Saturday, 25 October 2014

What Makes Them Tick: Inside The Mind Of The Abbott Government |

What Makes Them Tick: Inside The Mind Of The Abbott Government |

What Makes Them Tick: Inside The Mind Of The Abbott Government

By Lissa Johnson

the Abbott Government was an individual, he would be a psychopath. And
you wonder why they're frightened of science! Clinicial psychologist Dr
Lissa Johnson explains.

of research in political psychology has opened a window onto the
psychological heart of politics. The Abbott Government embodies the
conservative psyche in pasquinade form.

With a prime minister who threatens to shirt-front the Russian
president, a finance minister who calls the opposition leader a
girlie-man and a government advisor for whom “Abos”, “darkies” “muzzies”, “chinky-poos” and “whores” rolls comfortably off the tongue, it is little wonder people are asking what goes on in the minds of our politicians.

For different reasons, academic psychologists have been asking the same question for some time.

They say that it takes 20 years for knowledge in academic psychology
to make its way into the public domain. If that is the case, the
political psychology literature is just coming of age.

Thanks to an invigoration in 2003 of research that had been gathering
steam in the 1990s and before, we now know with considerable clarity
what separates the left psychologically from the right. And the picture
is revealing.

Political vaudeville aside, the Abbott Government offers a vivid case
study in conservative psychology that breathes life into the very
definition of conservatism.

In the political psychology literature conservatism is defined in two parts,
resting on the pillars of equality and change: accepting versus
rejecting inequality and advocating versus resisting social change.

By this definition, the conservative position on any issue involves
promotion of inequality and resistance to change. Where conservative
change is sought it is typically in the direction of inequality, winding
back historical egalitarian change.

As a case study, the Abbott Government illustrates not only these two
principles, but also their psychological building blocks, identified in
a vast number of studies from institutions around the world. These
studies, emanating from the likes of Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, NYU,
UCLA and countless other universities, have been replicated time and
again by different researchers using different measures (self-report,
implicit tests, peer-ratings, behavioural indices) and different methods
(correlational, experimental and longitudinal). In short, a reliable
body of research.

One consistent finding in this literature is that conservatism involves a cognitive tendency known as the need for cognitive closure.
This entails an impetus to arrive at fixed and firm answers to complex
questions, motivated by the drive to resolve uncertainty and ambiguity.
It manifests in seizing and freezing on opinions and ideas, or
swiftly and resolutely reaching final conclusions on complicated topics,
which then remain closed to further review.

Our government’s policy on climate change, for instance, comes to mind. As does its haste to pass legislation without debate.

The conservative need for cognitive closure is broadly rooted in a
personality style that psychologists call “closed-minded” or often
simply “closed”. It involves low levels the personality trait Openness to Experience, which is widely accepted as one of the five core dimensions of personality.

People low on Openness prefer certainty, order, structure, the
familiar, predictability, simplicity, and sticking with the tried and
true. They dislike change, complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, novelty
and flexibility. They are less intellectually curious than their more
open counterparts, disinclined to examine their own ideas and views, and
as a result are often suspicious of science and the arts. They also
tend to dislike new experiences, frequently including but not limited to
foreign people, culture and food.

Our government’s distaste for science ministers and asylum seekers, then, makes sense.

Another ubiquitous finding is that conservatism is inversely related
to the pursuit of social and economic equality. Conservatism correlates
strongly with a preference for fixed social hierarchies entailing
inequality between social groups, along with punitive attitudes towards
marginalised and/or non-conforming members of society, who are seen as
destabilising elements that threaten social cohesion.

This anti-egalitarian psychological characteristic, with over 50 years of research behind it, is known as Right Wing Authoritarianism. It is predicted by low levels of Openness, with the associated need for a predictable, orderly and controlled social world.

Right Wing Authoritarianism has a younger cousin, with 20 years of research behind it, known as Social Dominance Orientation.
A darker pathway to ideological views, Social Dominance Orientation is
more a ruthless and competitive form of anti-egalitarianism. It not only
correlates with conservatism but also with the ‘dark triad’ of
personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy.

In newer research, conservatism has also been found to correlate
inversely with compassion, humility, dispositional fairness, altruism
and empathy.

So robust are the psychological findings that John Jost of NYU
and his colleagues propose that political orientation “may be
structured according to a left-right dimension for primarily
psychological (rather than logical or philosophical) reasons… linked to
variability in the needs to reduce uncertainty and threat”.

Of course not all people who vote for conservative political parties
embody all, or even necessarily some, of the psychological correlates.
What the research indicates is that the more conservative a person is,
on average, the more strongly they are likely to display these
characteristics. Fortunately none of us, as individuals, is entirely

In fact, some studies have found that the more politically active a
person is the stronger the psychological underpinning of their ideology
is likely to be. Thus we could expect our leaders’ political views to be
more, rather than less, psychologically driven than our own.

And more hell bent on inequality and opposing change.

In a world of increasing egalitarianism the conservative position can
make for a hard sell. Politicians with an agenda as conservative as the
Abbott Government’s can’t to go to the polls wearing their manifesto on
their sleeves. “We promise to preserve and intensify privilege,
entrench disadvantage and wind back egalitarian change, putting a halt
to its further spread.”

As a result, in order to gain power conservative political parties
are compelled to sugar-coat their agenda to be palatable in a putatively
egalitarian world. A conservative stock-in-trade to this end is what
political scientists call ‘legitmising myths’, or ideologies that
justify discrimination against disadvantaged groups.

Legitimising myths typically appeal to fear, which increases
political conservatism; scarcity, which increases competition between
social groups; and stereotypes, which smooth the way for discrimination
against less privileged members of a society. For instance,
“Burqa-wearing women are potential terrorists who threaten our safety
and our way of life” is a myth that appeals to all three.

While the Abbott Government relied more heavily on lies than
myth-making on its way to the election, since gaining office Abbott and
his ministers have had a crack at a few legitimising myths of their own.

They have been successful with some, for example ‘The carbon tax will
cripple the economy (fear and scarcity)’. They have limped along lamely
with a few, such as the ‘Budget emergency’ (fear and scarcity again)
and ‘Age of entitlement’ (stereotype).

Other efforts at legitimising mythology have received hostile
reception, for instance ‘The unemployed just need to try harder’
(stereotype), and ‘Poor people don’t have cars’ (stereotype again). Some
are just plain silly, such as ‘Coal is good for humanity’ (tempting to
type ‘insanity’ here).

On Aboriginal people, the Government has opted for the most effective
and time-honoured myth of all, ‘They don’t exist – at least not
really.’ Silence and collective blindness have worked for governments
until now. This kind of psychological apartheid (literally
“apart-hood”), keeping races psychologically apart, is a stealthy
variety of stereotype that serves to obscure the very existence and
legitimacy of an entire race.

A prime example is the call for a more westernised version of history
in the national curriculum, one that emphasises Judeo-Christian
heritage and scales back focus on Aboriginal history. It not only seeks
to reverse historical egalitarian change, but also serves to push
Aboriginal Australians even further out of our collective awareness and

The Government’s most recent legitimising rhetoric, ‘The war on
terror at home’, is probably the most potent and promising of all. In
numerous studies, invoking fear and even simply thinking about death
increases self-reported conservatism and endorsement of conservative
policies, candidates, and values.

For instance, in time series analyses George W Bush’s approval
ratings and policy support soared after every upgrading of the national
terrorist alert. Similarly, priming threat by asking people to rate
statements such as “I worry that terrorists might strike any time
anywhere” raises levels of both closed-mindedness and conservatism.

So strong is the fear connection that a brain structure integral to
fear - the amygdala - is larger, on average, in conservatives relative
to their ‘small l’ liberal counterparts.

Jost explains it thus: “Stability and hierarchy appear to provide
reassurance and structure inherently, whereas social change and equality
imply greater chaos and unpredictability…. People may be
psychologically unwilling or unable to embrace the unpredictability
associated with social change and increased equality when they are
feeling threatened or experiencing aversive levels of uncertainty”

Exploiting ISIS for all it’s worth, then, is Tony Abbott’s best hope. The “death cult” refrain no doubt helps. Although Australians are at greater risk of death from falling off a ladder or out of bed, a cult is far more scary. And better on which to build stereotypes.

Given that stereotypes and prejudice feed and thrive on fear and
justify inequality, it is perhaps not surprising that prejudice has been
found to correlate with conservatism in a number of studies.
Conservatism is most often associated with racism, particularly of the
“modern” kind, which holds that underprivileged racial groups are
responsible for their own disadvantage, but also prejudice in general,
including prejudice against sexual minorities, women, and other
disadvantaged or marginalised groups.

The attitudes of Professor Barry Spurr – the Sydney University
academic and contributor to the review of the National School Curriculum
who was suspended after a series of racist, misogynistic emails - may
be more prototypical than we would like to think.

Jim Sidanius of UCLA and colleagues say, “Political conservatism and
racism should be strongly correlated, because both ideologies are
motivated by a common desire to assert the superiority of the in-group
over relevant out-groups, and they justify such group superiority in
terms that appear both morally and intellectually justifiable.” Or at
least they try.

With prejudice, in pursuit of inequality we have seen the Abbott
Government target “entitled” pensioners, welfare recipients, young
people, single parents, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Australians, the chronically ill and the disabled for a good kicking
down the economic hierarchy. We have seen treatment of “illegal” asylum seekers sink to new lows,
efforts to keep those with modest bank balances out of tertiary
education, and to make healthcare inaccessible to low income groups.

These latter measures are important if inequality is to be a stable feature of a society, as they lock disadvantage in place.

Winding back egalitarian change has also proceeded apace. There has
been the repeal of the carbon tax, axing of numerous climate change
research and advisory bodies (ensuring inequality between current and
future generations), abolishing a dedicated Disability Discrimination
Commissioner, seeking, albeit unsuccessfully, to water down racial
discrimination legislation, seeking to scale back focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history
and Asia in the national curriculum, disbanding the Immigration Health
Advisory Group, and proposing regressive changes to migration law described by legal experts as cruel and inhumane and designed to subvert international law.

Not to forget the rushed changes to national security legislation, under fire from legal experts for encroaching on fundamental human rights and damaging the democratic cornerstone of press freedom.

Increasing a Government’s powers to jail journalists and removing journalists’ rights to defences such as public interest is one way to keep a society in its place. As is giving ASIO the power to "add, copy, delete or alter" information on computer devices. But there are others.

For instance, the Government’s introduction of social media guidelines prohibiting public servants from criticising the government. Or the gag clauses on community organisations such as Legal Aid Centres, also to prevent them from criticising the Government.

And what of mission creep in the war on criticism?

If the Government fails to expand and protect its borders around
secrecy, then whistleblowers and ‘citizen/academic/activist journalists’
might continue speaking out.

The two ideals most dear to our Government’s extremist ideological
heart could be exposed for what they are: change-aversion and

Our leaders’ policies might be outed as fanatical versions of these ideals, worthy of a terror alert all their own.

That would never do.


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