Conservatism may be fueled in part by fear and uncertainty, according to a psychological study covered in Miller-McCune. Three researchers “have found evidence that both general feelings of threat and specific anxiety about other ethnic groups sometimes do lead individuals to embrace two tenets of political conservativism—support for the status quo and a belief that there is a natural hierarchy to society.”
Which is to say that a common liberal perception might be rooted in reality. Before your conservative brother-in-law can dismiss the research as the sketchy work of lefty social scientists, he should consider that the study was carefully constructed to track shifting attitudes over time, surveying almost 1,000 undergraduates as they went through four years of college. It went further toward establishing a causal connection than previous studies, which had found that people who were more uncomfortable with complexity and ambiguity tended to lean to the right.
The results surprised even the researchers. As one tells Miller-McCune:
“What makes it really interesting is that using very conservative methods, and looking at processes over time, we still found that there was a conservative shift in response to threat perceptions. A lot of people just treat conservatism as a personality variable that doesn’t change, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems to be influenced by the situation, and it can be affected by threat perceptions.”
The magazine notes that this might be part of the psychology at work behind the recent anti-government, anti-Obama right-wing movement: “With unemployment now topping 10 percent, economic uncertainty is probably weighing more heavily.” Also, “America now has its first African American president. And as the research described here suggests, there seems to be a direct link from ‘intergroup anxiety’ [about people of different ethnicities] to political conservatism.”