The idea that in all societies there are some people who seek to preserve stability, conserve the status quo, and prefer incremental change, and others who are more accepting of social change innovation and reform has a long history of acceptance in scholarship (e.g. Jost et al. 2003; Mill 1859/2011; Robin 2004). Attitudes towards societal change is considered a key variable that differentiates conservatives from liberals. According to the prevailing consensus, conservatives tend to seek stability and incremental change (if any) to the societal status quo. Liberals, on the other hand, readily pursue societal change and innovation.
Some scholars have noted that there are likely some conditions under which conservatives and those on the right will aggressively pursue societal change (Jost, Federico & Napier 2009; Wilson 1973) — although the kind of change pursued by the political right is typically classified as reactionary, not progressive.
New research by Jutta Proch, Julia Elad-Strenger and Thomas Kessler challenges this view. The the distinction between progressive and reactionary change is not simple or straightforward, they argue. Always considering progressive change an improvement to society — and reactionary change as a detriment or deterioration — is a tautological definition. Such a definition is not empirically testable. Moreover, it implies an ideology-based judgment about what constitutes positive societal change:
If liberal supported change = progressive change (and conservative supported change = reactionary change), while progressive changes = positive social change (and reactionary changes = negative social change), then by inference liberal supported change = positive social change (and conservative supported change = negative social change).
In order to get out of this conceptual dead-end, Proch et al. define progressive change as “all change that pursues current trends” and reactionary change as “all change that pursues a reversal and undoing of recent changes” (p. 4). For instance, if a policy expands healthcare access, then progressive change in this domain would further increase access to healthcare. In contrast, in this scenario, introducing new restrictions on access to healthcare represents reactionary change because it reverses the current status quo (of expanded access).
In three studies, Proch et al. investigated the extent to which liberals and conservatives accept or resist societal change across a range of issues. Their findings suggest that conservatives and liberals both resist and endorse societal change. Acceptance or resistance did not depend on a general stance toward societal change. Instead, it was issue-dependent, driven by the extent to which they approved or disapproved of the current status quo on a given sociopolitical issue.
Study 1 examined lay intuitions about liberal and conservative acceptance or resistance to change. German university students (N=112) were asked to rate the extent to which they believe liberals and conservatives:
- Rely on tradition
- Desire to maintain the status quo
- Accept social change
Each item was asked twice, once about liberals and once about conservatives. Response options were offered on a 5-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “very much.” Self-reported political orientation was also assessed from 1 (political left) to 7 (political right), with higher scores indicative of more conservatism. It was hypothesized that participants would rate conservatives as more resistant to change than liberals.
Studies 2a and 2b empirically assessed liberal and conservative attitudes towards change on a variety of sociopolitical issues salient in German politics. In both studies respondents were asked the extent to which they accept progressive or reactionary change on each sociopolitical issue. Preference for progressive or reactionary change was measured on a 5-scale ranging from “reactionary change” to “progressive change.” Self-reported political orientation was also assessed on a scale ranging from 1 (extreme left) to 7 (extreme right), with higher scores indicative of more conservatism. Political orientation was also measured by the German version of the Wilson-Patterson Conservatism Scale (Schiebel, Riemann & Mummendey 1984; Wilson & Paterson 1968). In Studies 2a and 2b support for the societal status quo was assumed.
The key difference between studies 2a and 2b was that Study 2a focused on German university students (N = 159). Meanwhile, Study 2b focused on German adults not currently enrolled in college (N = 148).
For both studies it was hypothesized that the association between political orientation and acceptance or resistance of change would depend on whether liberals or conservatives typically support or oppose the current status quo on a given issue. It was also hypothesized that the acceptance of progressive or reactionary change among liberals and conservatives would vary across the different issues, instead of being associated with political orientation.
Study 3 investigated if approval or disapproval of the status quo could account for the relationship between political orientation and acceptance or rejection of societal change (German adults, N=218).
Eight issues were selected, representing points of disagreement and dispute among liberals and conservatives. The status quo on 4 of these issues was likely to appeal to liberals, the status quo on the other 4 items was likely to appeal to conservatives. Approval/disapproval was measured on 6-point scale ranging from “strongly disapprove” to “strongly approve.” Thus, in Study 3 approval of the societal status quo was measured and not assumed.
Self-reported political orientation, economic conservatism, and social conservatism were each measured on a scale ranging from 1 (left; economically liberal; socially liberal) to 101 (right; economically conservative; socially conservative). Fear of change, and belief in a possibility of change were also assessed on 6-point scales ranging from “strongly disapprove” to “strongly approve.” For both of those measures, a higher score is indicative of more approval. In Study 3 it was hypothesized that liberals and conservatives would accept change when such change would create a more desirable state of affairs, and oppose change when they approve of the status quo on an issue.
The results of Study 1 were quite clear and supported the hypothesis that lay people will intuitively perceive conservatives as more resistant to societal change than liberals. Liberal and conservative respondents did not differ significantly in this assessment. Thus, lay intuitions about liberals and conservatives among German college students lead to conservatives being perceived as more resistant to change.
In Studies 2a and 2b, political orientation was negatively correlated with acceptance of change on conservative issues, indicating that liberals were resistant to such change on these issues. The reverse pattern was also found: political orientation was positively correlated with acceptance of change on liberal issues, indicating that conservatives were resistant to such change on these issues. These results indicate that, among the populations sampled, resistance to societal change is not unique to conservatives. Indeed, conservatism, in some cases, was associated with a preference for progressive change and liberalism was associated with reactionary change. These results challenge the long-standing view that resistance to change is a defining feature of conservatism (again, a view widely shared by participants in Study 1 as well).
In Study 3, liberals showed lower approval of change on three issues, conservatives showed resistance to change on three issues, and on the remaining two issues there were no significant differences between liberals and conservatives with respect to departure from the status quo.
Political orientation was negatively correlated with acceptance of change for all of the conservative issues, indicating that conservatives were less accepting of change on these issues. The reverse pattern for liberal issues was also found, conservatives were more accepting of change on these issues. An analysis of correlations between acceptance of change and approval of the status quo on each issue revealed that for all three issue categories (liberal, conservative, and neutral) acceptance of change was negatively correlated with approval of the societal status quo on that issue. A series of multiple regression analyses further supported these findings. In other words, the results of Study 3 suggest that, among the German adults sampled, conservatives are not more fearful of change compared to liberals (nor were liberals systematically more accepting of social change than conservatives).
Proch et al. conclude that preferences towards societal change may not be the best, or even promising, candidates for characterizing underlying differences between liberals and conservatives. Instead, it appears that liberals and conservatives may be fairly similar in their acceptance or rejection of societal change — and acceptance or rejection likely depends on approval or disapproval of the societal status quo. This directly challenges long-standing scholarship in the filed of political psychology which contends that resistance to change is a core feature of conservatism.
Although much of the scholarship on the psychological factors underlying differences between liberals and conservatives has been conducted in the United States (e.g. Jost et al. 2017), the scholarship defining resistance to change as a core feature of conservatism typically argues that it is a universal feature of political conservatism. In other words, German conservatives should be expected to be more resistant to societal change, and German liberals more accepting. They were not.
Why Are These Findings Important?
These results can be added to a rapidly growing body of literature in political psychology and social psychology which challenges long-standing theories of the psychology underlying conservatism (e.g., Brandt et al. 2014; Conway et al. 2016; Federico & Malka 2018; Malka, Lelkes & Holzer 2018; Malka et al. 2014; Marcus et al. 2019). Most of this prior research has presented a challenge to another aspect of the “rigidity of the right” model — the purported relationship between fear in response to perceived threat and political conservatism. Thus, the current findings help broaden our understanding of the psychological underpinnings of political ideology and political behavior further, and suggest that a fruitful area of future research may be identifying the different issues on which liberals and conservatives accept or resist change.
Reference: Proch, Jutta, Julia Elad-Strenger & Thomas Kessler (2018). “Liberalism and conservatism, for a change! Rethinking the association between political orientation and relation to social change.” Political Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/pops.12559
Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.