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SOCIAL SCIENCE

What Conservatives Have in Common

Chris Callis

CONTROVERSY: Jost says his research on political belief systems was distorted.

Right-wingers are rigid, fearful and can’t stand ambiguity.

Stereotypes or truths? John Jost set out to find out. But when his research showed that the labels fit, the associate professor in the Graduate School of Business got an earful.

Conservative columnists and talk radio hosts rallied a defense and hate mail poured in from around the country. In his August 10 Washington Post column, George Will was more tongue-in-cheek: “Liberals, you see, embrace liberalism for an obvious and uncomplicated reason—liberalism is self-evidently true. But conservatives embrace conservatism for reasons that must be excavated from their inner turmoils, many of them pitiable or disreputable.”

When Jost and his co-authors published their work in May in the Psychological Bulletin, it was not immediately clear that they were going to encounter such wrath. Their report—a review of dozens of studies about the cognitive and behavioral basis of political belief systems—showed that being conservative was statistically correlated with a sense of societal instability, fear of death, intolerance of ambiguity, need for closure, lower cognitive complexity and a sense of threat. The researchers did not, however, find a clear correlation between being liberal, radical or moderate and a group of traits.

The firestorm ignited later in the summer, when conservative websites picked up the story and, Jost says, accused researchers of calling conservatives abnormal or mentally ill. “The function of blogs on the web is to create anger and controversy,” Jost says. “Getting the facts straight doesn’t seem to be important.”

The main fact to get straight, Jost says, is that all of the traits the researchers found in larger measure in conservatives are simply that—traits—not pathologies or neuroses. “You have to think about what the context is,” he adds. “Making firm decisions can often be the best thing to do. A need for closure can be a good thing. In mass politics, it can be easier for someone with an unambiguous message.”

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