In Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway, 2003 the authors describe a number of possible relationships that can transform an individual’s perception of environmental uncertainty and environmental threat into political conservatism. The authors characterize political conservatism as comprised of both resistance to change and the endorsement of social and economic inequalities. Jost et al. demonstrate that the relationships between uncertainty about one’s environment and feeling threatened by one’s environment and political conservatism are complex and vary by individual. These relationships include the moderating roles of:
- Epistemic motives: including dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty avoidance, and the needs for order, structure, and closure.
- Existential motives: including self-esteem, a prevention-oriented regulatory focus, and terror management.
- Ideological motives: including the rationalization of self-interest, group-based dominance, and system justification.
In addition, the particular form that political conservatism takes reflects socially-learned ideology-influenced knowledge, including beliefs about cosmology, human nature, governance, etc.
The authors argue that while both directed reasoning—reasoning in pursuit of a certain belief and undirected reasoning—reasoning by a process that satisfies meta-cognitive needs—influence the acquisition of new knowledge, prior knowledge influences when and how these needs are met. For example, an individual may believe that the social world is dangerous because they were taught that it is dangerous or have experienced it as dangerous, but they may also, as Duckitt, Birum, Wagner, & du Plessis, 2002 demonstrated using structural equation modeling, tend to believe that the social world is dangerous as a consequence of a need for social conformity. In other words, the need for social conformity, once formed as a personality variable, may motivate the acquisition of evidence in favor of believing that the world is a dangerous place. Duckitt et al’s study was not longitudinal and could not study reciprocal relationships between social conformity needs and belief in a dangerous world over time.
This potentially reciprocal relationship between personality traits, i.e. core motives, and ideology-relevant knowledge is particularly interesting when one looks at attitudes towards change. Change in general, Jost et al. argue, tends to lead conservatives to feel threatened. Instead, conservatives tend to positively value stability. At the same time, political conservatives will often advocate a return to an idealized past, both more recent and more distant, denigrating the present as, to cite adjectives from the Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, “radical” (in itself a negative adjective), “perverse,” or “sinful.” This surface-level contradiction could be resolved if we more carefully defined what kinds of changes conservatives are threatened by, across a variety of situations.
Reasoning by analogy to studies of change-blindness attention and perception, I wonder if the changes that conservatives have such negative affective reactions to are schema-threatening changes. Schemas, mental models that are used to encode, store, and recall information, are relatively stable tools which have the side-effect of limiting perception of variation in schema-consistent information. In other words, if change in the environment does not challenge the schema, it is often ignored completely. Further, if a change would challenge the schema, it is often ignored if most of the information in the environment supports the schema. For example, I myself did not notice that parts of a color photograph were printed in black and white even though that photograph was presented in an article on change blindness.
Change-blindness studies are often even more dramatic and of direct-relevance to interpersonal interaction. In one study, an experimenter sent a confederate out on a college campus to ask people for directions. After the experimenter greeted the subject, another set of confederates walked between the dyad while carrying a large object that completely obscured the subject’s view. In the meantime, another confederate replaced the first confederate, so that the subject was now giving directions to a completely different person. Many subjects failed to notice this change, even when the person was much shorter, taller, of a different skin-tone, etc. Further studies revealed certain patterns—college student subjects were more likely to notice that the college-student aged confederate had changed, changes in gender (if I recall) were noticed, as, sometimes, were changes in race (Simons & Levin, 1997).
If change blindness is a demonstrable phenomenon in such a basic social situation, it may not be surprising if it occurred in relation to ideological schema as well, allowing for even some schema-inconsistent changes to go unnoticed and thus never become threatening. The question then arises, what predicts when a schema-inconsistent change will be noticed and how threatening it will become? Further, when a country’s politics are polarized around a left-right dimension, are there concrete and complex schemas that identify any action of the left as being in favor of “change.” Are these two types of change—change that is noticed because a stimulus is schema-inconsistent and change that is noticed because a stimulus is consistent with a schema that labels that stimulus as change—correlated to different affective reactions in conservative individuals? Or does it all come out in the wash?