Ideological Asymmetries and the Essence of Political Psychology

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Individuals are not merely passive vessels of whatever beliefs and opinions they have been exposed to; rather, they are attracted to belief systems that resonate with their own psychological needs and interests, including epistemic, existential, and relational needs to attain certainty, security, and social belongingness. Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway () demonstrated that needs to manage uncertainty and threat were associated with core values of political conservatism, namely respect for tradition and acceptance of inequality. Since 2003 there have been far more studies on the psychology of left-right ideology than in the preceding half century, and their empirical yield helps to address lingering questions and criticisms. We have identified 181 studies of epistemic motivation (involving 130,000 individual participants) and nearly 100 studies of existential motivation (involving 360,000 participants). These databases, which are much larger and more heterogeneous than those used in previous meta-analyses, confirm that significant ideological asymmetries exist with respect to dogmatism, cognitive/perceptual rigidity, personal needs for order/structure/closure, integrative complexity, tolerance of ambiguity/uncertainty, need for cognition, cognitive reflection, self-deception, and subjective perceptions of threat. Exposure to objectively threatening circumstances—such as terrorist attacks, governmental warnings, and shifts in racial demography—contribute to modest “conservative shifts” in public opinion. There are also ideological asymmetries in relational motivation, including the desire to share reality, perceptions of within-group consensus, collective self-efficacy, homogeneity of social networks, and the tendency to trust the government more when one's own political party is in power. Although some object to the very notion that there are meaningful psychological differences between leftists and rightists, the identification of “elective affinities” between cognitive-motivational processes and contents of specific belief systems is essential to the study of political psychology. Political psychologists may contribute to the development of a good society not by downplaying ideological differences or advocating “Swiss-style neutrality” when it comes to human values, but by investigating such phenomena critically, even—or perhaps especially—when there is pressure in society to view them uncritically.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)167-208
Number of pages42
JournalPolitical Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2017


  • conservatism
  • liberalism
  • motivated social cognition
  • political ideology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science and International Relations


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