Sorry, Liberals — Conservatives Don’t Mindlessly Follow Authority Any More Than You Do

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Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

Conservatives, many people will tell you, like authority. They like the idea of someone telling them what to do, lest society break down into chaos. Liberals, on the other hand, are a bit more skeptical of authority and quick to challenge it. But a new paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that this common belief is wrong — that liberals and conservatives have the same views on authority, but differ only when it comes to what kinds of authority they respect.

The conservatives-like-authority thing isn’t just folk wisdom; it’s also a well-known finding among those who study political differences. But the authors of this new paper, from the University of Manitoba, argue that this is the result of confusion and poorly designed past study questions: The word “authority” has cognitive baggage, so when we hear it we tend to think of authorities such as soldiers or police officers that are perceived as upholding conservative values. It’s no wonder, then, that if you ask people whether they think “authorities” should be heeded, that you’ll tend to find conservatives are more in favor than liberals.

Control for this, as the researchers did by getting a bit more careful and specific in their questioning of study participants (What happens when the authority figure in question is an environmentalist? A civil rights leader?), and those differences disappear:

The findings suggest that obedience itself is not ideologically divisive. Counter to the intuition that obedience itself is a mode of conduct that conservatives preferentially champion, these data suggest that liberals and conservatives have the same sentiments about obedience. Conservatives only favor obedience when they perceive the authority to be a conservative. Liberals also favor obedience when the authority shares their ideology.

It's an early study in a new avenue for this sort of research, but it certainly helps explain what has happened since George W. Bush left office. When Obama is an authority and Glenn Beck a rabble-rouser, conservatives suddenly get a lot less concerned about the dangers of dissent.