Monday, September 04, 2006

Dr. Bob Has The Map

by Sara Robinson
It's been long enough now that nobody probably remembers this, so let me recap:

"Cracks In The Wall" and "Tunnels and Bridges" found their genesis in John Dean's summer blockbuster, Conservatives Without Conscience. Dean, in turn, based his book largely on the work of Dr. Bob Altemeyer, the University of Manitoba social psychologist who has spent the past several decades researching the social contour of authoritarianism.

Yesterday, both Dean and Altemeyer were at Firedoglake's Sunday book club discussion. Several participants asked Dr. Bob (as he likes to be called) what the odds are that right-wing authoritarian (RWA) followers can actually change their beliefs. Here's his reply:

Is there really nothing that we can do to change authoritarian followers? Well as I said, some things seem to work. I mentioned how high RWAs want to be like everyone else in many regards. Another thing that “works,”–and this truly astounds me–is that authoritarian followers do get affected by their experiences when you’d swear there was not chance. So I have found, both in surveys and in an experiment I ran one time using myself as the “target,” that once high RWAs meet a homosexual or learn that someone they knew was a homosexual, their attitude toward homosexuals becomes more favorable. (I’m not gay, but I told a class of my students one year that I was for the purpose of this experiment.) So despite all their preconceptions, the highs saw reality and changed. Another thing that works is higher education. Students at my large public university drop in RWA scale scores about 10% on the average over the course of a 4-year undergraduate education. But the students who drop the most are the ones who came in being very high. (I don’t think it’s the profs who cause this to happen, but simply the highs meeting a much wider variety of people than ever before.)

But as John Dean mentioned, normal approaches to changing someone’s mind (reason, discourse, exposure to scientific evidence) do not work with authoritarian followers, but instead provoke a dogmatic response. (The comment from the person from Cincinnati who says the conservatives he knows will change slowly, but not if they are treated with disrespect and humiliated) applies here, I think.) The dogmatism goes back to the way the followers have formed their beliefs, which has basically been to copy the beliefs of the authorities in their lives. They really don’t know why those are the right ideas; they’re taking other people’s word for it. Most people have done more figuring-things-out-for-themselves, so when they get challenged they can go back to the reasons they believe what they do. And if better reasons leading elsewhere come along, why not follow them? But the high RWA is poorly equipped to handle such a challenge. He can respond with the counter-arguments he has been inoculated with, but if they get swatted aside he is lost. And not only is that particular point lost, but the whole shooting match is now in jeopardy because of the simplistic way (”It’s all right or it’s all wrong”) he thinks. So dogmatism is his best defense, and he’s perfectly willing–as I suspect many of you have found–to end an argument he has lost by saying, “OK, you believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want.”

That's a pretty strong corroboration of what I've been saying here. "High RWAs" are those who score high on Dr. Altemeyer's scale of right-wing authoritarian orientation -- the committed followers. As we've seen, reason doesn't reach them. But, he goes on to say, the very recipe I've been describing -- education, exposure to other people, better skills that enable them to process complexity, and experience in using and trusting their own judgment -- does.

And, yes, says the good doctor: RWA followers have more mental flexiblity than we tend to give them credit for. Just because they don't have great reasoning skills, it doesn't mean they're incapable of acquiring them.

It's a nice confirmation: we really do have good reason to hope that, with the right kind of support, these people can be persuaded to join the reality-based world.

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