Can The Conservative Mind Be Changed?



We know it’s possible for people to grow over the course of their lives. This must mean that some people will shed their conservative viewpoints as they mature. It’s just questionable how common this is. It’s widely believed people get more conservative as they age, but most research finds that this old belief is untrue. Only one study found that people become less “radical” (defined in the study as left wing) when they get older, but this study asked only one question to determine one’s ideology: to what degree did people think wealth should be redistributed.

There are dozens of studies that show that conservatives and liberals can be influenced in experiments to express viewpoints opposite from their original political orientation. At this point, many of us liberals are familiar with the role fear plays in conservatism. It turns out that causing a liberal to be fearful also tends to make them more conservative as well, at least in experimental conditions. Likewise, other types of priming can make conservatives think in more liberal ways. This suggests that there is some malleability in political views, but these were temporary changes. Perhaps that is why one study found that people with high blood alcohol levels are more conservative, regardless of whether they started out liberal or conservative. The theory being that when thinking is circumscribed, people take on conservative thought patterns; liberalism simply appears to require higher order thinking. As the researchers explained, conservatism requires low-effort thinking.

The past decade has brought us numerous studies about the “conservative brain.” Author Chris Mooney summarized a great deal of this research in his 2012 book, “The Republican Brain:  The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.” First, psychologists have studied how emotion leads to conservatism. A study published in the prestigious journal, Science, found that conservatives have a stronger reflexive fear reaction to sudden threats than liberals. This link between a fear response and conservatism certainly suggests that there is something biological, something hard-wired about ending up conservative.  That is exactly what scientists found when they scanned images of the brains of conservatives and liberals. Liberals had more gray matter in the part of the brain that is associated with processing complexity, while conservatives had more gray matter in the part of the brain that processes fear. These conservatives who had a bigger amygdala (the part of the brain where fear is processed) were more sensitive to disgust, more likely to respond to threats with aggression, and more sensitive to threatening facial expressions. We’ve all seen Republican politicians use fear to scare voters into voting for them, picking one boogeyman or another. This study makes it clear why this strategy is so effective.  

Next, psychologists have studied personalities. Consistently, the authoritarian personality has been linked with conservatism (see John Dean’s book, Conservatives without Conscience for an excellent review). Authoritarians come in two kinds depending on their social dominance orientation: followers and leaders.  The leaders enjoy holding power over others, they have no moral problem with taking advantage of people to get ahead, and they are fully capable of lacking empathy for others. They tend to be militant, nationalistic, and highly prejudiced. The followers are not only very submissive to accepted authorities, they will also get aggressive in support of them. They tend to see things in black and white, yet they are often hypocritical. They believe they are themselves more moral, more religious, and more righteous than others, but they come across as zealots instead. They are not well-educated for the most part. They show a strong in-group favoritism and loyalty, such that if Bill Clinton cheats on his wife, they are outraged, but if Newt Gingrich does, they are disinterested. Like the authoritarian leaders, they are prejudiced and narrow-minded.

While personality is absolutely influenced by environment, it is not divorced from genetics, brain structure, emotional sensitivities, and thought patterns. So, too, have psychologists found strong links between one’s biological make-up and becoming an authoritarian.  Authoritarian followers have a stronger fear response than liberals. They also react viscerally to ambiguity. When presented with a progression of pictures that show a dog slowing morphing into a cat, they will become angry, anxious, and upset when there comes a point at which it is not clear whether the picture depicts a dog or a cat (Frenkel-Brunswik experiment). Block and Block did a longitudinal study where they observed preschool children and then observed their political orientation two decades later. Those who were easily offended, fearful, rigid, inhibited, indecisive, relatively over-controlled, and vulnerable were more likely to become conservative two decades later, while those who developed close relationships, were self-reliant, somewhat social dominant, resilient, energetic, and relatively under-controlled were more likely to be liberal.

Next, psychologists have also studied moral reasoning, though the underpinnings of such reasoning remain to be understood by scientists. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have presented pop psychology theories of morality based on emotions and political orientation in which conservatives are lauded as morally advanced for using six of Haidt’s identified areas of morality (liberals use three). However, his valuation of certain moral components as positive and healthy for society is easily questioned. For example, one consequence of buying into his theory is that one has to adopt the belief that conformity is more valuable than individualism.

Other researchers studying morality and political orientation have taken a tack that relies less on their own moral judgments and more on cognitive patterns. For example, Piazza and Sousa have published an article on how liberals and conservatives think about moral problems. They find that conservatives, especially religious conservatives, tend to use deontological ethics or reasoning, while liberals use consequentialist ethics or reasoning. In essence, this means that conservatives think in absolute rules without regard for their consequence, such as, “Doing drugs is bad, so we should lock up people who do drugs.” Conversely, liberals think about the consequences of moral decisions. Examining the mass incarceration of minorities, noting our ridiculously high incarceration rate as a nation, realizing the effect of incarceration on families and communities, and knowing the complete lack of effectiveness of jail/prison for reducing drug use/abuse, a liberal will consider rehabilitation or public health interventions for that same person doing drugs. The focus for liberals is on maintaining the greater good. Interestingly, the only time the researchers found political conservatives endorsed a consequentialist ethic was when it came to torture. For this, they endorsed “the [alleged] greater good.” Their authoritarianism creeps up again.

Mooney notes that intelligence is not the key to differentiating between conservatism and liberalism. Despite studies that show lower intelligence is linked to prejudice and conservatism, the research has shown that Fox News views are not less educated than the general population. It may be that being less intelligent makes you conservative, but being conservative doesn’t make you less intelligent.

Reviewing brain structure, personality, thought processes like moral reasoning, or intelligence, we see aspects of the human mind that can be heavily influenced by biology or even evolution. David Robson, writing in the New Scientist about the dangers of accepting neuroscience findings prematurely, reminds us, “You can’t escape the fact that our brains are the product of our experience as much as they are the product of our genes.”

Returning to the question of whether it is possible to change the conservative mind, there is a bias to believe in biological determinism, that nature is destiny. However, the last few decades of political trends in the United States show that any biological influence to political beliefs can be countered by nurture, experience, and external influences.  Specifically, the country is more conservative than it has been since 1952 according to researchers who have been tracking this measure over time. This is a social phenomenon, not a biological one. When trying to explain the drift, changes in religiosity, social class, income and education are all correlated with increased conservatism.

Another shift over the past few decades in the belief in science held by conservatives, which is at an all-time low. Despite denial from some quarters, conservatives are simply rejecting science, and this, too, is a social trend. In an article for Mother Jones, Mooney describes how Conservapedia actually goes so far as to challenge the theory of relativity, citing the Bronze Age scientific insights of the Bible in its entry refuting it. Similarly, you can find entries expounding on debunked scientific claims like linking breast cancer and abortion. No word on whether it says the female body shuts down when raped.

Mooney, like reputable psychologists, cautions against reductionism, the tendency to try and find simple answers to complex questions that have numerous contributing factors. In this caution comes the answer to the question of whether the conservative mind can be changed. There are unquestionably biological imperatives that limit how reachable a good percentage of conservatives will be. A healthy majority of conservatives will not be moved by facts, even content to live with cognitive dissonance. When they don’t like them, they simply make up their own as demonstrated by Conservapedia, Fox News, right wing radio, and other sources of blatant misinformation. Mooney concludes that liberals may suffer from their own brand of delusion. They believe that if they can just present enough facts, enough truth, they can change their opponents’ minds. As he states,

“Liberals (and scientists) have too often tried to dodge the mounting evidence that this is how people work. Perhaps because it leads to a place that terrifies them: an anti-Enlightenment world in which evidence and argument don’t work to change people’s minds.”

However, liberals can exert influence on the environmental factors. They can grow their media influence, use savvy strategy to increase their political influence including grassroots organizing, reach out to young people, and fight to have the educational knowledge base reflect reality.  We can continuously remind politicians that they overestimate how conservative their constituents are, and demand their votes reflect the people they represent.  

There is also the self-defeating nature of conservatism that works against their movement in the long-term. Today, we can effectively identify the Democratic Party with liberals and the Republican Party with conservatives. If this were not true, Mooney would have not been able to write about the Republican Brain, he would have written about the Conservative Brain. The purge of liberals and moderates from the Republican Party began during the Eisenhower administration. Kim Messick at Alternet notes, “William Rusher, Bill Buckley’s colleague at National Review, remarked revealingly that the modern conservative movement formed itself ‘in opposition to the Eisenhower administration.'” Is it by their very nature that conservatives create a smaller and smaller in-group with strict rules for membership, demands for loyalty, and mean-spirited, prejudiced, dogmatic social policy? Perhaps, and for this, we can celebrate the limitations of the conservative mind.

(Here’s a link to a political orientation test to determine how you rate on authoritarianism)

Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.

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