Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ideology as Variation in Attitudes Towards Uncertainty and Threat (in the US, Europe, Israel, and New Zealand)

Ideology: Its Resurgence in Social, Personality, and Political Psychology
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Jost, Nosek, and Gosling argue in 2008 that ideology comprises a “single left–right (or liberal–conservative) dimension” that “possesses two core aspects: (a) advocating versus resisting social change and (b) rejecting versus accepting inequality” (Jost, Nosek, & Gosling, 2008). They further argue that “ideological belief systems may be structured according to a left–right dimension for largely psychological reasons linked to variability in the needs to reduce uncertainty and threat.” (Jost, Nosek, & Gosling, 2008) In these statements, Jost, Nosek, and Gosling do not explicitly discuss causal relationships between ideology and personal “needs.” Indeed, they are explicitly, at least for the purposes of this paper, agnostic as to whether “left–right proclivities stem from basic, underlying preferences that are apolitical in nature or, alternatively, that the adoption of specific ideologies leads people to internalize a host of extremely general attitudes concerning stability versus change and hierarchy versus equality” (Jost, Nosek, & Gosling, 2008). Is each line of argument that Jost et al. employ in defense of their thesis also agnostic as to the causal role of “underlying preferences”?

Their first set of arguments concerns implicit ideological preferences. For example, they specifically examine preferences for “tradition, conformity, order, stability, traditional values, and hierarchy—versus those for progress, rebelliousness, chaos, flexibility, feminism, and equality” (Jost, Nosek, & Goslking, 2008). These preferences, Jost et al. state, fall into two negatively correlated groups of preferences. Any one person would be somewhat unlikely to have strong implicit preferences for, to take an example, tradition and stability as well as progress and chaos. In addition, any one person who has a preference for tradition is somewhat more likely to have a preference for stability as well. These preferences do correlate to political orientation, but Jost et al. are agnostic as to the direction of causation, but do suggest that the negative correlation between preferences is a “constraint” on the development of political orientation. How strong the constraint is would depend on the strength of the negative correlation and individual factors.

Their second set of arguments concerns system justification. System justification theory does make a specific causal argument—mainly that the need to believe in a just world does cause more automatic and more deliberate system-justifying behaviors, as Jost and colleagues have defined and measured them. However, the strength of this need differs both between individuals and within individuals. Prolonged threat, for example, can increase system-justifying behaviors. The need to believe in a just world also correlates to variables used to measure political-orientation. In this argument, political upbringing may influence the strength of one’s need to believe in a just world, which in turn would influence the way that one comes to believe in a just world—by, for example, justifying different aspects of the existing economic-social-political system and not justifying others.

Their 3rd and 4th sets of arguments concern individual preferences. According to Jost et al., conservative and liberal orientations are correlated to different “big five” personality traits as well as to different self-reported preferences for attitude objects like fishing and one’s father versus atheists and tattoos. These lines of argument are open to the same question of causality. Are certain personality traits expected of individuals raised in social contexts that teach and expect a certain political orientation? Or, alternatively, are they more “inborn” with these inborn traits reflected in political orientation? To address the fourth line of argument, are certain lifestyle preferences caused by certain individual fundamental preferences or are they merely artifacts of cultural differences in upbringing between liberals and conservatives?

Jost et al.’s fifth line of argument is central to their thesis that the need to manage uncertainty and threat is central to political orientation. Here they present two main arguments. The first is that a conservative shift corresponds to increased exposure to both threats to the system and mortality salience—as demonstrated both by in-laboratory reminders of 9/11, personal experience of terrorist attacks (both in the US and in Europe) and their effects, and rapid “social change and the fear of social decline.” The second is that liberal shifts tend to be caused by having to approach positive novel experiences and perspectives. These two sets of arguments differ, of course, in degree of control and in the nature of threat. In the conservative shift, direct control is extremely low, in the liberal shift, direct control is relatively high. Personal threat is relatively high in the conservative shift case and relatively low in the liberal shift case. In either case, there’s some evidence that the precipitating events (attack, novel experiences) changed personal and political preferences.

How would you tell the causal story? What creates consistency between political orientation and other preferences and what could disrupt this consistency?

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