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.