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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 09-Apr-10


Friday 09-April-10

Political conversion?

The race up to the UK General Election officially started this week, though politicians these days are constantly campaigning. It looks like it will be a close-fought battle with a possibility of no clear majority for a single party. The biggest question for all parties is how to win or hold onto seats and how to persuade the electorate, one by one, to vote for them.

This makes for an interesting question. How does a staunch Liberal flip over to being a Labour or Conservative supporter? Or a Republican a Democrat? Or any of the myriad other political party systems around the world? Although there are many names, there are often two basic choices, with maybe moderate and extreme alternatives.

The traditional conservative likes stability, more of the same. They are reasonably happy with their lot in life and particularly feel that they will lose out if the system changes. On the other hand, the traditional liberal rails at the unfairness and inequality of it all and seeks rebalancing change. It's much to do with trust and control: conservatives trusts those in authority to provide for their control needs, whilst liberals do not trust authority and want to take more control to restore the balance.

So how do you turn a socialist into a conservative? The simple answer is to threaten them, as recent research has shown. How does this work? Is there a conservative inside every liberal trying to get out? What's really happening is Maslow's Hierarchy in action -- when we feel safe and secure, then we move up to 'good' things like social equality, that are more associated with a liberal, social-minded position, but when threatened we withdraw to a protective, defensive and more conservative position.

We don't all move together in this, otherwise we would all flip together. Some of us are more idealistic and some have control issues as higher priority than safety needs. And some of us are stick-in-the-muds who, having made their choice, will stick with it through thick and thin The result is that a threat message causes mostly waverers to switch, which, in a finely-balanced system, is often enough.

Nail, P., McGregor, I., Drinkwater, A., Steele, G., & Thompson, A. (2009). Threat causes liberals to think like conservatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (4), 901-907

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