Scientist: There is a ‘conservative syndrome’ that exists across countries

In a new review article summarizing several cross-cultural studies, an Australian scientist argues that there is a cluster of psychological traits and attitudes that can be defined as a “conservative syndrome.”

“I was not interested in this particular topic when I started the work some ten years ago,” explained Lazar Stankov of the University of Sydney and University of Southern Queensland. “My intention was to study cross-cultural differences. Much of my previous work was in the area of intelligence and I wanted to branch out into the non-cognitive field. Studying differences in personality traits, social attitudes, values, social axioms and social norms was appealing to me.”

“It just happened so that the outcome of my studies could best be interpreted in terms of what is known in political sciences as social conservatism. It is a constellation of diverse psychological traits and dispositions focused on preserving the status quo. I chose the term ‘syndrome’ in order to emphasize that at least some components of this kind of conservatism do not have high correlations among themselves.”

His research was published May 29, 2017 in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

The syndrome describes people who want to preserve the current social order value, score low on the personality trait of openness, and who value authority, obedience, family, self-discipline, and conventional religious beliefs. Such people also display more hostility toward people from outside groups.

Importantly, the conservative syndrome differs from other definitions of conservatism because it includes psychological dispositions — not just political beliefs.

“Needless to say, there are considerable differences between individuals and countries in terms of conservatism/liberalism,” Stankov told PsyPost. “In our work the most important turned out to be the differences in two broad categories of psychological constructs. People scoring high on this syndrome tend to be more religious and harsher towards those who are not accepted as members of their own group. Religion and morality are seen as a way of maintaining the existing way of life and harshness towards outsiders is a defense against the threat of change.

“It is interesting that the average IQ of conservative individuals and countries tends to be lower than the average of the population at large,” Stankov added. “In other words, conservative people tend to be less knowledgeable about the world they live in and are afraid of the unknown. They also seem to be more ready to fight the intruders into their environment.”

The studies were based on two different datasets, which included a total of 11,208 participants from more than 30 countries. Stankov found that the conservative syndrome existed in virtually every country. In other words, the same conservative traits and dispositions tended to be associated with one another regardless of the country.

But there are several political labels that can be a source of confusion. People who are socially conservative, for instance, value faith and tradition — and are opposed to “progressive” change in society. These people typically fall within the conservative syndrome. But there are also fiscal conservatives who oppose high taxes and government regulations. Their views are often similar to those who describe themselves as classical liberals. This latter group of conservatives may or may not be part of the conservative syndrome, depending on their other traits and attitudes.

“An important issue is the relationship between conservative syndrome and political conservatism. The motivation of those voting for conservative parties varies,” Stankov explained. “In Western countries a sizeable proportion of people may do so for fiscal rather than social reasons. Their main concern is with the preservation of the free market and less so with social and psychological aspects of life. Given the rise of populism in politics it may be interesting to study the interaction between fiscal and social conservatives and the extent to which each is using the other to achieve political gains.”

“Another line of our research has been the study of militant extremist mindset (MEM),” he added. “Our findings are that some ingredients of MEM resemble those of conservative syndrome. If some additional aspects of MEM were to be triggered, a new wave of conservative terrorism may emerge. The targets may be not only members of the out-groups but also professions that are perceived as advocating tolerance towards the dissenting views.”