Red State, Blue State: is it a state of mind or just the colors on a map?

Looking out on today's political landscape (i.e., in 2006), it's hard to imagine a time when social scientists would have said that "ideology" had nothing to do with personality styles, or that the differences between the left and the right are not that great. There was such a time, however, at the end of World War II, when the study of political and ideological differences was said to have become irrelevant for psychologists. Today, we are well past the point of being able to say that left or right, blue or red, everyone is really just the same.

This topic is the subject of a recent article by Professor John T. Jost of New York University, published in the American Psychologist (October 2006) under the title: The End of "the End of Ideology." His argument is that shared attitudes really do matter, that shared beliefs are not just situational or issue-specific, that beliefs form enduring patterns, and that beliefs do in fact motivate people to act. Liberals and conservatives are in fact different, not just in terms of their opinions. To some extent, they are also different at the level of personality style.

Professor Jost looked at four issues that relate to whether or not political ideology is in fact an important focus of psychological study: (1) do people maintain a set of core beliefs? (2) are people motivated to act in response to their core beliefs? (3) are liberals and conservatives really different? and (4), is there any psychological underpinning to the differences in belief systems that are shared by liberals and conservatives?

It turns out that when asked, most individuals will identify themselves as having a core ideological orientation, generally either liberal or conservative. These orientations appear to be generally stable over time and to be reflected in a variety of opinions about specific issues.

As to whether or not these attitudes have an influence on behavior, it has been found that whether someone says they are liberal or conservative is one of the very best predictors of how someone is going to vote.

As to whether or not there really is any difference in the values of the left and the right, the most stable indication has to do with attitudes toward equality and tradition. Conservatives are more tolerant of inequality, viewing it as the result of hard work or character. Liberals are less beholden to authority and tradition, and are more willing to challenge the status quo and to demand change. Conservatives are more receptive to social control. Liberals are more likely to endorse policies that provide for social and economic equality.

At the level of personality, one of the more persistent observations in psychological research has been that conservatives tend to be more dogmatic and authoritarian, and rigid in their attitudes. This observation has been rejected by some who argue that in the end, liberals are equally up-tight and fixed in their ways. A more current and useful distinction (advanced by UC Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff) is that the two sides are distinguished by whether or not they adopt either a "strict father" or "nurturing parent" view of moral discipline. Other findings suggest that liberals will score higher on scales measuring openness to new experience and the tolerance of ambiguity, and that conservatives are more likely to be conscientious and orderly. One interesting finding, developed through systematic observations, is that "the bedrooms of conservatives were more likely to contain organizational supplies such as calendars, postage stamps, and laundry baskets, whereas the bedrooms of liberals were more likely to contain art supplies, books, CDs and travel documents." Observations show that on average, the work spaces occupied by conservatives tend to be better organized and tidier!

One of the more intriguing findings regarding liberal-vs-conservative personality styles is that conservatives display a greater fear of death and other threats to personal safety and social stability. This finding correlates with the fact that conservative politicians have been able to benefit by raising fears about terrorism. It also explains the well-documented fact that following 9/11, there was indeed a shift in the population towards conservatism. The downside to this is that those who identified or shifted towards conservatism, also tended to suffer depression and post-traumatic stress at levels significantly greater than those who identify as liberals. In times of threat, the fear of threat is a vulnerability.

Is there any harm in people adopting an ideological perspective from which to view events and issues? The research suggests that it is probably a very natural human tendency. What is of concern is that it can leave us divided, rather than united, and that rather than contributing to political and social sophistication, ideological adherence tends to breed distortion, oversimplification and selective processing of information. Be that as it may, it is certainly not the case that ideology is dead, or that as Ralph Nader famously claimed in 2000, there is no difference between the right and the left.

copyright, paul g. mattiuzzi, ph.d.