Part I in a Series on Personality & Culture
- On a scale from 1 to 10, (1 representing a state of perfect security and certainty, 10 representing non-stop change and diversity), what is your personal ideal?
- Do you consider yourself “liberal” or “conservative”? Something in the middle? Or something that feels altogether different, such as a “libertarian”?
Using similar questions, behavioral scientists made an interesting discovery. They found that one’s taste for uncertainty/certainty in life is significantly correlated with one’s political inclinations. This is just one outcome from a growing body of research revealing how many kinds of individual and group predilections are grounded in unique, deeply-ingrained personality types. This knowledge forms part of the framework of thinking on which Veebit’s groundbreaking Human-Centered Analytics platform is built.
Cultural Differences in Uncertainty Avoidance
Uncertainty Avoidance (UA), is one of six dimensions of personality set forth in Geert Hofstede’s Model of Cultural Differences. While not without its critics, Hofstede’s model has proven enormously influential since the renowned organizational anthropologist first introduced it in 1980.
In Hofstede’s work, Uncertainty Avoidance refers to a culture’s (or country’s) degree of preference for rules and regulations over ambiguity and risk. Hofstede postulates that a tendency to develop such rules represents a way of dealing with the fact that the future can never be known. Cultures with a high level of UA prefer to minimize the unknown (or the sense of it, anyway) with careful planning and intensive rule-making. By contrast, cultures with low UA prefer unstructured situations, informality, and fewer rules. So, we have Mexico, high in UA with a score of 82; the United States, with moderate Uncertainty Avoidance at a score of 42; and Jamaica, with very low Uncertainty Avoidance with a score of 12. Try comparing other countries here.
Uncertainty Avoidance at an Individual Level
Of course, countries are made up of individuals, who can be more or less comfortable with uncertainty. This gets at one of the principles underlying the Veebit Personality & Cultural Model. Social psychologists have come up with several labels for this trait: personal need for structure, personal fear of invalidity, need for certainty, ambiguity avoidance, need for cognitive closure, etc. All of the constructs behind these labels share the idea that a continuum exists between those who dislike randomness and prefer order and those for whom spontaneity and surprise are a highly valued part of life. On this continuum many of us exist somewhere in the middle; with our first question, most of us choose 4-6.
Uncertainty Avoidance and Politics
John Jost, a social psychologist from NYU, suggests that our political leanings are shaped by something more than family, friends and life events. He argues that our psychological motives are the true sculptor of our political selves. The two most important sets of motives in this regard are what Jost calls existential and epistemic needs.
Take epistemic needs — another way of saying the amount and quality of information one needs to make a decision. Jost and his colleagues suggest that people high in uncertainty avoidance (or, as they might say, people high in need for cognitive closure) tend to prefer more right-wing, conservative beliefs. Why? Because conservative beliefs, which favor what’s traditional and already known over what’s risky and harder to pin down, tend to diminish feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.
Researchers note that conservative beliefs provide people with relatively well-structured answers to complex questions regarding social and economic phenomena. Example: The death penalty is neither cruel nor is it unusual: It’s simply a way to deal with a murderer. They further note a linkage between conservative beliefs and traditional worldviews. Example: Marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Any union outside of that is not marriage. Such convictions are great anxiety buffers. They promise relief from the experience of uncertainty, conflict or confusion that change has the potential to stir up. That’s why people are likely to support politicians who provide them with the feeling of simplicity and certainty. For instance, it’s recently been noted that Donald Trump seems to address those needs.
Conservative and Liberal Brains
With that in mind, David Amodio, another psychologist from NYU, carried out an interesting study on the differences between liberals and conservatives at the level of neurological activity. Amodio and colleagues showed that conservatism relates to a less active brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the brain (located right behind your forehead) is engaged in detecting ambiguity, inconsistencies, and error. This set of activities, called conflict-monitoring, is less sens
itive among conservatives than liberals when it comes to the task of having to withdraw a habitual response from time to time (triggering the brain to say, in effect, “Oops! Look out right now!”).
The authors of the study claim that this is brain-level evidence for the fact that conservatism is related to uncertainty avoidance: electrophysiological data confirms that liberals are “more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty”. For more on the subject, check out the discussion about Amodio’s paper.
Challenges to the Studies on Uncertainty Avoidance
Interesting as it is, Amodio’s and Jost’s research doesn’t tell us which is the cause and which the effect. Does uncertainty avoidance cause us to adopt conservative worldviews or does holding conservative beliefs make us dislike uncertainty?
To discover the answer, researchers conducting another set of studies manipulated threat and uncertainty. Nail and colleagues showed that threat makes liberals think like conservatives; when left-leaning individuals felt threatened (in the case of the study, by being reminded of their mortality) they became just as conservative in their opinions on unrelated issues (such as support for gay rights) as individuals who initially identified themselves as conservative. Thus, feelings of threat and uncertainty would appear to be a driver of conservative beliefs.
For a bit of perspective, we can turn once again from the individual to society. We generally know that people tend to adopt more conservative worldviews during tough times. For example, after 9/11 both conservatives and liberals shifted toward more conservative ideology, as evidenced not only by greater approval levels for George W. Bush and increased military spending in the US, but also by more conservative positions on issues unrelated to the attacks, such as socialized medicine.
What’s more, concludes Jonathan Haidt —another psychologist from NYU and the author of The Righteous Mind— in a 2012 article for The Guardian,
“…we are finding in America and many European nations a stronger shift to the right. When people fear the collapse of their society, they want order and national greatness, not a more nurturing government.”
Two Faces of Political Ideology
Recently, Jost’s theory has been given a new twist by Ariel Malka, a psychology professor and researcher at Yeshiva University. He and his colleagues have pointed out that, in fact, political beliefs comprise attitudes toward two groups of issues: social/cultural and economic. Social issues include religion and government, gun control, birth control, gay marriage and many others. Economic issues include attitudes toward taxes, government intervention, private property, healthcare, and so on. It seems that uncertainty avoidance is related to conservatism only on issues from the social domain (higher uncertainty avoidance is related to more right-wing beliefs).
For economic issues, the situation is different: Higher uncertainty avoidance is related to more left-wing beliefs. Conservative economic beliefs do not stress security and stability: They stress the need for individualism and self-reliance. By contrast, liberal economic beliefs provide people with a greater sense of security. For example, liberals hold with the government using tax dollars to help the poor and needy because they feel they themselves might need the social safety net someday.
What Does it All Mean?
Keep in mind, Jost’s theory of political conservatism does not have anything to say about the relative intelligence of conservatives or liberals. His model addresses only why certain people adopt conservative worldviews. Again, at the broadest level his theory postulates that differences in political leanings are strongly rooted in individual psychology around the need for a stable environment versus one that changes frequently.
It is also important to note that everyone is motivated to resolve ambiguity. Put another way, we all need answers. The only difference is that some of us experience a lot of anxiety when confronted with uncertainty and some of us don’t. And those of us who do probably think of ourselves as conservatives while those of us who don’t might opt for the liberal label.
Gabriela Czarnek is the Psychology Research Manager and an Assistant Psychometrician at Veebit where her focus is psychometric modeling for personality traits, attitudes and beliefs. She is a currently a PhD candidate in the field of social psychology, and a graduate of the Educational Measurement program at Jagiellonian University in Cracow (Poland), where she received her degree in Psychology in 2012.