How Social Science Might Be Misunderstanding Conservatives

A woman attending an alt-right-organized free speech demonstration in Boston
A woman attending an Alt-Right-organized free speech demonstration in Boston. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Imagine you and I are out for drinks at a bar. A couple beers in, apropos of nothing, I announce to you, “You know, liberals are way more authoritarian than conservatives.” “No way,” you respond. “Way,” I say, confidently. I pull a sheet of paper from my shirt pocket and slide it to you. “This is my Jesse Singal Authoritarianism Scale, or JSAS for short,” I tell you. “I had 500 people take this short scale and liberals scored way higher than conservatives.”

You look down at the scale and it reads:

For each of the following items, please indicate your level of agreement, from 1 (disagree completely) to 7 (agree completely), with a score of 4 indicating neither agreement nor disagreement.

1. In certain cases, it might be acceptable to curtail people’s constitutional rights in order to stop them from spreading climate-change denialism.

2. The government needs to do a much more comprehensive job monitoring Christian-oriented far-right terrorism.

3. Some people want to act like the causes of racism are complicated, but they aren’t: Racists are moral failures, and that’s that.

If you’re a thoughtful reader, you will, of course, find my claim ludicrous. By dint of the subject matter of my questions the test is basically built to “discover” that liberals are more authoritarian than conservatives. All my questions are rigged in a manner that will, in almost all likelihood, cause political liberals to score more highly than political conservatives on the scale, thus spitting out the “finding” that liberals are more authoritarian.

The above, fictional questionnaire is an extreme example, but a growing insurgency within social and political psychology has begun to argue, credibly, that a version of this has been going on for decades — only the other way around. Liberal psych researchers, centering their work on liberal values and political opinions, have built up a body of knowledge that is fundamentally flawed and biased. As a result, certain false ideas about conservatives and how they differ from liberals may have taken hold.

If these insurgents are correct, it’s the Rigidity of the Right model, as it’s called, that’s the epicenter of misunderstanding. The RR model posits, as one summary puts it, that “a constellation of psychological attributes and evocable states — including dogmatism, closed-mindedness, intolerance of ambiguity, preference for order and structure, aversion to novelty and stimulation, valuing of conformity and obedience, and relatively strong concern with threat — leads to a preference for right-wing over left-wing political ideology.”

These have been very influential ideas in the public’s consciousness, generating a sizable body of news write-ups and explainers, including some I have written myself. The rigidity of the right model has given rise to a certain intuitive-feeling liberal consensus about the differences between “us,” the open and tolerant and relaxed liberals, and conservatives, who are, by comparison, close-minded and intolerant and scared of everything. And now that consensus is starting to feel a bit shaky. Or so argue the researchers trying to reform this corner of political psychology.

Before continuing, it’s important to dispel one misconception that any conversation about this subject is likely to spark. The point of this sort of research is not to determine which groups are actually the most oppressed, but rather to study, as neutrally as possible, under which circumstances one group is likely to engage in or endorse intolerance toward another. So while you may blanch at the idea of, for example, intolerance against conservative Christians being something worth worrying about given that this group wields a great deal of power in the U.S. relative to others, that’s not the point. The point, according to critics of the rigidity of the right model, is that it might be the case that liberals are, by certain measures, as likely to engage in or endorse intolerance toward conservative Christians as conservatives are toward (for example) recent immigrants, but that the former question is rarely asked, giving us all an incomplete picture of how political differences work and what is underlying them.

While the ideas underlying the rigidity of the right model date back to the middle of the 20th century, the current academic debate over it started in 2003. That was when a team led by NYU’s John Jost, a political psychologist, published an important meta-analysis that took a big, sweeping look at decades of prior work on this subject and concluded that, according to the available evidence, “The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.”

According to a chapter in the book The Politics of Social Psychology by the researchers Ariel Malka, Yphtach Lelkes, and Nissan Holzer and published last year, Jost et al.’s meta-analysis effectively resuscitated the rigidity of the right model after a “number of years” in which it “received sporadic attention.” As a result, critiques of the model began bubbling up, too — even as it captured a great deal of mainstream attention. The authors of the chapter are three of the more ardent critics of the model, and they lay out a number of potential flaws with it.

One of their strongest arguments concerns poorly constructed psychological instruments that don’t actually measure what they claim to measure. As they explain, “Scales treated as indicators of conservative vs. liberal ideology often contain content pertaining to religious sentiment, cognitive rigidity, orientation toward authority, and/or intolerance, in addition to (mostly cultural) political content.” That is, these scales in a sense assume that conservatives are more rigid or authoritarian or whatever else — the very thing they are used to test.

Now, Jost and his colleagues do mention the problems with some of these scales in their meta-analysis, but they still use them to justify some rather important claims about the ostensible nature of political conservatism. And examining the scales themselves, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the Malka team’s argument that they could be seriously skewing the results forming the rigidity of the right model. Take the so-called C-scale developed by the researchers Glenn Wilson and John Patterson in the 1960s, which Jost and his colleagues describe as “the psychological instrument that has been most widely used to measure conservatism.” It consists simply of 50 items where the respondent circles “yes” or “no” to indicate whether they “favor or believe in” the item in question. For scoring purposes, saying you dislike jazz contributes just as much to your designation as a “conservative” than saying you are in favor of the death penalty, despite the fact that one item is clearly an example of ideological conservatism and the other is, well, whether you like jazz.

Another example of a psychological instrument which suffers from some confusion over what it’s measuring is the Rokeach dogmatism scale, a measure of authoritarianism first introduced by Milton Rokeach in 1960. As Malka and his colleagues note, “unfortunately this measure contains political content, such as anti-Communist sentiment, pro-American nationalism, and a hawkish foreign policy posture” — though over the years different, ostensibly less biased versions have been adapted and used as well. Could liberals come out looking more dogmatic with differently worded items? A team led by Lucian Gideon Conway III of the University of Montana decided to find out. In a paper published in Political Psychology in 2015, they reported on the results of a clever study in which they had respondents fill out either a version of the original scale, a version modified to tap liberal sentiments, or a version modified to tap conservative sentiments. In the original scale, for example, one of the items was: “A group which tolerates too much difference of opinion among its own members cannot exist for long.” In one tweaked version, the word religious was inserted before group; in the other, the word environmental was inserted instead.

As it turned out, these tweaks affected which group responded more “dogmatically” a great deal. Liberals scored as more dogmatic than conservatives when it came to their agreement with sentiments like “When it comes to stopping global warming, it is better to be a dead hero than a live coward” and “A person who thinks primarily of his/her own happiness, and in so doing disregards the health of the environment (for example, trees and other animals), is beneath contempt,” while conservatives, by contrast, scored higher than liberals on items tuned in the opposite political direction. (In fact, there was little difference between how conservatives scored on the original scale and the tweaked-to-be-more-explicitly-conservative version, lending credence to the claim that the original scale was biased in a direction that captured more conservative than liberal dogmatism.) “By making only small adjustments to a popularly used dogmatism scale, results show that liberals can be significantly more dogmatic if a liberal domain is made salient,” explained the authors.

These scales, in short, are all too often structured in a way in which respondents’ tendencies toward dogmatism or close-mindedness or intolerance are ascertained by asking them about issues that are politicized. And while social and political psychologists have sometimes asked about rigidity in ways designed to tap liberal ideas — the famed authoritarianism researcher Bob Altemeyer, for example, did publish a left-wing authoritarianism scale — this has been the exception rather than the norm.

Why this asymmetry? The Malka team carefully states early in its chapter that “[W]e make no claim that ideological bias plays a role” in any of the rigidity of the right model’s shortcomings, and that they “leave that as a matter for other scholars to debate.” But one obvious possibility that other social psychologists have raised, in both this context and others, is that certain weaknesses in the field flow from how ideologically slanted it is: Within social psychology, there is something like a 14-to-1 ratio in favor of liberal-identifying researchers relative to conservative-identifying ones. Even if you’re not broadly sympathetic to the idea that liberal bias in academia is a major problem — and I certainly view that claim as overstated — 14-to-1 is, well, a big gap. That’s how blind spots creep in — that’s how you keeping gauging study subjects’ “sensitivity to threat” by asking them about crime or terrorism, but rarely about climate change or right-wing police violence, and then “discover” that conservatives are more sensitive to threat. “This sort of ‘soft bias’ can be really hard to spot if most or all researchers have the same ideological outlook because it is built into people’s ideologically guided beliefs about reality,” said Yoel Inbar, a psychology researcher at the University of Toronto and a co-author of a key paper that revealed the ideological tilt within social and personality psychology. “Worrying about the threats your side cares about seems entirely well-founded and reasonable, worrying about those the other side cares about demands an explanation.”

The problem is that, if Malka and other critics of the prevailing social-psychological view of conservatism are correct, these soft biases have built up within the field and generated important misconceptions and, in some cases, overgeneralizations about the differences between liberals and conservatives.

One of the most potentially important examples is intolerance. According to the rigidity of the right model, conservatives are more intolerant than liberals. But in a Current Directions in Psychological Science article published in 2014, a team led by Mark J. Brandt of Tilburg University in the Netherlands poked and prodded that idea — and found that it toppled fairly quickly.

Maybe things aren’t as simple as conservatives being more intolerant than liberals, they write. Maybe what’s really going on here is that one side views certain groups as opposed to their interests and beliefs, and the other side views other groups as opposed to their interests and beliefs, and both sides have a penchant for intolerance toward the groups they view as opposed to them. That is: Sure, conservatives are more intolerant than liberals of groups traditionally viewed as liberal — but what happens when you ask liberals about groups they often view as their ideological adversaries, like members of the military or fundamentalist Christians? The researchers, working in three independent labs, asked respondents to record their agreement or disagreement with statements like “I think that this group should not be allowed to organize in order to influence public policy,” “I believe that this group should not be allowed to hold rallies outside of government buildings,” and “I think that this group should be allowed to distribute pamphlets and other materials on local college campuses.”

They did not find any big differences when it came to how willing liberals and conservatives reported they would be to engage in these and other forms of political intolerance:

Again, the point is not whether you think Christians face the true threat of oppression in the U.S. — that’s another argument for another day. The question is whether liberals report being more tolerant of groups they view with suspicion or hostility than conservatives. And this study suggests they don’t, really — that this finding about intolerance, too, may have been an artifact of biased psychological instruments. If these critiques are correct, then turning away from the oversimplifications of the rigidity of the right model and instead viewing political ideology in a more sophisticated way might reshape certain beliefs held dear by psychologists and many liberals alike.

In their critique of the rigidity of the right model, Malka and his colleagues don’t just focus on flaws with the psychological instruments used to correlate political beliefs with personality traits like authoritarianism, but also with the skewed samples that have been used to generate this research. All over the field of psychology, researchers have recognized that too much of their work is drawn from so-called “WEIRD,” or Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, samples of people. But much of the world isn’t Western, or educated, or industrialized — and so on— so within psychology there is now what has become a long-running debate over just how generalizable a given finding is when it was discovered among a group of (for example) Harvard sophomores. In the context of the rigidity of the right model, Malka and his co-authors argue that, by focusing mostly on samples of educated, politically sophisticated individuals, researchers may have drawn some false conclusions.

Young Trump supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Think about it this way: Much of our political beliefs are, like it or not, formed by looking around and figuring out what “people like us” are “supposed” to believe — what our friends and family members and other close peers believe. Some issues aren’t politicized: thankfully, there is no Democratic/Republican split in the belief that penicillin can kill bacteria and cure illnesses. Other beliefs, like the question of whether or not humans are causing the planet to warm, are hyperpoliticized: if you are a politically aware liberal, you will be bombarded with the message that you are supposed to believe in anthropogenic climate change, while if you are a politically aware conservative you will be bombarded with the opposite message. (It can, of course, be true that an issue is hyperpoliticized and that it has a clear-cut scientific answer: There’s overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic climate change.)

This social dynamic makes it harder to draw clear correlations between personality characteristics — authoritarianism, openness to experience, and so on — and political ideology. There’s a case to be made that politically sophisticated individuals will be more aware of what they’re supposed to believe, and that this will affect their answers to various questions, than politically unsophisticated individuals. This may have given rise to certain misconceptions.

One example is a construct called “need for security and certainty,” which is more or less what it sounds like, and, by rigidity-of-the-right-model logic, is traditionally viewed as being correlated with conservatism — conservatives are more concerned with security and certainty than liberals, and this gives rise to certain political differences. But in 2014, Malka and his chapter co-authors note, a team led by Malka ran a cross-national study in which they found that need for security and certainty was actually correlated with left-wing economic views. There was one exception: in countries with strong, clearly defined left-wing divides, there was a “small positive relation” between need for security and certainty and right-wing economic attitudes. “Coming from an ideologically constrained country (such as the United States) and having been exposed to a high volume of political discourse was associated with a reversal” of the link between high NSC and “left-wing economic views.” In other, more recent research, they note, a team led by Christopher D. Johnston found something similar in “ten representative American” samples — the relationship between “dispositional measures such as authoritarianism, need for cognitive closure, conservation vs. openness values, and conscientiousness had opposite effects on economic attitudes across those high and low in political engagement.” All those things we thought we knew about the relationship between personality and ideology? Things get a lot foggier when you introduce the simple question of how politically sophisticated an individual is. What might appear to be “pure” relations between personality and belief are, in some cases, artifacts of the weird, contingent ways political identity develops in a given country or context.

Now, it’s worth noting out that John Jost, the author of meta-analysis that reinvigorated the rigidity of the right model, disagrees with this interpretation. He thinks a more likely explanation for the way in which political sophistication complicates certain correlations between personality belief  is that, as he put it in an email, “people who are more politically involved/engaged are better at finding the ideologies that match their own psychological needs and interests.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, he is also skeptical of some of the other criticisms of the rigidity of the right model.

More broadly, this model still has a great deal of purchase within social and personality psychology. It isn’t going away. Neither a handful of intriguing studies nor a book chapter should, on their own, be seen as overturning it. “Debunked is definitely too much,” said Yoel Inbar, the University of Toronto researcher who has studied bias in social and personality psychology, “but doubt/reassessment sounds about right.” But the idea that political ideology is a bit more complicated than the field of social and political psychology has led us to believe does seem to be gaining some purchase among experts, and it feels like the conversation on these subjects is getting broader and more nuanced.

“Some of the stuff in the Jost meta-analysis about rigidity, threat sensitivity, need for closure etc. may yet pan out,” said Inbar. “But at present I don’t think we have strong evidence for it.” It’s going to take a lot more studies to know for sure — hopefully studies built, this time around, on sturdy, unbiased tools and on broad samples.

How Social Science Might Be Misunderstanding Conservatives