Horse trading between political parties, who where just a few hours before at each others’ throats, appears an unedifying sight to us in the UK. Partly this is because we are unused to the reality of coalition governments, much more the norm elsewhere in the West.


One key question is to what extent can politicians compromise. On this issues rests the promise that this coalition is going to provide ‘strong’ and ‘stable’ government. In a sense that goes to the heart of what people are in politics to achieve. Political Psychology – the branch of psychology that researches the impact of psychological forces in affairs of state – has recently suffered a convulsion over this issue.


Many psychologists found it increasingly difficult to discern from their research the existence of the genuine ‘ideologue’ – those whose political views fell into a consistent pattern allowing them to be easily categorised as ‘left’ or ‘right’ wing. Did this mean that the politician as we understood them from the Thatcher years – those who clung to beliefs despite their unpopularity or electoral prospects – had become extinct? Wiped out by evolutionary pressure to get elected no matter what?


Does the arrival of coalition government in the UK confirm that politicians are willing to trade conviction for power? Are we all pragmatists now?


John Jost, a political psychologist at New York University published a recent fascinating paper in the journal American Psychologist taking issue with the modern prevalent idea that political ideology has indeed died a death.


Psychological theory argues that ideologues tend to be politically consistent – so if they are right of centre, for example, they would be opposed to a state funded NHS and they would be pro leaving the unfettered free market to determining bankers’ salaries. Jost points out that in modern times, voters, for an interlude at least, didn’t seem to display this kind of consistent political backbone.


Knowing where someone stands on the NHS doesn’t, recently, seem to lead to the same confidence as to predicting where they might stand on same sex marriage or tax rates.


However, political psychologists also argue that right and left can be understood and divided depending on your core attitudes to inequality. Those who feel inequality is inevitable and should not be interfered with too much, for example via state intervention – tend to be naturally on the right of the political spectrum. While those who are intolerant of inequality, are emotionally distressed by it, and so demand intercession, fall more inevitably to the left.


Attitudes to inequality could be viewed as kind of core aspect of personality. The problem with this is the counter argument; that we can understand where people are on the political spectrum by investigating how they are doing economically. Those at the bottom of the pile, surprise surprise, tend to support redistributive policies. Those nearer the top tend to oppose them. The member of the working class who ‘comes good’ via a lottery win or hard work often, the parody goes, seems to change political allegiance as their circumstances alter.


But political psychologists like Jost protest that there remain essential differences between people at the level of core personality, which continue to predict where they are ideologically. Reports of the death of ideology, these academics declare, are grossly exaggerated. This has important implications for the coalition. It would predict that it will be a lot more unstable and could fall apart much sooner, than the emollient current architects might lead us to believe.


For example, psychologists like Jost point to recent psychological research which consistently finds that those on the right of the political spectrum tend to score reliably higher on character measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, needs for order, structure, and closure and these people also tend to be lower in ‘openness to experience’.


Those on the right, compared to those on the left, tend to perceive the world as

a more dangerous place, with consequent elevated fear of crime, terrorism, and death.  Right-wingers tend to blame people more directly for the predicament they find themselves, rather than be open to situational accounts. In other words, if you are poor, it’s because you are not trying hard enough, rather than because you are facing a national or regional economic downturn.


But does it work the other way around – if conservatives tend to be fearful of the world in general, does it follow that rendering an electorate more fearful, will move them to the right politically? For example, did drumming up fear of weapons of mass destruction favour a right wing US President (Bush) and/or a so-called left wing British Prime Minister (Tony Blair)?


A rather neat and natural experiment presented itself recently for political psychologists to test this theory, as outlined by Jost in his paper entitled ‘The End of The End of Ideology’. 18 months after surviving the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, survivors were interviewed by psychologists on how they had moved politically since.


Jost reports 38% of the sample overall reported that they had shifted to the right politically, which was almost three times as many people (13%) who reported that they had moved to the left. So even if ideology reflects a core part of personality – major events can shift us. Perhaps the recent General Election could be seen as a kind of trauma producing ideological convulsions leading to the necessary personality shifts allowing a coalition to form and survive.


Given trauma moves you to the right – which is it better to be – left or right wing when it comes to recovering from psychological problems like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, if you have indeed survived something as horrendous as 9/11?


Jost and colleagues reports that chronic symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression (measured at 7 months and again at 18 months after 9/11) in World Trade Center survivors were positively associated with being more on the right politically. In other words, conservatism was less helpful in terms of psychological recovery following major trauma.


Exactly why this should be remains mysterious. It could be something to do with a deep resistance to change and difficulty adjusting to it that lies at the heart of conservatives (with a small c). Perhaps also their general relative intolerance towards considering novel approaches and perspectives in life, could include accepting psychological treatments for emotional problems. Plus perhaps there is a tendency for those on the right to hold oneself personally responsible for not coping, in a potentially unhelpful, non-forgiving manner.


Those on the political left are more open to new experiences, as repeatedly found by psychological research into the link between personality and ideology. This would predict that these may be more open to trying treatments like psychiatric ones for personal problems. Those on the right may stick to a ‘pull your socks up’ approach.


So Jost firmly believes that ideology exists out there in the population and is personally meaningful. He even quotes research suggesting there is a substantial heritable component of political attitudes, although he acknowledges this does not mean that there is a specific gene for political orientation per se.


Obviously if ideology was genetic, then significant shifting patterns of voting behaviour between elections, spaced as near as four to five years, would be difficult to explain. On the other hand it does also appear true that not every voter floats, with a substantial grouping voting the same way through thick and thin, indeed generation after generation.


However a resolution to this paradox would be to go with a widespread suggestion in political psychology, that roughly around only 10% of the population are political ideologues – they are interested in politics and have adopted clear and consistent ideological positions. The readers of Hollyrood magazine probably fall into this category.


The really intriguing finding from political psychology is that being more ideological, whether on the right or left, seems to predict greater happiness! This is the conclusion of a study recently published in the Journal of Research in Personality entitled ‘Liberal and conservative political ideologies: Different routes to happiness?’


Lead author Becky Choma from York University in Toronto was unable to definitively explain her absorbing findings, gleaned from studying the happiness levels and political orientation of almost 500 people.


One possible explanation is that if we take the paradigmatic ideologues – Marxists – they have a way of explaining every political development, no matter how inconvenient to their theory as falling fully within what Marx would have predicted. In other words a political ideology renders the world a less confusing place because it gives you a tool, a perspective, for explaining a wide variety of phenomena you encounter on a daily basis.


This would be a very similar account as those that try to explain why religious people tend to happier, by and large, compared to the less faithful. This is according to a particular body of academic psychiatric research. It’s intriguing because it suggests that ideology is operating as a kind of religion in its personal impact on our lives.


Another account would be that ideology gives you a reason and a way of engaging more fully with the world. Ideologues are more likely to vote, they believe they should, and they also believe that they can make a difference, which is why they are more politically active.


Immediately after this election ideologues are more likely to lie at the extremes of emotional well-being. If your party did well you are going to be more ecstatic than non-ideologues. If your movement did badly, you are going to be gloomier than those who are more generally cynical about politics and didn’t bother to vote. Or those who voted but it didn’t matter that much to them.


Whatever happens, be comforted by the finding from psychological research that in the longer run being an ideologue, to the right or left, is associated with greater happiness than being less politically engaged. 


However, if according to political psychology ideology functions a bit like religion – the prospect for this current coalition in UK politics is about as favourable as if two religious groups at opposite poles in belief, attempted to found a new church together.


The surprising prediction is that it only stands a chance, to the extent the new congregation, are actually filled with covert unbelievers.




The End of the End of Ideology American Psychologist, Volume 61, Issue 7, October 2006, Pages 651-670 John T. Jost


Liberal and conservative political ideologies: Different routes to happiness?

Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 43, Issue 3, June 2009, Pages 502-505

Becky L. Choma, Michael A. Busseri, Stanley W. Sadava