VAN HIEL'S PSYCHOLOGY OF CONSERVATISM
John J. Ray
University of New South Wales, Australia
Four articles concerned with conservatism and racism written by A. Van Hiel and his associates are briefly reviewed. The theories put forward in the four articles are largely derived from the "authoritarian personality" theory of Adorno et al. (1950). His conclusions are however rendered very dubious by his uncritical use of such problematical scales as the RWA, SDO and Kruglanski NFC scales.
Key Words: SDO, RWA, Conservatism, racism, authoritarian, Rightist, Leftist, closure, openness
Alain van Hiel and his collaborators have in recent years written a number of articles on the psychology of politics -- some of which are rather imaginatively titled -- e.g. "The march of modern fascism. A comparison of social dominance orientation and authoritarianism". They would at first glance appear to represent a substantial contribution to knowledge in the area so deserve some attention. It turns out, however, that all of the articles are essentially a modern-day reprise of the old Adorno et al. (1950) theory that conservatives are "authoritarian" -- a theory which has of course been the target of sustained criticism over the last 50 years. So is the Van Hiel work then really any advance? I wish to review here very briefly four of the articles concerned in the belief that such a review will show that their conclusions are as dubious as those of the Adorno et al work.
Three of the four articles are in Personality & Individual Differences (Van Hiel, Kossowska & Mervielde, 2000; Duriez & Van Hiel, 2003 and Van Hiel, Mervielde & De Fruyt, In press) and one is in Political Psychology (Kossowska & Van Hiel, 2003).
The Van Hiel, Kossowska & Mervielde (2000) study was rather notable in the literature of political psychology in that it used community as well as student samples. The aim of the study appeared to be to show that conservatives are less open to experience than others but the expected correlation appeared only in the "adult" and "student" samples and not at all in a sample of politically-involved respondents. In other words, people with a definite conservative orientation were just as likely as Leftists to be open to experience. Even more awkwardly for the theory, however, the subscale measuring openness to ideas in particular showed a positive correlation with conservatism among the politically aware respondents. Among politically-aware people it was LEFTISTS who were closed-minded!
The use of "Openness to experience" is of course highly reminscent of the "intolerance of ambiguity" and "rigidity" variables employed by Adorno et al in their theory and the upshot of much research into those variables would appear to be that they are not traits at all but rather situational responses which vary according to circumstances (Ray, 1990b). Such variability could then well explain the unexpected results reported in Van Hiel, Kossowska & Mervielde (1990). In a situation where people are actively thinking about their political attitudes very different results emerge from what is otherwise found.
In the next study Duriez & van Hiel (2002) are, like Adorno et al., principally concerned with an attempt to explain racism. The predictors used did however make the enterprise an unlikely one from the start. They used the SDO scale (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth & Malle, 1994), the RWA scale (Altemeyer, 1988) and the F scale (Adorno et al., 1950) -- all of which appear to measure some form of conservatism but all of which have large problems.
Despite it current fashionability, the SDO scale is a particularly naive piece of work. What do the statements in the SDO scale say? As Jost & Thompson (2000) have pointed out, fully half of its items specifically ask people whether or not they accept social inequality (Sample items: "It would be good if all groups could be equal" and "We should strive to make incomes more equal"). But anyone who knows the first thing about politics will be aware that "equality" is a great mantra of the Left and that conservatives view the whole idea of equality as absurd. Leftists believe that in some mystical way "all men are equal" and conservatives reject equality as an unattainable myth. Ever since the Pilgrim Fathers, attempts to found societies based on equality have quickly degenerated into pervasive and permanent INequality. So the SDO theory that conservatives reject equality is laughably unoriginal. It is no wonder that the SDO scale predicts conservatism in other senses. Fully half of the items in the scale relate to what has always been a core conservative belief. The correlation between SDO and conservatism is then artifactual.
Parenthetically, it might be noted that the SDO scale is claimed to be a personality scale when it is not. As the sample items above show, it is an attitude scale. But social dominance HAS previously been measured via a personality scale (the "Directiveness" scale) and when that is done social dominance turns out to have NO overall relationship to Left/Right orientation (Ray, 1983; Ray & Heaven, 1984). In other words, a belief in the inevitability of inequality is NOT an outcome of an overbearing personality.
But what about the correlation usually found (e.g. Heaven & St. Quintin, 2003) between SDO and racism? What does that imply? Let us look at what the other half of the items in the SDO scale say: They say things like: "Inferior groups should stay in their place", "Superior groups should dominate inferior groups" and "Some groups of people are just more worthy than others". So people who believe that there are inferior and superior groups also believe that there are inferior and inferior races. How astounding! Since races are groups, the finding that the SDO scale predicts racism is in fact LOGICALLY ENTAILED. It parades as an empirical finding but it is not. It tells us nothing new about the world. It is merely something that is true by definition. So it is no wonder that Duriez & Van Hiel found the correlation they did. Just as the F scale of Adorno et al (1950) was widely held to have an inbuilt Rightist bias, the SDO scale clearly has an inbuilt racist bias.
And the Altemeyer RWA scale that Duriez & van Hiel used has similarly risible properties. Altemeyer himself, on p. 239 of his 1988 book Enemies of Freedom makes the bald statement that "Right-wing authoritarians show little preference in general for any political party". In other words, these supposed Right-wingers are just as likely to vote for a Leftist as a Rightist political party. Particularly in the general population, roughly half of these supposed "Rightists" vote for Leftist parties! Altemeyer himself has shown that his scale lacks basic predictive validity. What on earth this scale really measures can therefore only be conjectured. My best guess is that -- like the F scale (Ray, 1990a) -- the RWA scale measures some sort of old-fashioned conservatism that no longer has political relevance. It certainly reads very similarly to many conservatism scales.
It should be noted that the F scale also gives a negligible prediction of vote in general population samples (Ray, 1983) but that there are plenty of conservatism scales that DO predict vote. Ray (1984a), for instance reported a robust .50 correlation between vote and a scale of general conservatism in a community-wide sample.
The Duriez & van Hiel (2002) results are therefore either true by definition (SDO) or uninterpretable (RWA). And that the F scale also does not predict racist attitudes for the reasons usually given has been shown at length elsewhere (Ray, 1988).
In the third study -- by Van Hiel, Mervielde & De Fruyt (In press) -- the authors appear to have adopted something of a "shotgun" approach -- using an existing large battery of psychopathology scales in the hope that one or more would show a correlation with conservatism. The results in the body of the article, however, seem to be at some variance with the abstract. The authors do again look at Openness to Experience as a predictor of conservatism but conclude finally that openness to experience is completely non-political -- though it may be noted that they appear not to have repeated the procedure which gave such awkward results previously -- dissecting out responses on the Openness to Ideas subscale only.
Out of the large number of scales that they examined, they did however find two factors which correlated significantly with their measure of conservative ideology -- Disagreeableness and Compulsiveness. The first correlation need not detain us long. At .14 (See their Table 3) it was significant only by virtue of the large sample size and is effectively negligible. Putting it another way, roughly half of all "disagreeable" people were found to be Leftists.
The second correlation -- between conservatism and compulsivemess -- is marginally more substantial at .22 but the factor generating it loads just one scale very heavily -- the Livesley & Jang (2000) "Compulsivity" scale -- and no other scales to any degree at all. So effectively what we have is just one scale out of the 18 scales in the Livesley & Jang battery which predicted conservatism. This looks very much like the sort of chance result that will be found in any large correlation matrix where a "shotgun" approach is adopted. An experiment-wise error-rate approach to significance testing would therefore have been appropriate but such a test was not offered. As the correlation is low, however, there is little doubt that it would drop to non-significance under such a test.
It is also very relevant to quote what Livesley (1998) himself says about this scale: "Compulsivity does not seem to be associated with the same level of dysfunction as the other patterns. Compulsivity is usually associated with a diagnosis of personality disorder only when it occurs with other maladaptive traits." That condition would not seem to have been met in the Van Hiel, Mervielde & De Fruyt (In press) study. Since an obsessive attention to detail seems to be almost mandatory for many important activities -- such as getting articles published in academic journals -- the Livesley observations are very much what one would expect. To see the 5% of common variance between this scale and conservatism as evidence of conservative psychopathology is then sadly misguided, regardless of what one thinks of the error-rate approach used.
Finally, writing in Political Psychology, Kossowska & Van Hiel (2003) present findings that "need for closure is associated with the adoption of conservative ideology". To demonstrate this, they used the Webster & Kruglanski (1994) Need for Closure Scale. Kruglanski & Webster (1996) have defined what their scale measures as: "The need for closure is a desire for definite knowledge on some issue". One would have thought that such a desire might also well be variable situationally and, if so, may partly explain why this scale has come under sustained attack from Neuberg and his associates. Neuberg, Judice, & West (1997a) initially criticized the scale on psychometric grounds, pointing out that it was not internally consistent. Kruglanski, Atash, De Grada, Mannetti, & Pierro (1997) replied to this saying: "Furthermore, no unidimensionality of the NFCS has been claimed, and none is required to use its total score for testing various theoretically derived predictions" and went on to refer to "questionable psychometric dogma".
Neuberg, West, Judice & Thompson (1997) replied to this attempt to dismiss psychometric data with a wave of the hand by explaining the importance of psychometrics in examining whether or not a scale measures what it purports to measure. To put it in Grade 4 terms, the Kruglanski group were adding up apples and oranges and getting watermelons.
One might note however that this sort of problem is a familiar one in the field concerned. For instance, the most widely-used measure of cognitive style is probably the Budner (1962) Intolerance of Ambiguity scale. Yet the positive and negative halves of this scale are completely uncorrelated (Ray, 1981). So which half is measuring intolerance of ambiguity? Since the two halves are uncorrelated, both halves cannot be. It must be said. therefore, that the two halves of the scale offer concurrent IN-validation for one-another. And Brown (1965, p. 509), of course, long ago noted that different measures of rigidity show little or no correlation with one-another.
Kossowska & Van Hiel (2003) were aware of the Neuberg criticisms but still had sufficient faith to use the Kruglanski scale. That their usage of such a questionable scale produced opposite results in Poland and Belgium is therefore hardly surprising. "Need for closure" was apparently Leftist in one country and Rightist in the other! If anything, the finding is yet another instance of of cognitive style variables being shown to be situational responses rather than stable and generalizable personality traits.
Furthermore, Even if more consistent results had been obtained, one would still have to ask how reasonable it is to characterize "a desire for definite knowledge on some issue" as psychopathological. Do we not carry out statistical analyses precisely because we want "definite knowledge on some issue"? Statisticians must be a sorry lot! And, just looking at some of Kruglanski's items (Kruglanski, Webster & Klem, 1993), are we sure that it is (for instance) psychopathological to say "I feel uncomfortable when I don't understand the reason why an event occurred in my life"? or: "I usually make important decisions quickly and confidently"? And are we sure that it is healthy to say: "I would describe myself as indecisive"? In the circumstances, then, the broad conclusions drawn from their study by Kossowska & Van Hiel (2003) would seem to be more an expression of faith in Kruglanski than reasonable inferences from the data.
In conclusion, the energy that Van Hiel and his associates have put into their work is highly commendable but re-ploughing the old Adorno et al furrow does not appear to have been a productive outlet for those energies. His literature reviews reveal Van Hiel as being well aware that there have been many past unsuccessful attempts to find psychopathologies that are particularly conservative so his continuing attempt to find evidence of such psychopathologies is certainly dauntless. Given the determination of his campaign and given a knowledge of the Rosenthal (1976) effect, the wonder is that he has produced so little effective support for his obvious expectations. Such a failure in fact speaks well for the honesty of his enterprise. Had his choice of measuring instruments been wiser, much more interesting results might have been expected from his efforts.
Altemeyer, R. (1988) Enemies of freedom: Understanding Right-wing authoritarianism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brown, R. (1965). Social Psychology, Free Press, New York.
Budner, S. (1962) Intolerance of ambiguity as a personality variable'. Journal of Personality 30, 29-50.
Duriez, B. & Van Hiel, A. (2002). The march of modern fascism. A comparison of social dominance orientation and authoritarianism. Personality and Individual Differences 32 (7), 1199-1213.
Heaven, P.C.L. & St. Quintin, D. (2003) Personality factors predict racial prejudice. Personality & Individual Differences 34, 625-634.
Kossowska, M. & Van Hiel, A. (2003) The Relationship Between Need for Closure and Conservative Beliefs in Western and Eastern Europe. Political Psychology 24 (3) 501.
Kruglanski, A. W., Atash, M. N., De Grada, E., Mannetti, L., & Pierro, A. (1997). Psychological theory testing versus psychometric nay saying: Need for closure scale and the Neuberg et al. critique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1005-1016.
Kruglanski, A. W., & Webster, D. M. (1996). Motivated closing of the mind: "Seizing" and "freezing". Psychological Review, 103, 263-283.
Kruglanski, A.W., Webster, D.M., & Klem, A. (1993). Motivated resistance and openness in the presence or absence of prior information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 23-35
Livesley, W. J., (1998) Suggestions for a Framework for an Empirically Based Classification of Personality Disorder. Canadian J. Psychiatry, Vol 43, No. 2., 137-147.
Livesley, W. J., Jang, K. L. (2000). Toward an empirically based classification of personality disorders. Journal of Personality Disorders, 14 (2), 137-151.
Neuberg, S.L., Judice, T.N., & West, S.G. (1997). What the Need for Closure Scale measures and what it does not: Toward differentiating among related epistemic motives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1396-1412.
Neuberg, S.L., West, S.G., Judice, T.N., & Thompson, M.M. (1997). On dimensionality, discriminant validity, and the role of psychometric analyses in personality theory and measurement: Reply to Kruglanski et al.'s (1997) defense of the Need for Closure Scale. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1017-1029.
Ray, J.J. (1981) Explaining Australian attitudes towards Aborigines Ethnic & Racial Studies 4, 348-352.
Ray, J.J. (1983). Half of all authoritarians are Left-wing: A reply to Eysenck and Stone. Political Psychology, 4, 139-144.
Ray, J.J. (1984a) Attitude to abortion, attitude to life and
conservatism in Australia. Sociology & Social Research 68, 236-246.
Ray, J.J. (1984b) Political radicals as sensation seekers. J. Social Psychology 122, 293-294.
Ray, J.J. (1988) Why the F scale predicts racism: A critical review. Political Psychology 9(4), 671-679.
Ray, J.J. (1990a) The old-fashioned personality. Human Relations, 43, 997-1015.
Ray, J.J. (1990b) Politics and cognitive style: A rejoinder to Sidanius and Ward. Political Psychology 11, 441-444.
Ray, J.J. & Heaven, P.C. L. (1984) Conservatism and authoritarianism among urban Afrikaners. Journal of Social Psychology, 122, 163-170.
Rosenthal, R. (1976) Experimenter effects in behavioral research N.Y.: Irvington.
Van Hiel, A., Kossowska, M. & Mervielde, I. (2000) The relationship between Openness to Experience and political ideology. Personality and Individual Differences 28 (4), 741-751
Van Hiel, A., Mervielde, I. & De Fruyt, F. (In press). The relationship between maladaptive personality and right wing ideology. Personality and Individual Differences
Webster, D. M., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1994). Individual differences in need for cognitive closure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1049-1062.
After I had looked closely at the four Van Hiel studies above, it seemed obvious to me that scrutiny of any more his work was unlikely to be enlightening about anything -- so I terminated my critique at that point. Since another of his articles came out in the same issue of the journal that carried my latest article, however, I was tempted to dip my toe into the morass just once more.
This latest (Van Hiel & Mervielde, 2003) is another article on "Need for closure". I had just started to get my head around the considerable complexities of the article when I noticed that its results were not statistically significant! In other words, a table of random numbers could have produced similar results! I am amazed that such stuff is getting published these days. The Leftist discomfort with reality is showing up more and more in academe, I guess. And one of Van Hiel's key measures in his study was the absurd Bieri scale of cognitive complexity. Van Hiel appears to have overlooked my "deconstruction" of that particular piece of nonsense. I will repeat here what I long ago (Ray, 1984) pointed out about the Bieri scale:
"In the Bieri cognitive simplicity test, if the respondent rates the stimulus persons all as "+ 1" or "-1" (the two middling scores) the respondent would purportedly be very simple in his cognitive style, but this is absurd: such responses indicate perceptions of many "greys" rather than "blacks and whites." The meaning of the correlation could then be the opposite to that claimed"
Had Van Hiel paid more attention to the way he measured things, he might have got more significant results.
Ray, J.J. (1984). Cognitive styles and authoritarianism: A comment on Rigby & Rump. Journal of Social Psychology, 122, 283-284.
Van Hiel, A. & Mervielde, I. (2003) The need for closure and the spontaneous use of complex and simple cognitive structures. Journal of Social Psychology, 143 (5), 559-568.
Some 2007 research by ">Haidt would seem to be of considerable interest in connection with the above. Haidt argues that the basis of morality is instinctive but that conservatives display greater cognitive complexity in dealing with moral questions. Given the frequent Leftist assertion that "there is no such thing as right and wrong", that is not inherently surprising. Although they often use moral talk in an attempt to influence others, Leftists would seem, on their own admission, to have no serious interest in or committment to morality of any kind. That does make the invariable brutalities of Communist regimes rather understandable.
Part of a summary of Haidt's review:
"Haidt argues that human morality is a cultural construction built on top of -- and constrained by -- a small set of evolved psychological systems. He presents evidence that political liberals rely primarily on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, however, construct their moral understandings on those two systems plus three others, which involve emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity."