Psychological Study Links Hitler to Reagan, Limbaugh

By David Fein | July 7, 2008 | 8:29pm EDT

( - What do Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh have in common?

According to an analysis of research literature on the psychology of conservatism, they all "preached a return to an idealized past and condoned inequality in some form."

Four researchers concluded that while agendas may differ among conservatives, at its core, political conservatism is the resistance to change and a greater tolerance for inequality relative to liberals.

Published in the May 2003 edition of the Psychological Bulletin, a bi-monthly research journal, the study titled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" examined over 50 years of conservative thought - including journal articles, books and conference papers - involving 22,818 participants from 12 countries.

Authors of the study included Jack Glaser of the University of California-Berkeley; Frank Sulloway of UC Berkely; John Jost of Stanford University; and Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland at College Park.

The authors noted that the "exclusive assessment of the psychological motivations of political conservatism might be viewed as a partisan exercise," and they said their study was based in part on the availability of research, which they say is less extensive regarding liberalism.

According to the study, "common psychological factors linked to political conservatism" include fear and aggression; dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity; uncertainty avoidance; need for cognitive closure; and terror management.

For instance, the researchers found that the avoidance of uncertainty, as well as the striving for certainty, are particularly tied to one key dimension of conservative thought -- the resistance to change or maintaining the status quo.

An announcement heralding the report noted that certain communist dictators, including Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, "might be considered politically conservative in the context of the systems they defended," with no mention of their use of murder, torture and other authoritarian means of maintaining power.

Clarifying the conclusions reached in the study, Glaser stressed that distinctions made between conservatism and liberalism are not meant to create a rigid line between the psychological foundation of one ideology over another.

"I don't think it's that conservatives like inequality, so much as that liberals have less of a tolerance for inequality," Glaser said. "On the other hand, it's not that liberals like change, it's more that they're more tolerant of change than conservatives."

However, in a statement on the study distributed by the University of California-Berkeley, the phrase "conservatives' penchant for accepting inequality," was attributed to Glaser.

Glaser said he and the other researchers were careful to keep in mind that while there might be personality characteristics or even situational characteristics that relate to conservatism, there is a principled conservatism in which people adopt conservative views because they think that is what is best.

Given the authors' views that ideologies, like other attitudes, possess a high degree of variation, Glaser emphasized the importance of remembering that "these variables are only going to predict a portion of what you're trying to explain."

Glaser emphasized "while there's research on ideology which looks at the relationship between liberalism and conservatism, there's very little on the psychological underpinning of liberalism."

Glaser pointed to two potential reasons for the discrepancy he saw in available research on conservatism versus liberalism. "It might be that liberalism is really not seen so much as a cohesive construct as conservatism is, that it's just seen as the absence of conservatism."

More likely, he speculated, was that "a lot of research originated around the time of the Holocaust and World War II, and so you have the authoritarian personality research which was in some ways the beginning of all of this kind of research." He added that this "started a tradition of trying to look into why people with extreme right-wing views would adopt those views."

Glaser also emphasized that the report was not meant to be a judgmental analysis of conservatism.

"We never argued that it is intrinsically good to be tolerant of uncertainty or ambiguity, low on the need for cognitive closure, or even high in cognitive complexity," the report said. "In many cases, including mass politics, liberal traits may be liabilities, and being intolerant of ambiguity...might be associated with such generally valued characteristics as personal commitment and unwavering loyalty."

While Glaser believes the results of the study did serve to explain at least part of conservatism, he cautioned that "you always have to be careful to say that it doesn't explain all of it."

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