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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.”

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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.

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