In the liberal worldview, conservatives are notoriously narrow-minded – and for years we’ve had the science to prove it. Meta-analyses published in 2003 and 2010 of dozens of studies using different measures revealed a consensus on “the rigidity of the right” – that is, people who hold more right-wing views tend to be more close-minded. Case closed? Or should we be open to other perspectives, such as the one offered in a new article published recently in Political Psychology. Produced by a research team lead by Lucian Conway of the University of Montana, it shows how classic measures of close-mindedness may be bedevilled by topic bias. When the subject matter is switched out, it’s the left who’re locked-in.
The study reports on two measures of close-mindedness, the first being dogmatism: taking simplistic, inflexible viewpoints. Researchers usually measure dogmatism using a well-established scale developed by social psychologist Milton Rokeach in 1960, but Conway’s team scrutinised this scale and noted that the wording of its items is coloured by opinion and ideologically charged topics. They suspected that this makes the scale prone to being distorted by people’s attitudes on particular matters, rather providing a fair measure of their dogmatism on a more abstract level.
To get round this, the researchers asked 475 undergraduates to complete either the original Rokeach scale, or one of two amended versions with items that repeatedly and explicitly referenced religion or the environment. To take one example, an item from the Rokeach scale asks people to say whether they agree that “a group which tolerates too much difference of opinion among its own members cannot exist for long” (agreeing would be taken as a sign of dogmatism) whereas in the amended versions the reference to a group became specifically a “religious group” or “environmental group” (and this kind of religious or environmental context was applied consistently through the two alternative versions of the dogmatism scale).
Higher scorers on dogmatism on the original Rokeach tended to have more conservative worldviews, replicating the well-known effect that right-wingers tend to be more fixed in their views. The same was true with the religious version, with very similar correlations. But crucially, for the environmental version, the correlation actually went in the reverse direction: liberals were more dogmatic than conservatives. In other words, it’s not necessarily the case that conservatives are uniformly more stubborn minded than liberals, rather it depends on the topic at hand.
The researchers also investigated people’s tendency to put forward complex arguments, specifically their willingness to give legitimacy to opposing viewpoints. While we may think liberals are the ones more likely to weigh up many points of view, perhaps to a woolly-thinking fault, this data showed the same pattern: whether we favour nuance depends on the topic we’re looking at. Two large studies (involving over 2000 students) asked people to write a short essay on one of a variety of topics, with the essays then rated by trained coders. The researchers found that while conservative students were more one-sided than their more liberal peers on some issues – censorship or the question of whether “people should find out if they are sexually suited before marriage” – they were actually more nuanced than them on others, such as smoking, or whether the death penalty should be abolished.
The researchers also turned their eye to a face-off that would seem to epitomise “qualification vs. Manichean” thinking styles: the US Presidential Candidates Debates between John Kerry and George W Bush that took place in 2004. Yet analysis of paragraphs sampled from the three debates suggested the speakers were similarly complex in their arguments. By digging into the topics discussed, the same pattern arises again: on certain topics – Iraq, abortion, education – Kerry was more nuanced. But on others, such as stem cells or affirmative action, Bush was.
Liberals reading this may well feel that Kerry, or the liberal students above, were correct to be absolute on the topics they were, because there is no room for debate on these issues. But that’s the point: conservatives feel the same about their domains. The question is whether we can therefore make claims about generalised narrow-mindedness. Now, we ought to recognise that there are measures unaddressed by this study that contribute to the evidence for rigidity of the right, such as their reportedly higher need for closure and dislike of highly complex or ambiguous art. But regardless of whether such arguments are also prone to the current content critique, or immune to it, we should pause before making unilateral, simplistic claims about the unilateral simplicity of conservatives.
Conway, L., Gornick, L., Houck, S., Anderson, C., Stockert, J., Sessoms, D., & McCue, K. (2015). Are Conservatives Really More Simple-Minded than Liberals? The Domain Specificity of Complex Thinking Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/pops.12304
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