Gordon Hodson Ph.D.

Without Prejudice

Ideology Matters (Too Much)

Does super-sizing ideology make ideology a risk to society?

Posted Nov 10, 2015

In one of my graduate social/personality classes we recently discussed a prominent paper by Jost (2006) entitled "The End of the End of Ideology." Jost provides an interesting and compelling review of our understanding of ideology from a psychological point of view. What might surprise some readers of this column is that, in the years following World War II, most social scientists (i.e., psychologists, political scientists, sociologists) theorized that ideology was essentially “over.” That is, they argued that ideology does not matter to our day-to-day lives. They literally declared “the end of ideology.”

From a modern viewpoint this seems astounding. At the time, their reasoning was that political attitudes and ideologies are not coherent and consistent (and thus not stable), that political ideology is not psychologically motivating (i.e., would not predict behavior), and that there are no meaningful differences between liberals and conservatives. To the modern observer, both lay and professional alike, such assertions seem unbelievably naïve if not widely inaccurate. Throughout his review, Jost details many of the ways that ideology instead predicts a wide range of behaviors, including those political in nature (e.g., voting), but also those apolitical on the surface (e.g., the books we read, the music we listen to, the degree of orderliness in our work and residential settings). His case is exceptionally well made: ideology matters a great deal to our personal and social lives (as is glaringly evident from even a casual perusal of your TV, Twitter account, or emails from friends and family).

I accept Jost’s point. In fact, I take it one step further. In many ways, ideology matters too much. There is no “end of ideology”, but rather a super-sizing of ideology. Ideology “matters” even when it shouldn’t.

Consider that those with right-leaning ideologies (with regard to human social lives and interactions) have been found to also consume more meat and are more willing to exploit animals (see Dhont & Hodson, 2014). The reason for this is that those ideologically on the right (vs. left) are more likely to consider humans superior to animals and to consider vegetarianism a threat to the modern way of life. These effects held even after statistically controlling for participants who like to eat meat (i.e., the hedonistic appeal). Ideologies about how the human social world ought to be run, therefore, have implications for animal welfare as well. Our ideologies therefore impact the biosphere more widely.

Perhaps most troublingly, ideology predicts beliefs about whether climate change is happening, and whether preventative action ought to be taken (Campbell & Kay, 2014; Choma, Hanoch, Gummerum, & Hodson, 2013; Feygina, Jost, & Goldsmith, 2010; Guy, Kashima, Walker, & O’Neill, 2014; Hăkkinen & Akrami, 2014; Heath & Gifford, 2006; Kliegman, 2014; McCright & Dunlap, 2011; Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, 2013; Rossen, Dunlop, & Lawrence, 2015; Tjernstrom & Tietenberg, 2008; van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Feinberg, & Maibach, 2015;Whitmarsh, 2011). In many ways this is puzzling. Ideology has long predicted social preferences and economic beliefs, but why is ideology related to beliefs about the physical nature of the world that are empirically testable? 

The scientific community very clearly holds the view that climate change is happening and is largely caused by man. Yet belief in science has become extremely political. A recent analysis of American attitudes finds that conservatives used to trust in science as much (if not more) than moderates or liberals in the early 1970s, but presently are very distrusting of science (Gauchat, 2012). This means that if I knew someone’s trust in science in 1974, I would not be able to guess their ideology above chance levels. But now if I knew the degree to which you trusted science, I would be able to predict your political ideology with considerable accuracy (and certainly above chance levels). It is unclear the reasons underlying this strong shift, but it presumably has something to do with what “science” represented in the 1970s (where it held the promise to boost business and solve the so-called energy crisis) relative to today (where it reveals human industry and over-consumption as the major causes of climate change).

Ideology, I argue, presently matters too much. It has become super-sized as a predictor of human thinking and behavior. Ideology should not hold sway over basic beliefs about biology, physics, geophysics, astrophysics, chemistry, etc. Consider recent Canadian findings that values and political orientation explain about 1/3 of the variance in climate change skepticism, whereas factors such as education and knowledge explain only about 3% (Pickering, 2015). Should one’s ideology matter 10 times more than one’s education and knowledge?

Jost (2006) is correct, ideology is not over. Ideology is not irrelevant to our social worlds. If anything, we see evidence that ideology matters too much. In Canada, the previous Conservative government eliminated the long-form census widely deemed critical to understanding and planning Canadian social lives and infrastructure. They also made massive cuts to science funding (for a list that is already several years out of date, but nonetheless revealing, click here and here).

Recognizing the value of basic facts about the world should not be a matter of ideology or preference. All governments, regardless of their ideologies, should be interested and invested in the collection of high quality data, with such data subsequently playing a central role in decision making processes. This is not to say that ideology has no value. Ideology provides coherence and meaning in our lives, and guides our decisions, values, and social interactions. But if we allow ideology to determine whether or not putting carbon into the atmosphere is happening (or is harmful), ideology ceases to be functional at the societal level, even if it remains function for a given individual.  

References and Suggested Readings:

Campbell, T. H., & Kay, A. C. (2014). Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 809-824.

Choma, B.L., Hanoch, Y., Gummerum, M., & Hodson, G. (2013). Relations between risk perceptions and socio-political ideology are domain- and ideology- dependent. Personality and Individual Differences, 54, 29-34.

Dhont, K., & Hodson, G. (2014). Why do right-wing adherents engage in more animal exploitation and meat consumption? Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 12-17.

Feygina, I., Jost, J. T., & Goldsmith, R. E. (2010). System justification, the denial of global warming, and the possibility of “system-sanctioned change”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 326-338.

Gauchat, G. (2012). Politicization of science in the public sphere: A study of public trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American Sociological Review, 77, 167-187 DOI: 10.1177/0003122412438225

Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66, 290-302.

Gifford, R. (2013). Dragons, mules, and honeybees: Barriers, carriers, and unwitting enablers of climate change action. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 69, 41-48.

Guy, S., Kashima, Y., Walker, I., & O’Neill, S. (2014). The social psychology of climate change: Investigating the effects of knowledge and ideology on climate change beliefs. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 421-429.

Häkkinen, K., & Akrami, N. (2014). Ideology and climate change denial. Personality and Individual Differences, 70, 62-65.

Heath, Y., & Gifford, R. (2006). Free-market ideology and environmental degradation: The case of belief in global climate change. Environment and Behavior, 38, 48-71.

Jost, J.T. (2006). The end of the end of ideology. American Psychologist, 61, 651-670. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.61.7.651

Kliegman, J. (2014). Jerry Brocn says ‘virtually no Republican’ in Washington accepts climate change science. Politifact. Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2014/may/18/jerry-bro...

McCright, A. M., & Dunlap, R. E. (2011). Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States. Global Environmental Change, 21, 1163-1172.

McCright, A. M., Dunlap, R. E., & Xiao, C. (2014). The impacts of temperature anomalies and political orientation on perceived winter warming. Nature Climate Change, 4, 1077-1081.

Pickering, G.J. (2015). Head in the (oil) sand? Climate change scepticism in Canada. Journal of Environmental and Social Sciences, 2, 117.

Rossen, I. L., Dunlop, P. D., & Lawrence, C. M. (2015). The desire to maintain social order and the right to economic freedom: Two distinct moral pathways to climate change scepticism. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42, 42-47.

Tjernström, E., & Tietenberg, T. (2008). Do differences in attitudes explain differences in national climate change policies? Ecological Economics, 65, 315-324.

van der Linden, S. L., Leiserowitz, A. A., Feinberg, G. D., & Maibach, E. W. (2015). The scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief: Experimental evidence. PLoS ONE, 10, 1-8.

Whitmarsh, L. (2011). Skepticism and uncertainty about climate change: Dimensions, determinants and change over time. Global Environmental Change, 21, 690-700.