Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A New Take on Political Ideology

• October 26, 2010 • 11:18 AM

An evolutionary psychologist proposes a new framework for understanding the root causes of our political beliefs.

With another contentious U.S. election approaching, opinions predictably have hardened as voters gravitate toward candidates who best embody their particular political position. Partisans — that is, nearly everyone aside from the handful of genuine independents, who tend to be disengaged from the process — habitually divide the world between right-thinking, like-minded people and those fools who just don’t get it.

As much as we stake our identity on such core beliefs, it’s unlikely we emerged from the womb as little liberals or libertarians. This raises a fundamental question: At what point in our development did such predispositions begin to form, to coalesce and to harden? What is it about our biology and/or psychology that propels us toward a liberal or conservative mindset?

The question has long intrigued social psychologists such as John Jost of New York University. In a 2003 meta-analysis of 50 years of research, he summarizes the overwhelming evidence that political ideologies, “like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs.” Jost quickly adds that this “is not to say they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence” — only that the underlying motivation to believe in them emerges from somewhere other than the rational, conscious mind.

“Most of the research literature … suggests that conservatives are more easily threatened, more likely to perceive the world as dangerous, and less trusting in comparison with liberals,” he notes. This is fairly self-evident. If you perceive the world as a threatening place, you’re more likely to cling tightly to those you trust (i.e., your in-group, however you define it), and to warily eye those you don’t.

It’s easy to see how this translates into strongly held positions on subjects ranging from immigration to foreign wars. A lack of trust in others also presumably leads to wariness regarding social-aid programs, since there’s an assumption many people will freeload off those who are doing the work.

While that framework is generally accepted, some conservative scholars bristle at the way it is often interpreted. In his new book On Second Thought, veteran science writer Wray Herbert addresses the topic in these terms: “People who are the most fearful seek safety in stability and hierarchy, where more emotionally secure people can tolerate some chaos and unpredictability in their lives.”

The implication — presumably unintentional, but still stinging to some — is that conservatives are somehow emotionally impaired, and vaguely inferior to the more open-minded people on the left.

Is there a way of explaining these differences that doesn’t suggest one side or the other is wrong or aberrant? Perhaps so. Jacob Vigil, an evolutionary psychologist based at the University of New Mexico, has come up with a fresh framework that links political orientation with the way we seek to fulfill our most fundamental human needs.

“A lot of the literature is morally loaded,” he says. “It’s easy for people to gravitate to language that fits into their predisposition. [In my framework] nobody’s right or wrong. It’s just that we’re using different behavioral strategies, all of which exist for a reason.”

His thesis, in a nutshell: Conservatives, being more oriented toward dominance, tend to acquire a larger group of friends and associates than liberals. They are more sensitive to potential threats because there are more people in their orbit, and thus the danger of their being hurt by a duplicitous person is greater. Liberals, being more inward-oriented, have smaller, tighter social groups and thus feel less threatened, which in turn allows them to be more open to unfamiliar experiences.

To Vigil, conservatives’ outward orientation and liberals’ inward stance reflect a basic duality of human nature. “Humans are highly dependent upon one another biologically,” he notes. To foster the good will of others, he argues, we “advertise” either trustworthiness or competence.

From an evolutionary perspective, “A basic question to ask is: How does another person have significance in our life?” Vigil notes. “My answer is it comes down to whether they have the ability to either harm or help us, and the probability of them actually doing so.

“Someone may be very competent, but if they have no intention of influencing your life in any way, they mean nothing to you. Likewise, if they’re motivated to help or hurt you but have no ability to do so, they have zero value to you.

“From that vantage point, it looks as though social perceptual systems should be rooted in the ability to evaluate basic constructs of competency and trust in others. That’s what the human brain does: It targets basic levels of trust and competency.”

Vigil contends people who go through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood without serious obstacles are more competency-oriented; they’ve discovered they have the ability to influence the lives of others. They advertise this capacity, which makes them desirable not only as potential mates, but also as potential friends or business associates. Thus they acquire a larger social sphere.

On the other hand, those who have experienced numerous setbacks (illness, injury, an unstable home environment, etc.) are less likely to work their way into such a dominating position. To advertise their desirability as friends or associates, they take a different route, emphasizing their ability to care for, and about, others.

“The size of our social network limits the amount of time we can spend with folk,” Vigil points out. “If we have a big social network, it limits our interactions to short-term relationships. We have finite time and resources. If we have fewer social partners, it frees up our time to establish more continuous types of relationships.

“The basic idea is that folks who have small social spheres are going to be demonstrating more trust cues, and those who have bigger social spheres, more capacity cues.” Liberals, in other words, are demonstrating trustworthiness as a way of attracting the social support they need, while conservatives are demonstrating power for the exact same reason.

The political arena is where much of this dynamic plays out. “If you’re saying, ‘I’m not going to put up with the Iranians’ or ‘Let’s sit down and talk with them,’ you’re expressing either dominance or submissiveness,” he says.

Vigil is quick to note these two fundamental ways of creating and maintaining relationships are equally valuable. “A demonstration of trust and a demonstration of capacity are equally plausible ways of manipulating other folks,” he says — and from an evolutionary perspective, manipulating others into giving us the support we need to thrive is our most basic impulse.

He believes much, if not most, of this calculation takes place on an unconscious level. He also suspects we shift from one mode to the other depending upon our life circumstances.

“When we experience an increase in our capacities, we demonstrate that,” he says. “When we experience hardships, we take advantage of them by using them as an opportunity to more effectively demonstrate our trustworthiness. We can do that better when we’re truly vulnerable.”

He notes this suggests people should move more to the left as they become older, and therefore more physically vulnerable. That notion contradicts another recently published study, which suggests the elderly may become more culturally conservative for reasons of psychological comfort.

Of course, an older person who has accumulated a lot of wealth can presumably still demonstrate capacity to influence others — say, in the form of giving big donations to favorite causes. In Vigil’s framework, this would keep him or her on the conservative side of the divide. It also raises the intriguing question of whether Medicare and Social Security, in removing much of the vulnerability from old age, has disrupted what would otherwise be an expected movement to the left.

Jost, one of the leading researchers in this field, is intrigued but skeptical by Vigil’s ideas. For him, this evolutionary framework is “too general for me to be able to evaluate empirically.” He adds that “I have not seen any data indicating that conservatives acquire a larger group of friends and associates than liberals. That may be true, but I am doubtful of that general claim, and I haven’t seen the evidence.”

While it’s hardly definitive, Vigil provides some data to back up his ideas in a paper recently published in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. In a study of 838 college students in Florida, he found that self-described Democrats had an average of 9.46 good friends, compared to 12.91 good friends for self-described Republicans.

Confirming earlier research, he found Republicans “have a lower threshold for processing threatening stimuli from ambiguous social information.” Democrats, on the other hand, “showed greater emotional distress, including higher rates of crying behaviors, trait aggression, emotional pain and lower life satisfaction.”

This is arguably at odds with other recent research in the field, including that of Louisiana State University political scientist Christopher Weber. In a 2007 paper, he finds early-in-life emotional difficulties are likely to lead to political conservatism. To oversimplify his findings: If you grow up believing others can’t be relied upon, you’re likely to develop a more individualistic orientation, and/or a sense that the world is a threatening place. Either of these would tend to push one to the right (to a libertarian stance in the first case, or an authoritarian one in the second).

A clear contradiction to Vigil’s thesis can be found in an intriguing 2005 paper by the late University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Jack Block. He compared personality attributes of nursery school children with their political orientation 20 years later, and found kids considered “self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating” grew up to be liberals, while those described as “easily victimized, easily offended, rigid” grew up to be conservatives.

Vigil suspects some level of liberal bias crept into that study. He insists no ideology is inherently superior to another; rather, they simply reflect different means of attracting needed comfort and support.

“Both sizes of social spheres, big and small, provide benefits, and those benefits are probably optimized under different life conditions,” he says. “Under hardship, a smaller social circle is more protective. It allows more time to strengthen relationships with reliable social partners, and limits our interactions with risky folks. You can make the inverse argument for having a big social sphere when things are going really well.”

Vigil suspect this dynamic operates on a group as well as an individual level. This helps explain why the Depression years led to a period of Democratic dominance, while post-war prosperity led to the Reagan era. If the current recession continues for years to come, Vigil predicts a societal shift to the left, although he adds that the “natural balance of demonstrating dominance and submissiveness” will inevitably mean another shift to the right after that.

Time — and a lot more research — will determine whether his approach is valid, and just how much it explains. (In addition to these adaptive behaviors, genetic makeup also undoubtedly plays a role in ideology, in ways that are not yet clear.) While Jost takes issues with many aspects of Vigil’s work, he calls it “very interesting and thought-provoking,” adding, “I would encourage him to keep working on these topics.”

Vigil plans to do just that. “I’m a new guy on the scene,” he notes. “These are some new ideas to think about.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


November 19 • 12:08 PM

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it’s not in the rainbow and sing-along way you’d hope for. We just don’t trust outsiders’ judgments.


November 19 • 12:00 PM

As the Russian Hercules, Vladimir Putin Tames the Cretan Bull

We can better understand Russia’s president, including his foreign policy in Crimea, by looking at how he uses art, opera, and holiday pageantry to assert his connection to the Tsars.


November 19 • 10:00 AM

A Murder Remembered

In her new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe takes a humanistic look at a forgotten 1892 crime.


November 19 • 8:00 AM

The End to Race-Based Lockdowns in California Prisons

The legacy of “tough on crime” legislation has historically allowed correctional authorities to conceal and pursue politics that would be illegal anywhere else. Could that finally be changing?



November 19 • 6:00 AM

Like a Broken Record

From beer milers to long-distance crawlers, the unending appeal of being No. 1.


November 19 • 4:00 AM

High School Music Groups Grapple With Gender Gap

New research finds consistently higher numbers of girls compared to boys in high school bands, orchestras, and choirs.


November 18 • 4:00 PM

I Nearly Lost My Freedom Because I Couldn’t Pee in a Cup

After 21 years in federal prison for a first-time, non-violent drug offense, I’m now living in a halfway house. I can go out to work and visit my wife, but I’m sometimes reminded how vulnerable my new life is.


November 18 • 2:00 PM

Chesapeake Energy Faces Subpoena on Royalty Payment Practices

The Justice Department’s inquiry comes after an investigation and years of complaints from landowners who say they have been underpaid for leasing land to the energy giant for drilling.


November 18 • 12:02 PM

Is McDonald’s Really Becoming More Transparent?

In an increasingly ratings-based and knowledge-rich economy, the company could suffer if consumers don’t believe its new campaign is built on honesty.



Follow us


Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

To Find Suspicious Travelers, Try Talking to Them

Brief, directed conversations are more effective at identifying liars than fancy behavioral analysis, experiment suggests.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.