Conservatism and The Need For Cognitive Closure


Politics and psychology has more of a relationship than you think. In a lot of instances, individuals have this perception that political attitudes are the result of a vigorous search into the values and policies put forward by the respective political ideologies. However when we assume this,  we overlook important factors such as learning/thinking styles and motivational patterns that come into play in choosing a political identity.  As some of you know, many of the political identities most popular now are the dynamics of conservative-liberal ideologies and also many of them, too, are either hospitable to change and progression and the other is not. Depending on organization and core values/principles, political ideologies have styles of “parenting” that play a role in governing; such as authoritarian or non-authoritarian influences that it has on its inhabitants. Of course varied in values and principles, I nevertheless want to specifically focus on the idea of conservatives in the political sphere because of its relevance to the material I have recently read.


Now the working definition I will be using for “conservatism” is in the traditionalist sense; the political viewpoint pertaining to the upholding of socio-traditional values and principles (including but not limited to religious, political, economic, cultural etc values and principles) of an such geographic or demographic region. Regardless, here, I will be using “conservatism” in the sense of American politics and its contemporary use–which fits with the above general definition I’ve given.

What I’ve found

I have recently run into a research review(meta-analysis) published in 2003 titled “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition” (Jost, Glacer, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003) that would suggest the possible underlying motivations and causal forces behind taking up socially conservative identities. What was found was that thinking and coping behaviors generally have an affective measure in conservatism ideologies; the behavioral patterns that were observed were need for security, intolerance to ambiguity, group dominance, fear of threat or loss, and resistance to change(1). It is also stated that these features are attractive to individuals in choosing the aforementioned identity for purposes of that ideology providing a sense of security against the idea of change and the fear that comes from the loss of tradition. Of course with the loss of such predictability and security that goes with tradition, it is understandable why one would be more disposed to choosing an ideology as such. I, however, am one to believe that certain ideologies attract certain individuals. In this case, researchers observed that the umbrella of conservatism is the one that the individuals with these certain characteristics tend to inherit.

Security & Self-Esteem

One of the existential motives that is suggested for conservatism is a security blanket from an experienced failure. The research is noted in saying that there are differences in the way individuals handle experiences of failure and the threatening figure that it has to the ego (2). What is hinted is that individuals who are conservative tend to adopt overly authoritarian attitudes to situations where there could be a possible ego-threat; that is, a threat to the self-perception.  The paper goes further on to state:

“According to theories of authoritarianism and uncertainty avoidance, people should be more likely to embrace political conservatism to the extent that their self-esteem is chronically low or otherwise threatened” (p. 360)

It is important to recognize that the findings of responses to perceived threats to self-esteem and sense of security are not generalized throughout the whole group. This is of course an average taken out of sample surveys that suggest a prominence attributed to the political conservatives.

Intolerance of Ambiguity in a Social System

In times of crisis, people have a tendency to go to authoritarian structures for a secure social structure. One example that is used is in the period of 1930-39, during the year of the depression in the U.S., people where more likely to join authoritarian churches such as the Seventh Day Adventist and Southern Baptist for the stability and direction they provided. Which increased the individual’s tendency toward tradition, and the association that it brought stability and some sort of predictability (3). The point of such an outlining was that during times of crisis, structures (religious in this case) provided as sense of non-ambiguity within such a socio-political system, and that it was during these times that the tide of conservatism increased. Further strengthening the hypothesis that political or religious ideologies provided that welfare which represented a sense of consistency and safety that goes along with tradition (the church) and conservatism that is an ideological mirror of such an institution.

Social/Group Dominance Theory

“According to social dominance theory, human societies strive to minimize group conflict by developing ideological belief systems that justify the hegemony of some groups over others” (p. 349)

In the social or group dominance perspective, you have the ideology that unifies or the ideology that extinguishes core differences; that is, it creates homogeneity within a social structure via the ideology’s core principles . In this homogeneity or equality that is brought by these belief systems it is important to remember that conservatism is the ideology that has the central principle of traditional values at hand. In such a case, the unifying principle is the religious and institutional fundamentality characteristic of such a movement. The dominance, in this case, is the adherence of all principles to this unifying principle. As opposed to liberalism, where there is an absence of a general underlying principle, conservatism has the authoritarian peculiarity of a shared unifying principle: in this instance it is the traditional aspect–not to mention, of course, that such a phenomenon as group dominance ties into the security of self-esteem and the prevention of ambiguity above stated; hence, it is resistant to any sort of real change.

The Anxiety of Loss

Much of what has been said so far seems to form a web of insecurity that lies in the characteristics offered in conservatism; adherents tend to be more perceptive of the negative possibility of loss that serves as a motivation to preserve the status quo. In many instances, such an authoritarian position of preservation comes from the pessimism of tunnel vision to only see negative outcomes; thus much of the apprehension to change is motivated by such a focus on negative outcomes. The publication also noted in saying that most of the characteristic pessimism also affected conservative voting patterns:

“This team of researchers found that high authoritarians[conservatives] were moved significantly more by threatening messages than by reward messages, whereas low authoritarians were marginally more influenced by the reward message than the threat message. Furthermore, these persuasive effects were found to carry over into behavioral intentions and actual voting behaviors” (p. 364)

When considering voting patterns of conservatives and the suggestion that the same patterns are fueled by a pessimism and a distorted view, it is no wonder why conservatives are inspired to create the majority of conspiracy theories–and also tend to most often believe in them. It has furthermore been said that the more political knowledge conservatives had, the more apt they were to believe in fear-inspired conspiracy theories(4).You cannot help but think that such concoctions, that have been floating around in the airways, are a result of the fear/anxiety of loss and the pessimism it brings from the worry of losing the security of values and principles, as it is in the conservative’s case.

Resistance Toward Change

One of the most problematic characteristics of conservative ideology is in its inability to change. Most of the inhibition is brought about by inflexibility and mental rigidity from its dogmatism. Such dogmatism is associated with close-mindedness. The problem with that was of course that the idea that this close-mindedness prevented one form noticing conflicting beliefs within their framework as a result of the orientation to an authoritarian structure that conservatism provided(5). Citing Rokeach’s theory (1960) the publication states:

“All belief-disbelief systems serve two powerful and conflicting sets of motives at the same time: the need for a cognitive framework to know and to understand and the need to ward off threatening aspects of reality. To the extent that the cognitive need to know is predominant and the need to ward off threat is absent, open systems (open-mindedness) should result[…]But as the need to ward off threat becomes stronger, the cognitive need to know should become weaker, resulting in more closed belief systems(close-mindedness)” (p. 346)

It would seem that mental flexibility is trumped by the perception of negative aspects, as explained above. When you take into account “the need to ward off threatening aspects of reality”, it would follow that the perception of threatening aspects of reality would necessarily be distorted by a pessimism and an obsessive focus on negative possibilities. However, in such an authoritarian system as conservatism, no change is possible when such acclimation has been made to that very authoritarian system. The adherence to principled decisions and consideration of tradition would leave anyone unable to change or notice an conflicting beliefs regarding those principles.


As the publication states, and I do too, is that none of the research presented here is indicative of all conservative individuals. This is more a report on the average conservative; more so indicative of the authoritarian structure and what it has to offer the political spectrum–or the problems that such a structure could be creating. It is important to understand that generations change along with their view points and perspectives. Keeping such a change in mind, it is crucial that political systems do too. Not much attention has been brought to political orientations and psychology; however that was my exact motivation for writing this; in hopes that one day more insight and research can be contributed toward such an endeavor.


1. Jost, T., J, & Glaser, J, & Kruglanski, W.,A., & Sulloway, J., F, (2003). Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 129, No. 3, 339–375, Retrieved from

2. Jost, T., J, & Glaser, J, & Kruglanski, W.,A., & Sulloway, J., F. pg. 361

3. Jost, T., J, & Glaser, J, & Kruglanski, W.,A., & Sulloway, J., F. pg.366

4. Mooney, C. (2013, January 24). The More Republicans Know About Politics, the More They Believe Conspiracy Theories. Mother Jones. Retrieved From

5.  Jost T., J, & Glaser, J, & Kruglanski, W.,A., & Sulloway, J., F. pg. 346


5 responses to “Conservatism and The Need For Cognitive Closure

  1. Pingback: Conservatism and The Need For Cognitive Closure | POLITICAL PSYCHOLOGY·

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