April 08, 2008
Fear, Insecurity, & Conservativism: an Interview with Sociologist Robb Willer
Robb Willer received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Cornell University in 2006. He is the director of the UC Berkeley Sociology department's new Laboratory for Social Research and is a Senior Consultant for the Breakthrough Institute. His research focuses on the social psychology of political attitudes, and what leads individuals to adopt liberal or conservative political views. Much of his work examines the potential for fear to impact political affiliation.
Your early work looked at some of the unexpected effects of the government Terror Alert System. What did you find?
In my analysis I found that terror alerts tended to lead to increases in approval for Bush and his handling of the economy. That research leaked into the popular zeitgeist. I think it was the right idea at the right time; there had been growing suspicion, especially among liberal Americans, that the alert system was being used for political purposes. That set the story up to be very popular, at least among the Americans for whom it confirmed something they already suspected.
You've also looked into the relationship between masculinity and support for the war.
In that research I found that when men were made to feel insecure about their masculinity, they tended to support the war more, show more homophobia, and buy more SUVs.
I also did some research on how men with different testosterone levels react to challenges to their masculinity. High-testosterone males, when they have their masculinity threatened, are high reactors -- more support for Bush, for the war, etc.
Was this research as well-received as your work on the Terror Alert System?
My intention was for it to be serious, but it was seen by some as an oddity. Still, I think it really resonated with some Americans.
What are you working on now?
I'm focused on a question that I don't understand: why would Americans support us attacking Iran? So far in my research I find that Americans who are very conservative and afraid of terrorism tend to support attacking Iran, as do Americans who are more racially prejudiced, which seems to suggest that Americans who are more prejudiced at home are more prejudiced abroad as well.
It seems like a lot of your work is focused on fear. Why do appeals to fear work?
Fear appeals can engage identity differences. The "outside threat" appeal can cause people to seek out support for leaders that embody the group's ideals, and fight the out-groups.
Also, fear of death can make you more conservative. Some theorists believe that when you're afraid of death, you want to bolster your self-esteem and establish "immortality" by throwing yourself into your culture.
And your religion...
Yes. I've done research on how fear of death contributes to belief in the afterlife. In that research I had people either write an essay about their own death, or write about what they had watched on TV last week, something innocuous. Then I gave them a standard survey on religious attitudes. The people who wrote about death tended to report greater belief in the afterlife, and belief in God.
If a religion doesn't provide an afterlife, it's probably not going to benefit from people's fundamental fear of death. That's probably one of the single biggest commonalities in religions: an afterlife.
Can you give us a brief timeline of academic thought regarding fear and authoritarianism? What defines the current approach?
The literature starts with the book "The Authoritarian Personality," published in 1950, which tried to identify the roots of the conservative and fascist ideologies that drove World War II and the Holocaust. Fifty years later, social psychologists have re-conceptualized authoritarianism in two ways: right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), and social dominancy orientation (SDO).
The original 1950 theory was grounded in Freudian psychoanalysis: certain early childhood experiences cause people to grow up very aggressive, but also submissive to authority, which orients them to allegiance to authoritarianism.
With SDO, there is a certain personality characteristic that causes people to support the idea that some groups should dominate others, and that inequality is acceptable.
RWA is the idea that there is a certain personality characteristic that includes being right wing, being domineering to those below you, and being obsequious to those above you.