For people who feel psychologically all at sea, the conservative values of authority, order and tradition provide a comforting anchor. That’s according to psychologists who further argue that a psychological threat, for example in the form of injustice or reminders of mortality, can even turn a liberal-minded person temporarily into a conservative – a response they call “defensive conservatism”.
Across three studies, Paul Nail and colleagues tested the conservatism and liberalism of students before and after subjecting them to a threat. Their consistent finding was that a threat turned liberal students into conservatives.
In the first study, 68 students were categorised as liberal or conservative based on their political attitudes. Next they read about a fraudulent senior executive at Enron who was either jailed (the control condition) or who escaped punishment due to a legal loophole (the injustice condition). Afterwards, the students gave their opinion of an anti-USA essay written by a foreign exchange student. As expected, conservative students in the control condition rated the essay more harshly than liberal students. In the injustice condition, by contrast, the liberal students rated the essay just as harshly as the conservative students – that is, they’d started to think like a conservative.
As well as being measured politically, conservatism and liberalism can also be measured psychologically, for example, by gauging people’s “preference for consistency” (as indicated by agreement with a series of statements like “I typically prefer to do things the same way”).
A second study with 58 undergrad students involved them thinking about their own death or, as a control condition, thinking about TV. As expected, psychologically conservative students in the control condition held beliefs about issues such as capital punishment and abortion with more conviction than liberal-minded students. By contrast, of the students in the death condition, those who were identified as psychologically liberal subsequently expressed just as much conviction as their conservative minded peers. Once again, threat had made the liberal students resemble their conservative class mates.
A third and final study used a measure that captured both political and psychological conservatism. This time, liberally minded students who were asked to think about their own death, subsequently took a homophobic stance in relation to an employment issue (rights for a gay employee’s partner) and said they thought there would be widespread consensus for this opinion. In other words, they behaved liked the conservative minded students from the control and threat conditions.
A key feature of these studies was that the outcome measures of conservative thinking were not directly linked to the threats, so it’s not the case that the liberal students were simply responding to the threats in a pragmatic fashion.
“We believe that political conservatism has psychological properties that make it particularly appealing when vulnerability is dispositionally or situationally salient,” the researchers said. “Moreover, defensive conservatism appears to be a general psychological response to vulnerability that is not necessarily strategically linked to the eliciting threats.”
Nail, P., McGregor, I., Drinkwater, A., Steele, G., & Thompson, A. (2009). Threat causes liberals to think like conservatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 901-907 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.04.013