posted on Jul, 20 2010 @ 12:12 AM
This is a fascinating study 20 years in the making of the psychology of what makes us lean a certain way. I recommend reading all of it, but here are
In 1969, Berkeley professors Jack and Jeanne Block embarked on a study of childhood personality, asking nursery school teachers to rate children's
temperaments. They weren't even thinking about political orientation.
Twenty years later, they decided to compare the subjects' childhood personalities with their political preferences as adults. They found arresting
patterns. As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and
resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful,
rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the Blocks hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance
of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics.
Psychologists John Jost of New York University, Dana Carney of Harvard, and Sam Gosling of the University of Texas have demonstrated that
conservatives and liberals boast markedly different home and office decor. Liberals are messier than conservatives, their rooms have more clutter and
more color, and they tend to have more travel documents, maps of other countries, and flags from around the world. Conservatives are neater, and their
rooms are cleaner, better organized, more brightly lit, and more conventional. Liberals have more books, and their books cover a greater variety of
topics. And that's just a start. Multiple studies find that liberals are more optimistic. Conservatives are more likely to be religious. Liberals are
more likely to like classical music and jazz, conservatives, country music. Liberals are more likely to enjoy abstract art. Conservative men are more
likely than liberal men to prefer conventional forms of entertainment like TV and talk radio. Liberal men like romantic comedies more than
conservative men. Liberal women are more likely than conservative women to enjoy books, poetry, writing in a diary, acting, and playing musical
The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000
participants. The researchers—John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of
Berkeley—found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which
includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking,
novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.
The study's authors also concluded that conservatives have less tolerance for ambiguity, a trait they say is exemplified when George Bush says
things like, "Look, my job isn't to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think," and "I'm the decider." Those who think the world is
highly dangerous and those with the greatest fear of death are the most likely to be conservative.
Liberals, on the other hand, are "more likely to see gray areas and reconcile seemingly conflicting information," says Jost.
By 2004, as the presidential election drew near, researchers saw a chance to study the Jost results against the backdrop of unfolding events.
Psychologists Mark Landau of the University of Arizona and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore sought to explain how President Bush's approval rating went
from around 51 percent before 9/11 to 90 percent immediately afterward.
In one study, they exposed some participants to the letters WTC or the numbers 9/11 in an image flashed too quickly to register at the conscious
level. They exposed other participants to familiar but random combinations of letters and numbers, such as area codes. Then they gave them words like
coff__, sk_ll, and gr_ve, and asked them to fill in the blanks. People who'd seen random combinations were more likely to fill in coffee, skill, and
grove. But people exposed to subliminal terrorism primes more often filled in coffin, skull, and grave. "The mere mention of September 11 or WTC is
the same as reminding Americans of death," explains Solomon.
University of Arizona psychologist Jeff Greenberg argues that some ideological shifts can be explained by terror management theory (TMT), which holds
that heightened fear of death motivates people to defend their world views. TMT predicts that images like the destruction of the World Trade Center
should make liberals more liberal and conservatives more conservative. "In the United States, political conservatism does seem to be the preferred
ideology when people are feeling insecure," concedes Greenberg.
The reason thoughts of death make people more conservative, Jost says, is that they awaken a deep desire to see the world as fair and just, to believe
that people get what they deserve, and to accept the existing social order as valid, rather than in need of change. When these natural desires are
primed by thoughts of death and a barrage of mortal fear, people gravitate toward conservatism because it's more certain about the answers it
provides—right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, us vs. them—and because conservative leaders are more likely to advocate a return to traditional values,
allowing people to stick with what's familiar and known. "Conservatism is a more black and white ideology than liberalism," explains Jost. "It
emphasizes tradition and authority, which are reassuring during periods of threat."
To test the theory, Jost prompted people to think about either pain—by looking at things like an ambulance, a dentist's chair, and a bee sting—or
death, by looking at things like a funeral hearse, the grim reaper, and a dead-end sign. Across the political spectrum, people who had been primed to
think about death were more conservative on issues like immigration, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage than those who had merely thought about
pain, although the effect size was relatively small. The implication is clear: For liberals, conservatives, and independents alike, thinking about
death actually makes people more conservative—at least temporarily.