- Claims that conservatives are higher in threat sensitivity are challenged by findings from a large long-term survey in Britain.
- People with left-wing economic political views had higher rates of anxiety disorder symptoms.
- People with liberal economic views tend to be higher in neuroticism and lower in conscientiousness than their conservative counterparts.
- The relationship between threat sensitivity and political ideology may be more complex than previously thought.
A long-running theory in social psychology, “motivated social cognition,” holds that conservative political beliefs are motivated by sensitivity to threat. For example, it has been claimed that high levels of death anxiety, system threat, and perceptions of a dangerous world each contribute to conservatism specifically, whereas people who are low in these attributes tend to have more liberal views (Jost et al., 2007).
Based on this theory, a recent study (Helminen et al., 2021) tested whether conservative political views were related to having an anxiety disorder, as people with such disorders naturally tend to be sensitive to feelings of threat. Additionally, the study aimed to test how sensitivity to threat might be related to various aspects of political beliefs, such as social attitudes (e.g., family values, abortion, etc.) and economic views (e.g., concern for inequality, environmentalism). Contrary to expectations, the study largely found that people with liberal economic views were more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than their conservative counterparts. Hence, it appears that the theory of motivated social cognition might have things back-to-front.
The study used data from a long-running nationally representative survey in Britain that has followed a large cohort of people who were all born in the same week in 1958 over many years. The study by Helminen et al. used a subsample of over 7,000 participants who completed surveys at the ages of 33, 42, 44, and 50. Participants were asked 21 questions about a wide range of political attitudes concerning economic inequality, distrust in politics, racism, attitudes concerning authority, protecting the environment, family values, and work ethic, at age 33, and again at ages 42 and 50. To assess anxiety disorders, participants were assessed for symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, and panic disorder symptoms at age 44.
What the Study Found
People with left-wing economic-political beliefs had higher rates of anxiety disorder symptoms.
Results showed that higher overall anxiety symptoms at age 44 predicted concerns about inequality and the environment, distrust in politics, and lower work ethic at age 50. Similarly, concerns about inequality and the environment at ages 33 and 42 predicted higher overall anxiety symptoms at age 44.
Regarding more specific disorders, symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and phobia, but not panic disorder, at age 44 predicted higher concerns about inequality and the environment at age 50. Additionally, phobia symptoms predicted greater distrust in politics and lower work ethic at age 50.
Similarly, concern about inequality at ages 33 and 42 predicted generalized anxiety disorder, panic (although this was significant at 42 only), and phobia at age 44. The importance of family values had a less consistent effect: people with lower importance of family values at age 42 had higher overall anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder symptoms at age 44 only.
In summary, having an anxiety disorder was associated with some political views but not others. Specifically, over the long term, anxiety disorders symptoms were most consistently associated with higher concerns about inequality in particular and to a lesser extent with the environment, as well as political distrust and with having a lower work ethic. These views were more often associated with generalized anxiety disorder and phobia rather than panic disorder.
These findings run counter to what would be expected from the theory of motivated social cognition because concerns for inequality and the environment are associated with the political left, while an emphasis on work ethic is associated more with the right. Distrust in politics is not clearly left-wing or right-wing as this was measured with items such as “None of the political parties would do anything to benefit me.”
Liberals Are Higher in Average Neuroticism Than Conservatives
The results are also consistent with another study using American data (and which I discussed in an earlier blog post) that found that people on the extreme political left reported higher rates of having mental disorders than people on the right. As I noted, research on the “Big Five” traits of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience has found that people identifying as politically liberal tend to be higher on openness to experience and neuroticism and lower on conscientiousness than their conservative counterparts (Fatke, 2017; Gerber et al., 2011). Additionally, surveys find that neuroticism is more strongly related to economic than social liberalism (Gerber et al., 2009).
Furthermore, people with mental disorders tend to be highly elevated in neuroticism and are often low in conscientiousness (Malouff et al., 2005). Generalized anxiety disorder in particular, which is characterized by pervasive worry about nearly everything, has been considered one of the purest clinical manifestations of neuroticism (Hale et al., 2010). Hence, it is not surprising that since people with liberal views tend to be higher in neuroticism and lower in conscientiousness than conservatives, they would also be at more risk of mental problems, including anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder.
Regarding the theory of motivated social cognition, despite being widely accepted in social psychology, it might be too simplistic to adequately describe the psychology of conservatism. A recent cross-national study (Brandt et al., 2021) suggests that the relationship between political beliefs and threat sensitivity might depend on the type of threat being considered and the specific country. Specifically, the study found that economic threats tended to go with left-wing economic beliefs, while violence-related threats tended to be related to more cultural right-wing beliefs, although exceptions applied. This matches the finding in the British survey I looked at here that found that concern about economic inequality in particular, which is more typically left-wing, was associated with greater anxiety, and presumably sensitivity to threat.
Brandt, M. J., Turner-Zwinkels, F. M., Karapirinler, B., Van Leeuwen, F., Bender, M., van Osch, Y., & Adams, B. (2021). The Association Between Threat and Politics Depends on the Type of Threat, the Political Domain, and the Country. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(2), 324–343. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220946187
Fatke, M. (2017). Personality Traits and Political Ideology: A First Global Assessment. Political Psychology, 38(5), 881–899. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12347
Gerber, A., Huber, G., Ha, S. E., Dowling, C., & Doherty, D. (2009). Personality Traits and the Dimensions of Political Ideology (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1412863). Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1412863
Gerber, A. S., Huber, G. A., Doherty, D., & Dowling, C. M. (2011). The Big Five Personality Traits in the Political Arena. Annual Review of Political Science, 14(1), 265–287. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051010-111659
Hale, W. W. 3rd, Klimstra, T. A., & Meeus, W. H. J. (2010). Is the generalized anxiety disorder symptom of worry just another form of neuroticism? A 5-year longitudinal study of adolescents from the general population. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 71(7), 942–948. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.09m05506blu
Helminen, V., Elovainio, M., & Jokela, M. (2021). Clinical symptoms of anxiety disorders as predictors of political attitudes: A prospective cohort study. International Journal of Psychology, n/a(n/a). https://doi.org/10.1002/ijop.12796
Jost, J. T., Napier, J. L., Thorisdottir, H., Gosling, S. D., Palfai, T. P., & Ostafin, B. (2007). Are Needs to Manage Uncertainty and Threat Associated With Political Conservatism or Ideological Extremity? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(7), 989–1007. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167207301028
Malouff, J. M., Thorsteinsson, E. B., & Schutte, N. S. (2005). The Relationship Between the Five-Factor Model of Personality and Symptoms of Clinical Disorders: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 27(2), 101–114. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10862-005-5384-y