Someone once made the argument to me that there was a particular bias in social science research. The argument was based on the anecdotal evidence of the research this person had come across I suppose by way of what was reported in the media and maybe the blogosphere. His observation was that researchers had focused their studies more on conservatism than liberalism.
It would be surprising if there weren’t any biases such as this or something similar. More social scientists and scientists in geneal identify as liberals than as conservatives (and I’m sure that even the conservatives in this field are relatively liberal-minded). It does make sense that liberals and the liberal-minded would be greatly curious about those so different from their own attitude and worldview, especially considering that liberal-mindedness strongly correlates to open-minded curiosity.
Nonetheless, I doubt that curiosity is a zero sum game. A curious-minded person would probably be just as interested in liberalism as conservatism. Besides, most research I’ve seen in this area tends to simultaneously test for both sides of the political spectrum. I suspect it is rare research that would only study conservatism while entirely ignoring liberalism.
The bias I might see along these lines is more in the media reporting. The right-wing has caught the public imagination since the homegrown right-wing terrorism made itself violently known in the 1990s and especially since 9/11 brought the foreign right-wing terrorism to the attention of Americans. During the Cold War, the media focused on left-wingers while ignoring right-wingers. But the Cold War has been over for more than two decades now. With fundamentalist terrorism, Americans are learning new respect for Godlessness, despite its former association with the Communist Threat.
There is a more direct bias that is pertinent to the original hypothesis. Ever since the world wars, social scientists have been obsessed with authoritarianism. That was the era when right-wing fascism came to power. Many people escaped fascism by coming to America. The social scientists among these refugees were quite intently focused on understanding right-wing authoritarianism in the hopes of preventing its return.
There is good reason that authoritarianism has become associated with the right-wing and from there associated with conservatism. Indeed, there is a correlation in the American population between these three. The question is whether this correlation implies a causal link or is it merely an issue of historical conditions. At least for decades now, conservatism has attracted right-wing authoritarians into its ranks, seemingly as an intentional seeking of alliances by movement conservatives and GOP strategists, whether or not they fully appreciated the psychological profile of their allies. Some (e.g., Corey Robin) theorize that this is more than a temporary and circumstantial connection.
Here is the key point for me.
An authoritarian type can be either right-wing or left-wing; the reason for this is because right-wing and left-wing are more about ideology (and rhetoric) than psychology. An authoritarian type can be a conservative or anyone who is conservative-minded, the commonality of social conservatism being a reason political alliance are so easy to form. An authoritarian can even be a liberal, just as long as they are fairly conservative-minded or not too strongly liberal-minded in all ways. I’m fairly sure the one thing an authoritarian can’t be is liberal-minded, pretty much by the very definition of liberal-minded traits (which have a strong correlation to liberalism itself)
This is where its important to clarify a point. Liberalism correlates to liberal-mindedness and conservatism correlates to conservative-mindedness. However, there are still a significant number of conservative-minded liberals (and left-wingers) along with liberal-minded conservatives (and right-wingers).
Another clarification needs to be made. Fascist statists are right-wingers and communist statists are left-wingers. This is a distinction of ideology (specifically economic ideology), but there is no clear distinction when it comes to their personalities. Both kinds of radical ideologues tend to be authoritarian and, more significantly, conservative-minded. When looking at authoritarian states, including communism, the thing that stands out to me is they are against all forms of social liberalism and liberal-mindedness (and all that leans in that direction or is conducive towards it): social democracy, multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, free speech, free press, free intellectual inquiry, free artistic expression, freedom to assemble and protest, etc etc.
This points toward the knot of confusion and so we can now disentangle the most interesting strand of bias. With my explanation so far, I hope it is beginning to be clarified why mainstream notions of liberalism aren’t an equivalent category to mainstream notions of conservatism. To nail it down, let me offer a little refresher on traits theory.
Traits exist on a spectrum with most people being closer to the midpoint than to the extremes. The typical person has some range of comfort and ability that might include to some extent both sides of the spectrum, although there will tend to be a natural resting point that an individual returns to. The extreme cases remain important for they demonstrate traits in their purest form.
Two separate traits correlate to liberalism and conservatism. Respectively, they are Openness and Conscientiousness. They are completely separate traits and so how an individual tests on one measure has no effect on how they test on the other. This can create the not unusual situation of a person measuring high on both the liberal-minded trait and the conservative-minded trait or else low on both.
I propose this as an explanation for why liberal-mindedness hasn’t been studied as fully. Most scientists, academics, college students, activists, politicians, journalists and reporters who identify as liberal probably don’t measure extremely high on Openness while also measuring low on Conscientiousness. It is true that most self-identified liberals measure relatively higher on the liberal-minded trait of Openness, but those who are highly motivated and self-disciplined enough to go to college, pursue politics and/or succeed in a professional career wouldn’t measure low on the conservative-minded trait of Conscientiousness.
Based on this, one would assume that, in respectable mainstream society, there would be a disproportionately small percentage of extreme liberals or even just people who are consistently liberal across all traits. This is predictable based on how Conscientiosness is described in the research literature. Conscientiousness is the single greatest indicator of social success (i.e., success by other people’s standards and according to the status quo). This would explain why professionally established and economically successful artists tend to have higher ratings on Conscientiousness, despite this conservative-minded trait being low among art students. I would speculate that there is a connection to why the most innovative and genius (i.e., unconventional) artists often remain poor and unknown in their own lifetimes.
In an outwardly success-oriented society, conservative-minded conscientiousness is given central priority. However, at the same time, it makes for a bias in all aspects of such a society, including research on psychological traits:
“Let it not be misunderstood, conscientiousness is recognizably an important predictor of performance and many other organizational outcomes (e.g., Barrick & Mount, 1991; Ones & Viswesvaran, 1996). But is it possible that this continued and concentrated focus on the validity of conscientiousness may overshadow other perhaps stronger personality predictors of job performance? Could it be that a plateau has been reached, and the time has come to move beyond conscientiousness in search of other predictor discoveries?”
Those who are extremely liberal-minded tend to have lots of social issues. Along with lacking success-orientation, they tend to be less healthy and more prone to becoming criminals (i.e., breaking laws and generally not being obedient and subservient). However, there being seen as criminals by society is the very same reason they are less likely to commit immoral acts that are the norm for a society or demanded by authority figures. So, high conscientious conservative-minded types are more likely to do horrific things and be successful at it, just as long as it meets standards of social approval. High conscientiousness, for example, will lead one to make sure the trains run efficiently in order to bring the enemies of the state to the concentration camps.
This is what irritates me. The conservative-minded project onto the liberal-minded their own conservative-minded predilections. The strongly liberal-minded will never make for good authoritarians. They may be losers who are alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, sexual deviants, etc. They may even be terrorists of the anarchistic variety. But they won’t be authoritarians or not very successful authoritarians.
The anarchism angle is what intrigues me most of all. That seems like the polar opposite of authoritarianism. Even conservatives seem to understand that. More than the over orderliness and oppression of authoritarians, what conservatives fear more than anything from liberals is that they will undermine conservative order by undermining moral authority and social hierarchy. Liberals will only ever be authoritarians to the degree they are or become conservative-minded.
I wish liberals would be criticized for their actual faults and weaknesses, instead of being blamed for what goes against their own nature. And to return to the original point of this post, I don’t know about researchers who are self-identified liberals, but I think it unfair to blame their supposed liberal-mindedness for their heavy focus on conservative-mindedness, assuming such a biased focus even exists. If anything, the conservative-mindedness (relatively higher conscientiousness) should be blamed for their having ignored the fullest and most extreme expressions of liberal-mindedness.
We’ve already had decades of extensive research on authoritarianism. Let us check out the polar opposite side of things. Definitely, I’d like to see some insightful research on anarchism.