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Red, blue, and shades of gray
Psyching out the electorate, or how we learned to keep worrying and love certainty, closure, and George W. Bush

| 01 December 2004


In his office at the Goldman School of Public Policy, social psychologist Jack Glaser skims a critique of his work penned last year by conservative pundit-provocateur Ann Coulter. He's not surprised at the country's turn to the right, or by the Nov. 2 election results. (Barry Bergman photo)
As Jack Glaser sees it, a half-century of psychological research shows conservatives to be less comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity than liberals, who tend to take their politics with a dash of nuance.

Those thumbnail descriptions might well bring to mind certain candidates in the 2004 presidential race. But Glaser thinks it’s not that simple.

“I’m surprised, at least in George Bush’s case, at how consistent his behavior is with all the research on conservatism,” says Glaser, an assistant professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy, whose work has primarily focused on stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. “I mean, he comes right out with it and says, ‘My job is not to nuance.’ He’s very clearly intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty.”

But John Kerry, he argues, was unfairly portrayed during the campaign as a slave to subtlety, a man who saw so much complexity he didn’t know what he believed.

“When people actually listened to him, and didn’t listen to the caricature of him, he did well. He won all the debates,” Glaser observes. “But I think the Bush campaign was brilliant. They identified [that characterization] right away and they knew it would stick. And they applied it and they knew he would play right into it from time to time. If the Kerry campaign had been more aggressive early on, they’d have said Bush is pathologically rigid and we have to tar him that way right off the bat. They were very late in getting to that.

“At the same time,” he adds, “given the terrorism environment, if the average person is choosing between rigid and fickle, they’re going to go for rigid. And I think that’s a big part of the story.”

Everyone likes getting mail, but . . .

Glaser, a Yale-trained social psychologist, had been exploring the psychological underpinnings of conservatism when, in the summer of 2003, he found himself under attack by some of the movement’s most prominent pundits, from Ann Coulter to George Will. A paper he co-authored, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” concluded that a basket of psychological factors — among them resistance to change, tolerance of inequality, intolerance of ambiguity, and a need for cognitive closure — could push people toward a right-wing ideology.

The campus press release on the paper, however, went further, placing Ronald Reagan in the same right-leaning psychological boat as Hitler and Mussolini. The conservative punditocracy wasted no time in ginning up the troops.

“It was really upsetting for a couple of weeks there,” Glaser recalls. “It’s just not nice getting hate mail.”

The response from professional colleagues, on the other hand, was overwhelmingly positive, he notes, adding that “we’ve known all this stuff for a long time”; his research team “just meta-analyzed it.”

One of the researchers’ findings seems particularly applicable to the recent election. Encouraging thoughts of death, wrote Glaser et al., “has been shown to increase intolerance, out-group derogation, punitive aggression, veneration of authority figures, and system justification.” Such thoughts, says Glaser, helped fuel President Bush’s 3.5-million-vote victory over Kerry.

“September 11 posed an existential crisis,” he explains. “Are we going to die in a horrific way, and is our society going to cease to be what it was? And under those circumstances, we [on the research team] were arguing — and I think we were right — that a conservative shift is likely. And I do think that that played a role in this election, because if you really look at most of the other issues — except for ‘likability’ — the majority of Americans were with Kerry.

“Everything else is pretty much the same as 2000,” he points out, from Kerry’s and Al Gore’s policy positions to voters’ harsh assessment of their personalities. “The big difference, I think, is the war on terror and Iraq. Even Iraq is a double-edged sword. It’s a liability in some sense. But it’s a constant reminder that Bush is a war president.

“I don’t want to be excessively cynical,” he adds. “Let’s just say being at war helped him.”

Republicans were further aided, Glaser believes, by the fact that the cognitive styles associated with conservatism “give them a clear political advantage, simply by virtue of appearing more decisive and making clearer, less integratively complex statements.

“Strategists talk about the advantage of soundbites, and keeping the message simple. And that’s just a tendency that seems to be consistent with conservative ideology.”

Ironically, Glaser notes, the same personality traits that can launch a candidate to victory are apt to make him a poor decision-maker once in office. “Except for on the campaign trail,” he muses, “I can’t imagine a circumstance under which a low tolerance for uncertainty or ambiguity and a high need for closure [can be] advantageous in executive decision-making. If you can't change your mind, you can't correct the times that you're wrong. So unless you happen to be lucky enough to be right all of the time, you're just going to be wrong more often. And I think that's a liablity for Bush."

Unless and until Democrats are able to devise simpler metaphors — that is, to appeal to conservative voters’ greater desire for certainty — that’s a paradox of U.S. politics we should all probably get used to.

“Bush came out and said ‘I won’t campaign on 9/11,’” observes Glaser. “But they went back on that — they clearly campaigned on 9/11. And they just beat that drum — you know, ‘danger, danger, terrorist threats are imminent,’ et cetera. And then they managed to walk that line of simultaneously saying we’re in grave danger, but we’ve been successful in protecting you. And then the uncertainty — they would say, don’t switch horses in midstream. That resonated with people.”

The uncomfortable majority

Glaser emphasizes that research into what makes conservatives tick has less to do with intelligence — a trait he readily attributes to Will and some others on the right, if not to Coulter — than with different cognitive styles. And he cautions that psychological tendencies, for conservatives and liberals alike, come in shades of gray.

“I think you find plenty of so-called conservatives who are highly tolerant of uncertainty, and plenty of liberals who are low in tolerance for that. But in the aggregate, if you’re looking for a trend, there seems to be a relationship,” he says.

“The vast majority of people are uncomfortable when things are uncertain,” adds Glaser, who counts himself among them. “They prefer for things to be resolved and certain. It’s not so much that conservatives are unusual in their aversion to uncertainty and ambiguity as that liberals just have a higher tolerance for it.

“Similarly, whereas liberals seem to have a real aversion to inequity, it’s not necessarily the case that conservatives embrace inequality or inequity. It’s just that they can live with it. It’s much more nuanced,” Glaser says.

Then, catching himself, he adds: “Ah — there’s that word again.”