked to agree or disagree with statements like: "Some of the worst people in our country nowadays are those who do not respect our flag, our leaders and the normal way things are supposed to be done" and "There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudist camps." Guess which one RWAs tend to agree with?

Meyer-Emerick notes that high RWAs perceive the world as a significantly more dangerous place than those who score low. High RWAs are more submissive to government authority and indifferent to human rights. They also tend to be more hostile and more highly punitive toward criminals, and more racially and ethnically prejudiced—and religious!—to boot. In the United States, guess what? Republicans cluster at the high end of the RWA Scale whereas Democrats range across the scale.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley essentially confirmed this view with an meta-analysis of scores of academic studies on conservative political attitudes last year. In the study, "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," the Berkeley researchers found common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include: fear and aggression, dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty avoidance, need for cognitive closure, and terror management that causes conservatives to shun and even punish outsiders and those who threaten the status of their cherished world views. The researchers did half-heartedly assure readers that their findings do not mean that "conservatism is pathological or that conservative beliefs are necessarily false, irrational, or unprincipled."

Altemeyer, inventor of the RWA Scale, believes that there is no such thing as a Left Wing Authoritarian. "I do not think 'an authoritarian impressively like the authoritarian on the right' reposes on the left end of the RWA scale. Rather the contrary," Altemeyer declared. In fact, Altemeyer finds that low RWAs are "fair-minded, even-handed, tolerant, nonaggressive persons…They score low on my prejudice scale. They are not self-righteous; they do not feel superior to persons with opposing opinions."

Another panelist, Charles Anthony Smith, a lawyer and Ph.D candidate in political science at the University of California at San Diego, explored evolutionary biology explanations for how these unsavory RWAs arose in our midst. In his talk, "Law, Leadership, and Lords: Machiavellian Intelligence and the Role of Obedience in Collective Action," Smith suggested that the propensity to obey would be adaptive in either attacking or defending groups. Those groups which could more quickly be organized to defend themselves would be more likely to survive. A deliberative outlook under such circumstances would be an evolutionary disadvantage. Smith believes that this evolutionary tendency toward obedience can explain a host of behaviors, including the initial rise of theocracies in which leaders manipulated the propensity to obey by claiming that the gods had given them the divine right to rule.

Smith believes this tendency also explains the "rallying around" effect that occurs during attacks and wartime. Smith noted that polls taken on September 7-10, 2001, gave President Bush only a 51 percent approval rating, whereas his approval rating had jumped to 81 percent on September 15. The same phenomenon occurred after the Oklahoma City bombing under President Clinton and after the Marine barracks were blown up in Lebanon under President Reagan. He asked the not-unreasonable question, "Why do we rally around [them] when our leaders fail?" Smith evidently believes that evolution has hardwired humans to react that way.

In contrast to Smith's suggestion that certain tendencies might be hardwired into human beings, Altemeyer believes that children learn right-wing tendencies through harsh discipline from their parents. However, studies looking at identical twins reared apart back up the notion that political attitudes are heritable. They find that on average, about 60 percent of the individual differences that we observe in scores on a version of the Wilson-Patterson Conservatism Scale (WPC) are attributable to genetic individual differences. The WPC is a catch phrase test in which subjects are asked to indicate whether they approve of various topics, such as the death penalty, X-rated movies, women's liberation, foreign aid, abortion and so forth by circling YES or NO. Obviously, such tests have no ability to handle nuances, or grapple with the reasons someone might have for harboring attitudes that the researcher dubs "conservative," or even "authoritarian." (One suspects the researchers don't think there could be such reasons, at least not intellectually serious ones.)

Whether it be an unfortunate evolutionary holdover or a mental disease transmitted by our parents—the science is apparently still up in the air—academic researchers have surely amassed enough evidence of psychopathology that conservatism can listed in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Reasonable people, such as the distinguished academic researchers cited here, will no doubt agree that until effective treatments can be developed, we should reconsider whether sufferers of conservatism, like other mental defectives, should be allowed freely to exercise the franchise.

NEXT: John Barleycorn Must Die!

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  1. Whether through deliberate obfuscation or a case of simply not understanding the literature detailing the decades of research that began with our attempts to understand how so many “normal” Germans could work as bakers one day, concentration camp guards the next, then express at Nuremberg after the war that they sincerely felt they should not be held accountable for their actions because they were “just following orders” and merely doing what was expected of a good, patriotic German citizen, That the research reveals them to come overwhelmingly from that portion of society usually described as “politically conservative” is simply the way it is, no excuses offered or thought necessary.
    As for the article above, the statement that Altemeyer believes there is no such thing as an authoritarian on the left is simply not true. The confusion — if indeed that’s what it actually is — proably comes from not having delineated between political left-wing behavior or actions, and psychological left-wing motives. Since the left is characterised by greater affinity toward equality, the very act of dominating others places it toward the right wing *motivationally*. But of course Stalin, Pol pot et al enforced what they claimed was an egalitarian economic regime, but in terms of their desire to hold power using any means necessary, including using the most “in-egalitarian” methods one can imagine. So…Political-economic actions were left-wing but motives were right-wing. And since Altemeyer is a psychologist after all, we should expect him to be concerned with their motives, not their political activities.
    But the paragraph that tries to compares what a socio-biologist found concerning what he believes is a genetic origin for *a portion only* of political attitudes (not all, as asserted) has no bearing on Altemeyer’s opinion that most of it is environmentally induced. He uses a criticism of one line of research to then cast doubt on another researcher who neither agrees with the first in any case! IOW, he uses an argument the equivalent of which would be using evidence casting doubt on Freud’s theories to counter the empirical findings of behaviorist B.F. Skinner. It’s nonsense.

    Throughout the article I also note instances of what appears to be an attempt to conflate disparate facts, then using the ill fit to dismiss both. Interestingly, this is a common technique employed by RWAs to filter out dissonant facts so they are left with a simpler, more easily understood world where they can enjoy the black and white certainty they crave. As hinted to above, their tendency to “seize and freeze” on a belief largely independent of concern over factual basis, is a common trait of RWAs tested *everywhere* — not just in America (as was also asserted, no doubt in an effort to politicize what should be relating of the observed data – then challenging it on it’s own merits….not on one’s comfort with it).

    1. Altemeyer did identify LWA as occurring in the Soviet Union. The author left that out.

  2. Loved your comments after Pathologizing Conservatism. Great points.

  3. Pingback . . . you just proved the assertions in the article.

  4. I always find it onerous when people claim that other opinions constitute mental defects.

    What is the standard?

    This is like Bill Maher talking to the scientist that studied brain functions of religious people. Maher concluded that there was something defective happening in their brains when they were praying, etc. Based on what? What’s the control? Could it be that the people who don’t have that particular brain activity constitute the “defective” group?

    1. I’m not sure that Bill Maher is qualified to draw scientific conclusions, but in general, it is wrong to have animosity toward other humans based on the color of their skin, religion, gender, etc.–at least for us who were raised to know right from wrong. We’re humans. We’re wired to be social animals. There are numerous studies that show the effects of these negative emotions on our brains and rest of the body.

  5. “There’s no authoritarianism on the left”…..how bout the nanny state leftists who want to fine people who use salt shakers? “Unlike conservatives, leftists don’t feel superior to those they disagree with”…..ever watched Olbermann, Maddow, or any other left wing host? Their holier than thou attitude practically seeps through the screen and drips on your shag carpet.

  6. First off, is this a serious article or like a spoof ala the like of The Onion?

    Im going to play like its real.

    As with all media articles that report on scientific studies, the author states no real information here, only hype that sounds good in order to get it published. aside from general hypotheses and the claim that they are supported nothing of substance is presented here that one could make themselves see of any group of people. The media is not qualified to report reliably on scientific material (or muuch else now-a-days haha)

    Dear Ronald (author): What are your credentials that make you even half way qualified to reads and understand a psycholgical research paper?

    I would like to see the measure, the RWA scale. Which sounds to me like the weak-point in this study. Yes or no as the only option is not an effective scale to put on a survey that inquires about peoples opinions. It would have been prudent to provide that along with your story, but how could you have known that.
    I would like to know what institutional review board oversaw the development and implementation of theses studies. Or were they simply for fun studies conducted by undergrads with the oversight of a professor?

    No information was given about how the sample of participants was obtained, nor their demographic information, nor even how many participants were surveyed…major weakness

    You put forth some percentages in the article…what type of statistical test was done on the data of this study? What was the Alpha level it was tested against .10? .05? .01? Some made up extremely forgiving level greater than .10? Now I may be getting over yalls heads with that.

    was that data that was tested even proven to be statistically significant? you claim to repot that it is significant, but do you even know what that word means in terms of psychological study?

    What PEER REVIEWED PSYCHOLOGICAL JOURNAL was this study published in? was it even published?

    These are just the first questions that come to my mind right off the bat, with out putting forth very much extensive thought into your reported results of this study.

    So academically i take these findings with a grain of salt.

    As far as my personal opinion goes, I do and I do not wish someone would run a serious IRB sanctioned peer reviewed study looking at this.

    I do because, well conservatives are the worst, and I totally agree that the ideas and the viewpoints held by some conservatives are antiquated, ignorant, short sighted, selfish and down right lethal to our country to humanity and the planet at large. Everytime I have a discussion with a legitimate discussion about issues with a conservative, it makes me embarrased to be human. And something needs to be done to figure out why so many are so stupid and easily manipulted by those in power.

    I will also say that i would rather not see a legitimate study done on this because of the possible ethical issue that would come from results showing that conservatism does belong in the DSM. And to be honest nothing much good could come from such a finding. An even if someone could find a positive ethical implementation of such results, over 50% of the country would just dissmis it as a result of biased liberal academic agenda. Did nazis not use scientific data to further the legitimacy of the aryan race, or identify jews? yes they did. Was it not a “scientific fact” at one time that people of African descent were lower on the evolutionary ladder? yes it was. was it not a scientific fact at one time that women were mentally inferior than men? yes it was

    On the other hand take the some of the symptoms of schizophrenia, delusions about what causes events and actions of people around you , hallucinations about the ability to communicate with an invisible being and a belief in something that no one else can see. A single individual with such symptoms might be labeled crazy, a group of people with those symptoms would be labeled a church congregation…using a measure that only allows for yes or no answer i guarantee you i could created a study and provide legitimate statistical evidence that religion is a mental disorder, by simply picking the right questions and knowing what my intended sample would most likely answer…see what i did there?

    But really the media needs to get an education on how to interpret, understand and report on scientific data. One would think an internet media outlet would be slightly better at this than the mainstream media, whose only motivation is profit.

    Then again this could be a spoof article and I just wasted 10 mins of my life to look like an anonymous idiot haha

    1. Schizophrenia is a completely different disorder than those referred to in this article. Oh, and I probably wouldn’t go around trusting statistics that the Nazis used, but that’s just me. It’s wrong to hate people because of their religion, race, gender, sexual preference, or political party. Just be nice to each other. That’s enough to know.

  7. I love how the author doesn’t seem to have read his own article. The researcher specifically says that he doesn’t believe conservatism is pathological. The author’s final paragraph totally ignores this, and acts as though the quoted researcher had said the opposite.

    This is Reason’s science correspondent? He ought to be fired.

  8. You Leftists are like the Nazis finding scientific reasons to proclaim the Jews as subhuman. You’re absolutely disgusting and your work in “higher education” will probably some day be used as a basis for genocide.

    1. Actually, leftists do not hate Jews, blacks, Muslims, gays….you name it. I guess some people were never taught right from wrong. I think most bigots know that and that’s what makes them so angry. If that disgusts you, perhaps you could seek some therapy.

  9. Islam and Judaism exist! And they have an origin…..

    Genesis 16….Islam…
    Genesis 17….Judaism….

    Isaiah 14:12…meet the angel in Genesis 16….

    And this…
    “Cain knew his Neanderthal wife”.
    (G. Freeman)

    All he borne were males who were the first, modern HOMO Sapiens…
    The Cro-Magnon….

    We were the Neanderthal. We are 99.8% their genome. We could
    have shared blood transfusions with them….

    There is a hierarchy at play upon the Earth….

    Islam, Judaism, and crop markings, are a part of it….

  10. Eh bien, je suis un bon poste watcher vous pouvez dire et je ne donne pas une seule raison de critiquer ou de donner une bonne critique ? un poste. Je lis des blogs de 5 derni?res ann?es et ce blog est vraiment bon cet ?crivain a les capacit?s pour faire avancer les choses i aimerais voir nouveau poste par vous Merci
    ????? ???

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