Monday, October 06, 2003


One of the authors of the notorious "Berkeley study" of conservative psychology called "Political conservatism as motivated social cognition" was a confused soul (officially called a “Distinguished University Professor”) named Arie Kruglanski. He has for a long time been pushing the line that conservatives have a need for a simplistic view of the world. He calls it "Need for Closure" and says that such needs are a sign of psychological maladjustment or weakness. Many other psychologists agree with him (e.g. Kossowska & Van Hiel, 2003). So let us look at the set of statements that Kruglanski (Kruglanski, Webster & Klem, 1993) uses to detect good or bad mental health. For copyright reasons I cannot reproduce them all but a few excerpts tell the story well enough. Here are some of the allegedly "unhealthy" statements:

I find that a well ordered life with regular hours suits my temperament.
I feel uncomfortable when I don't understand the reason why an event occurred in my life.
I don't like to go into a situation without knowing what I can expect from it.
When I am confused about an important issue, I feel very upset.
I usually make important decisions quickly and confidently
I don't like to be with people who are capable of unexpected actions.
I dislike it when a person's statement could mean many different things
I'd rather know bad news than stay in a state of uncertainty.

I would call all of the above statements expressions of normal, healthy, adult attitudes myself. So let's look at what Kruglanski thinks is particularly healthy:

When I go shopping, I have difficulty deciding exactly what it is that I want.
I tend to put off making important decisions until the last possible moment
I would describe myself as indecisive.
My personal space is usually messy and disorganized
I tend to struggle with most decisions

So being a messy, indecisive and disorganized ditherer is healthy! Clearly, capable confident, can-do people are what Kruglanski dislikes and babyish, helpless people are his ideal. I suppose the more babyish we are the easier it is for others to push us around and make our decisions for us -- and Leftists like that. There is another critique pointing out that Kruglanski does not know what he is doing in Neuberg et al. (1997) and my demolition of the Jost et al (2003) study is here.

One point I might also mention here is that Jost, Kruglanski & Co were much enamoured of Glenn Wilson’s 1973 book, The psychology of conservatism. I actually wrote chapter 2 of that book so I know a bit about it. The theory Glenn put forward at that time was that conservatives have a greater fear of uncertainty than Leftists. So one would think that conservatives would be more fearful overall. There is a lot of uncertainty in this world. The EVIDENCE is, however, that conservatives are no more fearful than anybody else. Kruglanski & Co would no doubt argue that the lack of overall fearfulness among conservatives is because conservatives have adopted successful strategies to deal with their fears but isn’t it odd that there is NO SIGN of such greater fear except via the sort of hokum I have pilloried above?

Finally, for a bit of humour, I might mention some findings of that very hard-working Belgian psychologist Alain Van Hiel. He recently joined with a Polish colleague to test the Kruglanski scale in both Belgium and Poland (Kossowsk & Van Hiel, 2003). He found that “Need for closure” was RIGHTIST in one country and LEFTIST in the other! As Robert Burns said: “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley!”

I can’t help it: I’ve got to mention another amusing Van Hiel finding (Van Hiel, Kossowska & Mervielde, 2000). Because he is such a hard worker, Van Hiel went the trouble of testing out a Kruglanski-type theory on a group of people who were actually interested in politics. He used a scale of “Openness to ideas” and expected that Rightists would be less open to ideas but it turned out that it was the LEFTISTS who were closed-minded! Embarrassing!

Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F.J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339-375.
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., 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
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.
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


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