Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Political orientation and motivation
What motivates people to support conservative or liberal ideology?
- 1 Overview
- 2 What is an ideology, and why do they exist?
- 3 The difference in psychological motivation between conservatism and liberalism
- 4 Conclusion
- 5 References
Ideology can shape a society and an individual's life, even providing moral justification for terrible acts of war or the starvation of a nation. What is the psychological motivation for this? We live in an extremely politically turbulent agewhere divisions between conservatives and liberals are becoming deeper than ever as we decide which way we want our societies to go. Do we want to stay with tradition or encourage progression? With the hugely controversial presidential election in the USA and Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Union, many people will be asking themselves why this is happening. This chapter explores the motivational psychology behind political ideology.
Before we begin, it is worth noting the inherent political bias that is present in psychology. In the last 50 years, the field of psychology has been severely lacking conservative psychologists, which may result in liberal psychologists unconsciously inserting their own opinions into their work and other issues of bias (Duarte, Crawford, Stern, Haidt, Jussim and Tetlock, 2014).
What is an ideology, and why do they exist?
Conservatism vs Liberalism
‘An ideology is an organisation of beliefs and attitudes – religious, political or philosophical in nature – that is more or less institutionalized or shared with others, deriving from external authority.’
(Rokeach, 1968, pp.123-124)
This chapter discusses the most prominent distinction that exists in modern politics – the divide between conservativism and liberalism. One economic distinction between liberalism and conservatism is that liberalism favours big government, while consrvativism favours small government. What is meant by ‘big’ and ‘small’ government is basically the level of power the state has in society. Liberalism advocates for a big government that is in control of education, healthcare and welfare, meaning that every citizen of the state has equal access to these things, but they pay for it through (relatively) higher taxes. It also involves more restrictions on businesses so workers have more rights. Conservatives prefer a ‘small’ government, where the responsibility is placed on the individual and the government’s power is mainly limited to things such as national defence and other necessities, resulting in lower taxes and fewer restrictions on the business. Liberals would argue that their ideology results in increased equity, while conservatives would argue that their ideology gives more freedom to the individual and has less restrictions on the economy, allowing the free market to flourish.
Another important distinction between conservatism and liberalism is the government’s power over morality. In contrast to conservative views on economics which advocate economic freedom, conservatives generally advocate for stricter control and values that are in line with the dominant religion – in the West, Christianity. Liberal views on values advocate secularism and less government control over how one acts in the moral sense.
In general, when comparing the beliefs of liberals and conservatives it is generally found that conservatives value order and tradition over change, while liberals value equality over tradition and advocate achieving it through government policy (Eccleshall, Finlayson, Geoghegan, Kenny, Lloyd, MacKenzie and Wilford, 2003).
General psychological motivations of ideology
To answer the question of why people become conservative or liberal, we have to ask the question, why do people support an ideology at all? Why care at all? In short, the answer is that ideologies, much like schemas, provide people with shortcuts for functioning in life – solving the existential problems of human conflict, desire and fantasy (Koenigsberg, 2013). But there is more to the question than that. Are we genetically predetermined to have political inclinations? To what extent does our environment and experiences affect our political inclinations?
A common theory behind the psychological motivation of ideology is that ideology functions as a tool to reduce uncertainty - ideology allows us to reduce and manage the extremely complex dilemmas that trouble our lives, allowing us to answer questions with a predetermined response that is generally in line with the way we personally respond to problems (and if it is not, we can usually justify it anyway). Furthermore, 'reducing uncertainty' is a more complex function than one might think. Reducing uncertainty can be helping an individual to cope with the realisation of mortality, or giving a person a group to identify with, thus reducing isolation. Reducing uncertainty is the process of not only reducing uncertainty, but also increasing our existential security and decreasing our isolation (Jost and Amodio, 2011).
What if political inclinations were heritable? We now know that so many of our social traits are inherited, so would it really be so implausible to believe that our political inclinations are too? With the use of twin studies, psychologists have been able to conduct studies that suggest there is a genetic component to political inclinations. In 2005, Alford, Funk and Hibbing drew data from samples of twins from America and Australia that compared the attitudes of identical and non-identical twins, finding that genetics do play a significant role in forming political attitudes. The group speculated that assortative mating, in which people with similar characteristics will mate more often than others, could be one reason for this phenomenon. In a much older study performed by Jennings and Niemi (1968), it was found that parents who highly valued politics would have children who would value politics just as much, and would also have similar political inclinations.
Following this train of thought, there is reason to believe that our tendency towards political behaviour can be explained by evolutionary theory. This is what Alford and Hibbings (2004) suspected. They held the view, as many scientists and psychologists do, that humans are inherently geared towards survival and value traits that will be most helpful in establishing this. The ability to work in groups has always been beneficial, as is self-serving behaviour. But being in a successful group requires a medium to be reached between these two behaviours. This is what Alford and Hibbings (2004) called ‘wary cooperation’ – being cooperative, but not entirely altruistic, and being competitive but only in the right situations. Politics is the practical conclusion of this. When we decide who will be taxed and how much they will be taxed, we are balancing our altruistic group behaviour with our self-serving behaviour. Do we want a high level of tax with more benefits for those in society who are at need? Or do we want a low level of tax where we have more freedom to use our money how we would like.
One very important finding, and one that has been closely studied, is the link between our responses to threat and our political inclinations. Our individual responses to threats, and how sensitive we are to them, is extremely diverse. In 2008, a group of American psychologists conducted an experiment to find the link between sensitivity to threat and political inclinations. A random sample of the population had their political inclinations and personality traits tested, then two months later, they completed a test wereskin conductance and blinking response (effective indicators of arousal levels) were measured when images of a threat were shown. The psychologists found that those who were more concerned with protecting the social unit (a conservative characteristic) had higher levels of arousal when the threatening stimuli was presented. Those who were less concerned with the protection of the social unit (a liberal characteristic) had a significantly lower amount of arousal. It was unknown whether the political inclinations influenced the sensitivity to threat or if it was the other way around, but there was a correlation (Oxley, Smith, Alford, Hibbing, Miller, Scalora, Hatemi and Hibbing, 2008). Further research regarding environmental stimuli and political inclinations has found that the emotion of disgust can lead to more conservative moral judgements (Schnall, Haidt, Clore and Jordan, 2008).
Other research regarding threat stimuli and political inclinations has found that conservatives are more likely to respond more acutely to perceived threats and other negative stimuli, while liberals are more likely to respond to positive stimuli such as rewards and benefits (Janoff-Bulman, Sheikh and Hepp, 2009). The essence of this is, as summarised by Graham, Iyer and Meindl (2013), is that “conservatives focused more on preventing the bad and liberals focused more on promoting the good” (Graham, Iyer and Meindle, 2013, p. 3). This will be expanded upon later in the chapter.
You might ask, why do people support ideologies that apparently serve them no benefit, or that seem morally unjustifiable? Psychologists have developed two main theories that tackle these questions. The first is social dominance theory. Social dominance theory proposes that as a way of minimizing group conflict, people will justify the hierarchy of society - the privilege of those above them and the disadvantages of those below them. This is done through a rationalization process where 'myths' are perpetuated. The 'paternalistic myth' is the idea that subordinate groups need dominant groups to take care of them; the 'reciprocal myth' is the idea that the relationship between dominante and subordinate groups is mutually beneficial, and 'sacred myths' propose that divine entities (for example, God) justify the social heirarchy (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway, 2003). The other main theory is system justification theory, which proposes that individuals will justify systems that work against them in an attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance. As the dissonance between system and individual grows, support and loyalty for the system grows as well, continuing an ongoing cycle of justification (Thorisdottir, Jost and Kay, 2009).
Psychological motivations of morality
A large part of our motivation to support and identify with a political ideology lies in our view of morality. The distinction between conservatism and liberalism is more or less the priority of tradition or equality. Where is the motivation to have a sense of morality at all? At the present time, there are four accepted theories of moral motivation (Schroeder, Roskies, & Nichols, 2016).
The first is that of the instrumentalist. This theory states that our moral motivation stems from beliefs of how our pre-existing, or intrinsic, desires can be filled. Examples of such desires include the desire for pleasure or safety or your family. The second is the cognitivist. The cognitivist believes that moral motivation is the result of occurrent belief, as opposed to the instrumentalist’s view that it is the result of intrinsic desires. The occurrent beliefs are those that regard the ‘right’ decision to make in situations that require moral action. The third is the sentimentalist. The sentimentalist’s view of moral motivation largely centres on emotions, believing that emotions are the cause of our motivation and we cannot be morally motivated without them. The fourth and final theory of moral motivation is the personalist, who believes that moral motivation comes from having good character. Good character is defined by knowing what is good and wanting what is good because it is good and not for any other reason. This comes from the habit of making good decisions that result in good outcomes for our desires and emotions (Schroeder, Roskies, & Nichols, 2016).
Another theory regarding morals and motivation is Haidt and Bjorklund’s (2008) Social Intuitionist Model (SIM) of moral judgement. The SIM consists of two components – the origin of our moral beliefs and how they are formed. The origins of our moral beliefs are based on the shared moral codes humans inherently have that assists us in surviving. There are 5 main foundations of human morality. These are:
- Harm/care domain
The difference in moral foundations between liberals and conservatives is the emphasis they place on each foundation. As you would expect, a liberal may value the first and second foundation very highly, yet a conservative may place priority on the latter three. We are motivated to value at least some of these foundations as they increase the likelihood of group cooperation and thus our surivival rate. The second component of the SIM regards how we come to our moral judgements. There are six common pathways that may be taken when coming to moral judgements. These are:
- Intuitive judgement
- Post-hoc reasoning
- Reasoned persuasion
- Social persuasion
- Reasoned judgement
- Private reflection (Haidt and Bjorklund, 2008).
The Gender gap in political ideology
In America’s current political climate, the polarisation between men and women’s political preferences is more tangible than ever. In the 2016 American presidential election, women report being more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump by 16 points (Pew Research Centre, 2016). These findings mirror many other studies that have been done. Looking back on the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, we can see that in the 1996 election 11% more women voted for Bill Clinton than men. In 2012, when Barack Obama was re-elected for his second term, 7% more women voted for him (Center for American Women and Politics, 2012). This begs the question, why are women more likely to support liberal politicians than men? The answer may lie in individual differences in social dominance orientation, which is the degree of preference people have for inequality among social groups (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth and Malle, 1994). It has been found time and time again that men exhibit higher rates of social dominance orientation (Pratto et al, 1994; Prato, Stallworth and Sidanius, 1997; Sidanius, Levin, Liu and Pratto, 2000). While conservative ideology does not necessarily favour inequality, it does generally provide the environment for inequality to manifest (for better or worse). This may explain the motivation for women to vote more liberally – they exhibit lower rates of social dominance orientation and therefore are more likely to be concerned with inequality.
The difference in psychological motivation between conservatism and liberalism
The main difference between conservative and liberal ideology is the resistance to change (on the conservative side) and the aspiration for equality (on the liberal side) (Eccleshall et al, 2003). It has also been found that psychologically, the main difference between conservatives and liberals is the sensitivity to threat and the need to cognitively reduce uncertainty (Jost and Amodio, 2011). This section explores motivational theories regarding the cognitive justification of conservatism and liberalism.
Avoidance vs Approach motivation
The study of avoidance and approach motivation, and how these differ between conservatism and liberalism, has possibly been the most studied approach to political motivation. Time and time again it has been found that conservatism is more occupied with preventing negative outcomes (societal threats), while liberalism is more concerned with encouraging positive outcomes (societal gains). Both focuses attempt to address the needs of the societal group, but in very different ways (Janoff-Bulman, 2009).
Psychologists have explained this difference with two systems of self-regulation – the Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS), which is associated with avoidance behaviours, and the Behavioural Activation System (BAS), which is associated with approach behaviours. This dual-system theory of self regulation has been supported by neuro-scientific evidence which links the BIS with the right pre-frontal cortex and the BAS with the left pre-frontal cortex (Davidson, Ekman, Saron, Senulis and Friesen, 1990).
Approach and avoidance behaviour can be distinguished with two main characteristics within the dual-system theory of self-regulation. These characteristics are regulatory focus and action tendency. Regulatory focus differs between approach and avoidance with the approach system focusing on positive potential outcomes, while the avoidance system focusing on negative potential outcomes. Action tendency comes next in the reaction to stimuli – we are either activated towards movement in the approach system, or inhibited from movement in the avoidance system (Janoff-Bulman, 2009).
Conservatism satisfies individual existential needs
One overarching theory of conservative ideology is that conservatism fulfils a variety of existential needs that are inherent in the human experience – mainly, the reduction of fear and uncertainity. Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway (2003) identified three theories which fulfil this need.
Lay epistemic theory
Lay epistemic theory states that individuals have a need for a concrete belief system in which there is no confusion as to which side is morally correct – an ideology such as conservatism provides this closure. One of the benefits of this cognitive closure is that there is seemingly a predictable outcome of all situations. The link between conservativism and lay epistemic theory lies in the conservative nature of resisting change – change is unpredictable and represents a confusing outcome instead of cognitive closure (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway, 2003).
Regulatory Focus Theory
Regulatory focus theory proposes that there are two categories of goals – ideals and oughts. Ideals are goals that include advancement, growth and aspirations, while oughts are goals that are related to safety, security and responsibilities. There are also two regulatory systems that work towards addressing these categories of goals. Ideals are addressed by the promotion system, while oughts are addressed by the prevention system. Whether we are orientated to the promotion or prevention regulatory systems depends on how we were risenas children. When we are more orientated towards the prevention system, and thus more sensitive to our safety, we are less likely to embrace change and more likely to support stability and conservativism (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway, 2003).
Terror Management Theory
Terror management theory is a unique approach which theorises that conservativism is a reaction to the ‘existential crises inherent in the human experience’ (Jost et al, 2003, p. 349). Our own mortality is one of the most intimidating notions the human race has attempted to understand. Terror management theory proposes the idea that through systems of meaning, such as political ideology or religion, allow us to symbolically transcend death. The fear of death causes us to resist change and defend our own worldview (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway, 2003). This is in line with studies that when people experience hard or uncertain times their likelihood of supporting conservative politicians or parties increases (for example, after 9/11 in America) (Nail and McGregor, 2009).
Conservatism tends to favour a more simple cognitive approach to social dilemmas - conservatives are more likely to view things in black and white than their liberal counterparts. In 1983 Philip Tetlock found that conservative senators in America were more likely to make simple judgments on issues than moderate or liberal senators. Tetlock theorised that the more complex cognitive approach of liberals and moderates may be a result of the tension posed by the negotiation between equality and freedom – conservatives are less likely to value equality, and therefore do not have this dilemma (Tetlock, 1983).
‘Control the manner in which a man interprets his world, and you have gone a long way toward controlling his behavior. That is why ideology, an attempt to interpret the condition of man, is always a prominent feature of revolutions, wars, and other circumstances in which individuals are called upon to perform extraordinary action.’
Ideology has long been a dividing characteristic of humanity, and it is likely that it will forever be this way. This is because our ideology is very much dependent on our individual psychological characteristics. The majority of the world tends to split into right or left wing distinctions, and durign the 20th century, this has generally been between conservatism and liberalism. Conservatism prioritises tradition, order and economic freedom, while liberalism prioritises equality, moral freedom and progression. We are drawn to ideology because it makes life easier - ideology allows us to reduce existential uncertainty and quickly solve dilemmas. It is also largely dependent on our environment and experiences, such as threats and opportunities. Our moral identity also greatly affects our ideology, and is formed by the priorities we have on things such as fairness and loyalty. There is significant evidence to suggest that the major psychological motivational difference between conservatism and liberalism is the individual’s focus on negative or positive outcomes, with conservatives being more aware of threats and liberals being more aware of rewards.
Hopefully after reading this chapter you have a better understanding of not only ideology as an idea but also why people are attracted to certain ideologies while others are not. Take this knowledge and use it to critically think about the world around you, especially the tumultuous state of international politics we are currently experiencing.
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