Saturday, September 01, 2007


A critique of research by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski

That old Leftist, John B. Judis, has an article in The New Republic that summarizes a stream of psychological research into fear of death that goes by the name of "worldview defense". The idea is that if you are reminded of your own mortality, you become more conservative.

In one way, that is all fair enough. The old saying "A conservative is a liberal who was mugged last night" embodies a similar idea and represents a claim that conservatives often make: That they are more realistic and that Leftists are dreamers who need to be brought down to earth. Being vividly reminded of your own forthcoming death (which is what the psychological experiments concerned do) should invoke a similar burst of realism and disable dreamy views of life.

So an interpretations of the findings congenial to conservatives is more than possible. Judis and those he quotes, however, strain to find a more elaborate interpretation that is some way derisory of conservatives. But in doing so Judis falls into a trap common among psychologists and other Leftists: He lives in such a self-protective Leftist bubble that he basically just does not know what conservatism is or what conservatives think. For decades now, psychologists have been devising questionnaires that allegedly "measure" conservatism but which in fact give no prediction of vote at all! The ludicrous Bob Altemeyer is the most recent example of that. The highpoint of such ignorance, however, would have to be the 2003 "Berkeley" study which classified various Communist leaders as conservatives. That Communists and conservatives have radically different views about the world had apparently not penetrated the ivory towers of UCB!

So we have the following remarkable comment from Judis: Also central to worldview defense is the protection of tradition against social experimentation, of community values against individual prerogatives". And you thought it was conservatives who stood for individual liberties! Not so, according to Judis. Conservatives stand for "community values". So Hillary Clinton, with her quotation of an old African saying that "It takes a village to raise a child" must be a conservative!

So I don't think we really need to say much more about such profound ignorance. As this stuff falls squarely within my own field of professional exspertise, however, I will make one more comment: Answers to questions that are obtained from young college students (which is mainly what Judis is referring to) often tell you very little about the real world. The very first piece of psychological research that I ever did was based on responses from students and I found a most gratifying correlation of .808 between the two variables concerned. Being a born skeptic, however, I then did something that psychologists almost never do: I repeated the research among a group much more representative of the general population. And I found NO correlation between my two variables on that group.

And so it seems also to be with the research by Pyszczynski and friends that Judis quotes. Using student responses, Pyszczynski et al. found a correlation between awareness of death and what they (in their confused way) define as conservatism but I carried out long ago a piece of research into much the same question. I looked at the correlation between attitude to death and conservatism among a general population sample. And I used a measure of conservatism that DID closely reflect the political divisions of the day. So what did I find? I found that there was NO correlation between attititude to death and conservatism whatsoever. Nor was there any connection between anxiety generally and conservatism. So the Pyszczynski/Judis claims fail a more rigorous test. What they think happens, does NOT happen in the real world.

And I carried out that piece of research in collaboration with the head of our local Sociology department -- an impeccably mainstream Jewish Leftist. So the ad hominem attacks that one expects from Leftists would be more than usually implausible in this case.

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