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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Monday, 21 January 2013
When Fear Makes Us React Conservatively

Paul Nail and his colleagues at the University of Central Arkansas conducted a series of three experiments that showed how a psychologically threatening situation can make someone whose thinking is usually liberal adopt a more conservative position. The adjectives “liberal” and “conservative” should be understood here in their general sense, where the former describes an attitude favouring openness, empathy, communication, and social justice, while the latter emphasizes tradition, order, authority, and discipline.

For the purpose of his experiments, Nail first classified the participants (all of whom were students) as conservatives or liberals, according to their general political convictions. In each of the three experiments, he then placed students from both categories into either a control group that was exposed to a neutral condition or a test group that was exposed to a threatening condition (reading or thinking about injustice, death, etc.), and then asked their opinion on a controversial topic such as abortion or the death penalty, to assess their underlying values.

The results were quite revealing. In all three experiments, even though the threat conditions used were quite different, being exposed to a threat condition just before being asked their opinion on a controversial issue temporarily led the otherwise liberal students to adopt more conservative attitudes. And as the authors of the study point out, the issues on which the students were asked their opinions were unrelated to the threats in question, so this “defensive conservatism” was not simply a pragmatic response to a perceived threat. Instead, the authors believe, it was more of a psychological reaction to a more general feeling of vulnerability.

These results are reminiscent of a classic work by linguist George Lakoff: Moral Politics, published in 2002. Lakoff regards semantics and metaphors based on our bodily experiences as central to our language faculties. He argues that the conservative world view is inspired by the “Strict Father” metaphor and the liberal world view by the “Nurturant Parent” metaphor. Interpreting Nail’s findings according to Lakoff’s model, we might say that when there is a threat of punishment from the strict father, children experience fear and obey him unthinkingly. An avowed liberal, Lakoff considers this moral stance unhealthy for society, because it promotes a culture of fear, exclusion, and blame.

i_lien How to turn a liberal into a conservative
i_lien Book Review: Moral Politics, George Lakoff
i_lien George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute
a_lien Threat causes liberals to think like conservatives

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