Conservatives, Evil and Psychopathy: Science Makes the Link!

You knew it was true. Now research proves it! The real motivation behind Rush, Sterling and defenses of awfulness.

It’s not the least bit surprising that Rush Limbaugh is still defending Donald Sterling, spinning an elaborate conspiracy theory about how Sterling was “set up,” as Elias Isquith described here at Salon: “Whoever set this up,” Limbaugh said with understated drama, “is really good.”

He continued: “They covered every base. They’ve got the media wrapped around their little finger. I mean, when you get rid of the anthem singer — I used to be in charge of anthem singers at the Kansas City Royals. When you can get rid of (the) anthem singer, you’ve got power.”

Sure, it’s so far gone it’s silly, but defending old white guys is Limbaugh’s thing. Especially rich old white guys. And when he does it, he’s simply being a good conservative. Defending wealth, power, privilege, hierarchy — it’s just what conservatives do. Now, however, some folks — including social scientists — are beginning to ask, in effect, if they’re not actually defending, even promoting, evil as well.

Sterling’s self-immolating drama vividly illustrates what the questions involve. It’s not just that Americans — unbeknownst to Sterling, Cliven Bundy and Limbaugh — have come to an overwhelming consensus that racism itself is evil, though that’s certainly enormously important in and of itself. But there’s also the additional factor of interpersonal depravity — psychopathy, if you will, which people are increasingly coming to see as significantly overrepresented in the 1 percent.

Let’s start with what I said about Limbaugh simply being a good conservative when he rushed to Sterling’s defense. That’s not just a liberal canard. It’s not just me trying to do to Limbaugh what Limbaugh does to liberals. It’s what conservatives themselves have said repeatedly over the years. The defense of hierarchy is what conservatism is all about, as Corey Robin reminded us all with his recent book, “The Reactionary Mind.”

What’s more, the differences between how liberals and conservatives think are reflected in a range of divergent cognitive processes, as summarized in a 2003 paper by John T. Jost and three co-authors, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” a “meta-analysis” that brought together findings drawn from 88 study samples in 12 countries:

“The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat,” Jost and his co-authors wrote in the abstract. These are not merely American phenomena, nor is there any reason to think they’re particularly modern.

While Jost’s paper revealed a complicated array of different factors involved, two in particular have been shown to explain the lion’s share of intergroup prejudice: right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO). John Dean’s book“Conservatives Without Conscience” focused on the combined workings of these two factors. While there is some overlap between the two, RWA is more predominant among followers, who would probably make up the main bulk of Limbaugh’s audience, while SDO is more prominent in folks like Sterling.

SDO represents a generalized tendency to support groups’ dominance, whether the groups are defined biologically (men over women, the old over the young) or culturally (race, ethnicity, religion, etc.).

There have been several successive versions of the scale used to measure SDO (SDO 6 can be found here), with slight changes in the statements used. Subjects are asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with the statements from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Statements from SDO-6 include:

  • Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups.
  • In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups.
  • It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others.

These are balanced with statements supporting equality, such as:

  • It would be good if groups could be equal.
  • Group equality should be our ideal.
  • All groups should be given an equal chance in life.

It’s not hard to see why SDO relates to defense of hierarchy, and can serve to support the defense of just about any privileged group. It’s not one and the same thing as conservatism, but it’s an integral part of the mix, and conservatives as a group routinely score significantly higher on SDO than liberals as a group do.

But what about the connection to evil?

A few weeks ago, I came across a reference to an unpublished conference paper, with the intriguing title, “Does endorsement of hierarchy make you evil? SDO and psychopathy.”

So I contacted the lead author, Marc Wilson, a New Zealand psychologist at Victoria University of Wellington, to ask him about his research.

First, a bit of background. Psychopathy — once thought to be an all-or-nothing condition — is now understood in a dimensional fashion (more or less) and is measured by instruments such as The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. While our understanding of psychopathy first developed largely from studying criminal populations, Hare himself has said, “I always said that if I wasn’t studying psychopaths in prison, I’d do it at the stock exchange,” so it’s fairly straightforward to measure and compare psychopathic tendencies and SDO. And that’s just what Wilson has done.

“The research shows that SDO and psychopathy have a reciprocal causal relationship over time — as people become more social dominant, they become more psychopathic, and vice versa,” Wilson told me. “This is based on longitudinal research that shows that, for example, increased SDO (or psychopathy) at time 1 predicts greater psychopathy (or SDO) at time 2. I’ve done this for both convenience samples (university students) and thousands of general population.”

University students get tested a lot — as Wilson indicated, they’re quite convenient. But sooner or later it’s bound to raise questions of just how well the results hold up in a larger population. So it’s significant that he’s already taken that step, and found confirmation as well.

“When SDO was originally proposed, it was argued that group dominance (as measured by SDO) is not the same thing as individual level dominance, and indeed that’s what the original research appeared to show,” he explained. “More recently there have been a few studies that have suggested SDO and psychopathy are related, and I’ve collected a lot of data now that leads me to believe they’re flip sides of the same coin — interpersonal dominance (psychopathy) on one side and group dominance (SDO) on the other.”

This is just what one might informally conclude from listening to the Donald Sterling tape. His personal abusiveness and unwarranted accusations against V. Stiviano is on one side of the coin; flip it over, and his contempt for black people is on the other. Jerk on one side, racist on the other.

“Therefore, it makes sense that environments that promote social hierarchies will also be fertile breeding grounds for individual dominance, and vice versa,” he continued. Digging down a bit into specifics was quite illuminating.

“By ‘environments’ I can imagine a few that are good candidates — financial markets for example,” Wilson said. “Indeed, some of my other work shows that people who work in commerce focused on hierarchy-enhancing wealth consolidation also tend to be more social dominant (an old finding) but also more psychopathic — indeed, people who study commerce at university are not only more psychopathic than people in other fields of study but less psychopathic commerce students are more likely to switch majors to more hierarchy-attenuating disciplines, while more psychopathic arts students (for example) are more likely to switch to commerce degrees.”

Crazy artists? Try crazy businessmen. Crazy stock-traders. That’s what Wilson’s research shows you’re far more likely to find. Not the wild-eyed kind of crazy we’ve all been led to expect, but the button-down, conservative kind we heard in the Donald Sterling tape — or that we can hear on Limbaugh’s radio show, or see on Fox News any day of the week.


Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area. 

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