How Coherence Defines Conservatism

One of the pitfalls in doing political psychology research is that it is tempting to define an ideology using the perspective of whatever you study.  Researchers necessarily (and I’m sure I do this too) talk about the novelty and uniqueness of their findings in order to convince editors of journals of the objective importance of their work.  In my technology career, we often think of connected variables as part of a “graph”, indicating that any individual finding is likely part of a larger pattern.  I believe that there are a number of psychology findings and news stories about conservatives that are actually part of a larger pattern, where each finding is actually an example of how conservatism can be defined by a desire for greater coherence.

What is coherence?  It is an idea that grows from the common psychological finding that cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, so people seek to create the absence of dissonant thoughts, beliefs, and emotions in their lives.  This absence of dissonance is what we can call coherence.  My graduate school advisor, Stephen Read, has studied it extensively in a variety of contexts, and, in a project led by my colleague Brian Monroe, modeled a variety of social psychological findings about attitudes.  My suggestion in this blog post is that, in a similar fashion, a large number of observations about conservatism can be explained by the idea that conservatives seek more coherence than liberals.  Below, I will list these observations and you can judge for yourself whether there is a broader pattern.

  • A lot of political psychology work concerns liberals greater “cognitive complexity”.  A quote from this paper: “There is both survey and content analytic evidence that liberals rely on more integratively complex cognitive strategies in reaching policy conclusions than do conservatives (Tetlock, 1989), suggesting that liberals may be more tolerant of cognitive dissonance…liberals receive higher scores on measures of tolerance of ambiguity..(Stone & Schaffner, 1988).”  In political discourse, you can see this division played out in terms of conservative ridicule of Kerry’s “for it before I was against it” in favor of the Texas straight shooter.  Note that cognitive complexity can be thought of as both an indication of intelligence and an indication of lack of core beliefs.
  • It is certainly more coherent to think that the group that you belong to does good things, rather than bad things, and conservatives are more likely to be more patriotic (see their identification with country results in this paper) and display more ingroup bias.  In contrast, it would generate cognitive dissonance to believe that your group should apologize for past bad actions and conservatives do not seem eager to apologize.
  • There is work suggesting that conservative judgments are more likely to be consistent/coherent with their emotional reactions.  Jesse Graham has a number of working papers showing how conservatives are more likely to make moral judgments that are consistent with their emotional reactions, while liberals may at times, override their gut reaction with an intellectual judgment.  In the news, we often see conservatives use their gut intuitions, even as liberals second guess basing judgments on coherence with the gut.

It bears noting that most of the above differences can be framed as positive or negative, depending on one’s ideological desires.  Coherence, by itself, is neither good nor bad, and can be both adaptive and maladaptive in different situations.  One of my colleagues once said that there is value in reviewing research from a particular perspective and pushing that review as far as one can go, even if one might be wrong.  There is certainly a ton of research I am unaware of and perhaps there is research showing contradictory evidence for my conclusion that conservativism is defined by coherence.  Or alternatively, perhaps readers are aware of more research on liberal-conservative differences that can be explained through the lens of coherence.  I would appreciate either type of information via comment or email.

- Ravi Iyer



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