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Page added on September 26, 2016

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Peak Oil; Climate Change; & System Justification

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According to system justification theory, our evaluations of social systems and institutions are influenced by epistemic needs to maintain a sense of certainty and stability, existential needs to feel safety and reassurance, and relational needs to affiliate with others who are part of the same social systems (_). These needs give rise to a motivation to perceive the system as fair, legitimate, beneficial, and stable, as well as the desire to maintain and protect the status quo (Citations in original).

From that same study:

[P]olitical conservatives scored higher than liberals on measures of system justification, and this partially accounted for their propensity to minimize or deny environmental problems and their reluctance to bear personal responsibility for alleviating the causes of environmental problems. These findings shed light on the oft-noted tendency of political conservatives to express less concern about environmental problems compared to liberals (Citations in original).




A wide-range of studies [see this link at my website for numerous 2016 posts on the topic] have identified certain key characteristics common to most conservative voters. That’s not a value judgment or assessment of their capabilities and/or intelligence.

Rather, it’s simply an acknowledgment of behaviors, preferences, and beliefs associated more often than not with that group of voters. Recognizable patterns help identify those with whom we seek some affinity, while helping others develop a greater understanding of the motivations and values which drive their collective actions, and non-actions.

Appreciating the means by which groups sharing certain commonalities act out those traits can assist others seeking cooperation to both develop more substantive means of finding common ground, and to respectfully reach accommodations in seeking to persuade when there is a cognitive disconnect between the progressive viewpoint and those of conservatives. Certainly the areas of climate change and peak oil are ripe for a better understanding of how the “others” view these issues. So, too, is there a glaring need to seek more effective and efficient ways of sharing important information which will resonate more meaningfully to and for them.

Among the key attributes found within the conservative wing of our political and cultural divides:

[P]olitical conservatism is an ideological belief system that consists of two core components, resistance to change and opposition to equality, which serve to reduce uncertainty and threat. The idea is that there is an especially good fit between needs to reduce uncertainty and threat, on one hand, and resistance to change and acceptance of inequality, on the other, insofar as preserving the status quo allows one to maintain what is familiar and known while rejecting the risky, uncertain prospect of social change. The broader argument is that ideological differences between right and left have psychological roots: stability and hierarchy generally provide reassurance and structure, whereas change and equality imply greater chaos and unpredictability.


Now consider another related trait implicated in our divide over reality: the ‘need for cognitive closure.’ This describes discomfort with uncertainty and a desire to resolve it into a firm belief. Someone with a high need for closure tends to seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information. Those who have this trait can also be expected to spend less time processing information than those who are driven by different motivations, such as achieving accuracy.
A number of studies show that conservatives tend to have a greater need for closure than do liberals, which is precisely what you would expect in light of the strong relationship between liberalism and openness. ‘The finding is very robust,’ explained Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychologist who has pioneered research in this area and worked to develop a scale for measuring the need for closure.


Intolerance of ambiguity, by increasing cognitive and motivational tendencies to seek certainty, is hypothesized to lead people to cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic cliche ́s and stereotypes….* (Citations in original)




Opposition to inequality can be traced to the conservative preferences for a more ordered society, with clear hierarchies of leaders and … well, everyone else. That places a stronger emphasis on both respecting the positions and attributes of the select leaders, and a disinclination to challenge their authority and knowledge.

As a corollary, the conservative preference for reliance upon the free-market to solving public challenges, as contrasted with progressive tendencies to seek a prominent role for government, helps manage change. Allowing the history of the more hands-off market approach to problem-solving is more familiar and comfortable territory. Active government involvement heightens anxieties in the conservative personality when change proceeds too quickly and broadly to suit their inclinations. An inability to control the pace and breadth of change ratchets up the levels of uncertainty as to how change will unfold, and what it will consist of.

Combined with a distaste for exploring nuances, as well as the tendency to dismiss multiple perspectives and considerations as they are applicable to great public challenges such as climate change and peak oil, a picture forms of a personality type unwilling or perhaps psychologically and intellectually incapable of accepting the consequences of climate change and a diminishing energy supply. Likewise, it protects them from assuming responsibility themselves, or assigning it to their chosen leaders for the latter’s failure to recognize and then address those problems.

Environmental problems also make evident the need for political change by highlighting the failures of political leaders, especially conservative leaders, who have largely promulgated attitudes of indifference and inaction with respect to the environment, consistently neglecting environmental issues in favor of relatively narrow national and economic interests.
In sum, for many people, acknowledging and addressing environmental problems appears to be threatening to the very foundations of the social, economic, and political status quo.

Understandable, no doubt. But blind reliance on the tried and true is no guarantee of favorable outcomes. The higher the stakes, the greater the need for a more expansive view of how to first understand the many complexities of great political, economic, cultural issues and then how to more thoroughly and cooperatively address those challenges.


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